Automotive

Bonneville dishes out salt, sun and speed in spades

On the starting line
On the starting line
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Our first look at the wide expanse of mountain-rimmed salt known as the Bonneville Salt Flats
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Our first look at the wide expanse of mountain-rimmed salt known as the Bonneville Salt Flats
Cars lined up and waiting for their shot at glory
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Cars lined up and waiting for their shot at glory
Cars lined up and ready to go, Bonneville Speed Week 2016
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Cars lined up and ready to go, Bonneville Speed Week 2016
This Bateman car looks like a carbon fiber bullet, but we were told that's just a carbon-look wrap over fiberglass
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This Bateman car looks like a carbon fiber bullet, but we were told that's just a carbon-look wrap over fiberglass
Halophile bike with 1300cc Suzuki motor
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Halophile bike with 1300cc Suzuki motor
Halophile bike with 1300cc Suzuki motor
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Halophile bike with 1300cc Suzuki motor
The Poteet and Main Speed Demon is the closest thing to a wingless aircraft we saw at Speed Week
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The Poteet and Main Speed Demon is the closest thing to a wingless aircraft we saw at Speed Week
The fastest vehicle of Speed Week 2016, the fittingly named Speed Demon set a record of 416.511 mph  (670 km/h)
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The fastest vehicle of Speed Week 2016, the fittingly named Speed Demon set a record of 416.511 mph  (670 km/h)
Car #998, a 2000 Nish Streamliner, takes off
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Car #998, a 2000 Nish Streamliner, takes off
This Nish Motorsports streamliner is listed as having a 520-cu in Darien Hemi V8
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This Nish Motorsports streamliner is listed as having a 520-cu in Darien Hemi V8
Powered by a 301-cu in Chevy engine, car #366, a gas lakester from Ravenna Garage Racing, goes after the 254.685 mph (458 km/h) D/GL record
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Powered by a 301-cu in Chevy engine, car #366, a gas lakester from Ravenna Garage Racing, goes after the 254.685 mph (458 km/h) D/GL record
If you're wondering about the truck: Push trucks are used because land speed record cars are geared so high for speed they need help accelerating from stop. Most vehicles we watched relied on such trucks
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If you're wondering about the truck: Push trucks are used because land speed record cars are geared so high for speed they need help accelerating from stop. Most vehicles we watched relied on such trucks
Car #366 getting up to speed
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Car #366 getting up to speed
Car #366 pulls away from its push truck and takes off down the salt
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Car #366 pulls away from its push truck and takes off down the salt
Target 550 driver gets ready to challenge the 417.020 mph (617 km/h) record in the AA/BFS (blown fuel streamliner) class
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Target 550 driver gets ready to challenge the 417.020 mph (617 km/h) record in the AA/BFS (blown fuel streamliner) class
The Target 550, car #678, is powered by not one, but two 500-ci Hemi V8 engines
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The Target 550, car #678, is powered by not one, but two 500-ci Hemi V8 engines
Car #316, a distinctive, shining fuel lakester, moves toward the starting line
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Car #316, a distinctive, shining fuel lakester, moves toward the starting line
1953 "Stupidbaker" 
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1953 "Stupidbaker" 
Reworked 1973 Alfa Romeo roadster running in the fuel modified sports category with an A engine
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Reworked 1973 Alfa Romeo roadster running in the fuel modified sports category with an A engine
In chatting with the driver of this modified Alfa Romeo from KKM Racing, we were told it packs a Chevy big block engine worth around 900 hp
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In chatting with the driver of this modified Alfa Romeo from KKM Racing, we were told it packs a Chevy big block engine worth around 900 hp
While its bodywork is anything but stock, KKM's Alfa has the stock steel tub underneath
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While its bodywork is anything but stock, KKM's Alfa has the stock steel tub underneath
KKM modified Alfa Romeo
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KKM modified Alfa Romeo
The artistic Alfa grille immediately caught our eye
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The artistic Alfa grille immediately caught our eye
There were a lot of Corvettes of all ages and tune, but this Sundowner #42 was probably our favorite of the lot
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There were a lot of Corvettes of all ages and tune, but this Sundowner #42 was probably our favorite of the lot
The Gerber-Tracy Special is listed as being powered by a 180-ci Esslinger four-cylinder engine
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The Gerber-Tracy Special is listed as being powered by a 180-ci Esslinger four-cylinder engine
