There are many race tracks around the world, but none can claim the all-out speed pedigree of the Bonneville Salt Flats in Western Utah, which has hosted land speed record racing for more than a century. New Atlas made the trip out to this year's annual Speed Week to explore this arena of classic motoring, cutting-edge technology and balls-to-the-wall speed. Though the ground conditions weren't ideal, we saw records shattered, legends made and awe-inspiring automotive technology everywhere.
We've long covered land speed racing from a distance, watching with intense interest as efforts like the Venturi Buckeye Bullet 3, Triumph Infor and Bloodhound SSC work their way toward history at Bonneville and other expanses of flat, hard ground. This was actually our first trip out to the hallowed salt of Western Utah, however, so we approached it as newbies hungry with curiosity, learning a ton along the way.
History of speed and salt
Land speed record racing got its start at Bonneville in 1914, when Teddy Tezlaff drove his "Blitzen Benz" to a speed of 141.73 mph (228 km/h). Speed racing picked up again in the 1930s, when notables like Ab Jenkins, later a mayor of Salt Lake City, and British racers John Cobb and Sir Malcolm Campbell took to setting records there.
The Salt Flats have served host to hundreds of national and world records ever since, including Sir Malcolm Campbell's 301.126 mph in 1935 (485 km/h, first to 300 mph) and Craig Breedlove's 526.277 (847 km/h) and 600.601-mph (967-km/h) runs in the jet-powered Spirit of America (1964 and 1965, first to 500 and 600 mph).
Speed Week has been at the center of much of that record racing since 1949, when it was first held by the Southern California Timing Association. The event brought a new breed of speed-hungry amateur hot-rodder to the Salt Flats and over the years helped grow a passionate and eclectic blend of speed hounds, everyone from the well-financed professional team with big world record-shattering ambitions, right down to the first-timer looking to going faster than he (or she) ever had. The SCTA attempts to hold the event annually, and this year's is noted as the 68th, but sometimes the weather causes cancellations, the fate in both 2014 and 2015.
A very different environment from other race days you might be familiar with, Speed Week has an organization and pace all its own. It's all about speed, but the event moves along at a slow and measured pace – vehicles line up for their shot at record-smashing glory on both a short course (speeds under 175 mph/282 km/h) and a long course (over 175 mph). On the busier days around the beginning of the event, these vehicles inch their way forward over the course of hours while team members get drenched in hot, relentless sunlight, keeping the car cockpits and themselves shaded with umbrellas and awnings. Later on in the week, after many have met their goals and/or ripped their vehicles up, the starting line may be completely empty.
We spent our time on the long course viewing the faster, more powerful vehicles of the show. There were usually two or three vehicles lined up on the starting line, but they were never positioned there to battle each other down the course. Instead, Bonneville land speed racers fight a paper battle, proceeding off the line one at a time, each with sights on a very specific speed record for the individual class the vehicle is registered in.
The SCTA has designated dozens upon dozens of vehicle classes, and each vehicle is registered and identified by a combination of its engine, fuel type and construction. Breaking down every class would take us until next Speed Week, but a quick primer should prevent those classes from looking like a meaningless jumble of letters. We'll focus on the cars; motorcycles have a slightly different letter/number system.
Engines are broken into alphabetical designations based on size, starting at AA (501 cu in/8.21 liters+) and running through K (30.99 cu in/.507L and below). There are also separate classes for special engines (e.g. electric, turbine, etc.) and vintage engines.
Another key part of the classification each car wears is fuel type, with "fuel" – any approved liquid fuel like alcohol, hydrogen, nitrous oxide, etc. – and gasoline being the mainstays across classes, and diesel also making the occasional appearance. Cars with supercharging are separated from naturally aspirated cars, a distinction denoted by a "B" for "blown," so a "BG" is a blown gas car and a "BF" a blown fuel car.
The construction aspect of classification is where things get really diverse, giving Speed Week its unique collection of otherworldly vehicles of all shapes and ages. There are only six primary car construction categories: Special Construction (hand-built land speed cars), Vintage (pre-1948 American vehicles), Classic (1928 to 1981 vehicles), Modified (cars and trucks with heavy modifications), Production (very little modification) and Diesel Trucks.
Each of those main categories is split into multiple classes – in some cases, many classes –greatly expanding the total number of specific classifications (and speed records up for grabs), especially when you start multiplying by the engine size, supercharging and fuel categories.
The Stupidbaker Racing 1953 Studebaker below is running as a C-engine gas competition coupe, denoted by the "CGCC."
