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The fastest place on earth

Jim McCraw reports from the 73rd annual Bonneville Speed Week

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Welcome to the best automotive entertainment value in the business, the Bonneville Salt Flats 73rd annual Speed Week.  For $20 a head, you can see the largest and widest variety of high-speed machinery there is.  For $50, the Southern California Timing association will let you in every day for the entire week.

This is the largest race course on the planet, some 40 square miles of groomed, packed salt, three courses running at the same time, a short one for rookies, testing, and time-only runs, and two more for fast and very fast machinery.  

This is also the largest, longest event on the calendar, with more than 400 entries running over an entire week.  There is no other event where you can see absolutely everything from 50cc bikes to 500-mph turbine-powered streamliners and everything in between.  Gasoline, diesel, nitro, alcohol, and electricity all race here, happy together.  Jets and rockets have been here many times.

The thing is, you are rarely racing against another car in the same class of the 200 classes in the SCTA rulebook.  You come here to race against whomever holds the current record in your class, and against the weather, which is always ungodly hot in August, and aggravated by the all-white surroundings and the power-robbing 4,400-foot altitude. 

The fast cars race on a flat 5-mile course with speeds measured at every mile marker, and with four miles of salt to slow down on after that.  This joint is big.

The SCTA tech inspectors are some of the most experienced, savviest guys in the sport, and they are notoriously picky when it comes to safety.  Like every other motorsport, men have died here racing their cars against the clock, and lucky men have survived 500-mph crashes.  

Speed Week draws entries in normal years from all over America, and Canada, the UK, France, Germany, Sweden, Ukraine (an electric motorcycle), Australia and New Zealand.

Team Vesco, one of the oldest teams in the sport, came back this year with an electric streamliner and ran over 280 mph first time out. 

Bonneville, The fastest place on earth, ClassicCars.com Journal
And you thought all those old Pinto sport wagons had melted away! This is Matt Fenwick’s Bonneville ride, the Super Sloth, running in F/Coupe Production with a punched-out Ford 2.3-liter 4-cylinder
Bonneville, The fastest place on earth, ClassicCars.com Journal
This Studebaker is likely the fastest stock-bodied car in the world at 335 mph, built and run by the father-and-son team of Les and Brandon Leggitt
Bonneville, The fastest place on earth, ClassicCars.com Journal
The world’s longest 1965 Plymouth Barracuda shows the extreme approach to Competition Coupe racing. Veteran hotrodder, drag racer and salt driver Gary Matranga is 80 years old, ran 305 mph

Some tips for newbies at Bonneville:  

  • Wear white cotton long-sleeve T-shirts with your shorts for heat reflection.  
  • Get some Neutrogena SPF 70 spray sunblock and use it liberally, every day.  It dries quickly, and it works.  
  • Bring a pop-up and chairs.  A parasol or two wouldn’t go amiss.  
  • If  you can bring a pit bike, a minibike, a moped, or a bicycle for getting around on, that would be very helpful.  The pits here are measured in miles, and they’re three rows deep.  If you’re walking the pits, be circumspect.  There are no streets, only orange pylons and only a few signs to help you get around.  Traffic is not quite the Arc de Triomphe at 5 p.m.,  but it’s tricky.
  • Phone and internet service is negligible, because you are in the middle of nowhere. 
  • By all means go early in the day, when the weather is better for you and for the cars.  Dawn here is spectacular as it reflects off the white salt.  They run from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day.
  • The hotels and motels in nearby Wendover, Utah, and West Wendover, Nevada, range from the ‘50s era to extremely good, including the casino hotels on the Nevada side of the line.  Best hotel is the Montego Bay.  There’s good American and Mexican food all over town.
  • If you want to eat where the racers eat, that would be the Salt Flats Café, an absolutely wonderful, cheery but beat-up Mexican place south of the tracks that’s stuffed with Bonneville posters, memorabilia, and autographed photos of hundreds of salt racers.
  • If you have car problems, go see Tall Mike at the CarQuest on the eastern edge of town.  He’s also the mayor of Wendover, and he drives a red ’67 Corvette with two four-barrels sticking up through the hood.
  • And whatever you do, don’t miss the free Friday and Saturday night car show on the east parking lot of the Nugget Casino.  Hot rods, street rods, rat rods, kustoms, trucks and VWs abound.
Bonneville, The fastest place on earth, ClassicCars.com Journal
The Garage Shop brought a beautiful collection of replica NASCAR machines to run on the salt this year, this one a copy of Bobby Isaac’s car that ran here 50 years ago
Bonneville, The fastest place on earth, ClassicCars.com Journal
At the Nugget Casino free car show, we spotted this rat rod powered by a copper-colored Chevy 502 with a blower on top and an onboard moonshine still
Bonneville, The fastest place on earth, ClassicCars.com Journal
This is Speed Demon, the fastest car on the salt year after year, this year running the largest engine allowed, a twin-turbo Hemi. It ran 388 mph in one mile with a push start, later ran 475 mph with a small engine!
Bonneville, The fastest place on earth, ClassicCars.com Journal
The Guthrie-Levie machine is part streamliner and part 250cc motorcycle, hence the designation SC-F 250 (Streamlined Cycle F) for its tiny displacement. It set a record at 212.9 mph
Bonneville, The fastest place on earth, ClassicCars.com Journal
Without doubt the world’s longest Honda Civic, the AA/Blown Fuel Competition Coupe run by drag racer Ron Hope is driven by his son Brad, and shows amazing craftsmanship
Bonneville, The fastest place on earth, ClassicCars.com Journal
This is one very tiny section of the spectator area that parallels the race courses, showing the variety of vehicles and shelters that show up on the front line every year. Spectator parking was absolutely packed on opening weekend
Bonneville, The fastest place on earth, ClassicCars.com Journal
We just loved veteran racer Arley Langlo’s J&S Racing streamliner with its World War II Army Air Corps graphics. It only ran 410 mph
Jim McCraw
Jim McCraw has been writing about cars, motorcycles, design, technology, car people and racing for 50 years, in such publications as Hot Rod Deluxe, Super Chevy, Muscle Mustangs, Road & Track, Car and Driver, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Penthouse, Winding Road, The Mercedes-Benz Star, AutoWeek, The New York Times, and a number of European publications. He was executive editor of Motor Trend, editor of Hot Rod and Super Stock. He co-holds the record for the drive from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to Key West, Florida, 96:22, and has run in major events such as the Mille Miglia Storica in Italy, Goodwood, the California Mille, the Colorado Grand, the New England 1000, Forza Mille, and four One Lap Of America competitions He owns a pristine Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedan.

1 COMMENT

  1. I was just wondering if Keith Dorton’s SB2 is back this year. I read an article in Hot Rod Magazine I believe last year as they tried to set a record but fell short. It said they would try again this year.

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