The record for the F-engine/gas lakester class is 229.989 mph (370 km/h)
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The record for the F-engine/gas lakester class is 229.989 mph (370 km/h)
The 1948 Fiat-based Pigasus fuel competition coupe packs a 440-ci Chevy V8, according to the info published in the official program from Speed Week 2016
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The 1948 Fiat-based Pigasus fuel competition coupe packs a 440-ci Chevy V8, according to the info published in the official program from Speed Week 2016
You can tell this car has spent some serious time in the salt 
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You can tell this car has spent some serious time in the salt 
The record for the 3000cc APS-PBG motorcycle class: 201.226 mph (324 km/h)
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The record for the 3000cc APS-PBG motorcycle class: 201.226 mph (324 km/h)
Motorcycles were fairly rare on the long course where we spent most of our time because most were busy going for records on the short course, but the ones we saw were quite impressive to behold
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Motorcycles were fairly rare on the long course where we spent most of our time because most were busy going for records on the short course, but the ones we saw were quite impressive to behold
Inside the cockpit of the "Flyin' Bryan" motorcycle
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Inside the cockpit of the "Flyin' Bryan" motorcycle
Modified 1927 Ford Roadster takes aim at a speed of 247.749 mph (399 km/h)
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Modified 1927 Ford Roadster takes aim at a speed of 247.749 mph (399 km/h)
Inside The Fields Brothers 1927 fuel modified roadster
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Inside The Fields Brothers 1927 fuel modified roadster
The official program lists the #7557 with a 302-ci Chevy V8
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The official program lists the #7557 with a 302-ci Chevy V8
Another top competitor, the custom-built Carbiliner is a blown gas streamliner 
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Another top competitor, the custom-built Carbiliner is a blown gas streamliner 
The Carbiliner looks like a three-wheeler but is indeed a four-wheel car. The spread rear track is designed to give it stability that other streamliners don't have. The front wheels, on the other hand, are mounted in tandem.
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The Carbiliner looks like a three-wheeler but is indeed a four-wheel car. The spread rear track is designed to give it stability that other streamliners don't have. The front wheels, on the other hand, are mounted in tandem.
We watched the Carbiliner take off on one of several successful qualifying runs,  reaching a 363.115 mph (548 km/h) speed, but due to various mechanical problems, it never broke the record, which still stands at 348.342 mph (561 km/h) for the class
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We watched the Carbiliner take off on one of several successful qualifying runs,  reaching a 363.115 mph (548 km/h) speed, but due to various mechanical problems, it never broke the record, which still stands at 348.342 mph (561 km/h) for the class
Cars lined up and ready to go, Bonneville Speed Week 2016
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Cars lined up and ready to go, Bonneville Speed Week 2016
Cars lined up and ready to go, Bonneville Speed Week 2016
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Cars lined up and ready to go, Bonneville Speed Week 2016
The Hard Way lists in as a fuel-driven 1929 Ford Roadster with 412-ci Chevy V8
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The Hard Way lists in as a fuel-driven 1929 Ford Roadster with 412-ci Chevy V8
Cars lined up and ready to go, Bonneville Speed Week 2016
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Cars lined up and ready to go, Bonneville Speed Week 2016
At the starting line
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At the starting line
Taking off down the long course
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Taking off down the long course
Ferguson Racing #76, a 2000 Vesco-Nish streamliner with 2100cc Honda engine
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Ferguson Racing #76, a 2000 Vesco-Nish streamliner with 2100cc Honda engine
KKM modified Alfa Romeo ready to race
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KKM modified Alfa Romeo ready to race
The Alfa Romeo we checked out in line gets ready for its run
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The Alfa Romeo we checked out in line gets ready for its run
The record in this Alfa's sights: 254.763 mph (410 km/h)
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The record in this Alfa's sights: 254.763 mph (410 km/h)
Under all that slick bodywork, car #9913 from Stupidbaker Racing is actually a 1953 Studebaker
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Under all that slick bodywork, car #9913 from Stupidbaker Racing is actually a 1953 Studebaker
Racing in the gas competition coupe class, this Stupidbaker lists in with a 362-ci Chevy V8
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Racing in the gas competition coupe class, this Stupidbaker lists in with a 362-ci Chevy V8
The Stupidbaker prepares to run against a 293.857 mph (473 km/h) class record
