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c. 1966

Racing on Bonneville Salt Flats

You want to set a land speed record? Until 1970, that meant one place and one place only

UNITED STATES - AUGUST 29: Bonneville Speed Trials - 1966 (Photo by Eric Rickman/The Enthusiast Network/Getty Images)

You want to set a land speed record? Until 1970, that meant one place and one place only — Bonneville Salt Flats Race Track, in Utah. Such was its social and scientific significance that, like the site of the Woodstock festival, it has been placed on the US National Register of Historic Places.

Bonneville was named after Benjamin Bonneville, an army explorer who surveyed the area in the 1830s.  Just as an aside, Bonneville’s name was applied to a heck of a lot, including, but not limited to: a county in Idaho; a mountain; a Dam; a Pontiac car; and, most impressively of all, a crater on the planet Mars.

But it is the massive expanse of gleaming white salt for which his name is now best known. In a face-off with a beach, salt, unlike sand, does not blow away. No dust, as an early advert put it. Plus — as these pictures from 1966 show so vividly — its white expanse is simply the perfect backdrop for the the gorgeous paint jobs.

The idea of driving a car as fast as possible arrived pretty much with the arrival of the car itself. Certainly, cars were being raced across Bonneville Salt Flats as far back as 1907.

Seven years on from that, and the Flats bagged their first record. One Teddy Tetzlaff took a Blitzen Benz to just under 142 mph. Quaint…

The run on which these records were set was a 10 mile straight, and the maintenance of said-run fell under the purview of the Utah Department of Transportation. Dutifully the Department was tasked with marking it out each summer, originally with a big black line right down the middle.

It was in the 1960s that Bonneville entered the jet age, with rocket powered cars smashing the 600mph barrier in 1966, and on to 1970.

However — and no-one knows for sure why — Bonneville’s salt crust is wearing thin. Possibly it could be dissipating into an underground watercourse. What we do know is that in the 1940s and 1950s, it regularly measured a depth of three feet. Today, it is just 0.17ft deep.

Oh, and in case you were curious, the very first land speed record? 1898. Thirty nine miles per hour. In an electric car.

1966
Art Arfons stands alongside his jet-propelled “Green Monster”
Eric Rickman / The Enthusiast Network / Getty Images
1966
The Larson-Cummins Streamliner in natural aluminum finish took home the D-Class trophy for its 225 mph run
Eric Rickman / The Enthusiast Network / Getty Images
1966
A trio of streamliners from the H- and I-classes. Wheel Centre Company #901H at top, “The Ball Point Banana” #555 at center and “The Orange Crate” #222 at bottom from the I-class
Eric Rickman / The Enthusiast Network / Getty Images
1966
J.R. Lufkin’s #646 C/Modified Sports entry with sponsorship from Autolite and performance mods from Ak Miller
Eric Rickman / The Enthusiast Network / Getty Images
1966
Neil M. Thompson’s gold-metal flake painted sports car
Eric Rickman / The Enthusiast Network / Getty Images
1966
The Summers Bros III
Eric Rickman / The Enthusiast Network / Getty Images
1966
The Gyronaut X-1
Eric Rickman / The Enthusiast Network / Getty Images
1966
Hammon – McGrath – Appenfels “Redhead” streamliner #147B won the class trophy with 331.46 mph
Eric Rickman / The Enthusiast Network / Getty Images
1966
The rocket powered Wingfoot Express 2 built by Walt Arfons was propelled by the use of 35 Jet-Assisted Take Off pods (JATO bottles)
Eric Rickman / The Enthusiast Network / Getty Images
1966
Hammon – McGrath – Appenfels “Redhead” streamliner #147B won the class trophy with 331.46 mph
Eric Rickman / The Enthusiast Network / Getty Images

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