In short, there's no shortage of records to go after at Speed Week and related events. While most of those records aren't going to create any type of major buzz around the country, they encourage all types of drivers to come out and attempt a record, helping bring Speed Week to life with a great diversity of vehicles, personalities and, of course, broken records. There were even records set below 25 mph (40 km/h).
The SCTA website has an accessible list of record holders organized by category/subcategory with fuel/engine, but last we checked, it hadn't been updated to include the Speed Week record breakers.
Rewriting the books
Records are set by a two-run average over the "same relative or physical mile," consisting of a qualifying run and record run. Qualifying runs start on the opening race day of Speed Week. The vehicle must surpass the existing record by at least .001 mph to qualify for a record. After it does, it has an hour to get to the impound area, where it goes through a prep, certification and overnight holding process.
Record runs are held first thing the next morning, and the qualified car, which must be driven by the same driver from the qualifying run, either breaks the record or fails the attempt. Qualifying runs start anew after the record runs, and there's no limit to the number of qualifiers a car can take. In other words, if you miss the record, you can get back behind the wheel and try again ... and again and again. On the flip side, if you set a record, you can also swap in a different class engine and go for a different class record – something that some cars were doing.
Big record breakers, 2016
Though obviously better than it was for the two consecutively cancelled events in 2014 and 2015, the salt wasn't in peak form for record setting at this year's Speed Week. Reports were that it was softer and bumpier than ideal, and there seemed to be a lot of turn-outs and spins to point to as evidence. Before many a run, we'd get fired up for a particularly fast and fierce vehicle, watch it disappear into the invisible beyond, and listen intently to the radio broadcast, only to hear it had spun out or come to a stop.
That tough salt didn't stop some teams from meeting goals and setting records, though. Thirty-five individual records fell on the long course this year according to the results published on the SCTA's website, and many more were toppled on the short course.
Danny Thompson had perhaps the most compelling story of Speed Week 2016, though not quite the fastest time. He piloted his Challenger 2 to a class record over 400 mph (644 km/h) on Sunday, August 14, the first record-setting day of the week. That put him in the 400 mph club, an exclusive group of just 14 racers filled with legendary names like Richard Noble, Craig Breedlove and Don Vesco.
But the story runs much deeper than that. Danny's famous father Mickey Thompson –whose name you might recognize from racing or from the tires that adorn many vehicles, including a very different type of speed record breaker – was the first American to break 400 mph back in 1960, but he didn't make it official because mechanical problems prevented the mandated return run on his 406.6-mph (654 km/h) mark.
The Challenger 2 streamliner was originally built in 1968 and was a technological tour de force at the time. By that time, jet cars had pushed the record above 600 mph (966 km/h), so Thompson focused in on a wheel-driven speed record and making his 400-mph mark official. As the Thompson website tells it, he abandoned the effort when his sponsors pulled out in 1969 and turned his attention to other racing pursuits, including Baja.
The land speed record that never was continued to nag at Mickey, and in his retirement he made a plan with son Danny: he'd prepare the car and Danny would drive it into the books. They planned their first attempt on the salt for 1989, but Mickey Thompson and his wife Trudy were tragically murdered in 1988 before ever making that attempt.
Danny was quite understandably loath to pursue the record in the absence of his father, and the Challenger 2 was put away in storage, where it stayed for more than two decades. On the 50th anniversary of his father's 400-mph run, Danny felt the time right to finish his father's unfinished business. He pulled the original Challenger 2 out of storage and set to restoring it and updating it for modern performance and regulation standards, keeping the original structure while adding some new equipment - like the two 2,500-hp nitro-fueled Hemi V8s powering all four wheels.
Speed Week 2016: Thompson qualified on the very first day of racing with a 411.191 mph (662 mph) and returned the next morning to set the new AA-engine fuel streamliner record of 406.769 mph (655 km/h), eerily close to the 406.6 mph his father posted in the Challenger I in 1960. So 56 years after Mickey Thompson broke the 400 barrier, 48 years after he first set out with the Challenger II, and some 28 years after he attempted to restart the effort with the help of Danny, the vehicle and the Thompson name found their way to 400 mph.
That's some business finished.
Here's drone footage of the start of Thompson's qualifying run:
The Thompson run didn't quite make it all the way to the piston-engine speed record, which belongs to another of the heavy hitters of Speed Week 2016. The Poteet & Main Speed Demon raised the SCTA bar to 437.183 mph (704 km/h) at the last Speed Week in 2013, a year after setting an FIA world record of 439 mph (706.5 km/h).
Between then and now, Speed Demon driver George Poteet got into a 370-mph (595-km/h) crash in September 2014, and while he walked away with just bumps and bruises, the car didn't fare so well. So the team set to rebuilding it, cutting over 800 lb (363 kg) of weight, re-sculpting aerodynamics and moving some parts around.
