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A Century Of Speed - Part One

The Speed Centurions

By Louise Ann Noeth, from Society of Automotive Historians Journal
11/13/2014


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Editor’s Note: Our author, Louise Ann Noeth (aka “Landspeed” Louise), is a long-time SAH member and a two-time SoCal Chapter Valentine Award winner. The following is a fresh version of her article summarizing racing at Bonneville in anticipation of its centennial, now from the perspective of actually having reached that centennial. The entire article will appear in this and the next two issues of this Journal.
 
 
 
Welcome to Bonneville Salt Flats
Welcome to Bonneville Salt Flats

 

They’ve been at it for 100 years—testing the limits of their imagination, skill and raw nerve. The road to a land speed record is a salty one. The 2014 season will see the Bonneville Salt Flats celebrate their century mark of record setting.

Attempting to set a land speed record will wear you out and thin your wallet like nothing else while simultaneously injecting you with a euphoric sense of youthful exuberance. How did such a forlorn, barren, inhospitable place come to be the Speed Mecca of hot rodders worldwide?

There is no championship crown, belt or purse. Yet here is where you will find the fastest women and men on earth. They are all amateurs, land speed racers who design, build and run their speed machines for love, for sport, for the sheer challenge of spanking the clock at wide open throttle for five miles.
 
View of Salt Flats
View of Salt Flats

 

Forget those rollers in the floor; this salt is God’s own dyno shop. Open only a few times a year, it took some 100,000 years to form the fabulous saline speedways located 4,214 feet above sea level immediately east of the Nevada-Utah border town of Wendover. The vast, ancient lake bed is a stark, glistening white plain that was once covered by a body of water 135 miles wide by nearly 325 miles long. Almost 3,000 square miles, it was formed during the last stages of the ice age.

To get an idea of its scope, think of Wendover as being situated on the western shore and Salt Lake City, 120 miles away, on the eastern shore. In between, the water was 1,000 feet deep. When the water evaporated, the minerals and salts remained behind settling on the lowest areas. It is these sediments that make Bonneville the world’s largest natural test track of immense proportions.

In the early days, hammering spikes into the salt was a sweat- producing job. By the 1950s two-handed, half-inch drill bits bored through the rock hard, concrete-like surface. Today, the fragile thin surface is much easier to breech. Still, racers know that hardness begets forgiveness when the rear end attempts to be the front end.  The granite-like salt helps to keep the car upright and, hopefully, the brightness from the salt only makes the hapless driver dizzy.
 
Summer temperatures climb above 100 degrees during the day, yet the mercury can drop below 50 degrees—all within a 24-hour period. No matter how hot the air gets, the surface is always cool and moist to the touch—another boon for racing tires that build up friction heat at high speeds. The sun beats down ferociously, reflecting the rays back up. High grade SPF sun screen and plenty of fluids are essential. Without eye protection, be ready for “salt blindness” because bright takes on new meaning here.
 
Water on the Salt
Water on the Salt

 

Winter rains can bring up to 6,000 acres of standing water, which are an essential part of nature’s annual recovery process. High winds help manicure and smooth the surface as the water evaporates by early summer. Nothing grows out of the crystalline salt beds except one’s imagination and a few mirages—so flat that you can observe the actual curvature of the Earth with the naked eye.
 
The First Racer Arrives
In 1896, the year Utah became a state, newspaper publisher George Randolph Hearst concocted a publicity stunt to send a message from his offices at the New York Journal to The San Francisco Examiner via a transcontinental bicycle courier. Bicyclists William D. Rishel and Charles A. Emise set out to scout a route across the salt at 2:00 AM under the glow of a full moon rolling southeast along the iridescent salt. Pedaling their long-horned bicycles at speeds up to 20 mph, the joy ride turned torturous when they got mired down in mud at the edge of the salt and 22 hours later they were on the other side.
 
When the Western Pacific Railroad “conquered” the flats by laying rails directly across the salt beds in 1907, it also established a water replenishment station for the steam engines at a sheepherder’s stop and the tiny village of Wendover winked into life.
 
Ab Jenkins and his Pierce-Arrow
Ab Jenkins and his Pierce-Arrow

 

The First Motorcyclist
In 1910, a young carpenter named David Abbott “Ab” Jenkins (yes, that Ab Jenkins of Mormon Meteor fame and later mayor of Salt Lake City) was determined to see a prize fight in Reno, Nevada, so he hopped on his Yale motorcycle, headed west and became the first person to “drive” across the Bonneville Salt Flats.

“Like a bronco-busting cowboy,” declared Jenkins of his 30-mile jaunt over the wooden railroad ties to avoid knee-deep mud, “I approached the salt beds on the railway tracks on a bumping, jumping motorcycle.” Reaching 60 mph, the speed gave him a bigger thrill than any he would have while driving an automobile.
 
Teddy Teztlaff (with arms folded) standing next to Governor William Spry (with goggles) after the 142.857 mph run. Leaning on the right rear tire is the riding mechanic of the Blitzen Benz II, Do- menich Basso. The individual wearing goggles between Tetzlaff and Spry may be Salt Lake City Mayor Samuel C. Park.
Teddy Teztlaff (with arms folded) standing next to Governor William Spry (with goggles) after the 142.857 mph run. Leaning on the right rear tire is the riding mechanic of the Blitzen Benz II, Do- menich Basso. The individual wearing goggles between Tetzlaff and Spry may be Salt Lake City Mayor Samuel C. Park.

