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Located on the border between Utah and Nevada, the Bonneville Salt Flats is bathed in geological and human history. The ancient Lake Bonneville once covered an area the size of Lake Michigan but through time receded and split — the Great Salt Lake and salt flats are all that remain. Cycles of wind and water work to create the otherwordly smooth salty surface.
The sunrise over the Bonneville Salt Flats on the border between Utah and Nevada is a special time during Speed Week. If you’re getting up that early, you’re probably prepping for a record run!
Early hot-rodding pioneers recognized the Bonneville Salt Flats as a place to go fast. It was first used for motorsports in 1912 but gained notoriety in the 1930s when Ab Jenkins and Sir Malcolm Campbell made it famous by competing for land speed records. Hot rodders make the pilgrimage to Bonneville Speedway (a designated area specifically for motorsports) every year since to set their own records, with only a few years rained out in the arid climate. The most popular event held at the Speedway is Speed Week, which starts the first weekend in August.
Early hot rodders coming back from WWII recognized the aerodynamic advantages of surplus airplane drop tanks as a way to go fast cheaply. “Belly tankers” are still in use today!
If you’ve never been to Bonneville, it most certainly should be at the top of your bucket list. Bonneville is awe-inspiring on its own, but to be there during Speed Week is the pinnacle of hot rodding. The event is only for wheel-driven cars — no jet propulsion is allowed — the wheels must move the car forward. It can be tricky getting traction; it’s man and machine versus Mother Nature on the grandest scale. You will see everything from the cheapest, simplest, slowest, motorcycle to the most expensive, technology-laden, super-fast streamliners.
It seems like there are thousands of classes at Speed Week based on the type of vehicle and power delivery. You will see anything from motorcycles, roadsters, competition coupes, trucks, lakesters (wheels outside the body), and streamliners (wheels inside the body).
Running on three different courses of varying lengths, participants compete for land speed world records in hundreds of different classes based on a myriad of factors such as engine size, fuel type, car type, and power adders. Spectators are kept a pretty good distance away as some of these cars reach speeds nearing 500 miles per hour. It is a sight to behold to see a hand-built streamliner seem to float above the heat-waved surface as it screams toward terminal velocity before engaging the parachutes to bring it to an eventual stop 8 miles from where it started.
These were the two fastest streamliners at Speed Week 2021. The #75 Ferguson Racing entry driven by Danny Thompson went 389 mph, while #715 Speed Demon driven by George Poteet went 466 mph to claim his tenth Hot Rod Trophy for the fastest speed of the meet.
However, racing is not the only thing that happens during Speed Week. Each night, there is a cruise-in at the Nugget Casino in nearby Wendover, Nevada. Many traditional hot rods fill the parking lot; their bodies covered in salt as if a badge of honor showing they’ve been out on the flats. Many car clubs make the pilgrimage to each year but none as famous as the Rolling Bones crew, who make the trip every year from the East Coast.
Each night after racing the Nugget Casino is the place to be for the cruise-in to see all the traditional hot rods covered in salt. Many hot rodders make the pilgrimage to Bonneville every year.
Whether you go for a weekend or stay the entire week, you will experience the ambiance, history, and even tragedy that is Bonneville Speed Week. However, one thing is for sure — you will have the experience of a lifetime and make more new hot rod friends along the journey of life. In the end, that is all that really matters and no car guy bucket list is complete without a trip to the Bonneville Salt Flats. Make plans to attend Speed Week in August of 2022; if conditions match this year, you are sure to see many more records fall.
Some of the hot rods had an impromptu photo shoot out on the salt. Convert it into black and white, you could pass it off for 1934!
The original Speed Demon crashed at 370 mph in 2014. Thankfully, driver George Poteet was relatively unscathed and has been over 400 mph more than any other driver. He has won the Hot rod Trophy for the fastest time 10 times in his career. The Mexwell Industries crew rebuilt the original Speed Demon and had it on display this year.
Proof you never know what you are going to see out on the salt. Jeremy Loveall and Todd Brannon drove this “muffler” all the way from Kentucky!
Check out the cool GMC truck in the background. It has a 292ci engine and hauls a land speed racer in the back and a camper behind it! Who says you need modern horsepower to tow!
Walking the pits gives you a great perspective on the different types of vehicles trying for land speed glory. The racers are more than happy to tell you about their creations.