In the Fast Lane

Drivers gear up to set speed records at Utah’s desolate Bonneville Salt Flats

For a week every August, the Bonneville Salt Flats, 120 miles west of Salt Lake City, is the site of a summer ritual in which Yankee ingenuity meets the human fascination with fast cars. Hundreds of drivers congregate in sweltering desert heat to race candy-colored, homebuilt hot rods on hard-packed salt, a dazzling white straightaway as smooth as Formica. Although Bonneville is the world's largest racecourse and the place where most of the fastest land-speed records have been set, Speed Week is not to be confused with the Indy 500 or the Monaco Grand Prix, where drivers compete against one another. Here, drivers race against the clock.

Steve Burke, 57, has been coming to Bonneville since 1952, first as a spectator, then as a racer. He once flipped a car at 225 miles per hour and barrel-rolled another at 307 mph. Today, the San Gabriel, California, organizational consultant is queued up with dozens of other middle-aged hot rodders waiting to hit the salt. His car has been lowered and lengthened so radically—to improve its aerodynamics—that not even an aficionado would recognize it as a Mazda RX-7 coupe. "Anything you can create," Burke says, "anything you can invent—this is the place to see how fast it can go."

Farther up the starting line, wearing a bulky firesuit, Bob Drury lounges next to a yellow 1953 Studebaker that he's modified with a high-tech chassis he built from scratch. His top speed in the rig is 220 mph. Drury, 58, a retired sheet-metal worker from Vancouver, Washington, first visited Bonneville 11 years ago. "After 20 minutes," he says, "I knew I was going to build something myself. This is the last place on earth where Rube Goldberg can compete."

As complex as the cars may be, the racing couldn't be simpler. Two 90-foot-wide courses marked with black lines stretch as far as five miles but seem to go on to infinity. Drivers and cars get ready to rumble in makeshift service pits. At the starting line, a driver is waved onto the course every few minutes. Unless he—most of the racers are men—has a problem, he'll keep the throttle buried for his entire run while his speed is clocked electronically.

There's no money at stake, and precious little glory. The prospect of going just one mile per hour faster than last year keeps true believers coming back. New Zealand motorcycle racer Burt Munro repeatedly returned to Bonneville to race a 1920 Indian Scout bike he had radically modified over half a century, setting speed records in the 1960s and inspiring an upcoming movie, The World's Fastest Indian, starring Anthony Hopkins. For some, the vast and barren landscape contributes to the salt fever. "The salt is pure, pristine, white—almost surrealistically gorgeous at sunrise and sunset," says Ron Jolliffe, a retired college art history professor from Hailey, Idaho, whose '34 Ford roadster was clocked at 240 mph last summer. "There's nothing here when we arrive, and the few scars that we leave behind disappear with the first rainstorm. It's an environmental masterpiece."

The 30,000 acres of salt flats are the residue of ancient Lake Bonneville, which began drying up about 15,000 years ago. Every winter, a shallow aquifer floods the flats, which dry again under spring and summer's unrelenting sun.

Historically, human beings have prudently given the place a wide berth. But the desolate terrain that renders the salt flats so inhospitable to flora and fauna makes them perfect for land-speed record-breaking. In 1896, in a publicity stunt dreamed up by newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, William D. Rishel became the first racer to cross the flats—on a bicycle. The first automobile speed record was set in 1914: 141.73 mph. Meanwhile, California gearheads began converting Model A and Model T Fords into the first hot rods, which they raced on the dry lakes of the Mojave Desert. In 1937 the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) was created to formalize the competition.

Craving a bigger and safer course, SCTA members started Bonneville Speed Week in 1949. Bill Burke, Steve's father, showed up with a contraption that epitomized the freewheeling spirit of the time—a stogie-shaped speedster fashioned from the belly fuel tank of a P-38 fighter plane. "When I was in the service, we stopped on an island, and there was a cargo ship full of them," he recalls. "I went aboard and said, 'Oh, my God! What a great race car this would make!'" Burke bought one for $35, fitted it with two axles, shoehorned a flathead Ford V-8 behind a crude cockpit and proceeded to go 158 mph. Belly tanks remain a staple of Speed Week.

The highest speed on the salt, 622.407 mph, was set by Gary Gabelich in 1970 in a vehicle powered by a rocket engine. The current world land-speed record of 763 mph was set in 1997 at Black Rock Desert in Nevada, in a jet-propelled car, but Bonneville is still the choice of most racers.

And most Bonneville drivers race old-fashioned Detroit iron. At times, you can look around and swear it's 1958. But there's always something innovative on the salt. Last summer, a team of Ohio State University students pushed an electric car (just 2 feet wide and less than 3 feet tall) beyond 300 mph, and a hybrid-electric Toyota Prius sedan maxed out at 130.7 mph.

Bob Stahl of Huntington Beach, California, races a 1965 VW Beetle that was once his daughter's daily transportation. "Originally, I just wanted to go play a little," he says. "Then I got serious. The salt bug'll bite you."

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.