This is the entrance to the salt flats off of I-80. Note: not that many years ago, there was no vegetation here as far as the eye could see.

Guest Column: The Shrinking Salt Speedway (Part 1)

Editor’s note: If you know anything about land speed racing, especially the Bonneville Salt Flats, you have probably heard of “Landspeed” Louise Ann Noeth. Louise is one of the most prolific historians on the men and women hot rodders who have taken to the salt in search of ultimate speed. Not only is she a historian, but she is a champion for the preservation of the flats so that future generations can have the same surface as their forefathers.

I was set to make my first trip to the legendary miles of crystalline crust this year and was hoping to meet up with Louise to show me around. Well, for the second year in a row, Speed Week has been canceled due to lack of a safe salt surface to run on (the SCTA was only able to find 2.5 miles of usable salt).

Because I won’t get my chance to meet Louise at Bonneville, I asked her if she could write a column that would sum up what is going on, where we go from here, and what we can do about it. I asked her to give us her straight facts and opinions on the subject – no holds barred. Louise is outspoken, but her passion runs deep and shows in her writing. Some may disagree with some of what she says, but there is no denying that something odd is happening in Utah that should be researched. This is not fiction folks – this is real!

The Bonneville Salt Flats, that we’ve all read about and possibly dreamed of one day visiting, is in dire straits. If we don’t do something soon, we risk losing not only a national treasure, but the penultimate monument of hot rodding.

(All photos courtesy of Louise Ann Noeth and may not be used without her consent. Her information can be found at the end of part 2)

I would love to hear your thoughts on this guest column from Louise. Are we in danger of losing the flats? Is she just being dramatic? Is the BLM being too quiet? Is the potash mine causing the issue? Do you even care? I would really love to hear others opinions on the subject.

 

The Shrinking Salt Speedway (Part 1)

By “LandSpeed” Louise Ann Noeth

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A century ago, there was plenty of brilliant white, thick, hard salt as far as the eye could see at the Bonneville Salt Flats.  That meant seeing in double digit miles.  As the years unwound, the damning game of give and take – the salt giving and man taking – knocked the natural balance out of whack causing the salt surface to not only thin, but the perimeter to slowly shrink.

Factor in encroaching development and poor government oversight and today, what took thousands of years to create, is in a precarious state after mere decades.

The land speed racing community is facing a daunting ecological emergency. If left unchallenged, it will signal the end of safe time trials on the flats in the very near future. The absolute world record left 30 years ago for the Black Rock Desert. With wheel-driven speeds approaching 500MPH, the outlook is worrisome that car and driver can throttle up safely. This is no sensationalistic hype. This is sobering reality.

“Who cares?” you might be asking yourself. “Why should I care if a bunch of speed freaks loose their playground?”

Because the Bonneville Salt Flats have hosted thousands upon thousands of average “nobodies” who became “somebodies” by setting records with their hand-built speed machines. They had a dream, built it into reality, and proved in front of God and the watching world their idea had merit.

The Summers Brothers – Bob and Bill — were nobodies who showed Chrysler what their little HEMI’s were capable of with their car built in a fruit shack by roaring into the history books with Goldenrod at 409MPH in 1965.

A quarter century later, another nobody built his streamliner in his mom’s garage, shipping parts via Greyhound Bus Lines because it was cheaper than UPS. Al Teague had one supercharged HEMI and clocked a 409MPH world record.

That’s just two of thousands who did something super duper because they thought they could and then proved they could. And all of them got a chance to live large, live free, and savor a personal success unavailable anywhere else in the nation because of the Bonneville Salt Flats.

This family-based sport continues to welcome people from around the globe with a “can do” attitude, encouraging innovations in science, technology, engineering, and transportation safety. Land speed racing can be described as “the last vestige of the Wild West” where today all the ponies are under the hood.

College kids have come to Bonneville with their school projects and shown us that used French fry oil can safely power a truck, and that 300MPH is possible with batteries. Grandmothers and grand dads have eschewed rocking chairs for race cars driving safely, repeatedly, and gloriously in excess of 250MPH. Families thrive here. This place is fun and it is sorrowful that business pummels the flats to death simply because the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) stewards have been outrageously lackadaisical in their duties for decades. The BLM actions suckle upon the teat of revenue and ignore the cries of the recreational user in what amounts to geological rape.

Is that enough? No?  Well, if you abandon your land speed brethren in their time of need, there may not be anyone to come to the aid of your hobby should government intervention lock it into a stranglehold.

Like my dad constantly reminded us kids, “You better hang together, or they will hang you one-by-one.”

