Bonneville History

A Fast Run Down On The Salt Flats

by Clifton Wheeler - reprinted from the official Program of the SCTA August 14-21 1998

From the beginning even before the wheel was invented, it was meant to be the supreme land formation where land speeds were to be tested. It was as though some preplanned geological destiny had been laid down in the Great Salt Desert for the sole benefit of land speed racers.

Millions and millions of years: ago, geologists tell us that the entire Western United States lay under a huge sea. (They discuss such things in geologic timing.) It was called the Miocene period, internal pressures began raising the sea floor until it rose several thousand feet above the sea level. The pressures not being equal everywhere, caused mountains and valleys, cracked and faulted land forms. As this tremendous upheaval continued, it became exposed to weathering and erosion.

In the Utah region a special situation came about because of this natural occurrence. The upheaval of the land formed a closed circle of mountains surrounding the western area of Utah. As the eons of time continued, glaciers from the Ice Age melted. The glacier water combined with the yearly storm run off created a huge lake within the great basin between the mountains, creating a lake as large as Lake Michigan. After a while the water level reached its crescendo and broke through in the North West running out at the Snake River. The lake became heavy with soluble minerals, weathering continued to carve away at the salt filled mountains.

Imagine the distance between Salt Lake City and Wendover, some 120 miles apart and South 300 miles all covered with 1000 feet of water. Brachish water. The same as the water in the Great Salt Lake.

A look at the mountains surrounding the Salt Flats, one can see the ancient shore lines at different elevations as the lake evaporated.

Note: There air three distinct shore lines. The first is called the Bonneville Terrace, named after the lake itself. (Bonneville Lake.) The second: Provo Terrace and the lowest the Stansbury Terrace. The last is what we stand on today. (The Bonneville Salt Flats.) This geological phenomena left the western United States with some of the most striking and beautiful land formations, in the world. To name a few: Zion, The Grand Canyon, Canyon Country, Bryce Canyon, The Painted Desert, The Rocky Mountains. The spectacle goes on and on.

The Uniled States was a new country in a virgin land and soon men came west to explore the uncharted terrain. As pioneers pushed west the Salt Flats became a dreaded obstacle to cross. Wagon trains would bog down in the mud. The long trek across the Salt was chancy, water was unavailable as was same for food. The long empty space, the glare of the white blinding surface and the desperate situation for provisions would drive man and beast crazy. Animals died, men would run off into the horizon screaming.

It is said that Jedediah Smith was the first white mall to cross the Salt Flats in 1827 on his return east from California. Encountering great hardships, loss of animals and not enough water, they barely made it to the other side alive.

1841--The first wagons to California under Colonel Bartleson crossed the Salt enduring the same hardships. Colonel John C. Fremont with Kit Carson as his guide crossed the vast open space in 1845 while exploring the west for the Federal Government. But for some unknown reason, The Salt Flats was named after Captain Benjamin L. E. Bonneville a French born officer in the U.S. Army. He was sent to explore the Rocky Mountain region 1832 - 1836. History tells us he was a failure at everything he did and it is still not known whether or not he ever stepped foot onthe Salt. He was made famous by Washington Irving in a story about his adventures west, which some say were very much exaggerated.

As the turn of the Century came about the Salt Flats became an engineers challenge and a mining bonanza. Western Pacific Railroad desiring a more direct route decided to cross the Salt Flats. Overcoming the obstacles of mud and salt, they opened the tracks in 1907. Steam Engines crossing the long water-less salt, had to stop for water, making Wendover an important railroad town. As a dot on the map Wendover became world renowned and in 1914 the first coast-to-coast telephone line was connected near the Nevada border. Bell once again spoke to Watson, but he could not, say "Come here, Watson." He was in San Francisco and Bell in New York

Shortly after, the pressure of the presence of the automobile was Forcing highways all over the U.S. and what is now Highway 40 was constructed across the Salt. But it was Ab Jenkins who was to become the most active promoter of land speed racing on the Salt. He was a renowned racing enthusiast. He had records for cross country racing, hill climbing in cars, motorcycle records and top speed endurance records.

