Lyn St. James on the mystique of Bonneville

Lyn St. James on the mystique of Bonneville

Former Indy racer takes on motorsport’s ‘ultimate challenge’

(Editor’s note: Lyn St. James was rookie of the year at Indy in 1992, has raced at Le Mans, with wins at Daytona and Sebring and other sports car racing tracks, and is a long-time activist promoting women in all sports. Besides vintage racing, she recently raced against the clock on the Bonneville Salt Flats and she shares this report.)

What is Bonneville Salt Flat racing? Why is there such a mystique about it? And why does just about every racer want to go there?

I was fortunate to finally get the opportunity to run on the salt at the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association 31st annual World of Speed event.

I may not have come away with the 200 MPH Club membership I wanted, but I do have a new understanding about the place and its attraction to racers.

I think it’s the Ultimate Mechanical Challenge. It combines creativity, design, and the engineering ingenuity to “build something to a diverse set of rules that will go fast on an unknown surface.” The only area where there’s no compromise is in safety – because the tech inspectors take no prisoners when it comes to safety inspection. Everything is thoroughly checked (even the all the driver’s gear – including underwear – to the highest degree of FIA safety specs).

Arrival at Bonneville. How fast can she go?

There’s a huge diversity in the types of vehicles that show up to run on the salt — production cars, custom-built race cars, modified street machines, motorcycles, trucks; vehicles with 2 wheels, with 3 wheels, with 4 wheels; wings, no wings; hot rods, just about anything and everything the mechanical mind can imagine.

As for the unknown surface, well, every time there’s a meet on the salt, no one knows what condition the surface will be in until the day(s) of the meet. It varies based on the weather over the last season, the current conditions, and on the constant deterioration of the salt.

Because it takes place on public land, authorization to race has to come from the Bureau of Land Management. Yet with so many variables, people spend all year (even many years) to build and prepare their vehicles, often only to have the event canceled after they’ve arrived to race. But maybe that’s part of the mystique.

The salt flats used for motorized competition are the remnant of the Pleistocene Lake Bonneville and the largest (at 46 square miles) of the many such alkaline area located west of the Great Salt Lake. Speed runs have taken place on the salt flats since 1914.

The place is eerie. Surrounded by mountains, it is a massive and blinding white surface that often causes mirages that look as if the surface is water. And sometimes it is mushy, like slush, or crusty or rutted and pot-holed and in some places really hard and firm. But it’s never really smooth, and the salt gets into and sticks to everything!

But it’s all of this — and the potential for amazing speed — that draws the racers.

I’ve wanted to run on the salt since the 1980s. In March, at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, Bill Warner hosted a special display of land speed record cars. While I was drooling — and taking photos of the cars — I ran into Ted Wenz of Savannah Race Engineering, who knew about my desire to run on the salt. He asked if I was still interested. Of course, I said “yes!”

The place is eerie and mystical

He connected me with John Goodman out of Wichita, Kansas, who was building a Lakester to take to Bonneville, hopefully later in the year. John and I started emailing back and forth. I joined the USFRA and got the rulebook and learned what I needed to become a driver, for example, I had to upgrade my nomex racing suit to meet the rules (thank you Stand 21, which loaned a suit that fit me.)
A Lakester is a streamliner with four exposed wheels, and there are many difference classes based on the engine size. John’s has a 2.0-liter Cosworth BDG engine and qualifies for the G/GL category as a Gas Fueled Lakester.

The record in that class if 211.463 mph.

As I drove into Wendover, Utah, the marvel of the salt flats appeared off to my right and I had to stop and take a photo. I arrived on a Wednesday afternoon. Everyone was just starting to set up; the folks at registration recognized me and gave me my car and pit pass, but I couldn’t officially register until the car arrived and passed tech. I checked into the hotel and I got a call from John saying they’d arrived — after suffering three flat tires on the drive from Kansas.

We agreed to meet at the course at 9 a.m. There was John, plus his crew —“Izzy”, Glen, “Bones”, Wayne, and a little later, “Stainless.”

The first order of business was to take the car through tech. This is a newly built car, so tech inspection was more critical than usual. If you saw the movie, The World’s Fastest Indian, tech inspection was just like that.

