Editor’s note: Jim McCraw is a frequent contributor to the ClassicCar.com Journal. He also is a member of owner/driver Bob Sima’s 1929 Ford roadster team that competes for speed records on the Bonneville Salt Flats. McCraw was going to write a first-person story about his experiences during the recent Bonneville Speed Week, but rain turned the surface to slush and limited the team to a single run, so he shifted gears and provided this report and photo gallery.
This is Bonneville, Utah, universally acknowledged as the fastest place on Earth. Thirty-odd square miles of flat salt, surrounded by mountains, groomed and ready to go once again as the Southern California Timing Association and Bonneville Nationals, Inc. host the annual assault on car, truck and motorcycle speed records.
After the new records piled up last year in August and again in October (Danny Thompson’s record-setting 448.757 mph average making him the fastest piston-powered man in history in August, and the Turbinator turbine streamliner going over 500 mph several times in October), the teams are back, but the salt is not ready.
An evening thunderstorm wetted down the salt so thoroughly and deeply that there were no runs on Friday, Saturday, Sunday or Monday of Speed Week, leaving only four days of racing.
Furthermore, the SCTA crew could only rescue one of the four courses and groom it only to the four-mile mark, urging all competitors to get the chutes out the brakes on before the six-mile marker and turn off, or face a very rough ride.
In other words, a severely restricted event compared to last year when the weather was perfect, the salt was exceptionally hard and fast, and a huge number of racers showed up.
Nearly 360 vehicles were registered to compete. For the gearhead spectator, this is Heaven on Earth. And that’s not counting the incredible number of traditional hot rods and kustoms patrolling the pits during the week-long meet.
The pit area here is the largest in motorsports, stretching almost two miles from first car to last, usually three rows deep. Six solid miles of race cars, push cars, motorcycles and rigs, with hundreds of hot rods and custom cars brought by the spectators.
Safety is most important and tech inspection is notoriously difficult to pass. Because it is so tough, there hasn’t been a racing fatality here in 11 years, and that involved a motorcyclist getting off at over 235 mph.
This is Bonneville. You have to bring your own shade. It starts with a baseball cap, progresses from there to a Mexican straw hat or pith helmet, to pup tent, pop-up, 10×10, camper, trailer, or motor home. Bring the best sunglasses you can afford. If you have snow goggles, bring them. The sunlight here is incredibly intense, white light on white sand.
This is Bonneville, where you watch the cars one at a time drive or push away from the starting line and disappear into the far distance. You can keep track of cars, drivers and speeds on CB radio, on 89.3 FM, or online, but there are no announcers, no speakers, and no grandstands.
This is Bonneville, where the curvature of the Earth gets in the way. If you drive to the end of the course and turn your car around, you can’t see the pits because the planet gets in the way.
By 7:30 a.m. Wednesday morning the cars were lined up for miles for the first qualifying session. Officials decided to run motorcycles first to get an idea of the salt’s readiness. After a while, the really big guns got their turn. The Poteet & Main Speed Demon, a wheeled dart capable of 400 mph, made a pass at 322 mph to check things out.
The Turbinator, Team Vesco’s turbine-powered streamliner and currently the fastest wheel-driven car on Earth at 503 mph, crapped out after only a few feet of travel because its overheating sensor shut it down automatically to save expensive parts.
The course was not really up to safe, fast racing, so at about 2:30 p.m., SCTA called off the rest of the day. Even so, 11 vehicles qualified for records and went to impound. There were 348 runs during the shortened day.
Overnight, the crew set up a completely different course to the right of the Wednesday course. Racing resumed Thursday morning. There were 246 runs and the Speed Demon hit 369 mph for top speed of the meet.
But with weather worsening, SCTA sent out word that, on Friday, the closing day, only backup runs for records would be made on the deteriorating course.
The salt won, yet again.