He once raced a train from Salt Lake City to Wendover in a car and won. In 1932, he pulled the fenders and running boards off a Pierce Arrow 12 and headed for the Salt Flats. They set up a 10-mile circle track with iron stakes and oil lamps for night driving. He told the Pierce Arrow Company he was going to cover 2400 miles in 24 hours, but instead he rolled up 2710 miles in 24 hours. However the feat was not recognized as a record by A.A.A. In 1934 a new record of 127.229 M.P.H. was accepted by the A.A.A. An enduring 24-hour record race. He had movie films of the record breaking run, so he took them to Daytona Beach to convince Campbell to run the famous Bluebird on the Salt.

Jenkins films, and his perseverance, finally convinced the British to his way of thinking and in 1935, Campbell became the first man to exceed 300 miles per hour in a wheel driven car on the Salt.

Ab Jenkins went on to break even more records with a special built Pierce Arrow.

We still read in the record books of the many endurance runs of 24, 36 and 48 hours. Speed records set his famous Mormon Meteor. Records that most racers agree will never be broken. It's not on record, but it is rumored that when Ab Jenkins removed his shirt he had a big "S" on his chest S for Superman. He truly was a motorsports racing giant.

It seems that the Salt had a duality running side by side with the desire of land speed racers. That duality was mining for potash, a product used in agriculture that could be refined from the salt minerals. Minerals that had been laid down over the cons of lime in the ancient lake bed. A seemingly never ending source and free for the taking

Every year for the last sixty years, racers came to break speed records. Silently and unnoticed the potash mining slowly depleted the salt. Even in the thirties when Campbell, Eyston and Cobb ran their huge machines, the course, down track to the east, was interrupted by mining dikes.

Soon it was realized that the Ronneville Salt Flats was the only place in the world with enough room to conduct speed attempts of 300 miles per hour and over.

In 1938, Capt. George Eyston and John Cobb came to Bonneville to break the land speed record. Eyston with his 71/2 ton Thunderbolt and Cobb with his much smaller aluminum streamliner a sporting 1200 horse-power airplane engine, dueled almost daily.

Eyston clocked 347 miles per hour. Then Cobb broke Eyston's record with a blazing 350 miles per hour. A few days later Eyston regained the record and upped the speed to 367 miles per hour. Eyston attempted to better the record later that week, but a wheel skirt came loose. The car skidded to a stop as 6000 people looked on in amazement. Meanwhile, back in the Los Angeles area,the Southern California Timing Association was in its infancy. Hopped up Model Tee's and Model A's thundered across Muroc, El Mirage and Harper dry lakes. They had their own ideas about land speed racing, which included production automobile engines, souped up with all the after market stuff that came down the pike. If it wasn't available they would hack it out themselves. These guys were doing it on nickels and dimes. They didn't have the source of finances that the British millionaires had, but they had the desire and the know how of going fast.

Car racing came to a halt during World War Two as gasoline and tires were rationed and became impossible to buy. The Air Force took control of Muroc becoming Fdwards Air Force base "without Hot Rods." The war ended in 1945 and the Gl's came home with a need for speed and a gleam in their eye for lend speed racing.

The Ford flathead became the popular engine to hop-up and the word Hot Rod soon was in everyone's vocabulary when speeding roadsters and fast cars were mentioned.

The Dry Lakes once again became the center of interest in California For land speed trials. More clubs joined the S.C.T.A. to compete for records and points. Few ever thought that a hot rod would break the all out land speed record, but in the minds of some, that challenge lurked.

1947: John Cobb brought his Mobile Oil sponsored Railston back to Bonneville for another try at the land speed record. It would only seem natural that some Hot Rodders would show up to view the attempt. It was also during the same week the famous Novi would try for an endurance record with Marv Jenkins, son of Abe, at the wheel, trading rides with Bud Winfield. Cobb powered the sleek Railston to a 403 mile per hour one way run becoming the first man to go over 400 miles per hour. The official two way record was to remain at 394.2 until 1964.

During this same week at Bonneville, Kong Jackson, Chuck Abbott, a few guys from La Canada and some bikers discussed the possibility or the S.C.TA. using the Salt Flats to conduct S.C.T.A. time trials. At this particular time the dry lakes had taken a pounding and were getting too rough to have safe runs on. The idea bccame a reality when a team of S.C.TA. members ventured to Salt Lake City to seek the use of Bonneville Salt Flats for S.C.T.A. speed trials. The results or that meeting are in 1949. The annual S.C.T.A. speed week land speed trials had started.

1964: The Americans recaptured the land speed record from the British in probably one of the most memorable contests ever staged by land speed racers.

