I recently returned from a two week vacation where I fulfilled some of the automotive dreams I’ve had for many years. I have always wanted to do a cross-country drive and witness the landscape of this great nation, and I have wanted to visit the place that holds the Holy Grail of Speed; The Bonneville Salt Flats.
The cross-country drive turned out to be even more wondrous than I had imagined. The expansive plains, the rolling hills covered in crops that run for miles, and the massive mountains that rise majestically above green valleys below. Yet for all of these incredible sights, the drive west from Salt Lake City into the desert is otherworldly. After a few gentle curves and a couple of long grades, I-80 stretches to the horizon in a dead straight line. The common cruising speed is about 80mph, and the trucks you pass hauling double and triple trailers look like asphalt trains.
Many signs along the way caution you about driver fatigue, and the deep ruts of tire tracks that plunge into the crusty roadside are evidence that this is no idle warning. Both east and westbound sides of the highway are built on top of berns while shallow lakes of mud and salt fill the area in between, and the only thing that can be seen in the distance are the Nevada Mountains.
I ran through this desolate landscape for over 60 miles before reaching exit 4 for the Bonneville Speedway. A sign that reads, “No state maintenance” is prominently displayed as you enter a crudely paved road that soon makes a turn directly east, and runs straight for about 2 to 3 miles. Where this pavement ends is a large sign denoting you have arrived at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Beyond that point is the most phenomenal expanse of flat, barren landscape I have ever seen, and rightly so since it one of the few places where the curvature of the Earth can be seen with the naked eye.
The actual Bonneville Speedway is roughly seven miles northeast of pavement end, and cannot be visibly seen due to the aforementioned curve of the Earth surface.
Just like Anthony Hopkins did in his portrayal of Burt Munro, in the 2005 film “Worlds Fastest Indian,” one cannot help but stand in awe of the incredible sight before you. Then, like any true gearhead, you begin to think about the souls who traveled there, the automotive might they brought with them, and the raw courage and fortitude it took to push the limit of man and machine. To race not against each other, but against a relentless clock and the forces of Mother Nature herself, to cheat the wind, and reach for that zenith that no one else has yet touched; the pinnacle of power and speed.
Those who seek this place out are a rare breed and a most unassuming bunch when they arrive. Floppy hats, shorts and flip-flops are a common sight, and I even witnessed a jalopy school bus come rolling in that had been converted to a makeshift camper, towing an enclosed car trailer. I could not help but wonder what manner of sleek automotive beast was hidden inside, perhaps one that would be the next king of Speed Week.
If you close your eyes and listen, the distant thunder of Bob Summer’s four engine, Hemi-powered “Goldenrod” can be heard on the winds of history as he rumbled to his 409.227mph record that still stands today for wheel-powered streamliners. Al Teague broke that record with a single Hemi-engined streamliner, setting a mark of 409.986, but his engine was supercharged, and that places Teague in slightly different class. Consider the fact that “Goldenrod” posted that speed record in 1965, and the feat becomes all the more impressive.
While not powered by a piston engine, the “Blue Flame” rocket car driven by Gary Gabelich scorched the salt in search of the sound barrier on land. Although he fell short of going supersonic, he set a new land speed record of 622.407mph in 1970. That record would stand for 27 years until “Thrust SSC” finally cracked the sound barrier on land by going 763.035mph, but his run was at the Black Rock Desert in Nevada as opposed to the Salt Flats. Such achievements as these require people of extraordinary dedication and skill, not to mention a stout dose of intestinal stamina.
My stay at Bonneville was cut short by an incoming thunderstorm, but it was still a visit filled with wonder and the musing of a place so filled with rich automotive history. I can say that I have stood on the ground where legends have tread, and that sensation alone was thrilling.
Be it the high banks of NASCAR, to the blistered dragstrips all across this country, to this one desolate place in the desert of western Utah, the powerful Hemi has left a legacy of speed for others to follow, and “The Salt” will never look the same to me again.
– T. August Green