John Goodman is an experienced record holder on the salt flats, but hasn’t been there since 1999, so he was a bit nervous. Almost 2 hours later, we left the tech area with a list of things that need to be changed. By then Stainless had arrived (he’s a true legend/veteran salt flat record holder) and the consensus was that it wouldn’t take too long to make the changes so John and I could do our “Bail Out” tests. After being tightly strapped into the car, the driver has to release all harnesses, remove the canopy, and get out of the car unassisted in less than 30 seconds.

The canopy weighs around 20 pounds and isn’t hinged, and the latches can be hard to reach. But I got it done — after we waited 3 hours for the tech crew to arrive and time us — in 21 seconds.

She not only fits, but can escape within the time limit

The driver’s meeting starts the next day at 8 a.m., with an extra session an hour later for rookies. Everyone takes a personal or tow vehicle down both the long (7-mile) and short (5-mile) courses to see the mile markers and other important landmarks.

It’s incredibly windy and hazy, and pretty difficult to see much of anything, plus I’m in information overload. “Floating Mountain” and other references are discussed. I’m used to finding braking zones, turn in points, and apexes, but they’re like right in front of me. Now I’m having to look at quarter-mile posts, mile markers, and having a difficult time seeing them at 20 mph.
Our crew is still working on re-routing fuel lines. Around 4 p.m., the tech inspectors sign off on the car.

We can run tomorrow!

Except now the car won’t start.

The day dawns with perfect conditions. Cool (low 50s), sunny, no wind. I arrive at 8 a.m. as the crew is making last-minute adjustments before the car goes out on the short course.

About 8:30, one of the fastest streamliners, the record- holder Vesco Terminator II, makes a pass and everyone stops to listen (they announce the speeds on AM radio 1610 and on CB — 315.664mph at the quarter mile, 338 at the 1 mile, 395 at the 2, 420.499 at the 3-mile mark , and final trap speed is 430.524. Not a record run, but really fast.

About 10 a.m., our car is loaded onto the trailer to get in line on the short course. It’s like the paddock is transported to the line (which is now the pits). And the line is long; 38 cars ahead of us. This reminds me of my early drag racing days; hurry up and wait in line to make a pass that will only last a few seconds.

There are three lines on the short course: one for the 130 mph club cars, one for the 150 mph and one for Land Speed Record cars (which is the one we are in – the longest line).

A communications equipment issue shuts down the course for an hour. Finally, when we’re about third in line, John gets suited up and warms up the engine. At about 3:45 (5 hours after we put the car in line), the starter waves John to “go”. I’m in the van, which is the push vehicle. Since this is his first pass, he’s not to exceed 150 mph, and even though he only has to go to the 3-mile marker, he seems to disappear into the horizon.

It’s a successful run (clocked 138 mph between the 2nd and 3rd-mile markers), but he’s not happy. The car is unstable, but he needs to get back in line for his second run (between 150-175 mph). They inspect the car and begin making suspension adjustments. There continues to be delays, some vehicles take runs, and even though racing was supposed to stop at 5 p.m., they run until a little after 6.

We keep the car in line so it will be able to go out early tomorrow morning, and after that it will be my turn to run the salt!

She completes her early runs with increasing speed

I arrive at the track at 7 a.m. – there’s cloud coverage on the horizon, but you can see the sun peeking out as it comes up. I get a few good photos of the sunrise over the salt. The weather is perfect – cool, and soon to be partly sunny. John goes out about 9:15 a.m. and gets a good run – 174 mph.

While walking around the pits I look over and see someone I recognize, but didn’t expect to see here – former NASCAR crew chief Ray Evernham. He tells me he’s doing a documentary on the Bonneville Salt Flats. He said let’s do an interview. I get suited up.

Now that John has his first two licensing runs done, it’s time to get the car ready for me. This involves installing a seat insert, pads, and additional seat belts (cheek belts). At about 12:15 I get my first run down the salt.

The time sheet listed the averages: 115.15096 at 1 mile, 131.05611 at 1-2 miles, 134.43843 at 2 1/2 miles, 142.40744 at 2-3 miles

The second run was faster and the third and final full run of the day was even faster — 158.42839 at 2-3 miles.

You’ve heard the saying, “flying blind,” well, my first runs were literally driving blind. I’ve never done anything in racing quite like this – no real seat of the pants feel, and can’t see much at all. Between the vibration, distortion in the canopy, the bright white salt, the wide space between two blue lines marking the edges of the track (done with environmentally safe coloring), and looking for the mile markers at both edges of the track, you really have no idea where you’re going.

