Bored with local motorsports events? It might be time to plan a trip to the Utah desert and the famous Bonneville Salt Flats. It's where insane speed records are made and broken, and have been for decades.
In fact, during Bonneville's 2018 World of Speed event, which was held in September, a modified 2019 Volkswagen Jetta sedan hit a speed of 210.16 miles per hour (338.22 kilometers per hour), beating the previous record for its class of 208.472 miles per hour (335.50 kilometers per hour). This, of course, was no ordinary Jetta. It featured some serious upgrades to get to its 600-horsepower rating, including a turbocharged 2.0-liter engine that was thoroughly worked over. VW also removed all non-essential interior components to reduce the car's weight — which is common with race cars — modified the suspension, and improved its traction with a limited-slip differential and a set of wheels and tires better suited to the salty surface.
Which begs the question: Why all this work to drive fast on the Bonneville Salt Flats?
Internationally recognized Racing Destination
Let's back up first and give a bit of history on the area. Humans have been racing on the Bonneville Salt Flats for over 100 years, which seems like a long time in the world of motorsports. The area's history, however, is much longer and richer. Utah's Great Salt Lake covered a much bigger area, a lake that was later named Lake Bonneville. When Lake Bonneville dried up about 14,500 years ago, leaving mostly desert in its wake, salty plains remained. This remote section of Utah, which includes the famous Bonneville Salt Flats, covers about 4,000 square miles (10,359 square kilometers) and is owned and managed by the federal government's Bureau of Land Management.
Such record-breaking speeds are possible here because the area is extremely flat; it's so flat you can see the curvature of the Earth, and cars can run for miles without any obstacles. Furthermore, the salt holds moisture that cools the cars' tires, which helps prevent premature degrading of the rubber.
For these reasons the area draws large annual events — August's Bonneville Speed Week and September's World of Speed get most of the attention — but there are a number of smaller events throughout the year. We spoke to Dennis Sullivan, president of the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association (USFRA), to learn more about the racing culture.
Utah Salt Flats Racing Association
USFRA is a 42-year-old volunteer organization that hosts the World of Speed event in September, keeps records for all the classes that compete at the flats, and helps manage the relationship between this unique land and the people who use it in search of ever-faster speeds. While automakers, like VW, often visit the Salt Flats to attempt record-breaking runs for publicity purposes or test vehicles in the desert's extreme conditions, Sullivan believes it's the enthusiasts who are responsible for the culture.
Official events welcome different vehicle classes designed to accommodate everything from classic hot rods to new electric vehicles. "There's no money, it's a true amateur sport," Sullivan says. "If you do set a record, all you get is your name in a book and some bragging rights."
Speaking of records, Sullivan notes, the USFRA focuses on wheel-driven vehicles (that is, like a regular car, regardless of its performance modifications) and generally ignores jet-propulsion vehicles, which he says are more like "airplanes that have not taken off." The record for a wheel-driven vehicle is 492 miles per hour (791.79 kilometers per hour), and two people have achieved speeds exceeding 400 miles per hour (643.73 kilometers per hour). The holy grail, Sullivan says, is 500 miles per hour (804.67 kilometers per hour).
According to Sullivan, an official USFRA event can require:
- A team of up to 40 volunteers for setup, plus starting and timing the races (some are paid small stipends)
- Steel girders to smooth down imperfections in the salt
- A thousand traffic cones
- 25 miles (40 kilometers) of timing wire
- $20,000 a day to cover costs, with some events running up to four days
As in any motorsport, safety is a concern, and Sullivan says the USFRA rule book has some of the strictest safety regulations of any motorsports association. That record-breaking VW Jetta, for example, protected the driver with a roll cage, a racing seat and harness, a fire suppression system, and a pair of parachutes to help the car slow down after the run, all of which are typical for vehicles modified for speed purposes.
The Salt Itself
While the Bonneville Salt Flats might seem overwhelming huge in size, the salt itself is a finite resource. In 1985, the flats were designated an Area of Critical Environmental Concern by the Bureau of Land Management. According to Sullivan, records show the salt depth used to be between 11 and 18 inches (28 and 45 centimeters), and it's now down to just 2 inches (5 centimeters) in some areas.
In addition to racing events, the Salt Flats are also a destination for commercial and movie shoots, potash mining, and other hobbies such as hiking, camping, archery and model rocket launches. The USFRA marks the race courses with materials that don't leave a permanent impact on the salt, and they help protect the area by cleaning up after themselves as well as going out occasionally to clean up after others.
Sullivan, who has been visiting the Salt Flats for more than 30 years, is adamant that the area is in need of preservation, not to benefit his racing hobby, but because it's a landmark on par with Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Canyon.
"You'd be amazed at how many foreign visitors either come and compete or come to spectate, or as they're going around the United States, one of the places they want to stop is the Bonneville Salt Flats," Sullivan says. "It's going away, it needs to be saved, and it's recognized around the world."