 

The First Race Car Race
In 1914, racing promoter Ernie Moross brought a fleet of eight racing machines to the salt. The jewel of the stable was the mighty 21.5-liter, 200-horsepower record-setting Blitzen Benz, under the command of “Terrible” Teddy Tetzlaff, a noted lead foot of the day. Ads in the Salt Lake City local papers announced, “A hair-raising, thrilling, soul-gripping speed contest!” Sales were halted at 150 tickets for the August 11 event. Among the ticket holders was Governor William Spry. A few motorcycles were also on hand, including an Indian.
 
The Blitzen Benzo No2
The Blitzen Benzo No2

 

It was an epochal chapter to auto racing. This was the Bonneville Salt Flats’ first timed speed trial. Tetzlaff ’s first attempt matched current record holder Bob Burman’s speed exactly, but took less time; his half-mile speed was higher—142.857 mph!

The speed went unrecorded in the record books because the local promoters politically hijacked the race publicity to gain attention for a planned transcontinental highway on its way from the east. The AAA Contest Board responded by revoking its sanction and the resulting scandal made the salt flats a toxic race venue for the next 20 years. But it was too late, the seeds of curiosity were sown about the godforsaken western wasteland that gobbled up wheel spin and spat out speed; in 1925, the Victory Highway opened, stretching 40 miles across the salt beds.

By 1931, despite lacking the AAA Contest Board sanction, Ab Jenkins was back driving a new 12-cylinder Pierce-Arrow car on a surveyed and scraped-smooth 10-mile circular track. Dressed in white cotton duck pants and shirt topped with a leather jacket, Jenkins donned a cotton skullcap and two pairs of goggles, and climbed in and took off. Temperatures soared above 100 degrees and he hallucinated under the light of a full moon.

Jenkins stopped for gas 12 times, never changed a tire, nor got up from behind the wheel the entire 24 hours. He logged 2,710 miles averaging 112.935 mph to set a new 24-hour average speed mark September 18-19, 1932. The constant roar of the engine temporarily deafened him. His feat was so unbelievable, the newspapers refused to publish the account for a full week. Worse, the AAA fined Jenkins $500 for making the run without their “permission.”
 

The British Invasion
Jenkins went back to the salt in 1933 with AAA sanctioning and snapped up 60 new records in one attempt on the 10-mile circle track. The feat riveted the attention of European racers John Rhodes Cobb, George Eyston and Sir Malcolm Campbell. Most Europeans refused to believe one man could have driven throughout because records set on the Montlhéry track, near Paris (officially: L’autodrome de Linas-Montlhéry), had required as many as five drivers.
 
A cutaway of the Bluebird V with its 12-cylinder Rolls-Royce R aero engine.
A cutaway of the Bluebird V with its 12-cylinder Rolls-Royce R aero engine.

 

When Jenkins convinced the celebrated race car designer of the day, Reid Railton, 
to visit the salt flats the floodgates of speed began to open.  Sir Malcolm Campbell was desperate to set a record in excess of 300 mph. He showed up on September 2, 1935 with “Bluebird V,” the monstrously big, Ab Jenkins and his Pierce-Arrow 9,500 pound wheel-spinning car powered by an eight-foot-long supercharged V12 Rolls-Royce R aero-engine. His arrival upended life for Wendover’s 400 residents. At the edge of the salt, hundreds had slept in cars overnight, or pitched tents. A steady stream kept arriving all morning: Native Americans, ranchers and other people poured onto the flats from three states.

On Tuesday, September 3, 1935, with more than a thousand spectators watching, Campbell set off down the 13-mile oily black line. Bluebird twice flew across those all-important 5,281 feet clock- ing a recorded average of 301.1292 mph despite a mile-long four wheel skid that set the tires and brakes afire!
 
Sir Malcolm Campbell after setting his 301.1292 MPH record. Note all the salt on the car and around the wheels.
Sir Malcolm Campbell after setting his 301.1292 MPH record. Note all the salt on the car and around the wheels.

 
“The Utah salt flats are the speed laboratory of the future!” Campbell cried to onlookers.  Campbell’s World Record established, once and for all time, Bonneville’s worthiness as a safe speedway. By the end of the following race season, the salt claimed more endurance records than Daytona or its European counterparts had managed in a decade.

With a wide variety of purpose-built cars, most powered by aircraft engines, Englishmen John Cobb and Capt. George Eyston showed up repeatedly, joining Jenkins as friendly rivals collecting and trading endurance records until World War II brought everything to a grinding halt.
 
“Setting a record on the salt has a special flavor,” remembered Ab’s son Marv Jenkins. “The British understood better than any of us that a record set at Bonneville had a greater meaning than if you did the same thing anywhere else.”

Once the world regained its grip on peace, gentleman driver John Cobb came back for his last race on the salt, setting the world mark at 394 miles per hour with one run at 403 miles per hour. However, it was the publicized Novi runs that proved fortuitous for hot rodders because they brought young Southern California racing enthusiasts Kong Jackson and Chuck Abbott to watch the speed runs.

Jackson, a short and cocky type with an eye for cars and women (always in that order), enlisted the help of Ab Jenkins in securing access to the salt for hot rodders. Officials of the Southern Califor- nia Timing Association (SCTA), the land speed racing-sanctioning body, were desperate to find better racing sites and quickly sent representatives to Salt Lake City to gain approval from the Bonneville Speedway Association.
 
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