Desert rates



Many are the pilgrims. Light-aircraft enthusiasts go to Oshkosh, yachtsman to Cowes and, in halcyon days, the Isle of Man TT was a magnet to the motorcycle enthusiast. If you are seriously interested in land speed record breaking, but have not visited the Bonneville Speed Week National Speed Trials, your life is incomplete.

Bonneville is still the only place in the world that you can see streamlined cars, motorcycles, lakesters, hot rods, produc tion vehicles and trucks travelling at full power for up to eight miles, on dates appointed more than one year ahead and up to speeds in excess of 400 mph. Last year over 300 entrants made their pilgrimage to the 44th Speed Week, now held annually Sunday to Friday of the third week in August by the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) in conjunction with Bonneville Nationals Inc (BNI). The venue is Lake Bonneville, the 69 square-mile salt lake which is normally dry and hard during the summer months, located in the State of Utah, USA. Set at an elevation of 4200 feet it is 130 miles down the Interstate 80 freeway from Salt Lake City, adjacent to the small town of Wendover, which is split by the Utah/Nevada State Line.

The salt flats are located east of Wendover, north of the freeway and are reached via a five-mile causeway. Like an alien world the great white expanse dazzles in the bright sun, the perimeter unseen behind the horizon. Steep rock mountains rise from that edge like a mirage, aptly giving the name ‘Floating Mountain’ to the range at the bottom end of the course. At first sight the salt crunches very slightly like frozen, hard-packed snow. Later, the heat of the sun drives moisture to the surface, so that it sticks to tyres and packs hard in wheel arches. Sometimes, in the space of minutes, the flats are transformed from bright tranquility with hardly a breath of air movement to an alarming salt-storm that blasts exposed skin painfully and reduces visibility to a few yards. Awnings rip like tissue and picnic chairs and litter could almost be blown all the way to Salt Lake City.

Then there is the rain, the most worrying element for the ‘old salts’, many of whom have been competitors for over 20 years. Black clouds threaten almost daily above the mountains but that is where they normally stay. If they reach the salt however, the effect is like a tropical storm – the surface awash in seconds. Unfortunately that happened in 1992 at the end of the first day’s racing. For security and ecological reasons, everyone had to be off the salt during the hours of darkness and the paddock set-up left overnight.

Those who had not experienced the full force of Sunday’s storm were not prepared for the sight at first light on Monday morning. The flats had reverted to a shallow lake, with the mountains reflected perfectly and not a ripple to be seen. The paddock area was an island of vehicles, a mile out into the lake, standing in several inches of salt brine.

The paddock was an eerie scene resembling a junkyard. Even the public toilets, appropriately manufactured by John and Co, were blown over. Litter, or the negligent spillage of oil or fuel on the salt, is a serious offence, punishable by exclusion from the event and possible prosecution. Normally, the competition vehicles and parts stand on plywood or tarpaulins to protect the salt and many of these large heavy sheets had floated and been wind-blown great distances. Beneath several inches of clear brine the salt was still hard and crystalline. The sharp crystals were forming anew on the hard salt-base, causing discomfort to bare feet.

Far from ravaging and spoiling the salt, the racers demonstrate a reverence for their venue and, although the paddock conditions were a great disappointment, they just got on with the clean-up. A few departed but most had already committed their holidays or businesses to this week and those who stayed were eventually rewarded with two more days of racing, albeit in less than ideal conditions.

Course preparation commences many months ahead. The Bureau of Land Management used to be heavily involved in the survey and preparation but now the clubs do most of the work. The time is mainly spent on the monotonous smoothing of the course using a steel frame towed behind a 4WD vehicle or tractor unit. In addition to the courses, curved run-offs to the adjacent return lanes plus the return lanes themselves need to be graded. The surfaces of the 1992 course were well below average due to ongoing deterioration. Many of the streamliners have little or no suspension, and can suffer from visual and mechanical vibration. Ungraded sections abound with ‘crunches’, a network of pressure-ridges up to two inches high making reasonable ground clearance necessary.

