WENDOVER AND ENVIRONS Bonneville Salt Flats: regional site map. In the 100 miles that separate Salt Lake City and the Utah-Nevada border town of Wendover lies a vast salt plain left by the shrinking of Lake Bonneville (14,000 BC) to what we now call the Great Salt Lake. East of Wendover, on the Utah side, is the Bonneville Salt Flats race course. [All drawings and photos by Martin Hogue]
View from Interstate 80, looking east towards Wendover and the Bonneville Salt Flats.
State Line Motel and Casino. A two-hour drive from Salt Lake City, straight down the Interstate, the small, dusty town of Wendover is a popular destination, mostly for the casinos on the Nevada side. More recently, following an expansion of the State Line, the iconic cowboy has been moved to a preeminent location along the casino strip. Photograph: State Line Hotel and Casino.
Wendover Air Force Base. Thousands of military personnel were stationed here during World War II. A bombing and gunnery range, Wendover was the training site for the B-29 crew that flew the missions that dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Decommissioned in 1969, the base, with its big hangars and wide landing strip, seems today both monumental and desolate.
Wendover Air Force Base, abandoned housing. After the base was closed, many of its smaller buildings were sold to private-sector buyers. Two barracks were bought by the Los Angeles-based Center for Land Use Interpretation to accommodate the public component of its Wendover operations.
Wendover, housing trailers. Except for its larger and sturdier commercial buildings — mostly the casinos and motels that cater to transients — much of the town’s housing reflects the inhospitable character of the landscape. Not a place that encourages settlement, the Bonneville flats are instead a landscape to be traversed, a place to be visited on the way to somewhere else.
Bonneville Salt Flats. A single road leads to the flats. This three-mile stretch of asphalt, which branches off north from Interstate 80 a few miles east of Wendover, ends abruptly. Ahead there is nothing but a white expanse of salt; to one side are large, monolithic mountains, far away, barely visible in the background. Standing at the end of this road, one stares into open space, as if at the end of a pier jutting into the ocean.
The Flats. Tire tracks on the flats. With its perfectly flat elevation across distances so great that the curvature of the earth becomes visible to the naked eye, the Bonneville Salt Flats were an ideal site for land speed racing. Speed runs require vast expanses of unobstructed space — stretches of land several miles in length and width to accommodate acceleration, deceleration, and the possibility of deviation off course, which, at extreme speeds, can be fatal. Bonneville attracted the best drivers and, between 1935 and 1970, saw the land speed record broken no less than 18 times.
The Flats. The slight wrinkles in the salt surface reflect dynamic geological processes, especially annual cycles of watering and evaporation.
The Flats, analytical description. The empty United States Geological Survey map frame symbolizes the vast and unchanging white plain of the salt surface. [Collage by Martin Hogue, map by United States Geological Survey]
BONNEVILLE RACE COURSE Bonneville, tracing the course, 1935. Tracing the oil lines that delineated the 13-mile long race course, here in advance of Sir Malcolm Campbell’s record-setting performance of 1935. Techniques for tracing the course changed little over the decades. Photograph: George Eyston and W.F. Bradley, Speed on Salt: A History of the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, United States of America (New York: Scribner's Sons, 1936).
Bonneville, laying out the race course. Given the unchanging nature of the landscape, these mile markers along the length of the track often constitute the only real indication of movement for the driver. Photograph: George Lepp.
Bonneville Speed Week. Speed Week at Bonneville is an annual racing contest in mid August. The crew pits are in the foreground. The track, defined by two black oil lines, stretches 10 to 15 miles, allowing drivers to start, accelerate, reach full speed in the flying mile (where top speeds are measured), and decelerate to a full stop. Photograph: George Lepp.
U.S. Geological Survey maps, showing a typical race course on the flats. The diagonal line at the top represents the Bonneville Salt Flats race course (a-d), with the flying mile (b-c) at the center. Official land speed records are established as the average of two consecutive runs, in each direction, within one hour. These requirements ensure that drivers cannot take advantage of slight alterations in natural conditions (slope, wind, etc.). Bisecting the map from left to right in the center is Interstate 80. At the bottom left is a potash mine. Map underlay: United States Geological Survey.
Infrastructures of Transition. The history of racing on the flats intensifies the older narratives of passage and transition that have constructed the identity of the region. Indeed, the landscapes of western Utah have resisted — or discouraged — more permanent types of settlement. The goal in this drawing is to represent the site as a series of overlapping vectors, each highlighting a significant infrastructural narrative related to the site and its development.
