The flat science fiction surface of the Bonneville Salt Flats has been used for car and motorcycle testing for more than a century. Every year racers haul across salt-lake-dotted Utah to run everything from 70hp Renaults to 400mph turbine streamliners. It seems like going to Bonneville is on everyone’s bucket list, so we put together a list of questions from your Facebook comments on the Roadkill page, and now we’re going to try to answer them so you can make your dream of coming to Bonneville a reality.
Q: Is it really so white and empty, or is that a camera thing?
A: It is every bit as white and empty as it looks in the photos. Way back in the days of woolly mammoths, the area around Salt Lake City was (surprise) a giant salt lake, almost an inland sea. When it dried up it left a flat bed of salt and dirt. There are many salt flats in the area, but Bonneville is the largest at nearly 60 square miles.
Q: What does it taste like?
A: Uh, salty.
Q: How deep is the salt?
A: Salt depth changes depending on weather and usage. It ranges from a few feet to just millimeters. The salt does seem to be thinning, and there are varying opinions as to why. You can find out more about that at Savethesalt.org.
Q: How often is the salt used for racing?
A: The famous racing meet is the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) Speed Week in August, but the SCTA also runs a race in October called The World Finals. There are also motorcycle and Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) record-setting meets. Groups of racers sometimes arrange to use the flats for testing, and many films and commercials have been shot on Bonneville’s other-worldly plains.
Q: How much does it cost to drive there?
A: Free, whenever you want. It’s public land. The only time vehicles aren’t allowed is when there are large pools of standing water, so in the winter, mostly.
Q: No, I meant, how much does it cost to go to Bonneville Speed Week?
A: Oh! Spectating during Speed Week is $20 per day, or $50 for the whole week. That gets you out there in a car to drive around everywhere except the race track sections.
Q: What does it cost to race at Bonneville?
A: Racing a car at Speed Week costs $525 if you preregister, and $725 if you just show up at the event. Adding extra drivers in is $150 a pop, and anyone who drives needs to be a current Bonneville Nationals Inc. (BNI) member. Membership is $75 for the year. So a week of racing will cost you about $750 for a shared car, plus food, gas, and somewhere to sleep. Not cheap, but not that different from a LeMons race or an NHRA regional.
Q: If I go as a spectator, what do I need to bring?
A: All the sunscreen in the world. A big hat. A cooler full of water. Some folks like lightweight pants and long sleeves. I like shorts and flip-flops, but whatever you do, put sunscreen places you’ve never sunscreened before. The salt is very reflective. Catch my drift, baggy-shorts guys? Hotels are very expensive for the first weekend, so plan ahead, or join the campers at the site on the “Bend in the Road” on the edge of the salt. You need a vehicle, cause the pits are miles from the start line, and the start line is miles from the road.
Q: Does the salt ruin the cars?
A: This is the number one question on any Bonneville car post. When the car is a recognizable shape, like in the Production or Competition Coupe classes, the number of people freaking out about salt doubles. If I were a car I’d rather run the salt and die young than sit in a garage, but that’s just me. Lee Sicilio, driver of the glorious 1969 land speed Dodge Daytona said his paint job has been on the car for more than 10 years of salt racing, and aside from a few bubbles, the metal is still solid behind it. The trick is, “water and gravity.” Lee says he greases all his electrical connections before coming to Bonneville, and spends hours under the car with a hose after Speed Week. Even so, electrical gremlins pop up with regularity at Bonneville, and small metal pieces like cotter pins and bolts have short lives. So, yes, salt ruins the cars, but if you wash ‘em and maintain ‘em you can race for decades. They’re race cars. As far as street cars, going out one time and cleaning the car well shouldn’t ruin the value too much. If you’re here on Roadkill.com in the first place, aren’t all your cars junk anyway?
Q: What does the salt feel like to walk on?
A: Crunchy in the dry parts and sticky in the wet parts.
Q: What does the salt feel like to drive on?
A: In regular driving, like in a rental car, it doesn’t feel that different from pavement. Maybe just a little looser. The drivers compare the traction to slightly sandy asphalt, but we’ll let rookie Erik Hanson tell you. He’s been licensing in the Cal Automotive Creations 1931 Model A Roadster in preparation to drive a stretched 1934 Chevy Competition Coupe. The Chevy is a turbo-charged LS7 that makes more than 1200 hp on the dyno with 16-pounds of boost. “We’re going to turn it down to one for the first run,” said tuner Scott Clark.
Q: How do temperature and humidity affect the cars?
A: The biggest hurdle for land speed records is traction. Even super high-tech cars like the record-holding Speed Demon have issues when the salt breaks up or gets too soggy. Wind speeds and direction play a part as well. A crosswind when you’re going 300 mph is somewhat unwelcome. If the wind picks up too much, the organizers will shut down for the day.
Q: How far is it from the road to the pits?
A: So far! This year it’s about six miles. Enjoy this beautifully shot video tour which cuts off because my cell phone was full of better videos, like the one below of Gary and Alice Corns’ radial-powered Plymouth pickup which I’m including here so you’ll forgive me for the boring one.
Q: How do the tires not come apart at these crazy fast speeds?
A: They are specially constructed for high speed runs, but also they do come apart, as you can see from the shreds hanging down below Speed Demon after a 429.09 mph run on Monday.
Q: What gear ratios do they run?
A: Mostly very tall. Troy Trepanier of Rad Rides by Troy says the new Mariani streamliner he built has a rear gear ratio of 2.30. However, there are so many different engine and transmission combos that you will find some drag race gears here too. Dave Melott and Scott Harrison run a rotary-powered 1967 Nova, and in that high-revving but torqueless wonder, they’ve gone as low as 5.11. The common use of the very high gearing is why so many of the cars use push trucks to get off the line. They just can’t get going on their own.
Q: What are all the classes?
A: Oh my god we’ll be here all night and forever. Go to SCTA’s website and add up all the different body and engine combos. We’ll meet back here in 2018 to discuss.
Q: What was the biggest story of Bonneville Speed Week 2016?
A: Definitely the 406.7 mph record set by Danny Thompson in the Challenger 2, a twin-hemi, nitro-burning streamliner his father, Mickey Thompson, built in 1968 to go after a 400 mph record. Danny’s story is so good we’ll have a full post about it up soon, so stay tuned.
Q: Why should I go to Bonneville?
A: Because you’ll overhear things like this:
“How was your day?”
“Not good, we were on a record run but blew up the engine in the last mile so we couldn’t back it up.”
“What will you do?”
“Build another one and come back next year.”
Doesn’t that sound like the kind of people you want to meet?