Sun, Sep 10, 2006 - Page 19 News List

Speed freaks and salt: the fastest car show on Earth

All manner of racing enthusiasts show up to try to set land speed records on the Utah salt flats during Bonneville Speed Week

By Lindsay Brooke  /  NY TIMES SERVICE , BONNEVILLE SALT FLATS, UTAH

A Ford Highboy roadster on the salt, where speed records exist to be broken in Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Booming past the last mile marker of a ruler-straight course on this ancient lake bed, traveling at more than 640kph, Al Teague pulled the parachute release lever to slow his streamliner, simultaneously fulfilling the final request of a hot-rodding buddy.

On that day four years ago, tucked within the folds of cloth, were the ashes of Gray Baskerville, a champion of all things associated with the Salt Flats. Baskerville, a writer for Hot Rod magazine, had died in February 2002 at age 66.

“It was exactly what Gray would have wanted,” said Teague, holder of a speed record with the Spirit of 76, a low-slung dart of a car engineered for nothing but top-speed trials. “I got the feeling that my high speed would have made him happy.”

To those who have been touched by Bonneville’s high-speed mystique, neither Baskerville’s career-long devotion to this eerily flat expanse, nor Teague’s homage, would be a surprise. The 4,828km2 salt plain 193km west of Salt Lake City, bisected by Interstate 80, is one of the few places on earth suited to driving vehicles as fast as they can go.

The great bleach-white expanse is what remains of an enormous inland sea that evaporated 14,000 years ago. Since the 1930s its fragile surface — and the thin atmosphere at the 1.3km elevation, which saps engine power — has challenged the speediest cars, trucks and motorcycles.

Still, drivers return each August seeking records at ever-greater velocities. “If you like making cars go fast, this place is addictive,” said Ed Iskenderian, a hot-rodding pioneer who first attended Bonneville contests in 1950 and continues to make the annual pilgrimage.

Nearly 500 entrants gathered here last month for Speed Week, one of the few times of the year when the salt is used to establish official records. This year’s turnout was the biggest ever, drawing vehicles ranging from prewar Fords to diminutive “lakesters” with bodies shaped like the fuel tanks once seen under the wings of fighter planes. There were 1950s Studebakers stretched like taffy to cheat the wind, and everything from Toyota econoboxes to Corvette-powered Porsches to ground-scraping motorcycles testing their engines against electronic timers. Even a Ferrari F40 turned out.

More than 150 records were set in dozens of classes, encompassing every imaginable combination of vehicle and engine, from tiny 50-cc motorbikes to a mammoth Freightliner truck powered by a 4,000-horsepower V-16 diesel said to have begun life in a tugboat. This improbable rig, lowered and modified unlike anything one might see on the Interstate, is a perennial favorite, thundering down the salt at more than 354kph.

The streamliner class is a showcase of the swiftest machines on wheels. This year’s star was the Dieselmax streamliner entered by JCB, a British maker of construction equipment. Powered by a pair of heavily modified four-cylinder diesel engines from the company’s backhoes, the 8.8m-long projectile was driven by Andy Green, holder of the absolute land-speed record in a jet-powered car at 1,227kph (set in Nevada, alas, not at Bonneville).

Green, a Royal Air Force wing commander, is a superstar in the community. Overcoming five days of technical gremlins that kept speeds below 370kph, the JCB car finally set a record of 563.41kph to become the world’s fastest diesel vehicle (or, as many kidded, the fastest backhoe).

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