“What did you drive out here?”


Speed Week 2010, Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, Sam Klein

From Orion:

When I leave the pavement and hit the hard white of the Bonneville Salt Flats, I press the pedal to the metal on The Hummer. The speedometer hits 94, but that’s nothing to brag about at my destination: some scattered trailers five miles past the end of the road. Mike Waters, parked in a lawn chair behind them, would not be impressed.

“What did you drive out here?” he asks.

A Prius,” I say (The Hummer is its nickname). Mike snorts. He wears sunglasses and a Speed Week hat. His arms are a deep pink roped in purple scars from excised carcinomas. He has held eight different world land-speed records during his racing career. The fastest was 257 miles per hour. Now he is an official with the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA), the host of Speed Week.

“We’ll take Don’s truck,” he declares. He’s agreed to give me a tour of the course.

Speed Week, a red-letter event on any gearhead’s calendar, happens every August on the Bonneville Salt Flats. The Salt, as racing nuts call it, is the thirty-thousand-acre hard salt bed of Lake Bonneville, an ancient inland sea. It’s 120 miles west of Salt Lake City and 6 miles from the Nevada border. The only town around is Wendover, straddling the state line. Liquor stores, porn, and low-end casinos dot Nevada’s side; Latter Day Saints and an abandoned World War II air base occupy Utah’s. Bomber crews trained at the Wendover base during the war. They built a city of salt on the flats and dropped bombs on it. The Enola Gay crew secretly trained at Wendover for the first atomic mission. 

Which is the bigger ecological disaster, A-bombs or the automobile? The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed about 110,000 Japanese civilians instantly, and another 250,000 or so over the next five years. Automobile accidents wipe out 1.2 million civilians a year worldwide. The radiological contamination caused by Fat Man and Little Boy turned out to be fairly limited. The environmental legacy of the internal combustion engine has yet to be fully gauged, but it looks to be massive. Headlines stream into my phone daily: floods in Pakistan, a heat wave in Russia, landslides in China, oil in the Gulf. Everybody knows internal combustion has to yield to something better. But what?

“Speed Freaks”, Ginger Strand, Orion