1992 was the third year that competitors had two courses on which to race. The short course was five miles long and the long course over 11 miles. Speed records are set by making two passes, one in each direction over the same measured mile. The combined average of the two passes must be greater than the existing record. During the day qualifying runs are made on each course. If a competitor exceeds the existing record in the measured mile, they take their vehicle to the impound area at the end of each course. Later that same day, in the late afternoon, qualified vehicles from the impound area make return runs over the same course in the opposite direction to establish a new record in their class.

Exceeding 175mph on the short course qualifies a vehicle to run on the long course. The aim of the whole event is to give competitors the maximum number of runs down the salt and to this end, unless major fettling of the machine is required, teams spend most of their time waiting in line. The line gradually diminishes in length to the point where on Thursday or Friday it is hardly necessary to wait at all. By this time most participants have either reached their attainable maximums or blown up.

There are no tannoy announcements. The best way to keep in touch is via portable CB radio to pick up communications between the marshals. A general commentary interspersed with music is broadcast from a temporary radio station, based at the startline, broadcasting on 1610 AM.

To facilitate competition there are numerous classes for vehicle type and engine capacity. In the USA petrol is called ‘gas’ and only gas supplied by the organisers may be used, tanks being sealed between fills. In 1992 the official gas was leaded 110 Research Octane, supplied by Engine Research Company. Except for LPG and diesel, any other fuel puts the vehicle into another class, aptly named ‘Fuel’, where methanol, methanol/nitromethane mixtures and/or nitrous oxide injection are the norm. Other mysterious substances were revealed in whispered tones – shades of recent Formula One. The serious competitors reckoned petrol was for washing parts, alcohol for drinking and nitro for racing!

Whether gas or fuel, classes further breakdown into supercharged (or turbo) and unsupercharged. These classes have been created to suit the evolution of competition engines in the USA and do not necessarily match those recognised by the FIA for world record purposes, or by the RAC for British records. However, as arrangements exist for FIA qualifying runs and for vehicles which do not fit a recognised class to run for time only, everyone can have a go, provided their vehicle meets specific SCTA/BNI safety requirements. Safety is a high club priority, consistent with racing philosophy in the USA which is all about enjoyment of the sport by competitor and spectator alike.

Spectators are basically confined to the start area and first mile for viewing, but make friends with the marshals or a crew and it’s possible to go right to the rough salt after the nine-mile marker. On race days the paddock and public access opens at 6am. Racing starts at 7am and goes on non-stop until the sun goes down – no lunch breaks here. Those registered for attempts on US national Land Speed Authority (LSA) or FIA records usually make their two-way runs during the last couple of hours of racing to facilitate the particular ‘turn around’ rules. Those who break a record in excess of 200 mph become members of the ‘200 mph Club’ which holds social evenings attended by some famous names in record breaking.

With the general deterioration of the salt flats, in 1992 thousands of potholes existed in the racing surface. After the basic dragging of the course the holes were filled with salt. When the initial rain and wind hit on Sunday all of that was washed from the potholes. During Speed Week the holes were again filled by a multitude of course stewards and volunteers. When the high winds hit again on Friday, the fresh salt filling the holes blew away. 1992 experienced more hard man hours of work than any other in the history of Bonneville and produced fewer runs, fewer records and left more people stranded in impound than any Speed Week in recent history.

The severe problems with the salt served to highlight a major ecological problem which is jeopardising the whole future of the event. The thickness and surface condition of the salt has been deteriorating for many years. This has reduced the available course length, and allowed the muddy lake to break through, encroaching on the perimeter. The salt has been losing one per cent, or about a million tons of its volume, every year for the last 30 years. Studies are not conclusive but much of the blame has been laid on the potash extraction operation south of the highway, in which the few percent of potash contained in the salt is extracted. Millions of tonnes of residual salt are now piled as waste, and the US government has so far shown scant concern for the threat to one of the world’s foremost natural landmarks.