 

From the first race in 1914, racers understood the tremendous motorsports value of the salt beds, they recognized its matchless natural surface as a place where speed would only be restricted by the pace of technological breakthroughs and the courage drivers found when applying the throttle.

The mining industry understood the great mineral value of the Bonneville Salt Flats and it has been extracting halite (table salt) since the late 1800s, years before Teddy Tetzlaff ever roared into history driving the Blitzen Benz to world record speeds. When German potash supply sources were disrupted by World War I the sodium wonderland was tapped for the potash hiding in the brine below the salt crust.  Potash extraction hasn’t stopped since.

Weather patterns contributed to fiddling about with the salty playa, but historically wherever man monkeys about in nature, nature often gets screwed.

Collective reports often indicated the salt thickness to be 18 inches and as hard as cement. The Utah History Encyclopedia notes the salt depth ranges from “less than one-inch to more than six feet.”

In the 1930s, the ancient salt bed easily supported the heaving weight of 10-ton twin engine monster streamliners as they roared with conviction across 13.5 mile straightaways. Other giant cars attacked 10-mile and 12-mile circles for 24-hours and more, setting hundreds of endurance records that burnished car makers’ power and stamina reputations with the motoring public, boosting showroom sales.

Additionally, the weight of the cars combined with the hard, abrasive salt inspired advances in tire design. Tire manufactures studied the salt surface to enhance not only safety, but traction properties.

By the 1940’s, Britain’s Malcolm Campbell, George Eyston, and John Cobb had set so many endurance records that repeatedly bumped up the Absolute World Land Speed Record that Daytona Beach was well and truly finished as a world record site. Eyston and Cobb were particularly concerned about the preservation of the saline speedway, making numerous references in their books and widely published articles.

Concurrently, through the decades ranging from 1927 through 1956, Ab Jenkins and his son Marvin (who set more records on the flats than any 10 racing teams combined), needed a ½ inch, two-handed drill to pierce the salt in order to affix tent stakes.

By the 1950s, as a young boy tagging along with his father who competed at Speed Week, Ricky Vesco witnessed a variety of then minor items that many years later inspired him to become a salt advocate. He recalled a water truck sitting in the pits with a leaky water valve dripping onto the salt flats that carved a deep, 12” funnel shaped hole into the salt. The water in the hole was crystal blue and the salt was sparkling, shimmering white down to the bottom. He watched as the adults struggled to erect shades and tents, because to penetrate the hard salt required two people – one swinging a big sledgehammer, and the other holding an old Ford axle or railroad stakes.

These days dripping water is prohibited, because it quickly eats through the thin crust and erodes the mud layer below creating pot-holes. As for driving in tent stakes, a couple taps on a 16-penny nail with a carpenter hammer now penetrates the surface anywhere within the historical Bonneville Salt flat boundaries. The most visually striking thing young Vesco remembered was how the black rubber streaks at the starting line of his hometown drag strip resembled those laid down by spinning tires of Bonneville race cars fading into the distance as he looked down the course towards Floating Island.

This writer, with only 21 years of aerial observations shooting photographs, is shocked anew each year by how much the wonderful whiteness withers and contracts away from the Silver Mountains while desert vegetation rapidly moves in.

What was once 90,000 acres is a mere 30,000 today. Salt conditions have so radically deteriorated that race officials are lucky if a 7-mile course can be located. The 2014 Speed Week was a wash-out, and the 2015 event has already been canceled due to miserable salt conditions, where SCTA racing officials were hard pressed to find five miles to race upon. Forget high-speed runs, only those running 175MPH and below would have been allowed to run.

Motorcycles need their own event, because cars making high speed passes easily rut the soft salt — precarious for the two-wheeled race machines if their small, thinner tires get trapped in a depression, or its suspension is abruptly upset.

The hot rodders who had been racing on the salt annually since 1949, began to complain about salt changes in the early 1960s. Getting the brunt of the blame was nearby Kaiser Chemical Company’s 50 square mile facility, with collection ditches that ran next to the raceway gathering brine salts to produce potash, magnesium, and other products. Hard to ignore when you understand that in 1963 Kaiser expanded its potash production after being issued leases for 25,000 additional acres of Federal land.

Pre-occupied with setting records, the unorganized racing voice found no one listening for years; the land speed community had no champion, no political or economic clout. However, they knew that surface conditions were eroding and saw other dramatic changes year after year.

Until the early 1970s, pleas by the racers to the BLM, tasked with protecting the salt, were ignored. Despite the BLM’s mandate to protect and manage the nation’s treasures, when it came to the desolate salt flats business, interests trumped recreation needs nearly every time. Profit pummeled pleasure with impunity.

