Racers eager to keep the salt in Bonneville Flats

Mining around Utah site has compromised favorite speed surface

October 11, 2001|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BONNEVILLE SALT FLATS, Utah - This is where prehistoric meets subsonic, where brawn meets brine.

Three times a year, hundreds of racers set out with all deliberate speed to shatter records in cars, trucks, motorcycles, rocket-mobiles.

Even on motorized barstools.

They are drawn to the smooth, flat surface that one racer likens to "cruising down a bowling alley."

From 1935 to 1970, Bonneville was the track the fastest men on land called home. Then racers noticed that their world was shrinking. The salt that made Bonneville famous had melted from 15 miles of white straightaway to six.

By 1996, many of the serious racers had packed up and headed for dry lake beds in Nevada and California.

"We struggled to find a good spot to race on," recalls Larry Volk. "When you're running 450 mph, you need two miles to accelerate, three miles to clock and four miles to stop to keep a margin of safety. Some years we had to move the track four and five times."

Now, the roar is back at Bonneville. A privately financed restoration project is pumping millions of tons of salt back onto the vast expanse and putting Bonneville back in the winner's circle.

At the 53rd annual Speed Week this summer, racers in low-slung cars and monster trucks were setting records again. And starting Saturday, officials of the Federation International de L'Automobile, which certifies world records, will be at Bonneville to see whether anyone measures up during four days of racing.

"It hasn't looked this good in 10, 12 years," crows Volk, who has been racing on the Flats since 1964 and holds one speed record. "We have the potential for two [vehicles] to run 500 mph, if the conditions are right."

Don Vesco, who pushed his turbine-powered Turbinator III to 459 mph in August, will attempt to break the world record in his class (403 mph) and the ultimate land speed record for a wheel-driven vehicle (409 mph) next month.

"It's possible we can do it, if everything falls into place," he says. "But I couldn't have said that two years ago."

The Bonneville Salt Flats and the Great Salt Lake are remnants of Lake Bonneville, formed 15,000 years ago during the last Ice Age. Lake Bonneville was the size of Lake Michigan and covered one-third of what is Utah.

The flats are replenished each winter when rain floods the surface. During spring and summer, the water slowly evaporates while winds scour the salt into what racers consider a nearly perfect surface.

Men realized the potential for speed in 1896 and staged carriage races. In 1914, Teddy Tetzlaff was clocked at 141 mph in his Blitzen Benz. But it took Ab Jenkins, driving a Studebaker named the Mormon Meteor, to capture the public's imagination in 1925, when he raced a train across the Flats and beat it by 10 minutes.

The world land speed record stayed at Bonneville as it passed 300, 400, 500 and 600 miles per hour.

However, years of salt mining and erosion reduced to a fragile shell the cement-hard pad used by Craig Breedlove and Art Arfons when they traded ownership of the world speed record in the 1960s.

Breedlove last tried using the drag strip in 1996 before switching to the desert near Black Rock, Nev.

"Conditions were horrible," says Breedlove, 64, the five-time land speed record holder. "The salt was moist, clinging to tires. Trying to get it off was almost like blotting up cottage cheese on a kitchen floor. We'd race one day and spend three days getting the caked salt off the car."

Racers who didn't abandon the Flats raised the yellow flag and with local environmentalists formed a group in 1989 to put the salt back in Bonneville's diet.

Save the Salt began pressuring the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency responsible for the tract, to figure out what was happening to the Flats and how to stop it.

Many members of the group pointed fingers at Kaiser Chemical Co., which mined the area from 1914 to 1988, and Reilly Industries Inc., the company that bought the operation and holds the lease on the mining rights from BLM.

Mining salt from the Flats is a fairly uncomplicated process. Water is forced through canals that cut across the Flats, leaching the salt from the land. The brine is drawn into evaporation ponds on the south side of Interstate 80, where the potash and magnesium carbonate are collected and processed for fertilizer and the sodium chloride (salt) remains in huge piles as a worthless byproduct.

But as the piles of salt grew on one side of the highway, a 1996 survey indicated the Flats had shrunk to 25,000 acres from 96,000 acres in 1926.

"It diminished from the edges in, so we didn't see it until it wasn't there," says Vesco, who began coming to the Flats with his father in 1949 and started racing in 1957.

Reilly agreed in late 1996 to begin a five-year, $1.5 million program that mimics the natural restoration process. Pumps flood the Flats from November to April with briny stew made from the salt piles. As the water evaporates, a new salt layer is left behind.

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