BACK TO THE FLATS – The Search for Salt Gains New Traction at Bonneville Speedway


When Road Scholars Magazine won the 2016 Motor Press Guild “Best Automotive Feature Article of the Year” with my “Searching for Salt,” I wasn’t sure if Bonneville Speedway would survive moving forward.  After all, long-term federally leased mining had removed 60 million tons of salt brine from the flats over the previous 65 years.  

In 2014, the subject of my story, Tom Woodford and his modified 1975 911, found only a very thin layer of salt over a meager three-mile distance to race on. That Bonneville event was the only one that was not cancelled due to poor salt and inclement weather between 2013 and 2015. It seemed Woodford’s goal of beating the record of 173.090 mph in his class, Classic Blown Gas Coupe & Sedan, had to wait.

By the end of 2016 things were starting to look better. The famous Speed Week held in August returned for the first time in two years. The salt was at least sufficiently thick to go four miles on the long course. But Woodford had to sit out that year and the next as he recuperated from hip surgery.

Fortunately, he and his 1975 turbocharged 911 were ready to go in 2018. So back to the flats they went, attending the 70th annual Speed Week this past August. I was there to join the team under glaring sun with temperatures hovering right around 105 degrees.

Compared to our last time at Bonneville, the salt was in much better shape. Instead of ruts lined with a brown color, the surface was mostly uniform white. This transformation was in large part due to the hard work of the Save the Salt Coalition / Utah Alliance, which in 2015 and 2016 developed a draft restoration plan with Utah Governor Gary Herbert and other high-ranking Utah/Nevada lawmakers. Together, they sent letters urging the Bureau of Land Management to restore safe land speed racing conditions to Bonneville.

Speed Week at Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah

The result was that the leasing mining company pumped enough brine back into the aquifer to allow for speed racing once again. Obviously, much work still needs to be done. The once six-feet deep salt is still just a few inches thick. Fortunately, that was enough for Danny Thompson to claim the Speed Week record for AA Fuel Streamliners by traveling 448.757 mph in 2018. That was amazing to watch, as were the unique hot rods and all the people gathered together to see them rocket across the eerie white landscape.

Woodford went faster in 2018 too. His 1975 Porsche 911, which had been updated with taller tires and additional fuel injection, went 185.467 mph at the three-mile mark with an exit speed of 191.694. He held the F/CBGC record for about ten minutes until another competitor in his class eclipsed Woodford’s average by a mere .118 mph.

Such is the fickle nature of racing on the salt. Rest assured, Woodford will be back again to make it into the 200-mph club. Thankfully, for the time being, Bonneville continues to hold that compelling allure for hotrodders to reach their dreams. Save the salt.

Article and photos Copyright 2018 Randy Wells. All Rights Reserved.

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