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The Stupidbaker prepares to run against a 293.857 mph (473 km/h) class record
A peek inside car #9913
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A peek inside car #9913
Team Honda R&D streamliner
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Team Honda R&D streamliner
A beefed up VW Beetle prepares for its run
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A beefed up VW Beetle prepares for its run
The long line moved quite slowly our first day in Bonneville, but thinned out more and more as the week went on
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The long line moved quite slowly our first day in Bonneville, but thinned out more and more as the week went on
Cars lined up and ready to go, Bonneville Speed Week 2016
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Cars lined up and ready to go, Bonneville Speed Week 2016
Car #7557 inches forward
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Car #7557 inches forward
We spotted this playful car outside the main race area
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We spotted this playful car outside the main race area
We spotted this playful car outside the main race area
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We spotted this playful car outside the main race area
Car #74, a fuel streamliner
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Car #74, a fuel streamliner
Car #74, a fuel streamliner
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Car #74, a fuel streamliner
The impressive Turbinator II is the world's fastest wheel-driven car with a 458.481 mph (738 km/h) record
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The impressive Turbinator II is the world's fastest wheel-driven car with a 458.481 mph (738 km/h) record
Team Vesco's Turbinator II is powered by a new 4,500-hp Lycoming T55-L-712F gas turbine
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Team Vesco's Turbinator II is powered by a new 4,500-hp Lycoming T55-L-712F gas turbine
Team Vesco used Speed Week to test and tweak a new electronic control system that it believes will help it break 500 mph (805 km/h)
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Team Vesco used Speed Week to test and tweak a new electronic control system that it believes will help it break 500 mph (805 km/h)
Cars lined up and ready to go, Bonneville Speed Week 2016
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Cars lined up and ready to go, Bonneville Speed Week 2016
At the starting line
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At the starting line
Team Honda R&D readies its blown fuel streamliner
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Team Honda R&D readies its blown fuel streamliner
Honda's streamliner is driven by a 660cc engine
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Honda's streamliner is driven by a 660cc engine
The Honda driver listed in the official program is Hikaru Miyagi
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The Honda driver listed in the official program is Hikaru Miyagi
Honda got up to over 233 mph (375 km/h) on this run
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Honda got up to over 233 mph (375 km/h) on this run
One of the event's many Corvettes speeds off the line
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One of the event's many Corvettes speeds off the line
The most interesting push truck we saw, a stripped down Honda Pilot
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The most interesting push truck we saw, a stripped down Honda Pilot
Honda streamliner takes off
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Honda streamliner takes off
Honda streamliner takes off
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Honda streamliner takes off
Car #7243 is listed as a modified 1927 Ford Roadster with 218-ci Ford Model B four-cylinder flathead
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Car #7243 is listed as a modified 1927 Ford Roadster with 218-ci Ford Model B four-cylinder flathead
Bonneville Speed Week 2016
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Bonneville Speed Week 2016
Bonneville Speed Week 2016
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Bonneville Speed Week 2016
Bonneville Speed Week 2016
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Bonneville Speed Week 2016
The white salt makes a great backdrop for a brightly colored car
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The white salt makes a great backdrop for a brightly colored car
Bonneville Speed Week 2016
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Bonneville Speed Week 2016
This 1964 BMC Mini altered coupe is marked as a blown fuel car here but listed as a blown gas altered coupe in the program
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This 1964 BMC Mini altered coupe is marked as a blown fuel car here but listed as a blown gas altered coupe in the program
A classic Mini hungry for speed domination
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A classic Mini hungry for speed domination
The Hudson Boys' 1990 Geo Metro is listed as running a 1000cc Suzuki engine
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The Hudson Boys' 1990 Geo Metro is listed as running a 1000cc Suzuki engine
This Geo is listed as a blown gas competition coupe in the official Speed Week program but is marked as a blown fuel competition coupe here
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This Geo is listed as a blown gas competition coupe in the official Speed Week program but is marked as a blown fuel competition coupe here
