The Bonneville Speedweek, documented by Speedseekers with a Super 8 Camera. © by Speedseekers.
You can say the dry lakebeds of the Mojave Desert were where hotrodding all began and you'd not be far from the truth. At the same time, five hundred miles away on Utah's Bonneville salt flats a parallel development in top end desire was happening. On the lakes it was pure Southern California pre war hot rodding, on the salt it was an international phenomenon.
Even though Utah's own Son, Ab Jenkins had set many records on the salt by the mid thirties, the all out record for speed had been set in 1935 by a British man by the name of Sir Malcolm Campbell at 301.12mph. Back then no one gave serious thought to those crazies out in the California desert. Surely, they couldn't hope to reach the incredible 300 plus mile per hour speeds of the Campbell's Blue Bird in a fuel injected jalopy? The ones who did believe were the lakes racers themselves and it was not lost on them that Bonneville would be where they could prove it.
After much convincing the Southern California Timing Association got permission to use the salt flats from the Federal and the Utah state governments; along with certification for times achieved from the AAA. In 1949 the first Speedweek was held and a new era of American and International landspeed racing began.
By 1939 Englishman John Cobb had bested Campbell's 1935 record and fellow Brit John Eyston's 1937 record of 357.50mph. After the war Cobb set the piston engined, wheel driven record at 394.19mph. This record would stand for many years despite the best efforts of home-grown American hot rodders like Mickey Thompson who in 1960 ran 406mph in "Challenger I" but could not make a return run fast enough to catch the record due to a broken driveshaft It was not until the Summers Brothers ran their naturally aspirated, fuel injected, quad 426 Hemi streamliner up to a two way average of 409.986 in 1965 that the Americans could claim the honor of having the world's fastest vehicle.
The mid to late 1960's saw an explosion in speed out on the salt as well as the lakes. Now roadsters were capable of 200mph speeds and the lakesters were blazing over the 300 mark. Then along came the jet cars and the whole thing took a new twist as speeds went up over 500 mph. Art Afrons and Craig Breedlove began to reach ever higher speeds in their jet cars and people began to question whether or not these vehicles could really be considered cars and thusly "fastest" became differentiated into jet propelled, wheel driven, and piston engined categories. These categories are now further broken down by vehicle type and displacement of the engine as well as fuel type and body modifications.
Jet cars no longer run at Speedweek but nearly every other sort of propulsion from electricity to turbines and diesels do run for records in their separate categories. To cover all the achievements in this space would be impossible but a few notables bear inclusion: longtime competitor Al Teague who finally broke the Summers' Brothers record in his "Spirit of '76" Streamliner with a 409.986 two way average, Nolan White who broke Teague's record at 413.156mph and then died trying to break his own record in 2002, The Burkland family who broke Nolan's record with a two way average of417.020mph, the late Don Vesco and his "Turbinator" turbine powered streamliner which captured the wheel driven land sped record with a two way average of 458.440 mph in 2001, Joe Amo who regularly runs over 240 mph on an un-streamlined motorcycle, and the Buckeye Bullet electric streamliner from Ohio State University which ran 314.958mph in 2004. While none of these vehicles has broken the sound barrier like the Thrust II jet car, it is important to remember that all the above records are for wheel driven vehicles.
As we head further into this new millennium we will begin to see more and more vehicles with exotic fuels and power plants. Diesel technology will prove to be as fast as gasoline engines and hydrogen and electricity will become as common as the flathead was in the early 50's. Bonneville is the place where innovation and experimentation are rewarded and honored. Here on the salt, cars and bikes built and driven by competitors from all over the world will determine the vehicular future of speed and everyday transportation. If you like to know more, go to: www.speedseekers.de