The Bonneville Salt Flats, 100 miles outside of Salt Lake City, Utah, still attracts its share of speed demons. For example, at the World Finals Meet in October 2004, Tom Burkland ran his Burkland Streamliner at more than 400 mph. Perhaps even more impressive was Jim Odom, who blistered a record 328 mph on his "Ack Attack" motorcycle.
I had more modest goals. My host, Bill Summers, runs a driving experience at Bonneville called Summers Speed Thrills to give students a shot at the salt from the driver's seat. He provides the car, pit crew and fireproof driving suits; you fork over $5,000 for the thrills.
You may never have heard of Bill, but in 1965 he and his late brother Bob (the Summers Brothers) ran their famous Goldenrod to a land speed record of 409.3 mph. After 41 years, the mark still stands in its class of wheel-driven, naturally-aspirated, fuel-burning cars.
I was one of two students at Summers Speed Thrills for the session. The other was Steve Markoff, chief executive of A-Mark Financial Corp. and a former Formula Ford racer. The car we were to pilot -- a 1987 open-wheel Bonneville Lakester with a 650-hp, 468-cubic-inch V8 Chevrolet engine -- had topped 200 mph before. In previous outings Frank Cahoun, an oil consultant from Midland, Texas, drove it at 207 mph; Ron Secor, a retired wrecking yard owner in Irwindale, Calif., was even faster at 229 mph.
I'd driven fast before, but never on salt. At the Texas Motor Speedway, a 1.5-mile oval outside of Fort Worth, I averaged a lap at 201 mph in an IRL car. I'd also driven production cars at more than 200 mph -- a Lamborghini Murciélago at the Nardo test track in Italy, and a Ruf R Turbo Porsche on the Autobahn in Germany.
But Bonneville presented special challenges. First, there's the salt surface which, while relatively smooth, only has about half the grip of asphalt. Some liken driving at Bonneville to driving on ice. Second, while we would be traveling in a straight (hopefully!) line without corners to navigate, there is no banking to slow the car if you get into trouble. Spinning cars sometime catch a wheel in the uneven salt and go into a series of violent, sometimes deadly, tumbles.
Bonneville attracts all types. It's space entrepreneur Burt Rutan -- winner of the $10 million Ansari X Prize for putting the first man into space via a non-government-owned rocket -- meets racing legend Mario Andretti. We met John Lund, a car dealer from Phoenix, Ariz., attempting to set a record above 200 mph in a special black Cadillac and Ron Main, co-owner of Canoga Rebar in Chatsworth, Calif., who has a home-built, high-tech job -- the FlatFier -- capable of speeds above 300 mph. It looks like a rocket on wheels.
But by no means is Bonneville a free-for-all. The Southern California Timing Association requires drivers to be licensed. A $60 fee gets you into the show and then you drive at 25 mph speed-increment jumps to upgrade your license. To earn a Class D license, for example, a successful run in the 125-149 mph range is required; Class C, 150-174 mph; Class B, 175-199 mph. Once licensed in the B class, you can run above 200 mph.
On the short (three-mile) course we were to use, cars are timed between the end of the second and third miles, meaning you have two miles to get up to speed. At the end of mile three, you deploy the car's parachute to help slow the vehicle (braking on salt isn't very effective).
Our first run -- Markoff's at 137 mph and mine at 134 mph -- encouraged us. Because the weather was warm and dry, the salt was in good shape and we got a good feel for the car and the jolt of the parachute at the end of the run. But our glee was short-lived. On the push-back to the start line, a fire in the car resulted from hot brake cylinders touching some vinyl vent tubing.
We managed to control it with fire extinguishers, but the ensuing damage caused a day's delay as mechanic Dan Neuenschwander overhauled the car. During repairs, fans stopped by to chat. Ken Appleby, an old-timer from Boise, Idaho, sheepishly asked Bill for an autograph. Appleby remembered being blown away by the famous Goldenrod in the mid-1960s. Bill just smiled and signed Appleby's history of Bonneville book.
After the repairs were completed, we found that the brakes were gone, but that didn't bother us much, as most of our stopping was accomplished with the parachute. But it did affect both Markoff's and my confidence in the car. What else might go wrong?
For our run the next day, Bill replaced the 6,000-rpm limiter chip with one capable of 8,000 rpms, theoretically giving us added oomph to qualify for the Class C license (150-174 mph).
After all the waiting, I was pumped at the timing line. Following a good start, I began to build up engine rpms. The car was sliding more than on my first run, perhaps because of changing salt conditions, but I kept my foot in it. A little more gas, a little more slide, a little more speed. As the two-mile red marker sign approached, I saw the tachometer edging above 6,500 rpms, which translates to about 170 mph -- solidly in the Class C license range. All I had to do was keep it straight for another mile.
Suddenly, there was the sickening sound of metal being ingested, the rpms dropped to 5,000 and the engine abruptly quit. The lurch started a slow slide, but I quickly pulled the parachute and the car straightened out. I coasted to the three-mile mark and pulled off the course.
Sure enough, there was oil all over the place. As the safety crews cleaned up the oil-salt mixture, a closer inspection of the engine uncovered a blown rod. Bill gave us the bad word: We were done for good this time. We weren't the only team to have problems. At least a quarter of the drivers didn't complete runs for one mechanical reason or another. But, as they say, that's racing.