In 1973, Vesco, now a Utah motorcycle business owner, joined the BLM’s Recreation Advisory Board. Recognizing his membership on the board was an ideal, hopefully effective method to help salt racers gain a needed voice in government, Vesco succeeded in drawing the BLM’s attention to the nearby mining operation’s negative impact on the salt flats.

When the State of Utah turned over maintenance of the flats to the BLM in 1976, it was abruptly decided that one race event a year (Speed Week) was not enough public interest to continue to groom the race track (read: no budget).

The racers responded by forming a second sanctioning body to host additional racing events. Wayne Atkinson, Hugh Coltharp, Dave Skidmore, Rick Vesco, Larry Volk, and Gary Wilkinson organized the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association (USFRA). Its focus was to counter the BLM’s ultimatum that racers needed to: “use it or lose it.” Long-time permit holder Southern California Timing Association/ Bonneville Nationals, Inc. (SCTA/BNI) was geographically hindered – it simply could not keep an eye on things from 750 miles away.

The USFRA formation ideally provided what the salt desperately needed: local stewardship and an effective BLM retort. When the BLM stopped funding all track preparation funds it sparked the decision that jumpstarted “Save the Salt” (STS). The goal was to preserve the BSF for future racers and the USFRA scheduled 7 one-day events with the BLM.

The fledgling USFRA performed all track grading, helped by the City of Wendover that loaned its equipment for the task during that first year.

The USFRA and SCTA/BNI mounted a combined effort to earnestly discuss the future of the raceway. This cooperative alliance resulted in a press conference in Salt Lake City, with a petition drive to bring “Save the Salt” concerns to the public officials, and was communicated effectively by the Fastest Man on Earth Gary Gabelich (622MPH).

I recently got a message from Gary’s widow, Rae Gabelich, who reminded me that Gary was very upset with how the BLM was treating the salt back in the 1970s. Forty years later, the racers (who are also US citizens who have a right to these federal lands) are still getting the short shift.

Through the efforts of the State of Utah in 1975, Bonneville was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The cooperative efforts made a big impact; the BLM reinstated track prep funding and STS began an investigation into salt loss. One study showed that the nearly million-tons-per-year loss was due to the mining efforts. Kaiser Chemical paid for its own study that countered the claim.

The BLM did nothing; it was a standoff.

(to be continued in part 2)         

CLICK HERE FOR PART 2

5 Comments

  1. This salt situation at Bonneville i was told is caused by the potash harvesting tailings being pumped across the highway. Is it not feasible to propose eventual relocation of the actual car event to that side? Please reply to my Facebook blog at ‘Looking Back Racing’ where I would like to also hotlink this story?

    • Correct! The major reason they couldn’t move the speedway to the south side is because the south side is where the potash mine and brine pools are. Part 2 will go into more detail, but for five years they had an agreement to pump the salt back to the north side onto the racing surface. During that time, they supposedly put 6.5 million tons down around the starting line. Unfortunately, that area is not the problem. It is at the top end, when the cars are at top speeds, where they need the stability of the hard salt underneath them that is failing. George Poteet’s crash at 370 mph in 2014 shows the unpredictability of the far end of the track. Feel free to visit our Facebook page Gearheads4Life – you can share the link on your blog. Thank you for your comments. Hopefully we can get the right people to take notice and get something done before it is too late. (Part 2 should be posted on Monday!)

  2. I wish to personally thank all parties concerned for all your efforts. I personally dreamed of going to Bonneville since I was 10 years old. Finally I drove my 79 firebird 1600 miles there in 2011 made the 130 club and drove home at 61 years young. I’m praying for good salt in September so I can run 2 miles for 150 driving there again.

    • Good Luck Kerry! I hope you get your chance. They say it is a magical place and once you get “salt fever” you can’t shake it. It is certainly a disease I hope to have the chance to catch one day. It will remain on my bucket list until then!

    • Hey Kerry,

      That’s fantastic. I’d like to think that guys like you that got to have that “salt fever” experience would take up the cause of saving the salt. Everyone should have a cause. Mine has been the preservation of the right to keep and bear arms by my lifelong activism and membership in the National Rifle Association and the Washington Arms Collectors.

      The NRA is the most effective activist organization of its type. You all should follow its lead. If you like to drive fast on the salt flats, oblige yourself to become an activist to preserve it.

      I like what your guys and girls do. I’ll let my legislators know that you deserve recognition and protection as do the flats.