I came to the great Salt Lake to drive the new Ford GT and while I’d love to tell you all about my experiences on road and track in this exquisitely beautiful, mechanically fascinating 647bhp supercar, part of the deal was that no one who accepted the invite could give so much as a whiff of a driving impression until May 12th. So instead I’ll tell you what I did on the day I spent waiting for evening flight home.
MAY 05th 2017
Thank Frankel it's Friday: Visiting a Mecca of speed – the Bonneville salt flats
I’d never been the Utah before but found the place fascinating, and not just because it came with a temporarily unusual density of 216mph Fords. The plains are so vast you seem to be on an altogether more immense planet than that seen in little old Britain, but then end abruptly in that immense barrier called the Rocky Mountains. Any pioneer who looked at those vast peaks then looked back at his family and rickety old wagon and concluded that this was probably far enough would have my sympathy. Today, Salt Lake City is a pleasant, if somewhat remote State capital.
But not as remote as the town of Wendover, about 120 miles down the I-80 transcontinental Interstate to the west. It’s a strange place, made stranger by the fact the Utah/Nevada border runs right through the middle of it? So what? Well, Utah is the only state in mainland America where every form of gambling from the humblest slot machine upwards is banned, whereas Nevada is the gambling capital of America. So there’s east Wendover which is fairly modest and anonymous, then the state line painted across the middle of the road, then its casinos, glitz and kitsch galore.
What Wendover lacks, however, regardless of which part of it you’re in, is so much as a monument let alone a museum recognising the fact that literally five minutes away lies the greatest natural motorsport arena in the world.
I am of course talking about the Bonneville Salt Flats. I first learned about this place in 1970, when I became as obsessed as any four-year-old could be with a faraway place where a man called Gary Gabelich had just piloted a rocket called The Blue Flame across the surface of the earth at 622mph. Back then I thought his car was the most exciting machine I’d ever seen and, 47 years later, I’ve had no reason to modify that view. When The Blue Flame came to the Festival of Speed a few years ago, I nearly missed a run up the hill because I’d spent so long gazing at it. But I had never been to the scene of its triumph. Today as I write this, and yesterday if you’re reading this on Friday, I put that right.
I knew from the start the lake bed would be flooded so I’d not be able to get onto the salt. But as this was the only day of my life to date I’ve found myself within striking distance, I couldn’t simply not bother going. So a chum and I borrowed a Ford Expedition SUV and, 90 minutes later, were at the end of the Bonneville approach road, looking out across one of the most beautiful scenes it has ever been my privilege to witness.
When it comes to the Land Speed Record, no other location comes close. The first person to raise the record here was Sir Malcolm Campbell in 1935, the last Gabelich, 35 years later. This is where man travelled above 300mph on land for the very first time. And 400mph, 500mph and 600mph too. Between October 1964 and November 1965, Craig Breedlove’s Spirit of America cars battled Art Arfons’ Green Monster and, between them, raised the Land Speed record from 469mph to over 600mph in just 13 months. This is where Arfons survived a 600mph crash with injuries so light he was back in his hotel room that evening. It’s where Breedlove lost the parachutes on his first Spirit of America so drove it into the water to stop it, escaped drowning and announced that for his next trick he would set himself on fire. It’s also where those two other greats of pre-war British Land Speed Record breaking, John Cobb and George Eyston, traded records in the sublime Railton Mobil Special and brutal Thunderbolt.
Indeed in the nearly 50 years between Campbell’s first record here and Richard Noble reaching 633mph in Thrust 2 at Black Rock Desert in 1983, just one Land Speed record was set anywhere else: Donald Campbell choosing Lake Eyre in Australia in 1964 for his second attempt in Bluebird after crashing at Bonneville in 1960 at 360mph. And even though he indeed broke the Land Speed Record, he was never the fastest man on earth, because Breedlove had already gone faster at Bonneville, though at the time his record was not recognised because his car was not wheel-driven.
I thought I’d be sad to get all the way to the flats and not be able to drive on them, but I wasn’t at all. Skidding around on the salt in Ford Expedition might sound fun, but it seemed faintly disrespectful and rather pathetic in the context of what had gone on there. In the event, I was happier than I can describe just to look out over that landscape – or lakescape if such a word exists – and let my imagination fill in the blanks.
I am not a spiritual person, and I do not sense the presence of ghosts from the past; but standing there, gazing to the horizon, it was not difficult to visualise those great machines streaking through the measured mile, towing enormous rooster tails of salt behind them.
All that remains is to drive here myself. Bonneville Speed Week happens every August that the flats are not flooded and I know that, somehow, I need to find a way take part. I wouldn’t even need to go fast. Just to be out there on the salt would be the realisation of an ambition almost literally, a lifetime in the making.
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