WHEN Craig Breedlove lost his 'chutes at Bonneville at something around 500 m.p.h., he was rudely reminded of just how short "the world's fastest speedway" really is. John Cobb thought it was none too roomy back in 1947, when the condition of the salt was ideal and he had a 14 mile straight. Since then, pumping the brine from under the salt for potash mining purposes has transformed the surface and the crystalline slab has shrunk remarkably over the years. When Mickey Thompson was struggling for the World Land Speed Record with Challenger he never had more than 10 miles of useable straight and often no more than eight. Donald Campbell, even before his crash in 1960, had decared the Bonneville Salt Flats to be hopelessly short for modern L.S.R. attempts.
The myth that the Bonneville Salt was the world's longest straight, and therefore the ultimate outpost of speed on land, had been repeated in so many thousands of press releases that most - enthusiasts assumed that Campbell was just making excuses for his failures. However, he surprised nearly everyone by locating a possible 20 miles of runway in the wilds of Australia and finally completed his mission successfully. In doing so he also presented the world with a new outpost of speed, remote and rough though it may be.
Before this, I had told his engineer, Ken Norris, of a place where Bluebird could reach her terminal velocity, shut off and coast to a stop without her brakes ever being touched. Donald evidently had his reasons for preferring Commonwealth soil.
I learned about the Salt Flats of Bolivia and Chile from George Poske, a Panagra pilot and South American road racer who was based in Lima, Peru. Poske, who had been flying over these things for years, recognized them as land-speed courses of boundless potential and tested them by taxi-ing over their surfaces at two or three hundred m.p.h.
"It never rains in that part of the. world," he said, "and these salares are so smooth that they probably wouldn't even require scraping. Precious little, anyway."
West of the Andes and between
Iquique and Antofagasta is a great wonderland of salt flats and some of them
reach dimensions that stagger the imagination. For example:
elevation Length in miles
Salar Grande 3,000 32
Salar de Pintados 3,000 40
Salar de Chiguana 13,000 10
Salar de Atacama 8,000 53
Salar de Uyuni 13,000 80
Pintados is highly accessible; all too much so, since the railroad from Iquique runs right across it (and then past Los Cerros de Chug Chug, Incan for iron 'horse). But in this airborne age all the Andean and sub-Andean salt flats can be landed on with cargoes that include personnel and perhaps dismantled record machines. All it takes is money, and certain large international corporations are demonstrating a willingness to support L.S.R. attempts quite substantially. The altitudes involved impose no penalties on supercharged piston engines or on turbines and the biggest and highest of the dry lakes offers a palpable advantage in reduced wind resistance and drag, thanks to the much lower air density.
Now that a sort of space race has begun in the L.S.R. field, Bonneville has become less than adequate. Lake Eyre, with its roughness and proneness to flooding, is a doubtful improvement. With 600 m.p.h. just around the corner and with Mach I on the horizon some mighty straights are going to be needed. They are ready and waiting.
After Thompson's battIe at Bonneville in 1959 I tried to waken the interest of the Bolivian and Chilean governments to this perhaps inevitable need for access to their dry lakes. Both were numbly indifferent and no doubt thought that talk about 500 and 600 m.p.h. was mad
ness. The time has come when certain interests should start checking these venues, not necessarily because man should drive cars at Mach I, but because everything points to the fact that he damned well intends to do it.