World Land Speed Record Attempts - in the sixties
By any reasonable standard, the Bonneville National Speed Trials shouldn't even exist. Lack of creature comfort alone should be enough to deter the people involved. The weather is, in the main, miserably hot by day. In the evenings, the tiny highway village of Wendover, closest to the salt flats and half in Utah, half in Nevada, bursts at the seams with hot rodders so that it is all out impossi ble to get a decent meal. As a spectator show, the trials aren't very stimulating, even though admission is free. "Every couple of minutes a solitary car takes off along the nine mile straight. But the designated viewing area, midway along the course, is so far back (a necessary safety precaution) that each car is little more than a speck in the distance. Up at the starting line, the
excitement is restrained to say the least. When the course is clear the starter gives the go-ahead to the next mEn in line. Those cars equipped with starters drive casually if noisily away. Cars requiring push starts are shoved into the distance, coughing into life a half-mile or so down the course. In the pit area, the mechanical activity is carried on in varying degrees of panic and relaxation, by mechanics seemingly oblivious to their surroundings. It is mostly low pressure with a few notable exceptions becoming apparent as the week wears on and there are records to be set.
We hold no gee-whiz illusions about hot rodders. They are neither more nor less mechanically gifted than any other group of motoring enthusiasts who take their sport seriously. Yet, we sincerely believe that the Bonneville Speed Trials is a major event among speed contests. The salt, one of the few accessible spots in the world where it is practical to run a land vehicle at top speed, is unique stage for a week of engineering experiments and accomplishments that cannot be matched anywhere in the world.
Old-timers among the rodders simply accept the flats, but new comers invariably ask the same question: why all the salt? And almost everyone takes a surreptitious taste of the stuff to see if it really is salty. It is.
The salt some 3000 square miles of it, was formed naturally when a huge lake became brackish and evaporated about 70,000 years ago. As the waters disappeared, minerals were deposited and the flats are the result. The Great Salt Lake remains as the dregs of this early body of water. The solid crystalline salt body that forms the speed course takes in only about 200 square miles so that the vast amount of salt on hand becomes apparent, even though precious little of it is acceptable for racing.
One factor that contributes to the broad spectrum of the event is the minimal limitation on car builders. The sponsoring Southern California Timing Association recognizes 72 classes. Admittedly, this can be confusing, but the bizarre assortment of race cars on hand makes the classes necessary in order to equalize the competition. About the only thing that won't be seen on the salt is a stock engine. Bonneville engine rules are concerned with displacement and fuel; what has been done on the inside is the business of the engine builder and it is a rare powerplant that is factory stock.
The sports car classes produce some strange examples of the breed. There are three basic categories
-Touring Sports, Grand Touring
Sports and Sports Racing-each with its own class displacement limits that do not necessarily correspond to the rules set forth by other racing bodies. Touring Sports cars are at least three-passenger sedan bodies of foreign origin, with a minimum of 500 having b~en produced. GT cars must be two-passenger (occasional seats such as Porsche and Jaguar don't count), require a production of 50, and may be open or closed, while Sports Racing machines may be specials of almost any description.
There were only three competitors in the TS category, all in Class F (below 1300cc). A finely prepared Alfa TI sedan set a 104.406 record average. If the speed sounds low, remember that Bonneville is at 4200 feet, and this works a horsepower hardship that is especially noticeable on the smaller cars. The lengths to which the other two entrants went serve to illustrate 'some of the intensive spirit of competition.
