WENDOVER The cars come in all shapes, sizes, models, makes and wheelbases. The one common thread is salt ... white, granular in nature, as firm as concrete when bonded.
To the 400-plus drivers gathered for the 59th running of Bonneville Speed Week, salt is the main ingredient for speed ... as much as the cars and drivers can take.
This attraction to the salt is seen in the frequency of their visits, in the cars they choose and even in the names they pick, names like Salt Shaker, Saline Solution, Salt Lick, Salt Sabre, Salty Dog, Salty Six, Salt Dancer II, Kiwi-A-Salt, Lil' Salt-T and Salty Soup, to mention a few.
But the one underlying reason they come to the salt year after year is the drive for more speed.
A record number of drivers preregistered for this year's event on Bonneville Salt Flats. The early count was around 520, which is about 100 more than last year.
Some suggest all this new interest is because of increased publicity on salt-flats racing. Others think it may have something to do with the movie "The World's Fastest Indian," released a few years ago, which portrays the life and Bonneville record attempts of Burt Munro of New Zealand in the 1950s.
Whatever the reasons, the list was a record. Not everyone showed up to race, however. Rain two weeks ago softened the salt and threatened to cancel the event, which caused some to change plans.
But racing opened at noon last Saturday and will run through Friday.
Conditions on Saturday were a little slippery, but, as one driver said earlier this week, "They change day to day as the salt dries out."
Within the seven days of racing, world land-speed records will fall, that much is certain.
In one little corner of the mile-long racing pit located in the middle of the flats, history is being written by Ford and a Buckeye engineering team from Ohio State University. Between them they have built and are testing the Ford Fusion Hydrogen 999 car.
The story of car 999 goes back to 1903 when Henry Ford, as a means of promoting the automobile, drove a modified car at an average speed of 91.32 miles per hour to set one of the first land-speed records.
Running the Fusion car is a way of introducing it to the public as a "car of the future." It runs on liquid hydrogen, which generates electrical power, and has "zero" emissions. Ford officials hope to get the car to run between 200 and 220 mph.
The students from OSU's Center for Automotive Research came to Bonneville in 2002 to test a student-created electric car called the Buckeye Bullet. In 2004 it set a record of 315 mph.
"But we realized it could go no faster on battery power," said Isaac Harper, one of the student engineers.
So, OSU approached Ford with the idea of creating a hydrogen fuel-cell streamliner. The students have their streamliner and next door Ford has its Fusion 999.
Harper said work on the students' car started in December of last year and consensus is the Buckeye Bullet II is capable of speeds of more than 350.
Both cars are powered by a 770-horsepower electric drive system. Both are run by hydrogen compressed into a liquid.
The Ford team is not the only newcomer to the salt. Tim Manning from Anaheim, Calif., has wanted to come to Bonneville for more than a quarter century.
"I had carpal tunnel and got that fixed so I could sit for longer than 10 minutes on a bike," he said as he leaned against his motorcycle. "I figured I'd better get here before something else goes wrong."
He then recruited Katrina Herbert, also from California, to ride a second bike.
Why? "Weight. I'm 240 (pounds) and can go 105 (mph). She's 120 all suited up and she can go 140. I needed someone lighter than me on this bike," he added.
As for Herbert, she said her first impressions of Bonneville were nothing like she expected. For one thing she said she's "never seen so much flat surface." Her goal is to hit 172 mph in her rookie season.
Tim Billington stood alongside his lakester that was converted to a streamliner and talked records. The car holds two records in the lakester class, and he is now going for two in the streamliner class. He hopes he has better success with this car than he did on an earlier run in his second car, a modified roadster.
He hit 170 mph on his first run. On his second return run he lost fourth gear and topped out at 140 for an average of 155. The record is 156.
"I came within a mile of getting the record. I kept trying to jam it into fourth, but it just wouldn't go, but that's racing," he added.
Two more relative newcomers are Bob Wilson and Tom Bitros of Texas. Driving an eclectic roadster with a 1932 frame and body, a 360 Dodge engine and Dodge transmission, and 1941 Ford pickup rear end, they hope to go well over 170 mph.
"(The car) has the aerodynamics of a brick, but it's a fun car. I was reading about Bonneville when I was a kid, and I always said someday I've got to go there. This is our third year, and it's in our blood. We'll make reservations every year," said Wilson.
A car you might not expect to see on the salt is an old Volkswagen bug. But for more than a dozen years Bob Stahl of Huntington Beach, Calif., has been bringing his 1965 bug to the salt.
After a trip to Bonneville in the early 1990s, he returned home and started work on his daughter's Volkswagen.
It has been a challenge, he suggested halfheartedly. "The car was designed for a 19 horsepower engine and a top speed of 40 mph. I've taken it up to more than 400 horsepower and 160 mph.
"It's fun now, but for years, while we were trying to work things out, it was horrible."
The car holds records at the dry lakebeds at El Mirage and Murdoc. He is hoping to get a trifecta with a land-speed record at Bonneville.
Probably the most attractive entry is the pickup truck owned by Bob Ida of New Jersey. It is a recycled show truck forest green with gold flames that in its earlier life appeared in several magazines.
It was not built for speed, said a friend, George Schults, also from New Jersey, "But we hope to go over 200 (mph). It's pretty now, but it'll be a whole lot prettier if we can go 200."
This was the first time to Bonneville for the two men, who drove 2,400 miles to run. Schults describe the salt as being "nothing like I expected. It's like being on the moon and on a beach at the same time."6 comments on this story
Back for another try is Don Lemmons of Kelso, Wash. He has been coming to Bonneville since 1991 and bringing with him his 16-cylinder, 4,000-horsepower diesel truck that holds the current class record of 228.804 mph. He goal this year is to hit around 235.
Cars and trucks begin lining up for record runs at first light and continue to run until record lanes are shut down late in the afternoon.
Under international rules, a car must exceed the miles per hour of the existing record to qualify. On the record run, a car will run one direction and then must return over the same track within one hour. The two speeds are then averaged for the official posting.Every year cars go faster and faster, which is, as they say, what draws them back to Bonneville year after year after year.