The Hudson Boys Geo Metro competition coupe 
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The Hudson Boys Geo Metro competition coupe 
Car #651, listed as a 1965 Plymouth with 528-ci Chrysler V8
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Car #651, listed as a 1965 Plymouth with 528-ci Chrysler V8
The Dutchess is a blown gas competition coupe based on a 1965 Plymouth
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The Dutchess is a blown gas competition coupe based on a 1965 Plymouth
Bonneville Speed Week 2016
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Bonneville Speed Week 2016
Bonneville Speed Week 2016
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Bonneville Speed Week 2016
Motorcycles of Speed Week 2016
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Motorcycles of Speed Week 2016
Motorcycles of Speed Week 2016
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Motorcycles of Speed Week 2016
Spitfire LSR from Team McLeish Bros
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Spitfire LSR from Team McLeish Bros
Motorcycles of Speed Week 2016
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Motorcycles of Speed Week 2016
The Spitfire LSR
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The Spitfire LSR
Motorcycles of Speed Week 2016
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Motorcycles of Speed Week 2016
"Mighty Mouse" diesel truck
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"Mighty Mouse" diesel truck
A classic 1956 Watson Roadster in the Vintage Oval Track class
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A classic 1956 Watson Roadster in the Vintage Oval Track class
Power in car #5 comes from a 270-ci Offenhauser four-cylinder
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Power in car #5 comes from a 270-ci Offenhauser four-cylinder
It may be number 1961, but this MG is actually from 1960
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It may be number 1961, but this MG is actually from 1960
In the Blown Fuel Modified Sports Class, this MG is powered by a 302-ci Ford V8
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In the Blown Fuel Modified Sports Class, this MG is powered by a 302-ci Ford V8
In the pits, Speed Week 2016
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In the pits, Speed Week 2016
A look at car #1961's rear-end and parachute
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A look at car #1961's rear-end and parachute
In the pits, Speed Week 2016
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In the pits, Speed Week 2016
Motor power served up two very different ways
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Motor power served up two very different ways
Bikes of Bonneville
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Bikes of Bonneville
2002 Indian motorcycle with 1650cc motor
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2002 Indian motorcycle with 1650cc motor
In the pits, Speed Week 2016
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In the pits, Speed Week 2016
One of the fastest record breakers of the event, the Ferguson Racing #75 fuel streamliner set a 349.939-mph (563 km/h) record
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One of the fastest record breakers of the event, the Ferguson Racing #75 fuel streamliner set a 349.939-mph (563 km/h) record
Ferguson Racing #75 is listed with a 421-ci Ardun Chrysler V8 engine
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Ferguson Racing #75 is listed with a 421-ci Ardun Chrysler V8 engine
Bikes of Bonneville
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Bikes of Bonneville
In the pits, Speed Week 2016
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In the pits, Speed Week 2016
This vehicle looks like a streamliner here, but it's actually a gas lakester
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This vehicle looks like a streamliner here, but it's actually a gas lakester
One of the lighter, simpler two-wheelers of Speed Week
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One of the lighter, simpler two-wheelers of Speed Week
Team Vesco works on streamliner #444
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Team Vesco works on streamliner #444
The Turbinator II between runs
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The Turbinator II between runs
Motorcycles of Speed Week 2016
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Motorcycles of Speed Week 2016
Speed Week 2016
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Speed Week 2016
Speed Week 2016
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Speed Week 2016
"The Blonde Bitch" belly tank gas lakester powered by a 284-ci Ford flathead V8
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"The Blonde Bitch" belly tank gas lakester powered by a 284-ci Ford flathead V8
Car #9990, a blown gas streamliner
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Car #9990, a blown gas streamliner
This 2011 homebuilt streamliner is listed as powered by a 438-ci Chevy V8
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This 2011 homebuilt streamliner is listed as powered by a 438-ci Chevy V8
Frosted with salt
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Frosted with salt
2 Richards Racing blown gas modified roadster with 183-ci Ford Esslinger four-cylinder
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2 Richards Racing blown gas modified roadster with 183-ci Ford Esslinger four-cylinder
2012 B&J fuel lakester with 491-ci Chevy V8
