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A Bonneville primer

This year marked the 60th anniversary of Speed Week at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Unlike last year’s wet and soggy mess, the salt was nearly perfect this year and the weather stayed just shy of fully broiling.  The good weather and conditions put a smile on everyone’s face, and good vibes and high speeds were flowing. Now that I have been attending Speed Week for 11 straight years I am ready to pass on a few facts and hints to the would be attendee.
The most frequently asked question is, “where is it?” The flats are just over the Utah-Nevada border on the Utah side. The salt is a solid 600 miles from my house here in San Francisco. It is a long drive and one that I rarely do in a straight shot anymore. Salt Lake City is an hour and a half away, making it easy to fly in and rent a car. (The rental agencies are hip to this and jack up the rates but this is still a viable option for those with time constraints.) The racecourse is always on the north side of Interstate 80 and just a few miles from the end of a paved road that takes you out there. This year the SCTA had three courses laid out to ease congestion at the starting line.

The other most frequently asked question is the whopper, “what’s it like out there?” In a nutshell: flat, hot, bright and truly beautiful. Covering over 30,000 acres, the flats are broad and smooth enough to afford a view of the curvature of the earth. The salt is flat thanks to the shallow lake that forms each winter and the action of the wind. (That and the SCTA crews!)

With an elevation of over 4,000 feet and constant shifts in temperature and humidity, Bonneville poses a challenging dilemma for the racecar tuner. You will see all manner of machinery out here and every kind of homemade innovation. High tech and alternative fuels are just as at home on the course as are the venerable gasoline powered flathead V-8 and blown nitromethane big blocks. People are friendly here and spectators are free to roam the starting line area and check out the race cars…just don’t go wandering out on to the course please. The SCTA now permits spectators past the pit area and nearly out to the five-mile mark on the long course, which allows for viewing of 300-plus mile per hour runs at top speed. The course is about a quarter mile away at this point so binoculars are a good idea and don’t even try to photograph without a howitzer-sized lens. Save your photo energy for the start line or the pits.
And what should you bring? Bring a good pair of UV resistant sunglasses for sure. A wide brimmed hat is a good idea, as is sunscreen. Loose clothing in light colors helps. It is always funny to see a slave to fashion all dressed in black with pomade running down his completely sunburned neck and all over his quickly fading tattoos. If you are going to wear flip-flops be warned: If you do not normally go barefoot in the sun then lather on the strongest sunscreen you can find. This same advice goes for exposed ankles or any other part of your anatomy not used to seeing the sun. This brings me to the subject of wearing shorts, or more specifically under shorts. If you like wearing baggy shorts then please consider the use of under garments. The salt is highly reflective and roasted nuts are a real possibility. (You ladies should take care as well; it’s not just we men who are in danger here.)

Now for the logistical end of things. If you have a long drive you should seriously consider breaking it up if you have the time. It consumes a lot of energy to even hang out in the harsh environment of the salt. It is no fun to show up late in the day totally beat down and cranky. You did not come all this way just to be cranky. Hotel rooms are available in the nearby town of Wendover, but the speed week prices are blown way out of proportion and frequently the entire town is booked, so check well in advance. For families considering camping there is a KOA with a pool, playground, laundry, and shower facilities. There are two grocery stores in town, a smallish Mexican one in East Wendover and a pretty big “Smith’s” in west Wendover. (Half the town is in Nevada, the other in Utah) There is even a hardware store nowadays should you need any gear or supplies in that department. I don’t think the lingerie store will be of much help but you never know. If you’d like a civilized drink away from the harsh glare and blare of the casinos then I suggest you find Carmen’s Black and White bar on a side road behind the State Line Casino.

Camping is relatively easy and is by far the cheapest alternative. It also gives a good taste of the rhythm of being at the flats…and the night skies are incredible. All the land surrounding the flats is BLM (Bureau of Land Management) so camping can happen virtually anywhere. There are a few rules to follow but most of them are under the headings of common sense and respect. A popular spot is the “bend in the road”. Here is where you’ll find more than a few like-minded folks, club meetings, campfire discussions and parties. For the more privately inclined there are literally hundreds of beautiful, isolated spots. The weather at night is warm and sleeping on the ground up in the hills is fairly pleasant, even without a tent if you dare….just be ready for a sudden shift in wind or sometimes precipitation accompanied by lightning.

Remember to bring and drink a lot of water! Don’t substitute beer for water, not even the “near beer” they sell on the Utah side. Don’t stuff yourself with bad, fatty (casino) food and eat plenty of fruit. Bring a well-stocked cooler. All the things your Mom said to you about eating right apply double out here. Get good rest and wake with the sun. Keep a positive attitude and move slowly. Don’t drive around on the salt pretending to race, and keep your eyes wide open. Distances on the salt are deceiving and driving on it is akin to being out on open water. Stay in designated areas and DO NOT wander onto the course or the return roads lest you inspire the wrath of chief timer Glenn Barrett and the course stewards.

If you decide to wander off, away from the course area and marked roads, do so with caution, the minute it feels soft under your tires TURN AROUND! You do not want to be stuck out there. Bring a CB radio to tune into the real happenings and most of all have fun. Contact the SCTA at www.scta-bni.org for more info. The flats are not for everybody but if you consider yourself a motorsports enthusiast at least one visit is mandatory.    

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