The F record of 98.07 mph had been set in 1962 by Richard Catron's Saab. Catron did not want to lose it and his effort to beat the Alfa included the following: on Tuesday (August 20) he pulled the engine from the Saab in the middle of the meet, drove it- the 12Q filles to Salt Lake City and air shipped it to the Saab warehouse in New Haven, Conn. for an immediate racing rebuild. There it was bored out from 841 to 890cc, compression ratio was raised to about 15-to-l, and it was returned to the salt. But the engine was delayed six hours in a wildcat airline strike, then mixed with another shipment in Los Angeles and missed a connection to Salt Lake. Even so, it was back on the salt late Thursday afternoon, installed in 24 minutes, and running 100.44 mph from its estimated 94 hp that same day. It is probably the world's fastest Saab, barring the GT series, but still not up to an Alfa. The other competitor in the class, a Morris Minor entered by Richard Hart, blew two engines in his efforts, missed cracking 100 mph by a fraction. He had what was essentially an oversize Formula Junior engine-a Mark II Sprite block, MG 1100 crank and .180-inch overbore-totalling just over 1200cc. A Weber 45DCOE carburetor helped to develop 85 hp at 6000, but it wasn't enough. Sports cars are relatively new on the salt. The classics of the 15-year old event are the streamliners and the lakesters. The open - wheeled lakesters are mostly converted belly tanks powered by supercharged engines that gulp hot fuel. One of the best showings ever was turned in by the Markley Brothers lakester, which managed an average of 258.439 in Class D utilizing a supercharged Dodge of only 249 cubic inches.
It is among the streamliners that we see some weird and wonderful examples of imaginative car builders. The Summers Brothers car is a case in point. When it first appeared a couple of years ago there were grave doubts that it could be controlled. The front wheels are normal but the rear wheels are in tandem and the car hasn't a great deal of directional stability below 200 mph. Above that and it is much like an arrow. The Summers had planned to run a 485inch supercharged Chrysler but scattered it in last-minute dyno tests. It was back to their old 302-inch Chrysler mill, a 308.941-mph record and the meet's fastest time-316.594.
Each car had some kind of story. The tiny Class I streamliner, little more than an enclosed kart, was able to qualify at 128.20, not bad when one considers the 18.5-cubic-inch Honda that powered it. But driver Louis Bonesio never could quite make a successful two-way run and break the required 120-mph average.
The biggest attention-getter was also the slowest car at the meet. Called Claustrophobia, it was the egg-like creation of Alan Richards. It rode on special bicycle wheels enclosed in a modified 100-gallon wing tank body 'that sported a 32-inch wheelbase, 18-inch tread. The 2.8 cubic-inch Garrelli motorcycle engine was supposed to pull it 100 mph, but the best clocked time was just over 50, even though the machine actually got up around 70 before reaching the clocks. The driver, Warren Roll (130 pounds), crouched on his knees, bent forward and placed his head in the front bubble windshield. Total weight including driver-330 pounds. A complex exercise in aerodynamics, it would have been easier to have built a full-sized car.
When it comes to safety, the Bonneville Nationals inspectors are quick to reject a doubtful car. They insist on strength in construction. That is one reason for their outstandingly good record. This year, a Class 9 lakester driven by Kirk Purvis skidded at 225 mph, lost a wheel, flipped nine times and slid for a distance upside down. The wheel rolled four miles, was itself clocked through the lights at 210 mph. The driver? Bruised but unhurt.
For the past several years the expanse of salt that is used for the speed course has been deteriorating, partly through drought and partly because a local potash company has been pumping out huge quantities of subsurface water, lowering the water table, leaving the surface rough and unusable in places. C/D writer Griff Borgeson campaigned vigorously for government action to preserve the flats but got little more than an acknowledgement that something should be done. Indeed, it appeared that this natural facility might be lost to high speed automobiles. This year there were heavy early rains that helped immensely. And finally the Utah State Engineer gave water rights from nearby Grouse Creek to the Bonneville Speedway Association, the group that controls all racing on the salt. Currently in a conservation move, there are pumps working to flood portions of the salt, smoothing it for driving, and it appears that there is an outside possibility of the flats being turned into a park of some sort. It might be the best thing after all. Losing the world's fastest race course to commercial chemical interests would be a sad blow to the sport of speed.
It's not a large event-169 cars, 18 motorcycles this year, rarely more than a handful of outside spectators -but there is a spirit of fun at Bonneville, a relaxed atmosphere that is rare in any sort of competition, and it makes the Bonneville Nationals a good event. The officials preside with a minimum of officiousness and a maximum of helpful work. The meet is something that anyone interested in speed should see, and more people who like fast motoring should enter. This year's dates were August 18 through 24 and next year will be approximately the same. If you are interested, you might write Bonneville Nationals, Inc., 9607 Poinciana St., Pico Rivera, Calif., for information on the 1964 event.
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