Searching for Salt – One Year Later


In October 2015, Road Scholars Magazine published a story of mine that went on to win one of the biggest awards of my life: the 2016 Motor Press Guild “Best Automotive Feature Article of the Year.

It told the story of a Porsche competitor at the 2014 Bonneville Salt Flats “World of Speed” event. It was the only automotive competition at Bonneville that wasn’t cancelled due to a lack of salt during a three-year period from 2013 to 2015.

I called the article “Searching for Salt,” which I hoped would serve as a conduit for raising public awareness about the deteriorating condition of Utah’s salt flats, a national historic site since 1975.

A vast saline lake covered the area 17,000 years ago. As the water receded, a thick layer of salt remained, creating a perfect surface for top speed land racing. That crust is supposed to be naturally replenished every year by winter rains and summer evaporation.

Instead, a large potash mining company nearby has drawn millions of tons of brine away from the aquifer under the flats every year for decades. America’s most hallowed motorsports ground for speed racing showed the strain on its environment.

Exacerbated by stormy weather and mudslides, the surface of the racecourse was down to only a couple of inches of salt when Tom Woodford and I arrived in 2014. Woodford had brought his highly modified “to-the rules” turbocharged 1975 Porsche 911. With limited development time and only three miles of salt to safely compete on, he never had a chance of breaking the record in his class by going 200 mph.

If there’s anything I’ve learned since that time, it’s that nature and man abhor a vacuum. A total of 60 million tons of salt brine had been siphoned from the flats, and recent torrential rains made that even more obvious. In response, advocates of the Save the Salt Coalition traveled to Salt Lake City to petition for new laws so that Bonneville could be saved from the brink of extinction.

In early 2016, the Utah House Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee unanimously passed a resolution urging the federal government’s Bureau of Land Management to take immediate action to restore the flats via a “Salt Return Program.”

The Senate approved the measure, and the mining company pumped enough brine back into the aquifer to allow for speed racing once again. The result was that Danny Thompson, son of motorsport legend Mickey Thompson, had more than five miles of salt several inches thick this past August on which to break his father’s naturally aspirated land speed record. His Challenger 2 went 406.679 mph.

Woodford and I are now excited to return to Bonneville in 2017. We hope that even more salt of good quality can be replenished in time for “Speed Week” in August. Hope springs eternal, salt fever is back, and 200 mph seems within reach for a certain Porsche 911 streamliner.

Article and Photos Copyright © Randy Wells. All Rights Reserved.

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