Tom Green, Art Afrons and Craig Breedlove seemingly dueled daily. One capturing the record, then the other. However, many thought the jet cars were out of contention because they were not wheel driven when the Summers Brothers Golden Rod with four Chrysler Hemi engines powered to a new wheel driven and speed record of 409 miles per hour.

Even though they broke Cobbs record, they were overwhelmed by the limelight of the faster jet cars. Surnmers Brothers record held fast for 25 years. Then Al Teague with a single engine streamliner, powered #76 to a new wheel driven record of almost 410 miles per hour. An extraordinary feat for a classic American Hot Redder.

1970: The rocket powered car of Gary Gabelich, named the Blue Flame, upped the record to 622 miles per hour. The jet and rocket cars were going so fast that everyone in the Media forgot about the hard salt pounding wheel driven cars.

The controversy of jet cars versus wheel driven cars goes on and on. Should jet and Rocket cars be recognized as land speed record holders? Well, they're here to stay even though they are low flying, wingless airplanes or missiles. They're glamorous and most impressive, and they have now gone the speed of sound, but the wheel driven cars are the one's that deserve true recognition. They are the heart and soul of Bonneville racing, from the beginning it was always wheel driven cars.

It has been 50 years of racing on The Bonneville Salt Flats for the S.C.TA. The mining company now has an engineering plan to return salt to the race course. There is now hope that there may be 50 more years of racing at the Meca of land speed time trials "The Bonneville Salt Flats".




Banks Power has fielded many record setting vehicles at the Bonneville Salt Flats, including the world’s fastest pickup, the world’s fastest passenger car, the world’s fastest motorhome, and the world’s fastest piston-engine automobile.






Car Pictures











My Memories of Bonneville Are All a Blur

By Gale Banks

From the Official Program of the 49th Annual Bonneville Speed Week 1997

Before there was drag racing... Before there was NASCAR... Before there was off-road, Baja, SODA, SCORE... Before there was road racing, IMSA, Trans-AM, Formula One, FIA... Before there were Indy cars, sprinters, midgets, hobby stocks, rally cars, Pikes Peak, Destruction Derby and the World of Outlaws. Before there were Mears, Unsers, Andrettis, Foyt and Barney Oldfield. Even before Wally Parks...

There was Speed.

Testing top speed started with the first automobile, and I'm willing to bet, the second automobile was intended to beat the first. Even the most uninitiated person holds an opinion about speed. Stop anywhere while towing your racer and somebody is bound to ask, "How fast will that thing go?"

Hot rodders have been answering the "how fast" question on various California dry lakes since before World War II. During those early years Bonneville was basically a rich man's playground, where monster land speed cars ran under the old AAA sanctioning, while the dry-lakes hot rodders looked on with envy.

Enter the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA). They wanted to run "hot rods" at the Salt. A recent letter from Wally Parks explains what took place.

Dear Gale:

Alex Xydias told me you're having some difficulty unraveling the history of hot rod cars running at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Here, right from the old horse's mouth, are some details of the history of hot rod cars running at the Bonneville Salt Flats:

In 1948, when I was secretary and general manager of the SCTA as its first full-time employee, we had contacted the old AAA regarding the hope we might run our cars on the Salt. In a reply letter from Mr. Art Pillsbury, then the AAA's chief steward for auto racing in the United States, we were advised that "the world record in Class C is 203 mph and it is highly doubtful any hot rod will ever attain that speed."

Some time after that not-encouraging response, I contacted the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce, whose secretary, Gus Backman, was in charge of its Bonneville Speedway Association—entrusted by the state and U.S. government as the official custodian of Bonneville's Salt Flats.

Mr. Backman suggested a meeting to discuss the SCTA's proposal, and I invited Mr. Lee Ryan, senior member of a publicity group with whom we were planning SCTA's first Hot Rod Exposition, to accompany me for the Salt Lake City presentation. As neither of us had transportation suitable for the journey, we invited Bob "Pete" Petersen to join us on the trip with his 10-year-old Mercury club coupe as our hopeful round-trip conveyance.

After our proposal, in which Lee Ryan added a valuable element of maturity, Mr. Backman agreed to allow the SCTA one "trial" event on the Bonneville Salt Flats, with any future consideration pending the first event's outcome. Needless to say, the initial venture in 1949 was a pronounced success. And due to SCTA's diligence in operations, plus the cooperative support of Union Oil Company and Hot Rod Magazine, the Bonneville National Speed Trials became an historic annual occasion—one that has lasted for half a century—threatened only by the condition of the Salt.

