The 60th annual Bonneville Speed Week was what dreams were made of and where records were broken. NZV8 was there to check it out.
Bonneville Salt Flats. It really is the Holy Grail of speed. It’s not power-friendly due to the ridiculously high altitude and consequently thin air. Although there are soft spots, the course itself is as hard as concrete, but traction is almost non-existent, and could quite fairly be compared to ice. Used for land speed record attempts since the 1930s, this 121 square kilometre area of dried up ancient inland ocean vies with Muroc as the most hallowed pieces of real estate in all of hot rodding. Bonneville is full of ‘man and machine versus nature’ history, a battle in which some have paid the ultimate price.
Speed Week remains arguably the pinnacle of amateur motorsport. It’s not particularly spectator friendly; you need binoculars to watch; who’s doing what and where can be quite hard to follow; and the announcement of runs can only be heard over the car radio, as can requests for spare parts, tools and general pit chatter. Its amateur attitude has endeared it wholeheartedly to the retro rodders in their old school hot rods, both the greybeards who have been coming since the SoCal bellytank ran 210mph (338kph) in 1950, to the younger guys who took those old rods, infused them with a bit of punk rock attitude and invaded the place. Speed Week has a purity that speaks to the soul of hot rodding.
We arrived half way through Speed Week and spent the first few hours in awe, wandering about the start line, taking in insanity all around us. Almost nothing looks as if it was ever meant to be a race car. There’s a stock-looking Avanti with a small block Ford, a ’49 Studebaker half-tonne pick-up with a 565ci BBC, a ’30 Model A with the original four banger, a ’60 Falcon with a 255ci flathead, a Fiat Bambina with a nose extension Pinocchio would envy that’s been fitted with a blown BBC. Then there are the famous teams like the Bean Bandits, the Sundowner Corvette, Poteet and Trepannier’s Blowfish and the rest of the Cameltoe racing team. There were streamliners, belly tanks and ’53 Studebakers everywhere. It really was too much to take in.
We decided to hitchhike to the pits, more than five kilometres away, where the Hogan, Martin and Rae team was repairing its flathead, which had incinerated a piston. We were half way before we were picked up by a couple of Kiwis we’d never met. Thanks guys.
It was up there by the impound lot that the incredible noise first hit. You haven’t got oil in your veins if this doesn’t affect you. It’s the shriek of power trying to cut through the air and you don’t use your ears, yo
Walking through the pits was another eye opener. There’s not one Dr Frankenstein, there are hundreds, and they’re all building stuff for Bonneville that makes one exclaim “WTF” every few steps. A personal favourite was a ’50 Buick sedan, still running the original straight eight, and fitted with a 4/71 blower. This bizarre antique mind-blower holds a record of 135.52mph (218kph). We saw an Ardun in a modified roadster, an injected one in a ’37 Tudor sedan and yet another in a streamliner. There are flathead fours and eights in slippery late models; there are huge capacity engines; there are all manner of superchargers, turbochargers and other inventive means of forcing more thin air into engines. Aerodynamic tweaks are either extremely rudimentary or unbelievably sophisticated. This place is a mad mechanic’s wet dream, a magical arena where anything goes. If there’s not a class for you, they’ll make one. Bonneville has seen everything, from pedal power to rockets. We saw a nutjob dude skiing behind a quad bike, his aim: to run down the salt next year and set a record on skis. My personal definition of insanity was the motorcycle power sled in which the rider lies face down strapped into a sleek shell with his/her face and body about 25mm off the surface of the salt. Nutjobs. There’s far too much to take in at Speed Week. The salt flats are akin to being on another planet, there’s mindblowing machinery and famous/ infamous people all around, everything is run at a numbingly laid-back pace and nothing seems normal, yet everywhere there are smiling faces and people getting off on just being there.
All the competitors are living their dream, and although I was just one of the many Kiwis who invaded the place, it was easy to feel the joy of those like Dave Alexander and Pins Satler, who took turns raising the record in Dave and Pam’s Christman clone. You could feel the frustration in the Hogan, Martin, Rae team when they burned up a piston somewhere between the first and second mile, twice. It was great to see Richard Hollywood’s happiness at just being there, running more than 200mph (321.8kph) and everything still intact this time, or the Harris family’s calm fatalism as their roadster was at record-setting pace only to suffer from oil pressure problems. It made one proud to be a Kiwi. Some teams picked classes with open records, ensuring they’d come home with something to show for their efforts, proving their lump of mechanical creativity could handle the jandal. Some fell into a class so tough they never had a chance of collecting any silverware, but still did it gladly, happy to be there doing it. And some did whatever it took, building and rebuilding in the stifling heat, because they want that damn record. And that’s what Bonneville is like. It can be all things to all people, and if you want to be part of it, it’s pretty much everything.
Story: Trevor Tynan Photos: Julie Philips
u hear it with the hairs on your neck. Why else would they stand up like that? Similarly, when a car spins the sound is heard in the pit of your stomach ” I can’t explain it better than that.