TACH Visits The Bonneville Races
10 September 1998
Wendover, UT- A commonly used phrase in golf is "I would rather be lucky than good." That was exactly my feeling when I literally stumbled upon the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Bonneville Races in Wendover, UT.
I was on the return leg of my trip to Monterey, CA for the 50th Anniversary of Porsche. My return route was on Interstate 80. While traveling east on Interstate 80 in Nevada I noted that every 30 minutes or so racing trailers were heading west with various types of racing vehicles in tow. Finally, after the fifth or sixth trailer passed by it dawned on me that these were racecars for the Bonneville Salt Flats. "Could I really be that lucky?" Fortunately, my state of mental health had not reached delirious so I did not answer. None the less, I could not believe my possible good fortune. Having just been on a emotional high from the Monterey week-end with Porsche, I was truly feeling like the person who just stumbles upon an amazing event.
Finally arriving in Wendover I headed for the Stateline Casino and Hotel which was serving as the "host hotel." Much to my delight I was told that the "races" would be going on for at least another three days.
My luck continued. While standing in line at one of the restaurants in the hotel I met a gentleman by the name of Bruce Mercer. Mr.Mercer works as a course marshall. Like most motorsport enthusiasts his love of racing was embedded early on. This was his 16th year working the "Salt Races" and god-willing would certainly not be his last. When he discovered that this was my first time visiting Bonneville, he gave me the history of "the flats" and the "cursed salt mining companies" who were depleting the saltbase of the Bonneville Speedway. He also gave me a brief over-view of the "short-course and long-course" land-speed record attempts. Explaining to him how I was even in the area in the first place was good enough to get a pass in the next day.
I was familiar with the names involved in land-speed records like Breedlove, Arfons, Campbell and Crossley, but I was not prepared for the other names who were in the coveted "200 MPH Club:" Rudolph Caraccoila, Ed Losinski, Donald Healey, Stirling Moss, Mickey Thompson, Phil Hill, Fred Larsen, Bobby Isaac, Andy Granatelli, Don Garlits and A.J.Foyt. I was even more amazed to learn that the "300 MPH Club" actually had 36 members. Not too many folks in the world can make that claim.
My arrival at the Salt Flats the next day can only be described as awe-inspiring. You travel out on this road heading north from I-80. You go north for about two miles then you turn right and go east for about four miles. Finally after what seems like an eternity you happen upon an outpost that serves as the main entrance to the "Speedway." First of all, there is no speedway in the physical sense of an actual structure. Second, the speedway track changes from year to year depending upon the condition of the salt. The organizers examine the thickness of the surface before deciding which way the "speed traps" will be set up. The "pit area" is similar to any other motorsport paddock. Semi-Haulers and fifth-wheel trailers abound with the customary temporary shelters to block the intense sunlight. Watching the mechanics methodically work on the various racecars is worth the price of admission in itself.
The racing at the Bonneville Speedway is difficult to watch from beginning to end. I decided that to get a true feel for the racing that I would start out in the pit area to observe the cars being prepped for the attempt at a land-speed record. Being mindful not to interrupt the mechanics while working, I was pleasantly surprised to find that these men and women were happy to discuss various aspects of their work. The camaraderie of all the participants was evident. After about two hours in the pit area I decided to travel the two or three miles to the start line and watch the various cars push off for their attempts. Again, it was fun to watch the cars push off. The ones that grabbed everyone's attention were the turbine and gas powered streamliners. These sleek "300 mph missiles on wheels" were truly incredible pieces of machinery. The "pilots" of these machines were squeezing themselves into the close confines of the cockpit area like sardines. One driver who shall remain nameless suffers from claustrophobia. As soon as he gets up to speed he is fine, but he stands outside of the cockpit until the very last minute. The driver's pit crew gives him some good-natured ribbing about his complex. When the time comes to make an attempt on a new record, however, the ribbing stops and the respect for the driver is evident. On this particular day the attempt to set a new world record was not achieved but as I heard so often that day "there's always tomorrow."
So next year, if you are traveling on I-80 in Nevada during the third week of August, make the effort to go to Bonneville. It is an experience that you will not forget. Perhaps you will leave feeling just as lucky as I felt to be part of the Bonneville Experience.
David Treffer -- The Auto Channel