Wally Parks

Named in the 1949 entries were enough heroes to last me a lifetime. Today, Speed Week is the crown jewel in what has become a summer of time trials. And Bonneville, the Mecca of Speed.

While the story here is "fast," it's the people—what they build and bring to race—that makes this place so incredibly interesting. Bonneville is about dreams—and sometimes even fantasies—brought to life after months or even years of effort, and towed to this place each year with only one thing in mind: Speed.

Stirred by Bob Petersen's Hot Rod Magazine, I started hot rodding in 1954 by building a B-blocked, C-cranked and Riley-headed '31 Ford Model A. But it was my '53 Stude coupe and a guy named Bruce Geisler that got me to the Salt, and neither of us has been the same since. By the way, my first run at the Salt was 150.00 mph, a perfection I have yet to duplicate.

After the run, I checked the valve lash on my 327 Chevy. Two intake rockers were clear off the studs. So much for those trick rocker nuts. To my knowledge, that was the first run by a 90° Chevy V-6 at the Salt.

One run. Then it rained, and we all went home to return the next year. Ah, Bonneville...

My business turned to turbocharging and marine engines in the '60s and '70s, but we always had our hand in something "salty." One of the most bizarre projects belonged to (then Air Force doctor) Al Abbott, who wanted to purchase one of our big block marine endurance engines. His intent was to set the Bicycle Land Speed Record???

Turns out, he was doing this while drafting a '55 Chevy coupe. But, during practice runs his engine kept kicking out parts with Al in its wake. Our boat-motor solved the problem and Al got the record, cycling somewhere in the 145 mph range. Al's brother sat in the trunk observing and running the throttle, with another guy up front doing the steering and shifting.

Like I said, the story is the people.

And the people can be very special. In 1981, the Sundowner Corvette brought giant smiles to the faces of Bob Kehoe and myself by giving partner Dwayne McKinney a 240+ ride. We broke the record a ton, and proceeded to celebrate in a friend's motorhome with the blender at full rpm. We neglected the valve work needed on our engine in Geisler's Hanky Panky Studebaker. Near the end of the day, Doug Cook knocks on the door to say, "Hey Gale, I finished the heads for the Stude." Hell, I'd forgotten all about them. Doug had his own stuff to work on, but that's Bonneville... I'll never forget it. Today, Doug's son Mike will be found prominently placed in this program.

Through the years, having raced in almost every form of car or boat, I find that my most meaningful memories come from the Salt: Dipping my jeans and T-shirt in a 55-gallon drum of borate solution (couldn't afford a fire suit.) Attempting to float my '56 Bel Air tow car on the way to the highway (it sank). Watching the guy next door bore a block in his motel room (El Patio). Running a Pontiac Firebird with factory sponsorship (talk about pressure!). Taking away a Porsche world record with a GMC pickup (the Syclone). My membership in the Rod Riders with Bill Burke as president (a true gentleman who influenced me greatly.) And living with the antics of my lifelong partner, Bruce Geisler (three all-nighters in a row, and still laughing.)

Bonneville is the last bastion of the amateur racer and, like Doug and Mike Cook, it's family and friendly. People with big heads are rare. I've seen direct competitors loan parts and tools to each other, sometimes even helping the other guy wrench. Then they'd go out and pump Salt with the prime intent of blowing the other guy off.

Speaking of pumping Salt, you'll find no taxiing aircraft (jet cars) at Speed Week. Here, all the cars put the power down through the tires, just like God intended. The best at that for more years than I can remember is Elwin "Al" Teague. Refining his Lakester into a Streamliner and marching well into the 400's, Al typifies what Bonneville racing is all about—limited budget, hard work, racing savvy, natural engineering talent, finding more speed year after year and laying down a sound that defines this place. This unassuming man does not like confining spaces, yet sits in a very claustrophobic place and gets in the wind with an authority that is the envy of us all.

Bonneville is about hard work and heroes, high- and low-buck, victory and defeat, fathers and sons, dreams realized and "wait'll next year." But, it's this year, and you're here. If you're racing, good luck. If you're spectating, check out the machinery—the ingenuity is awesome. Pick your favorites and see how they do. Most of all, enjoy the meet, whether you're in it or along the sidelines

People say, "in Life, Timing is Everything." But here at Bonneville, I like to say, "Everything is Timing!"


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