SCTA/BNI and the Utah Salt Flat Racing Association (USFRA) decided action was needed. Although they started their ‘Save the Salt’ campaign in 1976, it wasn’t until 1988 when Reilly Industries took over the potash operation that real progress was made. In 1991 members of the ‘Save the Salt’ campaign committee and executives of Reilly Industries determined that the best course was to find a solution to the situation which all parties could accept, rather than to waste time and energy on opposing experts, mutual accusations and threats of legal action. The two sides jointly commissioned an engineering study by Bingham Engineering of Salt Lake City which determined that it was feasible to build up the salt surface on the racing area.

The Bingham study contemplates the pumping of brackish water from new and existing wells located to the north-west of the Salt Flats into large deposits of pure salt which have accumulated over the years on Reilly’s property. Commencing winter 1993, the resulting 22 per cent brine solution will be pumped north under the railroad and freeway and permitted to flood 28 to 34 square miles of salt area as far as retaining dykes to be constructed at the north-east end of the raceway area. Evaporation of the brine is expected to leave up to four-tenths of an inch of new salt crust per year, as well as affording better control of the existing salt from year to year than nature provides. As much as 10 inches thickness may eventually be added to the raceway area.

During months of negotiation, representatives of Bonneville Nationals/SCTA and USFRA worked out the basic terms of their joint venture. The capital required is estimated to be some $600,000 plus yearly maintenance and electric power costs. The racing associations together have committed to raise half the necessary money through the established ‘Save the Salt’ fund and such other corporate structures as may be necessary. At the present time approval of the salt deposition project is pending before the Bureau of Land Management, the State of Utah, and other concerned agencies. There is a possibility of government help for this programme.

A related project, hopefully to be handled by Tooele County and the State, will be to remove the causeway which carries the present access road, because it’s thought to interfere with natural deposition patterns on the salt, replacing it with an entrance over an existing Reilly right of way.

While racing was suspended I investigated the local facilities. Richard Dixon’s car museum is well worth a visit. It used to feature ‘Goldenrod’ but the main attractions now are the original press cuttings and memorabilia including some Campbell material. Wendover is small. Racers who need parts machining or fabrication go to Salt Lake City, except for minor welding which can be carried out by some of the teams in the paddock.

Accommodation is limited, and occupied by gamblers and tourists. Understand that there is not much to attract people here, but it’s a full day’s drive from San Francisco or Sacramento for those travelling east and the last place to gamble legally before reaching Atlantic City. To guarantee a room at the Hotel Casinos during Speed Week, it is necessary to book nearly a year in advance, but as competitors and spectators fail to arrive on time rooms become available. The casinos are certainly the best value for accommodation and food, the prices set to attract the punters inside. A double room is about $40 a night and an ‘all you can eat’ evening meal about $8, plus drinks.

Most of what counts in Wendover is on one street, and located in the Nevada side of town. The casinos are not enthusiastic about the racers who have already spent their money on race-parts and take their gamble on the salt. The smaller basic motels and apartments are located at the east end of town, closer to the salt and have the advantage for competitors of convenient access for extension cables enabling urgent work to be done on race vehicles. There are a couple of organised camp-sites which offer this advantage providing you enjoy the camaraderie of the washroom at first light. A motorhome complete with air-conditioning, refrigerator, toilet and cooking facilities is a haven out on the salt and the roof an excellent vantage point, but rental is expensive.

I shared a motorhome with Ralph Thomas, a builder from Highlands, North Carolina, competing at Speed Week for the first time with his Abarth 1000 Bialbero, a 1963 Targa Florio and Earls Court Show car, Spannerman was Peter Krause of Krause and England who specialise in historic racing car preparation in the USA. Ralph has tried various types of racing but had wanted to compete at Bonneville since he was ‘knee high to a grasshopper’ and could hardly believe he was finally here. “If you don’t do it you’ll always regret it,” he said, seeing my enthusiasm. We got him first in line for the Sunday morning start and he got his class record too. He may be back with a Triumph Vitesse in ’93 or ’94.

