Bonneville Salt Flats draws some of fastest land speed machines to ‘Hot Rod Mecca’

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21 Aug 1998: General view of a top fuel dragster during the Bonneville Speedweeks at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Bonneville, Utah. Mandatory Credit: David Taylor /Allsport

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TOOELE COUNTY, Utah (ABC4) – William Shakespeare once posed the question: “What’s in a name?”

When asked what makes the Bonneville Salt Flats in western Utah such an ideal venue for land speed racing, Pat McDowell responds in somewhat Shakespearian fashion.

“Some of it’s just in the name, the word ‘flat,’” McDowell, the president and race director of the Southern California Timing Association explains. “It’s pretty much one of the only places like it the whole world.”

The other name for the 5-mile-wide, 12-mile-wide stretch of sodium chloride-covered land, “Hot Rod Mecca”.

By the way, sodium chloride also has another name: table salt.

A remnant of Lake Bonneville, which covered more than a third of the state’s current borders during the Ice Age, the Salt Flats are what’s left after millions of years of water evaporation and the area’s conversion to a desert climate.

Nowadays, the area located about an hour and a half directly west of Salt Lake City serves as a destination for eye-catching Instagrams as well as mind-blowing showcases of speed by a community of passionate speed racers.

(Photo by Dan Callister/Liaison)

The community’s pillar institution, the Southern California Timing Association, serves as the competition sanctioning body, recording record times and hosting events for amateur speed demons from around the world, using the vast nothingness of the Salt Flats as its speedway.

The association’s marquee event, “Speed Week”, was held last week and drew over 300 self-funded land speed racers hoping to set new records with passion projects built in their garages.

Although the event is averse to sponsorship, with nary a billboard in sight, and none of the drivers are paid professionals, McDowell says the talent behind the wheel and the equipment under the hood is still top-notch.

“We’re amateurs and we prove it every day,” he laughs before clarifying himself. “We have stuff that runs engines with 3,000 horsepower and even though we have a complete absence of corporate America, there’s still big-dollar resumes out there, they’re just privately funded, privately built.”

Some of those privately funded garage-born contraptions have gone down as record breakers for land speed. According to the Bureau of Land Management, the land speed barriers at 300, 400, 500, and 600 miles per hour were broken at the Flats. McDowell’s group, which has been around since 1937, has been there at every turn of the tires, keeping account of records at increments of engine types from small motorcycles to world-class hot rods.

Of course, at breakneck speeds, accidents can and do happen. As such, when the 3,000-horsepower vehicles are on the salt for a Southern California Timing Association event, a team of emergency responders is on hand, complete with an ambulance, a large-scale fire extinguishing apparatus, and an extrication team. The vehicles themselves are also observed and noted to be as safe as possible while going as fast as possible when the pedal hits the floormats.

“We probably have the most stringent safety rules are as stringent as anybody in the automotive or motor racing field where our roll cages are second to none and fire systems and seatbelts and all that kind of stuff,” McDowell assures.

When it comes to the Average Joe who’s looking to fill the need for speed on the seemingly endless dried-up sea, the Bureau advises an “abundance of caution” for drivers on the Salt Flats.

August 1957: Stirling Moss breaking 5-speed records in the BMC MGX – 181, at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

“The public is welcome to drive their vehicles on the Bonneville Salt Flats when the salt is dry and hardened. Do not drive on the salt flats when they are wet or flooded from precipitation. You can easily damage the salt crust and/or become stuck in the underlying mud,” a spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management says.

For those looking to make a pilgrimage to Hot Rod Mecca in a car that is categorically not a hot rod, McDowell also adds his words of caution. When it comes to those who can tempt fate on a top-quality land speed racer and those who want to push their daily commuter to the edge, “talent, talent, talent,” makes a difference, as well as equipment and ability to respond to an emergency, McDowell says.

“There is a saying, ‘Come to Bonneville and lose your mind,’ because people go out there and do this every day and it’s unfortunate. People just think it’s okay and it’s not, they find that out.”

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