Before there was drag racing… Before there was NASCAR… Before there was off-road, Baja, SODA, SCORE… Before there was road racing, IMSA, Trans-AM, Formula One, FIA… Before there were Indy cars, sprinters, midgets, hobby stocks, rally cars, Pikes Peak, Destruction Derby and the World of Outlaws. Before there were Mears, Unsers, Andrettis, Foyt and Barney Oldfield. Even before Wally Parks…
There was Speed.
Testing top speed started with the first automobile, and I’m willing to bet, the second automobile was intended to beat the first. Even the most uninitiated person holds an opinion about speed. Stop anywhere while towing your racer and somebody is bound to ask, “How fast will that thing go?”
Hot rodders have been answering the “how fast” question on various California dry lakes since before World War II. During those early years Bonneville was basically a rich man’s playground, where monster land speed cars ran under the old AAA sanctioning, while the dry-lakes hot rodders looked on with envy.
Enter the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA). They wanted to run “hot rods” at the Salt. An old letter from Wally Parks explains what took place.
Alex Xydias told me you’re having some difficulty unraveling the history of hot rod cars running at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Here, right from the old horse’s mouth, are some details of the history of hot rod cars running at the Bonneville Salt Flats:
In 1948, when I was secretary and general manager of the SCTA as its first full-time employee, we had contacted the old AAA regarding the hope we might run our cars on the Salt. In a reply letter from Mr. Art Pillsbury, then the AAA’s chief steward for auto racing in the United States, we were advised that “the world record in Class C is 203 mph and it is highly doubtful any hot rod will ever attain that speed.”
Some time after that not-encouraging response, I contacted the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce, whose secretary, Gus Backman, was in charge of its Bonneville Speedway Association—entrusted by the state and U.S. government as the official custodian of Bonneville’s Salt Flats.
Mr. Backman suggested a meeting to discuss the SCTA’s proposal, and I invited Mr. Lee Ryan, senior member of a publicity group with whom we were planning SCTA’s first Hot Rod Exposition, to accompany me for the Salt Lake City presentation. As neither of us had transportation suitable for the journey, we invited Bob “Pete” Petersen to join us on the trip with his 10-year-old Mercury club coupe as our hopeful round-trip conveyance.
After our proposal, in which Lee Ryan added a valuable element of maturity, Mr. Backman agreed to allow the SCTA one “trial” event on the Bonneville Salt Flats, with any future consideration pending the first event’s outcome. Needless to say, the initial venture in 1949 was a pronounced success. And due to SCTA’s diligence in operations, plus the cooperative support of Union Oil Company and Hot Rod Magazine, the Bonneville National Speed Trials became an historic annual occasion—one that has lasted for half a century—threatened only by the condition of the Salt.
Named in the 1949 entries were enough heroes to last me a lifetime. Today, Speed Week is the crown jewel in what has become a summer of time trials. And Bonneville, the Mecca of Speed.
While the story here is “fast,” it’s the people—what they build and bring to race—that makes this place so incredibly interesting. Bonneville is about dreams—and sometimes even fantasies—brought to life after months or even years of effort, and towed to this place each year with only one thing in mind: Speed.
Stirred by Bob Petersen’s Hot Rod Magazine, I started hot rodding in 1954 by building a B-blocked, C-cranked and Riley-headed ’31 Ford Model A. But it was my ’53 Stude coupe and a guy named Bruce Geisler that got me to the Salt, and neither of us has been the same since. By the way, my first run at the Salt was 150.00 mph, a perfection I have yet to duplicate.
After the run, I checked the valve lash on my 327 Chevy. Two intake rockers were clear off the studs. So much for those trick rocker nuts. To my knowledge, that was the first run by a 90° Chevy V-6 at the Salt.
One run. Then it rained, and we all went home to return the next year. Ah, Bonneville…
My business turned to turbocharging and marine engines in the ’60s and ’70s, but we always had our hand in something “salty.” One of the most bizarre projects belonged to (then Air Force doctor) Al Abbott, who wanted to purchase one of our big block marine endurance engines. His intent was to set the Bicycle Land Speed Record???
Turns out, he was doing this while drafting a ’55 Chevy coupe. But, during practice runs his engine kept kicking out parts with Al in its wake. Our boat-motor solved the problem and Al got the record, cycling somewhere in the 145 mph range. Al’s brother sat in the trunk observing and running the throttle, with another guy up front doing the steering and shifting.
Like I said, the story is the people.
And the people can be very special. In 1981, the Sundowner Corvette brought giant smiles to the faces of Bob Kehoe and myself by giving partner Dwayne McKinney a 240+ ride. We broke the record a ton, and proceeded to celebrate in a friend’s motorhome with the blender at full rpm. We neglected the valve work needed on our engine in Geisler’s Hanky Panky Studebaker. Near the end of the day, Doug Cook knocks on the door to say, “Hey Gale, I finished the heads for the Stude.” Hell, I’d forgotten all about them. Doug had his own stuff to work on, but that’s Bonneville… I’ll never forget it. Today, Doug’s son Mike will be found prominently placed in this program.
Through the years, having raced in almost every form of car or boat, I find that my most meaningful memories come from the Salt: Dipping my jeans and T-shirt in a 55-gallon drum of borate solution (couldn’t afford a fire suit.) Attempting to float my ’56 Bel Air tow car on the way to the highway (it sank). Watching the guy next door bore a block in his motel room (El Patio). Running a Pontiac Firebird with factory sponsorship (talk about pressure!). Taking away a Porsche world record with a GMC pickup (the Syclone). My membership in the Rod Riders with Bill Burke as president (a true gentleman who influenced me greatly.) And living with the antics of my lifelong partner, Bruce Geisler (three all-nighters in a row, and still laughing.)
Bonneville is the last bastion of the amateur racer and, like Doug and Mike Cook, it’s family and friendly. People with big heads are rare. I’ve seen direct competitors loan parts and tools to each other, sometimes even helping the other guy wrench. Then they’d go out and pump Salt with the prime intent of blowing the other guy off.
Speaking of pumping Salt, you’ll find no taxiing aircraft (jet cars) at Speed Week. Here, all the cars put the power down through the tires, just like God intended. The best at that for more years than I can remember is Elwin “Al” Teague. Refining his Lakester into a Streamliner and marching well into the 400’s, Al typifies what Bonneville racing is all about—limited budget, hard work, racing savvy, natural engineering talent, finding more speed year after year and laying down a sound that defines this place. This unassuming man does not like confining spaces, yet sits in a very claustrophobic place and gets in the wind with an authority that is the envy of us all.
Bonneville is about hard work and heroes, high- and low-buck, victory and defeat, fathers and sons, dreams realized and “wait’ll next year.” But, it’s this year, and you’re here. If you’re racing, good luck. If you’re spectating, check out the machinery—the ingenuity is awesome. Pick your favorites and see how they do. Most of all, enjoy the meet, whether you’re in it or along the sidelines
People say, “in Life, Timing is Everything.” But here at Bonneville, I like to say, “Everything is Timing”