There were many interesting people at Bonneville whose lives are pre-occupied with fascinating projects. Waldo Stakes has been studying land speed record breaking for many years and has collected data on all serious outright attempts on the LSR, or Long Scary Ride. Over the past five years he has constructed a compact rocket-powered device of an aerodynamic form he wants to keep secret for as long as possible. He will make his attempt on a frozen lake, running on skis, although the projectile could be converted to run on wheels. Depending on fuel load and therefore burn time, Waldo estimates he can select peak speeds between Mach 1 and 1200mph! So far potential sponsors for the actual attempt have understandably been nervous of being associated with the personal risks involved. He needs to find someone of the ‘no such thing as bad publicity’ school of advertising. Meanwhile, just to keep in practice as it were, he has a pulse-jet powered motorcycle which he expects to run at Bonneville this year. He seemed quite sane actually! No class exists for jet or rocket vehicles at Speed Week, but such vehicles have been allowed shakedown runs for times in preparation for subsequent record attempts. Lyn St James, holder of the ladies’ closed-circuit speed record, was also there, investigating the prospects for a deal to drive a streamliner.

There are no epic wheel-to-wheel battles and none of the ground shaking, deafening intensity of the dragstrips. If you are interested in motor engineering, however, you can find one hundred different ways to achieve the same function and a rich variety of creativity. Levels of technology and finish vary enormously. The seat-of-the-pants hot rod origin of most of the competitors shows, even in some of the fastest entries. However, the standards of workmanship and equipment to be seen in the best dragsters and formula cars is here too, and particularly high engineering integrity and design ingenuity goes into the small capacity streamliners — cars and motorcycles. For me the self-build engineering was one of the main attractions.

Streamliners are the stars of the show, but as they are complex, difficult to work on and expensive to build, their numbers have gradually declined. The Lingua brothers’ streamliner used to have a self-built turbocharged 500cc motor giving 340bhp on nitromethane with nitrous oxide injection. Now they have a 1000cc motor and expect over 700bhp on the same fuel combination. Don and Rick Vesco’s turbocharged twin-Offenhauser powered streamliner is very ambitious but was beaten by gremlins and never managed a good run in ’92. The Bean Bandits, as the name suggests, are a team with Mexican origins. Like a big family, they are at Bonneville to enjoy themselves. They make sure everybody else does too and are regarded with great affection by fellow competitors. They have a tradition of not using superchargers, their forte being their knowledge and experience of nitromethane, which they put to great effect in their three similar-looking yellow streamliners. Fred Larsen is 70 years old and competes with No 115, his beautifully finished ‘Mooneyes’-sponsored small-block Chevrolet-powered car, holding several records including FIA. Unhappy with conditions, he didn’t run at Speed Week but returned in October and got a record at 313 mph. Possibly the least streamlined vehicle was one of the most impressive, Mike McCombs’ truck getting him into the 200 mph club with 223 mph, and imitating the early Western Pacific locomotives by spectacularly belching black smoke after each gearchange!

One thing clear was that sportsmanship and common sense prevailed. Despite running a week-long event on two courses, with waterlogged and damaged surfaces, the organisation coped with everything like a well-oiled machine. Clear, positive and fair decisions without delay characterised the event, made seemingly without effort by unpaid volunteers who managed to relax and enjoy it at the same time. Although the weather was a disaster in 1992, for me it did curiously add to the experience, giving a hint of the frustrations suffered at salt lakes by Donald Campbell and Richard Noble.

SCTA is a sanctioning body to which numerous Californian motor clubs are affiliated and is responsible for organising various competitive events including Speed Week, which it does in conjunction with BNI. 16 years ago a group of Utah racers decided Speed Week wasn’t enough and more events on the salt were desirable. They formed the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association (USFRA), and in 1992 staged the World Land Speed Opener (July 24-26) and World of Speed (September 24-27), In addition SCTA also ran another event for the first time, the World Finals (October 16-18). These smaller events also enable preliminary trials or a second bite at the cherry for Speed Week entries and both organisations assist one another to achieve maximum enjoyment on the salt for their members.

