Witness to speed – at Bonneville Salt Flats

How fast do you have to be with a camera to shoot a car going over 640 km/h (400 mph)?

I’ve wanted to attend the annual Speed Week at the Bonneville Salt Flats for decades. As a family we’d driven past the salt flats a couple times over the years, but had never seen any car run there until now. My brother and I finally made it to the hallowed event in our 21-foot RV this year (August 16, 2011).

I’ve been intrigued by the pursuit of speed at Bonneville since I bought my first HOT ROD magazine (May 1959 issue), while in my first year of high school.

Reading my first few issues of "the hot-rodder’s bible," I followed the construction progress of Mickey Thompson's Challenger streamliner, which he was then building to attack the wheel-driven Land Speed Record (LSR). What a great looking machine!

Some History

At that time John Cobb of England held the record at 634 km/h (394 mph) with his huge streamliner. Another Brit, Donald Campbell, also made a record attempt with his turbine-powered Bluebird, but crashed at 555 km/h (345 mph). He survived that crash – only to be killed later in a water speed-record attempt in his jet boat.

Mickey Thompson, who was a California hot-rodder, used four modified Pontiac V-8 passenger-car engines, with Hilborn fuel-injection, to power his Challenger. Arranged two-by-two and connected together, they drove through all four wheels. He first campaigned the car in 1959. Then, after fitting four GMC superchargers on the 6.7-litre (410-cubic-inch) engines, he attained 653 km/h (406 mph) but, unfortunately, only on a one-way run.

He blew-up one of the big Pontiacs when shifting gears on a mandatory return run, which had to be completed within an hour in order to set an official FIA record.

Then, in '65, the Summers Brothers showed up with their fantastic looking Goldenrod, powered by four Hilborn injected Chrysler Hemis in a row, to create a sleek machine with a very small frontal area. They actually set the LSR at 658 km/h (409 mph), two-way average speed, which stood for years.

In 1991 Al Teague, with his Speed-O-Motive streamliner topped the Summers Brothers, but only just, nudging the record to 660 km/h (510 mph). Their car was powered by a single-supercharged Chrysler Hemi – an amazing feat!

Then Don Vesco set the current wheel-driven land speed record in 2001, pushing the turbine-powered Turbinator to 737 km/h (458 mph) back,having reportedly reached 756 km/h (470 mph) on an earlier one-way test run.

Speed Week 2011

This year, after watching several roadsters, lakesters, and modified stockers run at 320-to-400 km/h (200-to-250 mph) range on some of the shorter straightaways, we were in for a real treat when the Poteet and Main SPEED DEMON posted a 661-km/h (411-mph) pass, powered by a single small-block Chevy!

As one would expect, that kind of speed is a whole different world.

Yes, jet powered machines driven by Breedlove, Arfons and now Andy Green, in Richard Noble's twin-jet-engined monster, have pushed the speeds past 600, 800 and now all the way to the Speed of Sound at 1228 km/h (763 mph), but my personal opinion is that jet-powered cars, while fine achievements, are more of an airplane without wings than a car that drives through its wheels for propulsion.

Twin-turbocharged and charge-cooled the SPEED DEMON's engine is reported to be just 5.7 litres (347 cubic inches) in displacement, but to put out 2200 horsepower. It is highly modified and fitted with apparently special Dart semi-hemi heads and a special block that allows for an additional head bolt to cope with the increased cylinder pressures and keep the head gaskets in place.

Presumably, this phenomenal output is achieved burning nitroethane fuel, but have no idea of the nitro concentration.

Being in the pits at the far end of the course put us as close to the high-speed traps as possible, but still a long way away from the course for obvious safety reasons.

After listening to the great sounds coming from the roadsters etc., I almost missed getting a photo of this streamliner because the sound of the engine lagged behind the car, perhaps a second or two at our viewing distance. Nevertheless, I was happy to be able to witness the accomplishment first-hand. It was impressive!

The driver, George Poteet is a 60-year-old man who obviously still has the reaction time to be able to drive at those kind of speeds.

Videos of him from inside the car, show that he is pretty busy steering the vehicle.

Unique atmosphere

The salt flats certainly are a desolate area. Only one road at Exit Four (about 6 km east of Wendover and the state line) leads up into the area where the cars actually run. Two or three kilometers on the road makes one big right turn and that’s it. Proceeding onto the salt costs only $15 each for admission.

The event is expertly staged by the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) as it has been for years. When you drive through the pit area you find find it at least 4-to-5 km long, maybe more.

It’s full of race-cars of every description, along with their crews, most under tents to protect them from the sun. There is a lot to see – literally tonnes of vehicles, categorized into a huge list of classes that included motorcycles, trucks, a diesel- powered streamliner and electric cars.

Fortunately when we were there it was not overly hot or humid so we were able to enjoy the activities and we found both the crews and the SCTA to be very friendly.

It takes a little while to figure out the lay of the land because of the vastness, but fortunately the SCTA provides a simple map that shows the proximity of the up-to-four straightaways and the pits.

There is one very long straight for the highest speed cars, and three others that are shorter. They no longer use a black stripe to mark the straightaways but use cones instead.

Next year, 800 km/h?

We spotted the TEAM VESCO pit and went over to see if they had brought back the Turbinator. Don Vesco passed away in 2002, but his brother Rick was there with a couple other family cars. Number 444 was powered by a single V-8 engine and it looks a lot like the turbine car.

I asked Rick where the Turbinator was and he said they were modifying it to try for 800 km/h (500 mph) next year. It is powered by a Lycoming T55 helicopter engine driving through all four wheels – the same basic engine that the Unlimited Hydroplane racers have used for many years.

Both Team Vesco's Turbinator and the Poteet and Main SPEED DEMON teams will be trying for 800 km/h (500 mph). Given that aerdynamic drag increases with the square of velocity that’s no small task.

I’m hoping to be there to see it!



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