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2012 B&J fuel lakester with 491-ci Chevy V8
ProtoFAB blown fuel lakester
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ProtoFAB blown fuel lakester
The Richmond & Stark blown fuel streamliner is listed with dual 386-ci Chevy V8s
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The Richmond & Stark blown fuel streamliner is listed with dual 386-ci Chevy V8s
Richmond & Stark blown fuel streamliner
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Richmond & Stark blown fuel streamliner
Cook Motor Racing "Cookie"
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Cook Motor Racing "Cookie"
Cook Motor Racing "Cookie"
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Cook Motor Racing "Cookie"
Corvette in the Production Grand Touring class
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Corvette in the Production Grand Touring class
Working toward the starting line
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Working toward the starting line
Blown gas modified roadster preparing for its run
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Blown gas modified roadster preparing for its run
Car #74 on the starting line
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Car #74 on the starting line
It may look like the Ferguson Racing #76 streamliner and Mariani Farms #73 roadster are about to battle it out down the course, but they're each preparing for their own individual runs
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It may look like the Ferguson Racing #76 streamliner and Mariani Farms #73 roadster are about to battle it out down the course, but they're each preparing for their own individual runs
On the starting line
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On the starting line
This Mariani Farms roadster had a great Speed Week. It set a new 263.676-mph (424-km/h) record in the C-engine (306 to 372.99 cu in/5.015 to 6.111L) Blown Gas Modified Roadster class on Wednesday morning before qualifying in the C-engine Blown Fuel Modified Roadster class (notice the revised number and class) Wednesday afternoon. It set the record in that class on Thursday morning with a 277.326-mph (446 km/h) speed
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This Mariani Farms roadster had a great Speed Week. It set a new 263.676-mph (424-km/h) record in the C-engine (306 to 372.99 cu in/5.015 to 6.111L) Blown Gas Modified Roadster class on Wednesday morning before qualifying in the C-engine Blown Fuel Modified Roadster class (notice the revised number and class) Wednesday afternoon. It set the record in that class on Thursday morning with a 277.326-mph (446 km/h) speed
Ferguson Racing on the starting line
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Ferguson Racing on the starting line
9990 prepares for its run
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9990 prepares for its run
Launching ... 
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Launching ... 
Car 906 takes off
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Car 906 takes off
Pulling away under its own engine power
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Pulling away under its own engine power
Car 242 is up
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Car 242 is up
Another launch
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Another launch
Car #316 rolling forward
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Car #316 rolling forward
Car #366 waits its turn
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Car #366 waits its turn
Car #366 waits its turn
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Car #366 waits its turn
Team Vesco fuel streamliner #444 
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Team Vesco fuel streamliner #444 
It's been redesigned and overhauled, but the Little Giant dates all the way back to the 8th Annual Speed Week of 1957
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It's been redesigned and overhauled, but the Little Giant dates all the way back to the 8th Annual Speed Week of 1957
The 26-foot (7.9-m) Little Giant is powered by a Chevy small block with upwards of 880 hp
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The 26-foot (7.9-m) Little Giant is powered by a Chevy small block with upwards of 880 hp
Team Vesco Little Giant
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Team Vesco Little Giant
The Target 550 rattles the salt with its two big V8s yet again
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The Target 550 rattles the salt with its two big V8s yet again
A look at those pretty mechanicals below
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A look at those pretty mechanicals below
In case the name isn't entirely clear, all that dual-Hemi engine power is aimed at a goal of 550 mph (885 km/h)
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In case the name isn't entirely clear, all that dual-Hemi engine power is aimed at a goal of 550 mph (885 km/h)
The Target 550 measures 43 feet (13.1-m) and has around 5,000 hp on tap, according to the specs on the team's website
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The Target 550 measures 43 feet (13.1-m) and has around 5,000 hp on tap, according to the specs on the team's website
The Turbinator II has a locked four-wheel-drive system
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The Turbinator II has a locked four-wheel-drive system
The Turbinator II measures 36 feet (11 m) in length