There are no professional drivers either — this is for fun! The lack of organisational interference by the FIA or the media has preserved the best aspects of amateur sport. However, the thin end of the wedge may have arrived in 1992, rather reminiscent of the Audi arrival at Pike’s Peak hillclimb. One entry, the 33-feet long honeycomb carbon fibre-bodied Kenwood Cleanliner electric car was entered in this effectively club event to attempt to break 175 mph, an arbitrarily-set minimum to achieve a record recognised by the club, and to claim a world record. The team resembled a Formula One squad. Mentor and driver Saturo Sugiyama, an aerodynamic engineer whose company ‘Madhouse’ designs and fabricates for Group C and F3000, expected his car to exceed 200 mph, possibly even 250 mph in the measured mile. It was massively sponsored by Japanese electronic corporation Kenwood, amongst other things supplier of F1 communications systems, Fuji Electric Company of Japan, and Coolmer Semiconductor Inc, the North American distributor for Fuji. The corporate cost of the vehicle was apparently many tens of millions of dollars, one unofficial suggestion being $80 million!

The four-ton car with a chrome-moly chassis built by Pro Chassis in California was powered by 117 series-connected lead-acid van batteries. The motor produced 480 KW or 600 hp at 5500 rpm, weighed 1100 lbs and was of the type Fuji supplies for the famous Shinkansen or bullet trains, the normally AC motor converted to suit its DC power source. Fuji also supplied the sophisticated motor speed-controller which in fully-charged condition must handle over 1000 volts at approximately 520 amps during the early part of the four-minute run. This was seen as one of the greater challenges of the project, whose object was to promote the sponsors’ electric-car technology and demonstrate acceleration and speed to add to the claimed environmental advantages. To sustain the Cleanliner image nickel-cadmium or exotic batteries containing highly toxic materials were discarded in favour of the more acceptable lead-acid type. Unfortunately for both sponsors and spectators the car’s few attempts were an anti-climax. Final assembly took place in the paddock and the lack of testing and lost paddock time due to the rain and salt contamination denied us the sight and possible sound as the motor-control was unable to cope with the weight and power, even when half the batteries were removed. A forward movement of 20 yards at walking pace was all that we or the cameraman in the helicopter, chartered to record this important moment of the world, were going to get. The Cleanliner was pushed away and Saturo emerged managing a smile and declining to commit hara kiri on the pristine salt. Back to the computer.

There has been a steady rise of Japanese interest in Speed Week, with increasing entries from Japan’s top tuning shops following four rotary-powered Bonneville records by the Racing Beat team with Mazdas prepared by the talented Jim Mederer and his partner Ryusuke Oku in Anaheim. California. They weren’t so lucky in 1992. Whilst still accelerating and with 770 bhp from its triple-turbo three rotor I3G engine, an imbalance of front/rear downforce caused the rear of the new model RX-7 to lift at 230 mph, go around one way, then the other and up in the air, into a series of end-over-end flips and barrel rolls; Jim pulling the ‘chute’ whilst travelling inverted. The car came to rest on the remains of its roof and hanging in his belts. Jim saw a glow through the shattered screen. As he crawled unhurt, he realised the glow was fire and triggered the extinguishers in time to save the remains. The car took eight months and a lot of money to prepare but he hopes to return in 1993 with aerodynamic improvements and traction control.

The most awesome and potentially the fastest car at Bonneville was Chet Herbert’s ‘Herbert Cams’ car, driven by Clayton Steen. Built in 1989 it has four Chevrolet V8 engines in line, with aftermarket cylinder blocks and methanol injection in relatively mild tune giving around 4000 bhp. 36.5 ft long with a 27 ft wheelbase it weighs four tons. So far it has achieved 338 mph average with 380 mph one-way but consensus is that it has still to be given its head and that there’s a lot more to come before going after increased power. However, the car arrived after the rain storm, and managed only one run at 304 mph before high winds brought the racing to a premature halt. Nolan White in ‘Auto Power’ had been the first to break 400 mph with a car powered by a single reciprocating motor but was another who couldn’t find the same speed in ’92.

