1932 Ford frames
1932 Ford windshields and tops
Gibbs Brand penetrant
Nostalgia drag racing DVDs

Bonneville Speed WeekLast updated on September 26, 2013

Chauvin On this page:

The Bonneville Salt Flats

Team Vesco and the Turbinator streamliner

Links to related sites

Some related pages on Roadsters.com:

Breaking the sound barrier

Land Speed Record racers and resources

Race car insurance

Speed equipment directory

The Bonneville Salt Flats

The start of the course at Bonneville There was a time, centuries ago, when the Great Salt Lake covered an area of 5,000 square miles. Today, what remains of that massive lake is a very unique and special place that is also the home of one hell of a race track.

There are lots of race tracks in the world. But this is the one where they go the fastest. If you're really into imaginatively-designed race cars driven by people making no-holds-barred speed, this place is home.

If you're a Buddhist, you go to Tibet. If you're a motorhead, you go to Bonneville.

Whatever you've heard about the Bonneville Salt Flats, there's a good chance that it's all true. The speed of some of the cars racing there will knock you out. Its vastness will humble you. And its heat will cook you alive.

We've all experienced bright sunlight, but here its intensity is reinforced by being prismatically reflected off the ocean of salt that surrounds you. You're going to need to block the sun from your face and arms. Bring some good lip balm and sun block, and use them both several times a day. Don't forget. And protect your eyes and head, too. It's easy to spot the people who are there for the first time — they're the ones without sunglasses and hats. If they've been on the salt flats for more than two days, avoid standing downwind from them, since the wind often blows chunks of crispy, toasted skin off their faces and lips, which eventually settles into a fine crust on the race track.

Ready to rock and roll When you first arrive in Wendover, you'll notice some motels and a few gas stations on the Utah side of town, and some gaudy casinos on the Nevada side. If you took away the casinos and the salt flats, there would hardly be anything left of Wendover.

To get to the salt flats from downtown on the main street, go towards the Utah side of town and follow the Bonneville Speedway signs. The track is just a few miles out of town. You'll keep driving until about a hundred feet from where the pavement ends, and then stop.

At that point, someone from the Southern California Timing Association will either wave you towards the track if you're a racer with a pass, or charge you for a pass for the event. Then you begin what can either be a 50-mile-an-hour cruise, or a slow, wet, half-hour crawl to the course, depending on what the weather has been like recently. (And if it's wet, make sure you don't go slow enough that you run the risk of getting stuck.) Follow the orange pylons beside the freshly-smoothed "road", and you'll end up at the entrance to the pits.

Registration, Technical Inspection, the Impound area (for vehicles that have recently completed a run that's put them in contention for a new record), and the SCTA souvenir trailer are off to your right. Make sure to check out all of these areas. If they're not too busy, introduce yourself to the people in the Registration trailer. Have a look at the cars and bikes that happen to be going through Inspection. It's a good place to learn more about what it takes to race at Bonneville. And the souvenir trailer has lots of neat stuff you'll want, at prices that are surprisingly low. It's all part of the spirit of Bonneville racing.

The energy and anticipation are especially high early on Friday, the first day the course is open. Most everyone there has been waiting a year for this. You'll soon see why.

Chauvin Emmons ready for a 300-MPH run Make sure you've got your sun screen and lip balm on, and take a walk through the pits. In every single pit spot at Bonneville you'll find enthusiasts who are talented, creative and dedicated. The atmosphere is quite unique.

Now some people call NASCAR a "family", and to a certain extent, that's true. Them good old boys likes to look after each other, as long as they's all good old boys. Well, Bonneville racers are a family, too. But one of the differences between the two families is that you don't have to have been born in a particular part of the country (or the world) to join ours. And best of all, you don't even have to chew tobacco or pretend to like country music.

The pits are made up of three rows maybe a quarter-mile long, with a wide access road on each side of each row of pit spaces. Lots of room. (The pit spaces are not reserved, so the earlier you arrive, the more choices you'll have in deciding where you set up your pit.) Pick a row and start walking. Things are pretty well-mixed throughout the pits, with no particular areas set aside for particular types of vehicles.

One thing about Bonneville that will impress you is the variety of cars and bikes you'll find there. You'll find dozens of every conceivable kind of race car and motorcycle here, from the classic, rusty roadsters and coupes through the Studebakers and Camaros and Chevy Monzas all the way up to the cutting-edge, carbon fiber lakesters and streamliners.

