They say it's the salt. A little granule at 200 miles per hour is enough to get a racer hooked. Once addicted, the only fix is another run, or plans for one.
Racers quit, but say it's tough. Some that try, like Kenny Hoover of San Diego, Calif., come back.For others, like Don Garlits, being close was enough. Racing 120 miles away, on the drag strip at Bonneville Raceway Park in Salt Lake City, he heard about the salt bed and said he'd always wanted to try it.
Sunday, on his first run, he was, as his wife, Pat, said, "like a kid in a candy shop." By Wednesday, they were saying, it was in his blood.
For others, like Al Teague, 250.80 mph back in 1970 wasn't enough. Each year he's come back for more . . . in 1985, 329.678 mph; in 1987, 349.695 mph. This year, 260-plus is likely.
More than 300 cars were brought to the salt flats by drivers and crews this year. Most were returning. A few, like Garlits, are trying it for the first time.
Despite 100-plus degree heat coming off the desert floor, they will work on cars from early morning to midday, then move onto the line for qualifying. There they will wait their turn, fiddling with last-minute odds and ends on the cars, moving like a backed-up freeway to the starting line.
From the starting line, they will have two miles to pick up maximum speed before the speed traps come up. The traps will record the first one-quarter mile speed, then the first mile, the second mile and finally the third and last mile. Each racer has three chances to go over the record. Just to qualify to TRY and break a record, a car must first break the record.
New this year is an ending, or terminal reading, for racers. It's set up over the last 132 feet of the third mile and tells the drivers how fast they were going as they exited the course.
"You tell a driver how fast his average speed was and he usually comes back, `I thought I was going faster.' And, most likely, he was. We take the average. This last speed is just for the drivers and fans," said Roy Seppamen, an official with the Southern California Timing Association, producers of Bonneville Speed Week.
After qualifying, the racers show up early the next day for record attempts. First they drive down the course from south to north, then when all the record cars have run, they race back from north to south. The average high measured mile, one from each run, is the recorded speed.
Two years ago, Hoover and Ray Torrez set their 19th land-speed record on the salt flats, 261.419 mph in an E streamliner. Last year, they missed bettering the record.
"Going home, we talked about a new car. Then I decided, no, I was going to retire. It gets in your blood, though. I started having withdrawal pain, so four months ago we started with a new car and here we are," he said.
Teague, one of the veterans and fastest drivers, is back and on line to add another record to his list. During a qualifying run, he turned in the fastest time ever, moving through the timers at an average speed of 360 mph, nearly 11 mph over the old record. The clocks posted his terminal time coming out of the third measure mile at over 370 mph.
Cars will begin lining up at 7 a.m. on Friday for record runs. Cars will have their last shot at qualifying Friday afternoon, and their last try at a record Saturday.