The next time you get into your car, grab the steering wheel and give a good look at the speedometer. Let your eyes travel up from zero, climbing double digit numbers that are so familiar. But keep going. Don’t stop at 80. Don’t stop at 90 or 100. Notice if your palms are getting sweaty or if you start to twitch in your seat. Is this unfamiliar territory…staring at the notch for 120 or 140mph? Think to yourself, what is the fastest I have ever driven this vehicle? Scale your eyes back to the fastest you’ve ever pushed that needle, and then think about that brief exhilirating moment, as quick as it may have been. Ask yourself why didn’t you go faster than that? How long did you sustain that top speed? Why didn’t you drive further? Now, if I told you there’s a place as flat as a sheet of college-ruled paper, where there are no cops, no traffic signals, no turns, no intersections, no on-coming traffic, and no speed-limit, would you push that accelerator as far as it could go for as long as you could? Of course you would. And that could only mean you were in one special place–the Bonneville Salt Flats in western Utah.
Utah is known for radical religious piety. And the shores of the Great Salt Lake seem to be where there’s the best action. To the east, there’s Salt Lake City, the Mormon temple, and one out of every two persons who believe in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. To the west, on the ancient western shore of Lake Bonneville, where the briny water has totally evaporated, there’s another kind of fantacism, another object of devotion, where 1 out of every 1 persons is a believer. Service doesn’t meet every week, and not everyone follows the same scriptures. But they share the same faith; faith in the divinity of…Speed! For the past 61 years they’ve all been coming here to this sacred house of worship where the ground is as white as the clouds of heaven to push their earthly extremes in pursuit of the holy.
The world land speed record is exactly as it sounds: the record for the fastest achievement by any wheeled vehicle on land. The current record holder is a 47yr old British navy pilot named Andy Green, who achieved supersonic speed of 763mph in Utah in 1997, and who is now working on breaking the 1,000mph barrier. Speedweek, however, is not when Andy Green and his ultra-rare competition push speeds that top the sound barrier. We got a tip that the land speed record attempts happen privately, on a date later in the summer. Instead, Speedweek is the annual gathering of the tribe, where speed devotees make an annual pilgrimage to the fastest racetrack in the world and put their best effort against history. There is no head-to-head racing, there is no stopwatch. (There is also no best costume award or recognition for cheapest looking girlfriend.) Drivers are racing against history–the historical speed precedent set for that engine class. The attention is purely on getting the cars to run at top speed. Everything else is secondary. If Sturgis left us short on horsepower, we found all the RPM’s we could handle in the desolate, otherworldly, evaporated ruins of the Great Salt Lake Basin.
There are three courses at Bonneville: the long-course, the short-course, and the special course. Each of them are essentially a straight line marked by black paint. The long-course is for the fastest of the entrants with 5 miles of speed guns and 3 official miles of room to slow down and turn out. The short course and special course only track speeds for the first 3 miles so this is the more common course for motorcycles and cars not trying to break records. For each, there is one starting line and no preset order to lineup, it’s a first come first served system and the wait is usually an hour or more. This is where spectators can get up close to the cars and if there is a social scene during the day, this is the closest thing to it. But the mood and vibe around the starting line is respectful, even subdued. Certainly, the heat and extreme sunlight reflecting off the white ground has everyone rationing their energy output. More to the point though, there is a shared understanding for the danger of each ride and the potential for a fatal crash or engine blowing incident that would erase everything. With an invisible gust of wind, a sticky spot in the salt, an improper mix of fuel and air, or any other unforeseen variable, so much can go wrong in a hurry. Towards 6pm on our second day at Bonneville, a 46yr old driver from California, who was sitting in for his dad, passed the 5mile marker and then unexpectantly began cartwheeling down the track. When all the pieces finally fell to the ground, it looked like a bomb had exploded under the chassis. There’s a photograph and story in the Salt Lake Tribue. The photo below is what we saw when we arrived on the scene. It was the only photograph we got before we were run out under some very tense circumstances. The driver was reported dead on the way to the hospital, though it’s unlikely he survived the crash.
Death is not a common outcome for any of the festivals and competitions the AFP has covered. Injuries yes, but fatalities no. Buckraoos get bucked, gymnasts sprain a wrist, snake catchers get bit, hipsters get too drunk, lumberjacks get splinters, breyerfans get hysterical, but that’s been the extent of it so far. Perhaps this is the reason Speedweek felt the least like a party. To be sure, the scene is loose and there’s plenty of good times coming out of Bonneville. But there is a precision and underlying focus on exactitude that dominates the culture of the salt flats racing. Bonneville is a break from all the other distractions. It’s a time to concentrate purely on your car. It’s a week of adjusting and studying and listening and head-scratching and readjusting and trying again and again. There is an internal discipline that seems self govern and regulate the pulse of Speedweek. There is too much at stake to goof around and be bothered by corporate giveaway parties and mid-day raffles. Think of Bonneville more as a mad scientist laboratory and Speedweek as less of a festival and more of a rite of passage. It is a place where there is no finish in sight. A place for endless tinkering and trial. And ultimately a place where limits are set only by the failure of imagination.
Speedweek was one of the most far-out events we experienced in our year on the road. Many thanks to Catherine Dee who tipped us off to this awesome event and offered the extra bed in Wendover. Thanks to Josh Burke for giving us the inside scoop on Bonneville history and letting the AFP tag along in the push vehicle. Thanks also to the Dripps team from Cville for welcoming us into their operation. We also owe a big thanks to all the drivers who let us photograph them at the end of their race, against the saltscape background, as they waited for the push vehicles to chase them down and haul them back so they could do it all over again.