Bonneville Salt Flats

What’s so special about the Bonneville Salt Flats for racing cars? If I want a fast car, don’t I want to test under more realistic conditions?

I’m not a racing expert but since the point is to set land speed records in various classes of vehicles, I would think the main need is LOTS of acceleration
and stopping room.

They (the salt flats) have been used for a long time, so there is a certain historical cach`e involved.

Other than that, you have relatively flat, isolated, area that goes on for miles.

For the real super high speed “cars” like the ones that have attempted to break land speed records and such, you often need 5 miles just to slow down after the run is completed. The salt flats offer that sort of room with very little surface preparation. (Fill the occasional pot hole scrape off the random bump and - VIOLA! You have a perfect area to go as fast as you want.

Compare that to buying and paving a speedway, 5-15 miles long…

Other dopers will have more to add, no doubt… (Where is Tuckerfan when you need him?)


Think about it. If you want ultimate speed, the last thing in the world you would want are realistic conditions. You don’t have track meets on city sidewalks.

Bonneville is historically the place where the runs take place for reasons already mentioned, but the last two record-breaking runs, including the breaking of the sound barrier, happened at Black Rock Desert, Nevada.

Also, with all the preparation and folks traveling from all over to see it, you want to do it somewhere where it’s very unlikely to rain.

As a side note, if anybody needs rain, they should hire me for big $. See, all I have to do is plan having some outdoor event, and I guarandamntee you it will rain like a cow pissing on a flat rock.

When a lot of this started, there was nowhere else to do it. It was mostly people doing it for fun, so the salt flats at Bonneville and the dry lakes at Muroc were a cheap, existing place to go pull the fenders off your Ford and see how fast you could go. And for a speed record, you don’t just go for instantaneous top speed; you have to hit that speed and maintain it for the prescribed distance before it counts.

As the others have mentioned, you want miles and miles of flat, wide open space for these speed runs. Not only do you need lots of space to slow down, as Full Metal Lotus pointed out, you need lots of space to get up to speed. These guys run insane gearing to allow the engine to stay at a survivable speed, while still pushing the car to a record-setting pace. Thus, they experience dreadful acceleration rates. They might have a run-up of a couple miles before they get into the timed mile. And I think for an official record, they have to make a return run too, so you need to be able to go both directions; I don’t know of any tracks set up for this.

Plus, when they wreck, there’s plenty of space where you won’t run into anything. That helps survival a lot. I have some old tapes of runs at Bonneville and the old Muroc dry lakes. There’s one where a guy on a motorcycle wipes out at over 150 mph. The bike comes apart in big pieces: wheel, frame, engine, another wheel… The guy and the wreckage skid for what looks like a half mile. As the ambulance races toward him, he stands up and starts brushing himself off. He wouldn’t have been so lucky if his body had slammed into a lightpost or a wall or something.

It’s not the question that was asked, but I have to mention this. I lived in Salt Lake City for a few years, and took a few trips across the salt flats (Going directly west on I-80) just to see things, to visit the Salt Lake, and to visit Wendover, Nevada. The Salt Flats seemed to extend forever on both sides of the Interstate, and this seems to have tempted a lot of folks to imitate their heroes by drivimg off the interstate onto the salt.
This turns out to be a phenomenally BAD idea.

In many places, especially near the interstate, the salt flat is actually a thin crust of salt atop either more salt, or sand. If you drive onto this, your wheels go through and you sink until your chasses is resting on the salt. You can’t pull yourself out of that situation, and apparently you can’t even get easily towed out, sometimes. I saw a lot of rusting car bodies out there. I figure the racing flats (which are pretty close to the Nevada border, and which there’s a viewing platform you can go to to see) must be pretty well-packed and thick salt.