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Gordon White
Smithsonian Institute Motorsports Consultant

In my "Lost Race Tracks" book I covered the ten mile circular course at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah that was abandoned after Ab Jenkins' last 24 and 48 hour endurance runs back in 1951. The straightaway courses have remained in use almost to this day, but they are increasingly threatened by the deterioration of the salt surface.

Why should a straightaway high-speed course be of interest to vintage racers? Because a great many of the competing cars at Bonneville have been old-timers, from ‘26 Model T-based hot rods and ‘32 roadsters to old oval track cars. I ran my 1948 Kurtis Offenhauser midget there 1986-89, setting an International 2-litre record that still stands. As recently as 2013 old midgets, Indy cars and vintage sports cars were running on the salt for a variety of vintage records.


My Kurtis midget at speed -- Bonneville 1989

But for the past two years "Speed Week," in August, the largest speed event at Bonneville has been canceled because of the poor condition of the salt. A shame. As I write this World of Speed "World of Speed," the September event of the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association, has just been abandoned also..

I have been to Bonneville off and on since 1951. The first year for the hot rod speed runs was 1949, organized by Hot Rod Magazine and conducted later as Speed Week by Bonneville International, a California- based group. I covered the 1954 Speed Week for Associated Press and ran there myself, as I say, in the 1980s. I consider Bonneville one of the bucket list venues for anyone interested in cars going fast, even if you are just spectating. It's a friendly place, with an amazing variety of vehicles, every owner with his own idea of how to go fast.

The salt, in a traction sense, is neither like dirt or like pavement. While dry salt pan is hard, wheels can spin off the top surface and from year to year the conditions vary.

As everyone knows, the salt surface was laid down thousands of years ago in the bottom of pre-historic Lake Bonneville, when western North America was far wetter than it is today. The same conditions created lake beds in California that are now dry, though most of those surfaces are composed of varieties of dirt. But in Utah there were salt deposits - deposits that still exist and create salt springs such as those at Laverkin and Pah Tempe. Many years ago similar salt deposits were eroded by glaciers and flowing streams and made Lake Bonneville extremely salty - more salty than the sea. When the glaciers receded the salt covered the drying lake bottoms, giving us what we have today.

But the salt - once six feet or more thick, has become thinner. The first problem was the building of the transcontinental railroad across the flats in 1869, and then the parallel highway. Aside from a few culverts, those routes divided the salt almost in two, disrupting the natural seasonal rejuvenation of the salt surface. In the winter rain floods the salt surface and smooth it out from whatever disturbances may have come about during the summer.


Texan Grant Gumbine's daughter, Lisa Curtiss, set a 131 mph record for Ford V8-60-powered midgets at Bonneville.
In 2008 he ran this 1947 sprint car and went 124.147 mph.

Next, as the salt contains potash and other useful minerals as well as sodium and magnesium chloride, mining companies have for many years extracted those minerals from the salt. Even if the basic salt is not removed, the fact that brine is taken from the north side of the railroad where the speed course is and not returned there, has reduced the remaining salt's thickness. In 1954 I watched a six foot deep pit being dug in the salt. Today the salt on the course is much thinner. Beneath the salt is a layer of slushy mud. In 1954 I also watched the efforts it took to retrieve a truck that had ventured far off the racing surface to a point where the salt was but a few inches thick, and broke through. It could only be towed out by using a very long cable to a vehicle on a more solid surface.

There have been "Save the Salt" efforts for many years, first trying to assure that salt taken from north of the railroad is pumped back there after the other minerals are extracted. The fact that the State of Utah gets royalties from the mining complicates the issue. "Save the Salt" is in high gear right now, trying to get the federal Bureau of Land Management that owns the race course area to take action.

My "secrets" for going fast at Bonneville are three. (1) do everything you can to clean up your car aerodynamically. (2) you will need downforce, and wings do that by adding aerodynamic drag. I added 50 pounds of lead in front of the radiator and 200 pounds under the seat. (I melted used tire balance weights in my wife's cast iron skillet.) (3) use as skinny wheels as you can, as a rotating wheel is aerodynamically very "dirty." Long-time Bonneville competitors agree that what works on the drag strip does not go fast at Bonneville. Get traction with ballast, not wide wheels. You have many miles to get up to speed, so acceleration is not a prime need.

There are record classes for every sort of vehicle. Get the rule books from Bonneville International and the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association. The safety requirements may puzzle you, but you can figure those out months in advance.

Gordon Eliot White

 

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