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A Slow Start At Speed Week Revs Up Conversations About The Health Of The Salt Flats

At the starting line at the Bonneville Speedway, drivers were being strapped into sleek, bullet-shaped machines and souped-up classic cars. Engines roared as they waited in line for what they hoped would be a record-setting run.

“I got three records I set in this car last year,” said Paul Parenica who came from Oklahoma City to drive his 1976 Chevy Monza.

Dan Tackett brought his 1954 Corvette, “Silver Bullet,” from Gulfport, Mississippi. “We’re hoping for maybe 250 [miles per hour] today,” he said.

Others came from Italy and Eastern Europe to ride tuned up sport bikes.

The annual gathering of hotrods and motorcycles at the Bonneville Salt Flats known as “Speed Week” ended on Friday. Motorists hoped to set land speed records in a host of categories, up to the top recorded speed of 500 miles per hour. But wet weather and fragile conditions on the salt early in the week caused doubts about whether the world-famous land speed race would happen at all.

The four-mile-long race track stretched toward the horizon like white arctic tundra, but the temperature on the salt was 80-degrees at 9:00 a.m.

Photo of salt flats.
Credit Erik Neumann / KUER
Mile marker two on the four mile track of the 2019 Speed Week at the Bonneville Salt Flats.

And this year a thin layer of slush topped the salt, leaving some motorcycles fish-tailing to the sidelines and cars spinning off the track. 

Photo of Bill Lattin.
Credit Erik Neumann / KUER
Speed Week race director and President of the Southern California Timing Association Bill Lattin managed the 2019 race.

For three mornings in a row race director Bill Lattin drove the track only to cancel the race because the usually hard surface wasn’t dry enough for racers to use at all.

“You can watch the salt. You can see what it’s doing,” said Lattin, early on Monday morning, evaluating conditions, “Long as mother nature doesn’t throw you a curveball.”

That curveball was the high water levels in 2019, which increased the aquifer height beneath the salt flats. Then, days before before Speed Week was scheduled to begin, monsoon rains pounded the salt from above, dissolving newly formed crystals.

Lattin has been coming to Speed Week since he was around six-years-old. As race director, he had the unfortunate responsibility of telling the approximately 450 registered drivers that they couldn’t race because their cars could tear up the thin salt surface and could be dangerous for drivers.

“Mother nature rules,” he said, “It’s her world. We just try to do the best we can with what we get.”

Each year the salt changes. Last year, conditions were ideal, racers said, prompting record-setting runs.

Photo of starter at salt flats.
Credit Erik Neumann / KUER
A starter at the starting line of the 2019 Speed Week. The four mile timed track was shorter than what could be designed on the salt flats in previous years.

“What’s happening out there is just a result of [the fact] that it’s not a racetrack, it’s a salt flat. It’s a natural landscape. It’s been a really wet season and it’s not dry,” said Brenda Bowen, professor of geology and geophysics at the University of Utah and the director of the university’s Global Change and Sustainability Center.

Though they may seem static, salt flats are dynamic, natural environments, subject to their own seasons, Bowen said. The recent years when racing was canceled because of wet conditions roughly correspond with El Niño weather patterns, she said.

“It’s an ephemeral environment,” she said. “It’s not going to be there forever. I’m speaking on geologic timescales, so we wouldn’t expect it to be there for thousands of years in the same condition. But we’re even seeing changes over human time scales.”

Without enough data, Bowen said it’s hard to conclusively connect the dynamics on the salt flats to climate change or a century of racing, but everyone agrees the landscape is changing.

Photo of Larry Volk.
Credit Erik Neumann / KUER
200 Mile-Per-Hour Club Vice President and Chairman of Save the Salt Larry Volk. He says the group sees preserving the salt flats as part of their role as drivers.

“The condition of the salt flats is deteriorating like mad,” said Larry Volk, chairman of Save the Salt, a racers group focused on stewardship of the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Volk, who started racing there in 1962 is also the vice president of the 200-Mile-Per-Hour Club, a group for record-setting drivers He says they care deeply about preserving the environment, if nothing else because it gives them a place to race.

“They don’t want to see this go away. So, yes, the racers are very aware of what’s going on and concerned about it,” Volk said.

Several miles of spectators were camped out in RVs and folding chairs under E-Z UP tents along the raceway as cars sped past.

The appeal of racing is to set records, Volk said. But Speed Week is also about the pride of building these fantastical machines.

“It’s all what some guy’s got in his mind and he builds in his garage and brings it out here,” Volk said. “To do that, to run 200, 250, 300 miles an hour, is really an accomplishment for somebody who’s just a backyard mechanic.”

Phot of Rick Vesco and car.
Credit Erik Neumann / KUER
Rick Vesco's record setting car "The Turbinator" near the starting line. Turbinator recorded a 500 mile-per-hour run in 2018.

Rick Vesco from Rockville, Utah was waiting in line for a run in his car, the Turbinator. The sleek, blue machine was three times as long as a normal car, its body resting just barely above the white ground.

“From zero to 500 [miles per hour] in 60 seconds,” Vesco said, recalling his run at Bonneville in 2018, which he says qualifies it as the fastest car in the world. “We went through the flying mile at 493 and we exited at 503, which is the first car in history to ever go past that barrier.”

For many of the hobbyist racers that’s what Speed Week is all about.There are no cash prizes, just the dream of what their creations can achieve.

Erik Neumann is a radio producer and writer. A native of the Pacific Northwest, his work has appeared on public radio stations and in magazines along the West Coast. He received his Bachelor's Degree in geography from the University of Washington and a Master's in Journalism from UC Berkeley. Besides working at KUER, he enjoys being outside in just about every way possible.
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