Chauvin Emmons' roadster on pure nitro You'll be able to find virtually every type of engine you can imagine at Bonneville, including Model A Ford inline four-cylinders, Ford flathead V-8s with and without Ardun overhead-valve conversions, vintage Chevy and GMC inline sixes, versions of the Chrysler Hemi ranging from the early 331 to the latest offerings from Keith Black and others, and dozens of small-block and big-block Chevys. And then there are the huge diesel trucks, the cars that run on batteries, and a couple of turbine-powered streamliners.

Motorcycles include flathead-powered Harley-Davidsons and Indians, old and new Triumphs, BSAs and Nortons, the occasional Italian roadracer, and an array of Japanese bikes spanning the last several decades.

In addition to the variety of types of vehicles there, you'll also find a wide cross-section of race team budgets on the salt, from eighteen-wheel transports with spare everything, air conditioning and huge awnings down to the little guys with small race car trailers, a few tools, and not enough spare parts.

On the first day there's an outdoor drivers' meeting and opening ceremony that anyone can attend. Even if you're not a competitor, this can help you appreciate and understand what's going to happen for the rest of the week, as well as what it takes to make an event like this happen. The key word here is volunteers. They are the ones who make Speed Week possible by dealing with the BLM, bringing and setting up the timing equipment, dragging the racing surface and access roads smooth, and doing everything else that needs to be done.

Bob Higbee and Keith Turk at Bonneville in 1999 There are two courses at Bonneville: the short course and the long course, with the long course being used by the cars and bikes that run over about 200 or so. The line-up lanes for both courses run beside each other and then branch apart a couple hundred feet from the starting lines for each course. The two courses are laid out in such a way that they become farther apart from each other as you travel down either one of them. Depending on how the courses have been laid out, the starting lines for the two courses can be close enough together that you can follow both tracks from near either starting line reasonably well. Just remember to keep out of the way of the racers and professional photographers, and make sure you never walk in front of the car or bike that's at the front of the line.

One of the best places to watch the racing is beside the five-mile point on the long course, where the racers scream by wide open and pop their chutes. And, a few times in every Speed Week, someone with more power than their car's aerodynamics and traction will allow it to get to the ground will spin several times. For safety reasons you'll be restricted to watching from about a quarter-mile from the actual race track, so you'll want a long telephoto lens and a tripod for your camera, and at least one pair of binoculars.

You'll have fun at Bonneville. It's an incredible place that you should experience. Don't forget to block the sun. And when you're using one of those delightful portable toilets, remember: using a portable toilet is kinda like skydiving. It's a lot less scary if you don't look down.

Team Vesco and the Turbinator streamliner

The Turbinator - Gordon Menzie photo

Bob Higbee and Don Vesco This was written more than three years before December 16, 2002, when Don Vesco lost his long battle with cancer. This was a tremendous loss to all of us.

Before reading this, those of you who aren't familiar with Don Vesco, his brother Rick Vesco, or the Turbinator turbine-powered streamliner will want to have a look at the Team Vesco Web site, at http://www.teamvesco.com/

The first time I saw the Turbinator in the pits, at the 1999 Bonneville Speed Week, I knew this was a serious deal. In addition to Don, the driver, and Rick, the crew chief, there were about ten others in the pit, with each assigned to specific tasks. Several of the crew members were British helicopter mechanics who had flown over to help with the car's turbine engine. Everyone was busy. Things were happening here.

Preparation for each run went smoothly, with crew members referring to a master checklist listing every parameter that was checked before each run. The time in the pits between runs could be as little as an hour if confined to cleaning and repacking the car's two parachutes, flushing the salt out of the vanes of the turbine, cleaning the salt buildup from inside the wheelwells and underside of the bodywork, inspecting the tires, and checking every safety-related item on the list.

Seeing this team go to work contrasts with a lot of the other racers at Bonneville, with the Vesco crew getting their jobs done quickly and efficiently. And yet they understand the importance of it all being fun.

It was still early in the day when some of their enthusiasm rubbed off on me. After having annoyed some of the Brits with my bad Monty Python impersonations, one of them threw a rag at me, pointed to a part of the race car and said, "Here — go clean that." Wow. I'm in another band.

