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

Diesel was not the only alternative fuel at Bonneville this year. Mark Dickens, a General Motors engineer, set several class records driving Chevrolet Cobalt SS coupes; one (reaching 251kph) was the first to be powered by an E85 ethanol blend.

The best combination of salt surface and weather in 10 years created excellent race conditions and helped pack the entry list, said Buddy James, a longtime starting line steward. But with so many vehicles queued up to run on the two courses — a 4.8km straightaway for machines capable of up to 281kph and a 8km course for the fastest — cars waited hours for their next chance. Even those in line at 7am when each day’s action began might make just two runs before the courses closed at 5pm.

Official Bonneville records are determined by averaging two runs, as supervised by the Southern California Timing Association, which organizes Speed Week and operates the electronic timers. Once a vehicle makes a qualifying run that tops the existing record, it is impounded until the next morning’s record run.

For most of the tanned-and-wrinkled regulars — as well as what seemed to be an infusion of fresh blood in hot imports — creeping slowly to the starting line under the scorching sun is simply part of the routine.

A strong grass-roots ethic and amateur-racing spirit underpin Speed Week and the few other events held at Bonneville. Competitors routinely lend a hand to one another, along with advice and tools.

“Bonneville is more than a hobby to many of these racers; it’s their life,” said Louise Ann Noeth, a Salt Flats historian and former professional drag racer known universally as Landspeed Louise. “They return because money and marketing have not yet put their stamp on the salt.”

The Flats’ amateur racers can be mildly contemptuous of professional record efforts. Participation by big companies, including efforts this year by GM and JCB (which had two huge tractor-trailers in its pit area), attract the most scorn.

“Sometimes we might resent the money the factory teams spend for their projects, because we don’t have those funds,” said Teague, whose 659.79kph attained in 1991 is still the international record for wheel-driven vehicles powered by a single piston engine.

“They have engineers and aerodynamicists,” Teague said. “We do our work in our garages after work.”

On the Flats, there are no fixed structures providing the comforts of traditional racetracks — no pit garages, no grandstands, no food pavilions for spectators.

Racers prepare their vehicles under tent shelters erected next to vans and campers. Staying hydrated is part of the Salt Flats survival ritual.

The salt itself is a survivor. Decades of potash mining over the last century began depleting the salt base. But recent efforts by the local salt industry, under pressure from the SCTA and the racers, have helped stabilize the thin crust, which can be less than an inch thick in places.

“My team and I were utterly humbled by our experience,” said Tim Leverton, chief engineer of the JCB Dieselmax team. “You cannot arrive here and simply expect to go fast. You have to learn the salt — and listen to the Bonneville speed community, who know more about it than anybody.”

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