RACING ON THE FLATS Blue Bird, drive by Sir Malcolm Campbell. Sir Malcolm Campbell on his way to a new, 301-mph land speed record, September 3, 1935. This first official record on the flats would usher in an era of unparalleled success for racing at Bonneville, establishing the site as the venue for land speed record attempts until the early 1970s. Photograph: George Eyston and W.F. Bradley, Speed on Salt: A History of the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, United States of America (New York: Scribner's Sons, 1936).
Bluebird. Malcolm Campbell set the land speed record in the Bluebird — a five-ton, V-12, 350 bhp custom-engineered vehicle. Photograph: Cyril Posthumus, Land Speed Record (Oxford: Osprey, 1971), 104.
Sir Malcolm Campbell and Bluebird on the flats, 1935. Photograph: George Eyston and W.F. Bradley, Speed on Salt: A History of the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, United States of America (New York: Scribner's Sons, 1936).
Mickey Thompson, emerging from the Challenger, 1960. In 1960 the American driver Mickey Thompson completed the course at speeds of over 406 mph. This legendary attempt was well within record time for wheel-driven vehicles, but Thompson could not complete the regulatory return run because of engine trouble. Photograph: Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company.
Chart: Land Speed Record. This chart documents the land speed record since its inception: each record is represented as a horizontal segment, beginning on the date it is set and ending on the date it is broken. With the advent of jet-propelled cars in the early 1960s, the relationship of the ground to vehicular speed is altered: vehicular propulsion is now achieved through friction with the air, instead of with the ground. This moment is marked in the chart as a split into two vectors — the one with the lower inclination represents speed records for wheel-driven vehicles, which have leveled off significantly in the last 40 years.
Spirit of America. The racer Craig Breedlove and the Spirit of America started the era of jet-powered racing, setting a record of 407mph in August 1963 (although the vehicle was technically ineligible, since it lacked a fourth wheel). Photograph: Cyril Posthumus, Land Speed Record (Oxford: Osprey, 1971), 170.
Fastest man on earth. An icon of 1960s racing culture, Craig Breedlove stands at the helm of his mechanics crew. Photograph: Craig Breedlove.
Spirit of America, repacking the chute. Given top speeds of more than 400 mph in the early 1960s, chutes became the preferred way to brake to zero. Photograph: Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company.
Blue Caduceus, ca. 1960s. A crew member stands by Nathan Ostich’s Blue Caduceus following a run on the flats in 1960. Photograph: Utah State Historical Society.
Blue Flame, 1970. Gary Gabelich’s Blue Flame and crew, on the flats. Photograph: Cyril Posthumus, Land Speed Record (Oxford: Osprey, 1971), 208.
Blue Flame, land speed record. Driver Gary Gabelich, right after setting a new 630-mph land speed record on October 23, 1970. Gabelich was the last driver to establish a jet-powered record on the flats. Photograph: Cyril Posthumus, Land Speed Record (Oxford: Osprey, 1971), 204.
983. The traces that remain on the ground create a virtual index of the activities on the flats. Paint marks delineating the various pit areas, deep holes marking the stakes of a temporary structure, skid marks, the boundaries of the course itself — all these litter this “white” surface.
CYCLES OF REJUVENATION Salts Flats and the Great Salt Lake. Diagram exploring the sectional relationship between the salt flats and the Great Salt Lake. The very few feet that separate the present elevation of the Great Salt Lake and that of the Bonneville Salt Flats suggest that this landscape has long been flood-prone, and show what a crucial role water played in shaping this land during the evaporation of Lake Bonneville, an ancient lake formed 32,000 years ago that encompassed the Great Salt Lake in its vast expanse.
Salt laydown. Every year in late fall and winter, the flats are naturally flooded with rain and snowmelt; this natural process is augmented by a “salt laydown” campaign, led by the Bureau of Land Management and largely financed by local mining concerns. Both processes help rejuvenate the salt surface. The water makes it impossible to permanently erect anything here; its evaporation, which takes a few months, produces the hard, smooth surface prized by racers. The period in later summer and early fall, between the natural evaporation of water on the flats and its flooding later in the year, marks the beginning and end of the annual racing season. Photograph: Bill Taylor.
AN ENDURING EVENT Speed Week, 2002. Land speed record attempts have moved to other venues — Black Rock Desert, in Nevada, where the current record of 763 mph was set by Andy Green in 1997, has a harder, smoother surface. Yet racing endures on the Bonneville Salt Flats, with several racing events each year attracting enthusiasts from around the world.
Speed Week, 2002. Tarps prevent oil and other contaminants from spilling onto the salt surface.
Speed Week, 2002. Race crews are often family operations.
Speed Week, 2002. Each crew provides its own power and must leave the surface as it found it.
Mile Marker 0. At the starting line during Speed Week, 2002.
Final adjustments. At the starting line during Speed Week, 2002, crews make final adjustments before the race.