It's amazing how much salt builds up on the car, just like the way mud does when you drive through it. Since we're going for speed, not only must all of the mechanical parts of the car be clean to allow them to work properly, but every bit of the bodywork must be absolutely clean to minimize the car's aerodynamic drag. The wheelwells are the only difficult area to get clean, with the biggest challenge otherwise being to avoid putting scratches in the car's paint.

Rick Vesco, Don Vesco and Dave Mann To make things easier for the crew, the car stays on its custom-built, tilt-bed, open trailer while it's in the pits. Once everything is ready, the team's crew cab pickup is backed up to it and hitched up, the crew piles inside, and Rick fires up the Jeep that's used at the beginning of every run to push the Turbinator up to between 80 and 120 miles an hour.

As you might imagine, it's not just any Jeep. This one is a monster, powered by a big-block Chevy with an 8:71 blower and nitrous oxide injection. The rear end of the Jeep is tubbed like a Pro Street car, with fourteen-inch-wide Mickey Thompson Sportsman Pro tires on the back.

As we cruise through the pits and down the road towards the starting line, dozens of racers and race fans wave to us. It's easy to understand why. Team Vesco runs the fastest car there, and it's driven by one of the most experienced land speed record racers in history — for both cars and motorcycles. The officials appreciate the way the team pulls up to the line, gets ready quickly, and launches the car without holding up the show like occasionally happens to some of the other teams. And the driver's brother is more responsible than anyone for having saved the salt flats from being commercially exploited to the point of it being useless for racing. Then consider that Don and Rick Vesco are two of the nicest, most humble people you could ever meet. Now factor in the fact that all day in the Vesco pit there is a procession of members from other teams walking up to the tool trailer and asking if Rick or Don can lend them a tool or fix something for them, and the answer always seems to be "Sure!". It all adds up to the tremendous amount of respect and gratitude we have for Don Vesco, Rick Vesco, and the members of Team Vesco.

Don examining the course surface Before every pass, Don took a walk down the beginning of the course, checking it for smoothness, and making sure of the right line to launch the race car.

Don Vesco suits up We pull up to the starting line and Don suits up while the car is winched back down the tilting trailer. Just as in the pits, a crowd gathers. Some of the more sane ones shake their heads in disbelief when they see the car up close and contemplate what's about to happen, but most of us just smile and dig it.

With the car pushed into position where he decides he wants to start the run, Don climbs into the car, does up his harness, and fires it up with the brakes on.

Being a turbine-powered race car, its sound is just like an unlimited hydroplane, with its surplus helicopter turbine engine. If you haven't heard one, imagine a very large tea kettle whistling, starting out low and gaining in pitch as the engine speed increases. It doesn't sound like the other race cars, but it gets just as much respect.

Holding back the Turbinator Several members of the crew stand on either side of the front of the car, and do their best to keep it from creeping forward while it warms up. When everything is Go, and the officials give the signal, the Jeep pulls up behind, its front bumper nudges the car's push bar and begins to roll forward, slowly at first. Then Rick hammers it and this crazy Jeep starts fishtailing down the track. It doesn't take long for them to disappear.

We've already left the starting area in the pickup, and are waiting at about Mile Six. We listen on the radio for Don's time in the quarter-mile, the first mile, and the second mile. By the time he reaches us, we have a good idea of what the top speed of the run might be.

Right after the record-setting run As Don comes into sight we drive beside him and arrive right after he rolls to a stop.

Rick packing the chute Don climbing out After a good run, Don is pumped, as anyone would be after just having driven a car at over four-hundred miles an hour. You might look at him and wonder how he's able to do this so casually.

This is just what he does. And all he wants to do is do it again, as soon as possible, only faster than ever before.

Time to pack the chutes, prep the car and make another run.

Links to related sites

SCTA logo Events at the Bonneville Salt Flats are organized by several sanctioning bodies, each hosting several events per year.

Here are some other Web pages to visit to learn more about racing at Bonneville:

Land Speed Record Racing

Southern California Timing Association and Bonneville Nationals, Inc.

Utah Salt Flats Racers Association

Roadsters.com - articles and 8,000 links
All text and images on Roadsters.com
are Copyright 1996-2013 Dave Mann