I couldn’t read the GPS gauge on the steering column that indicates speed and that’s the only indicator of how fast you’re going. With no tach/no temperature gauges/no gear indicator, so I just shift by the sound of the engine. They gave me “speed goals” for each gear, but since I can’t read the speed, it really doesn’t matter. I know the goal is to stay between 125-150mph to get my “D” license.

Luckily, I achieve that with the 142.40744.

When they check over the car, they realize the battery is down, so they put a battery charger on it and work on the GPS speed gauge. I abort my next run after the 1 mile mark because the inertia switch tripped and shut the car off (we didn’t realize what it was until John got to the car and saw it had tripped).

At 3:30 I get back in and do a second run, but I can’t shift into 4th gear, so I top out in 3rd gear at about 157 mph, which at least earns me my “C” license (150-174 mph). We get back in line and at 5:40 I get in my third run, but still couldn’t get it into 4th gear.

I’m getting really frustrated. Long lines, so much work/time spent taking any part of the body off the car to work on it, it’s like time stands still. And then when I do finally get on the course, something (or maybe me) isn’t working. We call it a day, though I mention to John that if the track is open in the morning, it might be good for him to run the car and see what’s happening with 4th gear.

Soon after I’m up the next morning, I get a call that the team found the problem with the shift linkage and were getting the car ready for me. The conditions are perfect – no wind, cool (60s), partly cloudy. I arrive about 9:30. There are only a few cars around — no lines!

I’m going down the course, and get easily into 4th gear, only to have the car shut off — three times. Bummer! I abort the run. John and Stainless start making adjustments as I realize how much my situational awareness has improved. Even though I couldn’t see any better, it just seemed easier to see what I needed to see. And things now felt like they were happening almost in slow motion rather than fast forward. I even noticed that the left side of the course looked a bit smoother (it had been used for the slower cars and probably had gotten beaten up less), so I talk with Stainless and tell him I’m going to try to stay closer to the left side of the course. I learned later workers had smoothed the left side of the course that morning to pack it down.

My confidence also had improved. As they pushed me from the start line and I dropped the clutch at 30 mph in 1st gear, I was on it, full throttle, and went through the gears aggressively – yes, I’m going for it!

All my shifts were by sound — still can’t read that damned GPS gauge, and when I do see a number, I don’t like it – it’s too slow. Sailed into 4th gear – throttle down, just past the 2-mile marker, when the front of the car takes flight and turns toward the right. I go into a couple of spins – pull the parachute lever (which because I was going backward didn’t deploy) and land/dig deep into the salt, headed up course.

Checking the damage after her flight

I bailed out and by the time the course workers arrived I was out of the car. I was fine – and amazingly the car wasn’t too bad. Fortunately it stayed upright, the nose box was somewhere down course, and the under tray was all torn up, but the cockpit and engine bay/rear body work, were all attached and other than being covered in white salt, were all good.

This was not how it was supposed to go. I knew I didn’t do anything wrong; in fact, I felt pretty good about how I handled it. Then one of the course workers comes up and tells us my speeds: 177 mph at the Quarter (2-1/4) marker (which would earn me my “B” license) and between the 2-3 mile marker (which I was traveling airborne) the speed recorded was 273.63078 mph.

How could that be? The only thing we could determine was I tripped the timing line.

It’s hard to put into words how blessed and grateful I am for the opportunities I’ve had in racing. Running on the salt has been a goal for decades, and to finally get the chance to do it was amazing.

I’ve been asked, “is it what you expected?” My reply: “I had no idea what to expect.”

In my opinion, Bonneville presents the ultimate challenge and test of courage, commitment and determination. The patience required, the problem solving, the ability to brave the elements, and the determination to keep coming back (whether it’s to go for another run, or get ready for another year), is beyond anything else I’ve done in racing.

Team has a year to make repairs and get ready for 2018

To some degree, I think it’s a throwback to what racing used to be like (run what you brung), but don’t be fooled, it’s not crazy, nor easy.

I thank Ted Wenz for introducing me to John Goodman, and thank John and the Kansas Twisters for giving me the opportunity, and the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association for continuing the legacy and passion of salt flat racing – Safe is Fast!

And, yes, I want to go back. I want to earn my 200 mph Club membership.

PS: I just received a pin in the mail. I’m a member of the Bonneville “Spin-Out Club.” Who knew?

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