Imagine a place so barren and flat, almost no life can exist on it. Well, say hello to the Bonneville Salt Flats. This barren land sees few visitors. However, once a year, thousands of speed freaks from all over the world converge there to watch hundreds of men and women attempt to set new land speed records in their class.
This yearly pilgrimage, known as Bonneville Speed Week, is held every August on what is undoubtedly the most beautiful racetrack on Earth. Participants spend the previous year and many dollars preparing for a chance to put the pedal to the metal for miles on end. Unlike NASCAR and other national races, winners at Speed Week receive no cash prizes for setting a new record. Their reward is a simple dash plaque noting the speed attained by their vehicle and a trophy.
Participants run against the clock instead of other competitors. Perhaps the most unique aspect of attending Speed Week is seeing the variety of vehicles participating. Spectators view everything from a 100-mph Honda to a 450-mph Hemi-powered streamliner. In addition, vintage coupes, roadsters, late model Camaros, and motorcycles participate. Anyone attending gets their money’s worth by simply strolling the pits from car to car and having a conversation with the racers. Soon, you’ll find that this is a very unique group of people with a passion for going fast.
The Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) established Speed Week in 1949. Prior to that, most racers, primarily from California, went to El Mirage, a much shorter dirt track, to do their racing. In the late 1940s, the SCTA found Bonneville, where the incredibly large, flat surface is perfect for racing. Today, the Bureau of Land Management manages this unique natural resource covering 30,000 acres or just about 46 square miles. Over the years, the SCTA continually improved the track for safety and efficiency. Two years ago, a third track was added to decrease wait time. The long track is for vehicles going over 175 mph, and the two short tracks are for cars under 175 mph. Racing begins at noon on the first Saturday and continues until 7:30 PM the following Friday. The three starting lanes are close together but widen as the track continues on. Records are set by the average of two runs. If the first run is a new record, the car is put into the impound area. A second run is made the following day (except for records set on the last day), and if that run is again over the current record, the vehicle has the new record for its class. Without the SCTA, the event would not continue. Over 150 volunteers give up a week of their time to manage this big event.
The classes are broken down by stock versus modified, cubic inches, body styles, type of fuel, and blown or unblown. Drivers are required to attend a mandatory meeting, and all cars must meet a stringent tech inspection before being allowed to run. New drivers are required to make several trial passes with inspectors watching before they are allowed to make a full-throttle run.
History of the Salt Flats
One can’t discuss racing on the flats without understanding them. The Bonneville Salt Flats are today a small part of what once was Lake Bonneville. This massive lake was formed about fifteen thousand years ago during the last Ice Age and, at one time, covered about one third of present day Utah and parts of neighboring states. Eventually, much of the lake evaporated, leaving the wind to produce the large, flat salt bed we have today.
Wendover, Utah and West Wendover, Nevada
Wendover and West Wendover are two small towns that straddle both Utah and Nevada. The cities flourished when airmen were housed at the Wendover Army airfield. By 1945, nearly 20,000 military personnel were stationed there at a time when the Enola Gay crew was training to deliver the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. Today, the hanger that housed the Enola Gay still stands, however it is in poor condition. With so many soldiers stationed in Wendover, casinos on the Nevada side started popping up to accommodate the leisure time of the servicemen. Today, Wendover and West Wendover are a gambling Mecca.
What to Expect
It’s nearly impossible to describe what to expect from spending time at Speed Week. Simply walking the flats with the Silver Island Mountains and Floating Mountain in the distance is a vision of natural beauty. It is a safe bet that if the Apollo astronauts had landed on the salt flats instead of the moon, they probably wouldn’t have known the difference. That’s how different this beautiful landscape is from anything you’ve ever seen. There are miles of pure white salt glistening in the sun that seem to go on forever.
Should you decide to attend Speed Week, expect to walk a lot, so bring comfortable shoes. The flats are lined with cars, trucks and trailers spread over several miles, and you don’t want to miss any of it. With the August sun beaming down and causing extremely hot temperatures, a rimmed hat, sunglasses and good sun block are necessary.
The fun doesn’t stop at the end of the racing day, however. Enthusiasts converge in the parking lot of the Nugget Hotel and Casino for evenings of bench racing and serious car discussions. Every conceivable type of car is in attendance, from a six-carbed rat rod to a ZL1 Camaro. The hotel does its part by providing floating bartenders who bring out adult beverages to keep everyone cool. This event goes on for several hours and finally breaks up around midnight so that everyone can be ready for the next day of racing.
Where to Stay
For those who wish to attend SpeedWeek, Wendover and West Wendover are the only locations to stay within a short driving distance. These little cities border both Utah and Nevada. West Wendover, in Nevada includes large hotel and casinos, while Wendover, which is on the Utah side, offers everything from mom and pop motels to several small chain motels. If you plan on going, it’s necessary to book your room by February or March, or you stand a very good chance of not getting a room at all. The hotels and casinos figured out that most people attending Speed Week don’t gamble, so they make up their losses with much higher room rates. The mom and pop places offer the best prices but don’t offer the amenities. If you are the adventurous type, camping is available at the entrance of the salt flats. There is also a KOA campground in West Wendover.
Speed Week should be on everyone’s “bucket list,” the list of must-do’s before you die. You might want to first rent The World’s Fastest Indian with Anthony Hopkins. It will give you some idea as to what to expect. So skip your days at NASCAR or a big NHRA event, pack your bags and head to Bonneville in August. You will be glad you did.