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The Turbinator II measures 36 feet (11 m) in length
This Cook Motor Racing streamliner is powered by a 2000cc VW diesel engine, as listed in the official program
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This Cook Motor Racing streamliner is powered by a 2000cc VW diesel engine, as listed in the official program
Cook Motor Racing's diesel streamliner
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Cook Motor Racing's diesel streamliner
Cook Motor Racing streamliner
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Cook Motor Racing streamliner
Nearing the starting line
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Nearing the starting line
A rather metallic look for the starting line
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A rather metallic look for the starting line
Car #316 gets its chance
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Car #316 gets its chance
Vesco Turbinator II
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Vesco Turbinator II
Vesco Turbinator II
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Vesco Turbinator II
As you can hear in our video clips, the Turbinator II and Target 550 have very different (but equally compelling) soundtracks - which will make it to 500 mph first?
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As you can hear in our video clips, the Turbinator II and Target 550 have very different (but equally compelling) soundtracks - which will make it to 500 mph first?
The Target 550 didn't reach its namesake goal, but it did post a 385.463-mph (620-km/h) exit speed
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The Target 550 didn't reach its namesake goal, but it did post a 385.463-mph (620-km/h) exit speed
The Stupidbaker #9913 back at the line
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The Stupidbaker #9913 back at the line
Pushing off
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Pushing off
One of the handful of motorcycles we saw running the long course - there were many more on the short sub-175 mph course
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One of the handful of motorcycles we saw running the long course - there were many more on the short sub-175 mph course
Motorcycle #931B powers up
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Motorcycle #931B powers up
Team Vesco does some work on the Little Giant
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Team Vesco does some work on the Little Giant
From this angle the Guthrie-Levie Racing vehicle, looks like a four-wheeled streamliner similar to the Carbiliner, but there's actually no fourth wheel on the other side
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From this angle the Guthrie-Levie Racing vehicle, looks like a four-wheeled streamliner similar to the Carbiliner, but there's actually no fourth wheel on the other side
From what we can tell from reviewing the records and photos, the Levie-Guthrie Racing #1111B, shown here running a 1650cc motor, had already set a 237.863-mph (383-km/h) record as a 2000cc motorcycle (numbered 3412B), breaking the initial 97.865-mph (158-km/h) record it had set earlier in the week
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From what we can tell from reviewing the records and photos, the Levie-Guthrie Racing #1111B, shown here running a 1650cc motor, had already set a 237.863-mph (383-km/h) record as a 2000cc motorcycle (numbered 3412B), breaking the initial 97.865-mph (158-km/h) record it had set earlier in the week
The Guthrie-Levie Racing #1111B prepares to do its run as a 1650cc motorcycle
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The Guthrie-Levie Racing #1111B prepares to do its run as a 1650cc motorcycle
Guthrie-Levie Racing #1111B
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Guthrie-Levie Racing #1111B
Shooting off the line
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Shooting off the line
In the pits, Speed Week 2016
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In the pits, Speed Week 2016
In the pits, Speed Week 2016
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In the pits, Speed Week 2016
In the pits, Speed Week 2016
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In the pits, Speed Week 2016
A 650cc bike gets ready to ride the salt
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A 650cc bike gets ready to ride the salt
Guthrie-Levie Racing's bike running in yet another class
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Guthrie-Levie Racing's bike running in yet another class
Guthrie-Levie Racing taks off
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Guthrie-Levie Racing taks off
The coolest non-competitive auto we saw: a Ferrari 328 GTS parked on the salt
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The coolest non-competitive auto we saw: a Ferrari 328 GTS parked on the salt
We caught this Ferrari as we were leaving the staging area on our last day - nice exclamation point on the event
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We caught this Ferrari as we were leaving the staging area on our last day - nice exclamation point on the event
Ferrari 328 GTS
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Ferrari 328 GTS
Picture of the Vesco Turbinator II's turbine tech
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Picture of the Vesco Turbinator II's turbine tech
The Speed Demon posted the fastest record of the show
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The Speed Demon posted the fastest record of the show