The new, improved Speed Demon did quite well in its big debut, picking up around where the old one left off. It once again clocked the fastest record of the event, a 416.511 mph (670 km/h) that lifted it right to the top of the B-engine blown fuel streamliner pack. It drove under the power of a blown 388-cu in Duttweiler Hellfire V8, as opposed to the 368-cu in Hellfire (C engine) it ran for 2013's 437-mph run, hence the new 2016 record with the slower speed, set over the previous 381.867-mph B/BFS record held by the Teague-Welch-Banks streamliner since 2000. The Speed Demon also owns records with D and F blown fuel engines.
Journey to 500 mph via wheel
The slick, new Speed Demon is one of a handful of vehicles that hopes to become the first wheel-driven car to 500 mph (805 km/h). There have been land speed records that fast – the 500-mph mark was broken in 1964, as mentioned above, and the FIA absolute land speed record now stands just over 763 mph (1,228 km/h) – but those others have done it with jet and rocket power.
The Speed Demon definitely seems like a top contender, but one of the others seeking 500-mph glory is actually faster. The Turbinator II, driven by the late Don Vesco, set an FIA world record over 458 mph (737 km/h) in 2001. Unlike the Speed Demon, the Turbinator doesn't have a piston engine, but a 4,500-hp Lycoming turbine, which is why the Speed Demon can claim fastest piston-engine, wheel-driven car.
To make the record-jostling even more interesting, the Turbinator II sits behind the Speed Demon in the SCTA book of national records, because its top SCTA-timed speed was the 427.832 mph (689 km/h) achieved in 1999.
The Turbinator II's 458-mph is still a far cry from 500, but Team Vesco seems confident in its goal of breaking that barrier. At Speed Week, the team was less concerned with setting records and more focused on dialing in the new turbine and electronic control system. It reached speeds of over 350 mph (563 km/h), but it seems it still has some tweaking to do before going all the way to 500.
Below, you can listen to the powerful turbine fire up before watching the Turbinator II take off and disappear into the sea of white.
A very different streamliner with the same type of ambition, the Treit & Davenport Target 550 wears its objective in its name. A vehicle purposely developed for breaking 500 mph, the 43-foot (13.1-m) Target 550 relies on two supercharged 500-ci Hemi V8s, worth around 2,500-hp apiece. The black streamliner rumbles so loudly on startup that we thought it might fracture the speedway into shaker salt. It launched to over 375 mph (604 km/h), but it didn't set any records in the high-stakes AA-engine blown fuel streamliner category, where things stand at 417.020 mph (671 km/h).
We got to see the Target 550 run right after the Turbinator, and its throaty V8 duet was quite a cool contrast to the whirring of the turbine. You can watch the team prepare it and send it off in the clip below.
Possibly the boldest, most eye-catching vehicle of the event, the Carbiliner from Carbinite Land Speed Racing is another car with the 500+ mph itch. While many a streamliner looks like an aircraft fuselage, the Carbiliner looks like the entire aircraft thanks to its wide-set rear wheels, adding stability that proved helpful on this year's dodgy salt surface. Those rear wheels and the pointed nose give it the look of a three-wheeler, but it actually runs two front wheels in tandem, giving it the mandatory four+ to run as a car (SCTA's Special Construction Category rules allow for reconfiguration of the wheel layout).
The Carbiliner relies on a 2,600-hp turbocharged Chevy 540. It jumped over 360 mph three separate times, each time qualifying for a record in the AA-engine blown gas streamliner category, but a series of mechanical hiccups prevented a successful return run to keep it out of the books.
We didn't manage to get video of the Carbiliner shooting off the line, but that's actually a good thing because it inspired us to look for a video from the Carbinite team, which gives an angle we couldn't have captured.
We could spend days picking out other awesome vehicles to talk about, but there's a pretty large photo gallery waiting, where you can see them for yourself.
Note: We've made every attempt at providing accurate information about every vehicle for which we had it, pulling specs and info from our talks with teams, the official Speed Week program, the record and qualifier run ledgers, websites and social media, but given the fluid nature of land speed racing vehicles, it's possible that some mechanicals were a bit different at the time of the run. In some photos, you'll notice the vehicle's classification and numbering have a makeshift alteration, putting them in a different class than they were listed as in the official program.
If you have "salt fever" and all that Speed Week action isn't enough land speed racing, don't worry – other big Bonneville events are coming soon. September brings World of Speed (USFRA), Mike Cook's Bonneville Shootout (FIA/FIM), and World Finals (SCTA). Perhaps one of the big streamliners above still wants to write its name in the 2016 book.