The story of Al Teague, still the man to beat, was covered by DJT in the February 1992 issue of Motor Sport. Teague remains the wheeldriven Land Speed Record holder in his Speed-o-Motive-sponsored ‘Spirit of 76’ at 409.986 mph for the flying mile, set in 1991. He was fastest in 1992 with a one-way run of 407 mph but reported that the back end started to come around and he was extremely unhappy about the condition of the salt. The fastest cars really need a better surface and another mile or two of course length, particularly for the return run, to enable them to stop safely before the freeway. Teague was virtually using up his right-side rear tyre in one run due to the torque reaction of the final drive loading-up that wheel. For Teague and other front runners like Nolan White and Don Vesco tyres are the other big headaches. The shortage of suitable tyres for 400 mph plus is creating greater risks, particularly by restricting the number of test runs available to develop the cars. Competitors attempting class records below 300 mph have less problem utilising tyres developed for car and motorcycle dragsters supplied by Goodyear, Mickey Thompson and M&H, or alternatively small aircraft tyres.

Late on Thursday afternoon I got across to the east side of the long course as the normal start area was cleared. This was the daily finals when Teague, White, Vesco and the other really quick entries were permitted an extra two-mile run-up from back near the freeway, giving a five-mile run-up with the sixth, seventh and eighth miles timed and then the problem of stopping before the salt gets rough and mushy after the nine-mile board.

I drove down the return road, stopped just before the eight-mile mark and waited, 200 yards from the course. The radio announced that Teague was rolling as he started his run. The commentary stopped for us to hear the sound of ‘Spirit of 76’ over the microphone as it accelerated through the normal startline area, increasing speed. Silence again, further commentary unnecessary. Wait, seconds seeming eternity, wait, then a faint sound building stronger, stronger, exclamation as Teague was over the horizon in an instant, running ahead of the sound, nearly 2000 bhp pushing 407 mph, a mile in less than nine seconds, droning strong and constant past the eight-mile board. The motor cut, parachute billowed and Teague disappeared over the horizon towards Floating Mountain. He didn’t quite beat his record — maybe next year. The silence returned and the breeze freshened as the sun began to set on a very special motorsport cameo.

The instant I drove on to the salt I knew instinctively that this was something very special. The ‘old salts’ talk of the unity and the spiritual atmosphere on the flats. I certainly felt it as I drove down the course that first morning with the rookies and again in the silence at the eight-mile mark after Teague’s run. Make the effort and go and see this unique event before professionalism or salt deterioration spoil it forever.

If you want to visit Speed Week shop around for flights. The return fare from UK to Salt Lake City or San Francisco was around £450 at mid-1992 rates. I arrived and departed the USA through San Francisco to enable some West Coast motoring activities, driving across California and Nevada to Wendover in about 12 hours. Car rental costs about $220 per week for a mid-sized four-door including collision damage waiver. Leaving the rental car at a location other than the collection point incurs about $200 surcharge. In hindsight I would have reversed the route and based myself at Salt Lake City, as the sun and salt are tiring enough without adding a 12-hour drive to the ravage of jet lag. Beware, renters have been known to pay $200-$600 extra for returning rental cars caked with salt, particularly in Salt Lake City where they check carefully. I wasn’t taking any chances, and en route back to San Francisco used a friend’s portable jet-wash. Without a ramp, it took about three hours including internal valet — the salt gets everywhere and it sticks.

Stock up on camera film before you arrive as there’s big demand during Speed Week, and take binoculars, a wide-brimmed hat and plenty of sun cream. Buy a cheap cool-box in the supermarket in Wendover for drinks and snacks. Ice is obtainable nearly everywhere except on the salt, where food is limited to burgers, hot dogs and sandwiches after standing in line in the midday sun. If you want water out on the salt, bring it with you.

To find out more about Speed Week, donate to ‘Save the Salt’, or to join the organising club, write to SCTA/BNI, 22048 Vivienda, Grand Terrace, CA 92324, USA. If interested in current and historical record breaking on land and water, spend £10 to join Robin Richardson’s Speed Record Club, 22 Counting House Lane, Great Dunmow, Essex CM6 IBX. The quarterly newsletter has developed into an informative magazine. R W