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.

First impressions

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.

Cars lined up and waiting for their shot at glory
Cars lined up and waiting for their shot at glory

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.

SCTA classification

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.

If you're wondering about the truck: Push trucks are used because land speed record cars are geared so high for speed they need help accelerating from stop. Most vehicles we watched relied on such trucks
If you're wondering about the truck: Push trucks are used because land speed record cars are geared so high for speed they need help accelerating from stop. Most vehicles we watched relied on such trucks

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."

The Stupidbaker #9913 back at the line
The Stupidbaker #9913 back at the line

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:

Danny Thompson 411mph Run Drone Cam (Speed Week 2016)

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 fastest vehicle of Speed Week 2016, the fittingly named Speed Demon set a record of 416.511 mph  (670 km/h)
The fastest vehicle of Speed Week 2016, the fittingly named Speed Demon set a record of 416.511 mph  (670 km/h)

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.

Team Vesco's Turbinator II is powered by a new 4,500-hp Lycoming T55-L-712F gas turbine
Team Vesco's Turbinator II is powered by a new 4,500-hp Lycoming T55-L-712F gas turbine

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.

Bonneville 1

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).

The Target 550 rattles the salt with its two big V8s yet again
The Target 550 rattles the salt with its two big V8s yet again

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.

Bonneville 2

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).

We watched the Carbiliner take off on one of several successful qualifying runs,  reaching a 363.115 mph (548 km/h) speed, but due to various mechanical problems, it never broke the record, which still stands at 348.342 mph (561 km/h) for the class
We watched the Carbiliner take off on one of several successful qualifying runs,  reaching a 363.115 mph (548 km/h) speed, but due to various mechanical problems, it never broke the record, which still stands at 348.342 mph (561 km/h) for the class

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.

Carbiliner 496 - Final Pass of SpeedWeek 2016

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.

4 comments
McDesign
Nitrous oxide is not a fuel!
RalphL.Seifer
Thanks a million for a really great story, brilliant imagery, and special thanks for all the work that went into the photo captions. Best story I've ever seen done on Speed Week. I've been out on the salt, but never up there for Speed Week, so this story is very special for me. Ralph L. Seifer, Long Beach, California.
steveraxx
Wow! Where to start! I have never seen a better write up of speed week, ever! And I subscribe to about twenty car magazines and have done so for many years. Thank you so much for creating this story and posting it online! Wow, just wow!
klavaza
What can I say!!! What a great chronicle, description and illustration of the event! Thanks!!!!