Salt Fever

I feed my need for speed on Utah’s world-famous Bonneville Salt Flats

Pointing down the mile-long track scratched into the crusty surface of the world-famous Bonneville Salt Flats, the official starter gives me a nod and says “Okay Alan, the course is yours.”  With the mischievous little guy inside my head yelling “woo-hoo!” I nail the gas pedal, hold it to the floorboards, and hang on as I flog my borrowed Porsche toward triple-digit speeds.

While there’s no shortage of spectators here at the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association’s annual World of Speed event, what makes this experience so extraordinary is that I’ve come, not as a lookie-loo, but as a competitor.  Unfortunately, I’m about to discover—like hundreds of land-speed racers before me—that getting my name into the record books here is a whole lot harder than it looks.

My relatively modest goal for the day is to gain entry to the USFRA’s 130 MPH Club.  This sideshow to their fast-and-furious main event is designed to allow anyone with a street-legal car or motorcycle to get a taste of what it’s like to run flat-out on the salt.

The object, as the name of the class implies, is to go from a standing start to a top speed of between 130 and 140 miles-per-hour twice in the same day. For lead-footed types who’ve done triple-digit speeds on public roads and think this sounds easy, let me tell you it’s anything but.

Topping the list of obstacles to be overcome is the surface itself.  Greater rolling resistance and reduced traction means it’s a lot harder to get a vehicle up to speed on the salt than it is on pavement.  Add the fact that you have just 5,280 feet in which to get it done and you have a challenge that has humbled its share of high-horsepower hot-shots.

And I’m here to tell you that I’m one of them.  Going into the event I figured I was a shoo-in with the 385-horsepower Cayenne SUV I borrowed from my friends at Porsche.  But despite doing everything I could think of—short of jettisoning the back seat and spare tire to lighten the load—the best run I could manage was 128.125 miles-per-hour.  The upside to this close-but-no-cigar result:  I had an absolute blast doing something most people have only read about.

I had so much fun, in fact, that I’m already planning to go back next year—with a faster car, of course.  It’s a state of mind that old-timers here call “salt fever.”

While I’ll admit this ailment may have left me slightly delirious, I am perfectly clear on one point.  If they ever find a cure for salt fever, well, I’m not sure I’m really interested.

Xtrordinary Xtra
The first land speed record set on the Bonneville Salt Flats was 141.73 miles-per-hour back in 1914 .

Xtrordinary Xtra
The 130 MPH Club shares its mile-long track with motorized barstools and go-karts.  Before you laugh, you should know an electric barstool was clocked here at nearly 60 miles-per-hour while a highly-modified kart topped 138 MPH.

The Facts
Name: USFRA’s World Of Speed
Location: Bonneville Salt Flats, off Interstate 80 near the Utah-Nevada state line.
Phone: 801-485-2662

My Advice

  • While the 130MPH Club is specifically designed for street-legal cars and motorcycles, there are a few important safety rules you’ll need to comply with including wearing a Snell 2000-certified full-face helmet and having a fire extinguisher mounted within easy reach of the driver (something I took care of with a couple of tie-wraps).  For the full list of requirements check the 130 MPH Club page of the USFRA website.  If you have technical questions, you’d be wise to contact the USFRA before you make the long trip out to the salt.
  • Entry fees include a one-year USFRA membership and five chances to achieve the two 130 mile-per-hour runs you’ll need to gain entry to the organization’s 130 MPH Club.  Additional runs can be purchased separately in blocks of five.
  • Tips for car set-up include inflating your tires to the maximum recommended air pressure to reduce rolling resistance. You’ll also want to fold in your outside mirrors to improve aerodynamics and lighten your load by carrying the minimum amount of fuel practical and jettisoning any excess baggage.  Many salt flat veterans also swear making your runs in the cooler, denser air of early morning gives you an extra advantage.
  • To keep up with goings-on at the event, tune your car radio to 1610 on the AM dial to hear the announcer’s running commentary.
  • The salt flats are located just a short drive from the border town of Wendover Nevada, which offers relatively inexpensive hotel rooms and a well-stocked auto parts store for last-minute items.  That said, the race course is relatively remote, so you’ll want to come well prepared to spend the day with a small cooler, snacks, a wide-brimmed hat, and plenty of sunscreen.
  • Speaking of sunscreen, apply it liberally everywhere.  This includes places you might not ordinarily think of, including the underside of your chin and nose, that can be cooked by the sun’s rays reflected off the salt’s intensely white surface.
  • Finally, don’t get any bright ideas about driving (or even walking) on the salt outside the officially sanctioned land speed events.  For much of the year the surface consists of a thin crust of salt covering inches of soft muck that’ll leave you going nowhere fast.