I didn’t quite know what to expect when I hopped in the car at my home in Los Angeles and made the 1,000km-or-so pilgrimage to Bonneville. All I’d ever seen is photos and stories and heard people raving about The Fastest Race Track On Earth or how they’ve got Salt Fever or other things I couldn’t quite yet fathom.
After a day’s driving I arrived in Wendover - the closest town to the salt flats. Intending to sleep in the back of my rental SUV for the trip rather than fork out for the more civilized hotel room, I set up shop down at the Bend In The Road - the imaginative name for the free camping grounds located just before the lake, where the road curves.
The sun hadn’t even risen the next morning when the procession of salt-crazed pilgrims began spilling out onto the dried-up lakebed in anticipation for something they had been waiting three years for - Speed Week. Two years of cancellations due to weather and salt conditions had racers chomping at the bit, but it was back, and bigger than ever. Over 650 entrants, three courses to run on and more spectators than you could poke a stick at. I was equipped with a broad straw hat, sunnies, and enough sunscreen to flood a small village.
I was prepared, but I wasn’t ready for the kind of experience that Speed Week really entailed. The salt lake is otherworldly in appearance, stretching flat and white as far as the eye can see, fenced in by Mars-like mountains. It’s glarey and hot, but people toil away on their cars, stand at the start line with their binoculars, catch up and spin yarns, all ultimately stoked to be back out at Bonneville.
Before you know it you’re up close and personal with the fastest cars in the world, chest thumping and eyes stinging from Nitro fumes. You’re reclining in a chair in the shade, sharing a beer with someone you met moments ago and watching Danny Thompson howl past at over 400mph for a new world record. Back at Wendover is a car show and plenty of watering holes, or you can set up your own barbie and Esky over in the campgrounds. And that’s all just one day. Sound like something you want to do? It gets better. There’s a whole week of it.
Danny Thompson can finally settle his father’s unfinished business after breaking the AA/FS record on Sunday with an average speed of 406.7mph. His father, the late, great Mickey Thompson, was never able to capture the official record, even after becoming the first American to run over 400mph in 1960 - the fastest man in the world at that time. Official SCTA records are acknowledged as the average of two consecutive passes, and Danny piloted the Challenger 2 to a first pass of 411.2mph on Saturday, and a back-up pass of 402.3mph early Sunday morning to secure the record, previously held by Charlie Nearburg in The Spirit Of Rett at 392.5mph.
Challenger 2 was originally built by Mickey Thompson in 1968 to secure the record, but was mothballed after a series of tragic events. Danny and the Thompson LSR crew took the car out of storage on the 50th anniversary of his father’s first 400mph run and began the restoration in preparation for his attempt to finally take the record for the Thompson family.
Speed Week has been cancelled for the last two years due to weather and salt condition issues. This year the salt surface of the lake bed was found to be both suitably dry and thick enough for racing, and the event was given a green light. Three courses were prepared, with an 8mi long course, 5mi short course and 3mi rookie course. While good-looking on paper, a lot of racers were concerned about the quality, fearing that it was quite wet still at the far end of the lake and the long course (where the cars are theoretically traveling the fastest) and parts of the courses were too bumpy and/or soft. Having driven down it on the course sweep, I can attest to these concerns. But the wet stuff was obviously fun for the blokes in this hot rod tub!
We met up with Tim Boyle and the Salty Box Dodge Ram truck at El Mirage earlier in the year when Tim was trying to be the first B/DT car to break the 200mph mark. With results promising from the dry lakes meet, Tim’s eyes were set on this years’ Speed Week to really push the 1115hp twin-turbo diesel 6-pot over the line and earn him a new 200mph-club hat. The first pass on Sunday yielded 204.6mph through the traps and an ecstatic Tim entered the impound lot to make final preparations for the back-up record run the following day. Unfortunately, he discovered that the engine had spat huge amounts of oil when it was at top RPM, causing serious damage to the primary turbo and a couple cylinders. Unfortunately this would spell the end of the Salty Box for Speed Week 2016, as there was not enough time or resources to repair the car before making a second pass.
The Bean Bandits Racing Team of San Diego are known to make some tasty margaritas, and they put on a barbecue at the camping grounds near The Bend In The Road. This year Hop Up Magazine joined forces to provide the hot dogs and there was a huge turn out, celebrating the return to the salt after a few years of no running. A host of seasoned builders and racers and some great cars turned up and the partying went on well into the night!
George Poteet piloted the Speed Demon streamliner to a new B/BFS record on Monday, a 416mph average speed obliterating the previous 381mph set by Al Teague in 1991. Speed Demon was completely rebuilt after George managed to survive a horrendous 375mph crash at the salt in 2014. This years Speed Week was the first official outing after the crash, and it was already besting the previous record on its first official pass on Saturday. Speed Demon is the world’s fastest piston-engine wheel-driven car, with an official record of 439.024mph set in 2012. The new version of the car is lighter and slipperier and George was still accelerating after pulling the ‘chutes on his B/BFS record pass. Hopes are that more records will be broken in the future.
Kiwi racer Lincoln Harris (red hat, third from left) was glad to be back out on the salt finally after a three-year hiatus. He and the Harris Family Racing team brought over their B/GR roadster to compete in this years Speed Week. The roadster is small-block Ford powered with a World block, Yates NASCAR heads and Link EFI. It’s good for about 860hp at the flywheel and Lincoln was able to take it up to a best of 215mph in the less-than-ideal conditions. He’s piloted a 236mph on the salt in 2012, but the car will be heading home back to Wellington after this year’s event for some more R&D. The Harris Family team hope to improve the car and turn it faster and faster - a sickness first instilled in the entire family by dad Chris (seated), who crashed tragically in ’88 out on the salt, flipping his race car and rendering him permanently wheelchair-bound.
The closer you get to Bonneville, the more frequent this highway sighting becomes
There’s a car show in the parking lot of the Nugget Casino each night. It’s a great place to share race stories or see a bunch of cool hot rods and customs
The driver’s briefing resulted in the largest ever gathered on the salt. Over 650 entrants made their way over for this year’s Speed Week.
Setting up some shade and chairs is the perfect way to watch the races. Make sure your radio is tuned to the announcers frequency and your beers are kept cold.
Danny Thompson gets ready for his first run on the Saturday, accompanied by ‘The Snake’ Don Prudhomme on the right.
The Carbinite streamliner not only looks gorgeous, but can hit over 360mph through the traps, all without the help of a pushcar!
Sunset is quite often out-of-this-world. Doesn’t hurt to have a few beautiful choppers close by. How’s the serenity!
The courses are marked by these blue lines, stretching as far as 8mi for the long course. All the racers need to do is keep between the pair of them and they’re good to go.