Every year in August the fastest cars, bicycles and drivers in the world gather at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah to attempt and break the world top speed record. This year GTspirit drove to Bonneville to see what Speed Week is all about and capture the exceptional fascination and spirit of speed present.
The Bonneville Speedway is a designated area on the Bonneville Salt Flats close to the Utah-Nevada border that can be used for racing. The first motor sports event took place in 1912 but really gained traction in the 1930s when Ab Jenkins and Sir Malcolm Campbell competed for land speed records. Various track layouts have been possible but during Bonneville Speed Week 2019 an eight-mile long straight race track and a few shorter tracks are being used for timed runs. In the early days there was a 10-mile long straight and 10 to 12-mile long oval for distance runs.
During the wet months the salt flats are submerged but from July until November the layer of thick white salt becomes exposed and can be driven on. The solid flat layer of salt is perfect for high-speed records and has been used accordingly for the good part of a hundred years.. However the recent rain made the salt too wet for racing on the first days of the Bonneville Speed Week 2019. Along with erosion the rain is a reoccurring problem for the Speed Week; 2014 and 2015 the event was cancelled altogether. Main issue is the reducing thickness of the salt layer, close to a meter thick in the 1940s it is close to disappearing in some areas now so it is a question for how long the Bonneville Speed Week and the land speed record attempts here will continue to exist.
Arriving at Bonneville is an experience in its own right. Driving up from Salt Lake City highway I-80 crosses the dry lake bed and salt flats already dozens of miles before the Bonneville Salt Flats exit. Keep your eyes out for some art including a shark and a snake swimming in the sand on the right side of the highway. From the Bonneville exit an elevated tarmac road runs to a viewpoint that can also be reached during the wet months from November until June. Here you will find a sign but during Speed Week it also marks the official entrance to the event. Thousands of cones are used to create roads, the paddock, the track and entrance.
On the first days of the week the teams arrive and tech inspection takes place at a tent in the pop-up paddock. The teams range from typical one-man-shows who drive to the event with their car on a trailer and sleep in a tent, to semi-professional and professional teams who bring support trucks and mechanics. The cars range from severely modified street cars to purpose built rockets with wheels.
The Bonneville Speed Week is still the place to be to attempt and set a land speed record. In 1935 Campbell was the first to break the 300 mph barrier with a 301.129 mph / 655.7 km/h top speed in his Blue Bird. In 1965 Craig Breedlove broke the 600 mph mark with his Spirit of America – Sonic 1 and a 600.601 mph / 966.5 km/h top speed. In 1970 Gary Gabelich set a 1,001.67 km/h record with his Blue Flame.
But Bonneville is about more than the fastest overall. There are dozens of vehicles and motorcycle classes and hundreds of sub-classes ranging from Blown Fuel Streamliners and Blown Gas Roadster to Production Coupe & Sedans and 3000cc Motorcycles and everything in between. They can race every day during the week and a record is based on the average of two runs in opposite direction.
Bonneville Speed Week showcases a very unique sub-culture of motorsports. There are teams traveling to Bonneville from as far as New Zealand and Sweden. There are a few merchandise stands but you won’t find any big brands or the typical overload of commercials found at other motorsports events. It gives the Speed Week a very laid back and friendly vibe. Every day at the end of the day everybody packs everything and returns to a campsite or nearby Wendover town as nobody is allowed to stay at the salt overnight.
Strolling a day through the seemingly endless paddock we can’t stop being amazed by the diverse range of vehicles and motorcycles all sharing the desire to go fast. The drivers are equally diverse ranging from a local tow truck company owner to a guy calling himself “rocket man”. Also don’t look surprised when you see race cars being pushed by a pick-up or SUV; they run such high gear ratios that they can’t get going on their own.
Fully satisfied and with shoes and a car covered in bright white salt we return to the I-80. If you plan on visiting the Bonneville Salt Flats make sure to bring sunscreen and sunglasses as the salt is extremely bright and reflective. During Bonneville Speed Week you can buy entry tickets at the gate, the rest of the year you can visit the salt flats free of charge.
The Bonneville Speed Week 2019 is still ongoing until 16th of August 2019. Visit the Southern California Timing Association website for more information about the Bonneville Speed Week and the results of the 2019 Speed Week!