Bonneville Speed Week – flashback

The fastest low-level passes on Earth are at Bonneville and the quest for speed is a near-religious experience. Norm Hardinge takes us on his pilgrimage

Photographers: Norm Hardinge

This is it! Foot buried into the firewall, the V8 screaming for mile after mile, no trees, no crash barriers, no fines. The only ticket you get is your timing slip. When you get home, the local cop pats you on the back and says: “You really had that old Ford cranking. You must have balls the size of Volkswagens.” You think I’m dreaming? Nope, this is salt lake racing!

First published in the November 2007 issue of Street Machine

Lake Bonneville is the holy grail of salt lake racing and you can find it in Utah, just a few miles from the city of Wendover. In 1949 a group of racers approached the Salt Lake City officials to obtain permission to run a land speed event and Speed Week USA was born. It wasn’t long before Bonneville became renowned as the fastest place on Earth.

Speed Week USA is run by the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA), which was formed in 1937 by a group of hot rodders who’d been racing at Lake Muroc, California (also home to Edwards Air Force Base, which uses the salt as an extended runway) since the 1920s.

I read about the joint as a kid and was so inspired that in 1998 I drove my FJ ute from Melbourne to Lake Gairdner in South Australia to compete in the Aussie Speed Week. My home-built red motor ran a respectable 112mph and I was hooked. I came back the next year with a bunch of mates — Wayne Belot, John Peterson, Greg Williams and Neil Davies — as the Big Knob Racing team. We run a ’34 Ford roadster with a 429ci big-block. The car holds a current class record at 195.5mph, with yours truly hanging on to the wheel. That’s 313 km/h, making it the fastest hot rod in Australia!

That’s pretty damn satisfying but my childhood urge to see Bonneville itself had never gone away and this year I finally made my pilgrimage, to the 59th Speed Week, with mate and fellow salt racer Rod Hadfield. Was I excited? You bet your sweet arse!

Even if your car doesn’t come close to a record you’re respected

One of the most obvious differences between Bonneville and Lake Gairdner is the remoteness. Getting to Gairdner from Melbourne, you have to drive for 21 hours then negotiate 121km of rough dirt roads to get to the salt. By contrast, Bonneville is located on the outskirts of the city of Wendover. Access is easy and the accommodation is a little more salubrious.

The border of Nevada and Utah splits the main street of Wendover. Gambling is legal in Nevada but not in Utah, so the Nevada side is bright lights and casinos, while the Utah side is a contrasting 1960s-style country town. We stayed in Nevada, at the Nugget Casino, and what a great way to start the week. It happens that the unofficial cruise night of Speed Week is held at the Nugget Casino and by the time we’d checked in, cars were beginning to appear. What a sight! The rat rod scene is booming in the States, and most of these cars had already been out on the salt, not racing but hooning around enough to get absolutely covered.

To get to the race track, we had to drive through salty water about six inches deep. You can do that without fear in a hire car but we were amazed at the cars the Yanks were driving through at high speed, from all-steel rods to brand new Mustangs.

Still, it’s worth it for the pits alone: they’re two miles long and filled with the coolest and fastest cars on Earth. The days were hot and we wanted to see everything but with more than 550 entries, we knew time was against us.

Our passes allowed us to go out to the five-mile mark, so off we went, to catch the cars at full noise, coming through and pulling their ’chutes, sometimes getting sideways.

After a while the impound yard at the end of the track started to fill with record-breaking cars, locked away waiting to do their return runs. At Bonneville a record is set only when the race car backs up the run with a repeat speed. An average of the two speeds becomes the record.

Rod and I also ventured into the official areas of the race meet, to examine the inner workings. We spoke to timers, start-line officials, administrators and scrutineers, picking their brains about how the place ticked. They were more than happy to help when they learned that we were racers from Australia. We took all the information on board, hoping to use the best tips to improve the DLRA Speed Week at Lake Gairdner.

During our time at the salt, Rod and I had dinner with Marlo Treit and legendary hot rodder Tex Smith. Marlo is building a 550mph wheel-driven streamliner called Target 550, and he hopes to run it in Australia within the next few years — that would be awesome to see!

Tex asked me what I thought of Bonneville. What could I say? It was everything I expected. I think he noticed how much I was enjoying the place and said: “Bonneville is true hot rodding — it’s put up or shut up and even if your car doesn’t come close to a record you’re respected for the attempt.”

So I’ve finally been to see the legendary place I read about as a child. Just one problem — now I have to work out how to get back to race!


1. Roy Lewis in his Chassis Engineering Streamliner got our vote for most spectacular. Even though it was obvious by the smoke that the engine had major problems, the starter gave the driver a thumbs-up to go racing. Powered by a 406ci turbo diesel, the Streamliner made for some great photos as it screamed down the salt with a huge plume of grey smoke behind it.

2. Beyond the pits was the Ford Motor Company/Ohio State University area. They’re not snobs — the team was kept well away from the main pits as it was using hydrogen and its fuel store was even further away! The Ford Fusion sedan uses hydrogen and oxygen to power three-phase AC motors. It ran 184mph with more up its sleeve.

3. One of two primered ’32 Ford coupes, high-boy style. They seem to appear in every hot rod mag in the States, travelling from coast to coast to all the major hot rod events.

4. ‘El Lobos’ was a group of four hot rodders who got together just to travel to Bonneville. With a ’34 coupe (pictured), ’28 roadster and a ’32 tudor, the guys were all about having a good time and doing it in style.

5. Bill Walden’s Red Dog Racing managed 174mph in this cool 1951 Ford single spinner coupe.

6. The crew definitely had their hands full with Norris Anderson’s Studebaker pick-up — after blowing a motor on Sunday, they worked all night to install a new motor only to have that one blow up on Monday!

7. Danny Boy II being pushed off the start to go racing. It started life as a wing tank on a jet fighter but at Bonneville it was fitted up with a 183ci Buick V6 (similar to our V6 Commodore). Brian Westerdahl managed a best of 224mph.