Each year there is a pilgrimage to a dried salt lake bed where every imaginable kind of car meets to decide just one thing: who is quickest of all. Gavin Conway goes to Bonneville to bear witness to speed week
White just doesn’t come any whiter. Or vastness any more vast. Or, as it happens, madness quite so acutely beyond imagining.
This is the Bonneville Salt Hats. Simply viewed, it is a colossal dried-salt lake bed in a truly obscure corner of western Utah. A place to run-what-you-brung, where the engine ante starts at 50cc and does not quit until way beyond 25-litres. Arid if you think you’ve seen everything, sir, you ain’t seen nothing ’til you set eyes on Speed Week.
It’s like this. Drive to the edge of the lake, where your credentials are checked and you’re waved onto the salt. The paddock is out of sight, five miles away in the middle of the great big empty, the route out there marked with sparsely dropped cones. No lanes and the occasional 55mph speed limit sign, proof some Americans can do irony. Drive your road car as fast as it goes, remembering to lift for the glinting huddle as it emerges through the shimmer. Dismount into brightness so sharp you squint. Desperately. Expect disorientation, the unexpected; the inexplicable.
Arid a deep nod-howya if they spot Britishness about you. Around here, speed is all that counts, and there’s touching knowledge about and respect for the great British expeditions to the salt. Here they remember the 25 year reign started by Campbell in Bluebird in 1935 at 301.1mph and continued by Eyston’s Thunderbolt and Cobb’s Railton.
They remember MG, too. George Eyston, Stirling Moss, Goldie Gardner and then Phil Hill, who set the all-time MG speed record of 254.9Imph back in 1957. We’d come to watch ThrustSSC pilot Andy Green a minor but confirmed deity among Salt Hatters break that record in EX255. The car packs over 900bhp and it’s geared for more than 300mph, but in the end, it never turned a wheel. A late arrival and teething problems meant the MG, prophetically mis-titled in the programme as HEX 255, simply ran out of time. Disappointment hung like smoke in the Rover camp and salt oldtimers felt it too.
Speed Week. Fifty years old this year, it started when the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) reckoned they needed more distance and a better surface to run their time trials. It coincided with the news that drop-tank fuel pods from long distance aircraft made pretty swift record runners when equipped with wheels, a flathead V8 and someone sufficiently lacking in imagination to want to drive an empty fuel tank at colossal velocity.
In the first ever running of Speed Week in 1949, a drop tank streamliner set a class record of 187.89mph. The team had some help with the engine from a fellow called Vic Edelbrock. Today, Speed Week is still about class records but the number and type of classes is staggering. The course itself is set up in a giant V, with the left arm the short course at five miles and the right running to seven-mile markers. The timing station sits in the middle of the V, where it’s assumed even a wobbling 400mph streamliner would have room to miss.
Lee Kennedy’s been trying for ten years. A big bloke with a ‘rodders goatee he runs an Alfa Spider with a difference: as in a 440cu in Chevrolet big block married to a tank of nitrous oxide. He’s just run at 251mph, enough for a class record in the unblown modified sports class. At those sort of speeds, the Open cockpit the class demands presented Lee with a bit of a moment: “Just turned my head a little and the wind caught it. Jammed it right up against the roll cage at right angles, so I sort of had to peer out with my left eye.” I didn’t bother asking if he’d thought of lifting. They never do around here.
Looking back over my shoulder to the short course, Lee’s experience spots a spin about to happen: “Oh look… He thinks he’s caught it. He hasn’t.” With that, a ’34 Ford hot-rod arcs into a slow 140mph spin, graceful and harmless. Injuries are pretty rare at Speed Week, and the last fatality was over 15 years ago. Doesn’t stop them trying, though.
Carl Heap cocks an ear, stopping the conversation to listen as a serious engine drones up the long course, a mile away from the paddock. A salt veteran, Carl says he can tell how many noises the engine’s pulling. I reckon he’s pulling my left one until I see his truck. The Phoenix is a 1943 International long-haul tractor trailer, a big rig even by American standards. I ask Carl what lies beneath the bonnet: “Well, we’re running a 24-litre V16 Detroit diesel putting out around 4000bhp. It’s got four turbos and two superchargers. The rig’s a bit heavy at 18,000Ibs but it goes well enough.” Translating to a terminal velocity of just a shade over 232mph. So that explains the Boeing 707 nose-wheel tyres at the front and 727 main-gear wheels on the back.
I dream of the autobahn, of discovering a Ferrari F40 flat out in front, and me flashing him out of the way at 200mph. In Carl’s big green truck.
And then there’s the 1971 667cc Honda, owner Bob Gamer bursting with pride that he’s managed to thrash 86.935mph believe me, the decimal points count – out of his little screamer. And that’s the point about Speed Week; Lee Kennedy, vice president of the SCTA, reckons that there is a class for just about every vehicle known to mankind. “One fellow turned up in a big old motorhome, bolted in a roll cage and headed off down the short course. I don’t think he quite managed to crack 100mph, but he sure did try.”
Which brings us to Al Teague. His Blown Fuel Streamliner is the fastest wheel-driven car on the planet, with a posted one-way run 432mph. He’s been a master player and a regular at Speed Week for as long as folks remember. Usually sets the speed to beat for next year, too. I ran across him when my stupidly parked car blocked his Spirit of ’76 streamliner on the paddock lane to the sun line. I expected, deserved a tirade of abuse, but Al just popped the canopy, leaned out wide and asked if maybe I’d move over about ten feet. He smiled big, dropped back into the car to get ready for 400mph plus.
Off he thunders. The mega engined streamliners all get a shove off the line from a truck because first gear tends to be ridiculously tall, not really usable this side of 60mph. Then they just go, slowly diminishing into the shimmer, first a small distant dot and then gone forever into that vast white glare.
All you really know for sure is that they’ll be back, looking for the only thing that has ever really mattered on the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Just a little bit more speed.