Speed Freaks

Photo: Ginger Strand

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?

That’s what I have come here to see. Motor sports events have always been testing grounds for new automotive technologies: balloon tires, independent suspension, the rearview mirror — all were invented for racing. Even The Hummer has push-button ignition and aerodynamic tire cowling first seen on race cars. British racing legend Sir Malcolm Campbell set the first land-speed record on the Salt in 1935. “These vast salt flats,” he declared afterward, “are the future testing grounds of those inevitable developments in racing engines on whose results we shall base the practical everyday lessons which will govern the motor car.” Unlikely as it seems, I’m convinced that Speed Week should offer up a vision, however faint, of how cars will adapt to the end of the fossil fuel era. JoAnne, the SCTA public relations coordinator, assured me there would be plenty of alternative engines on the Salt.

Mike, however, can’t think of any. Maybe there’s an electric motorcycle preregistered, but he isn’t sure. And to be honest, he doesn’t seem too interested. Instead, he drives me out to where a grading truck is dragging I-beams over the salt to smooth out the two racecourses. Guys drinking Millers are laying wire for the timing clocks, and a giant eighteen-wheel fuel tanker is settling in. Of the roughly 550 race cars coming, Mike says, most will run on high-octane, leaded gasoline, but the truck also sells diesel fuel and nitro. By the end of Speed Week, Mike says, the tanker will be drained dry.

Then, after dropping a remark about “rice burners,” he drops me back at my Prius. Speeding back over the Salt toward Wendover, I get The Hummer to 101.

I DON’T EVEN LIKE CARS. As machines, they are not particularly impressive. Jet engines are impressive; hydroelectric plants are impressive. Cars are inefficient and, for the most part, shoddily made. They are difficult to maintain — a hallmark of bad design — and built to be junked rather than repaired. They don’t even solve the problem of transport in an elegant way. And knowing what they do to our environment, we ought to hate them the way we hate smokestacks, or landfills. We ought to consider them a necessary evil rather than offer them our love.

So explain for me Exhibit A: Bob. The man I live with never wants to join me on reporting trips, but the words “Speed Week” were hardly out of my mouth before Bob had booked his ticket. On opening day, he’s downright gleeful as we cruise the pits, a riotous encampment of RVs, trailers, canopies, and flags. Race cars are parked all over the place, but because they can’t be under power except on the course, people are zooming around in every other type of conveyance imaginable: four-wheelers, bicycles, golf carts, mopeds, electric scooters, dune buggies, and rusting, banged-up jalopies modified with mash-up glee. A couple ultralight airplanes swoop overhead, someone has landed a Cessna right on the Salt, and two little kids zip by in a pink electric kiddie car. Every few minutes a race car flies past on the course, parachute unfurling in its wake. The place is Mad Max on meth.

We are looking for Les Triplettes de Bonneville, a French team that has built a car that runs on compressed air. Their car, as well as electric cars entered by students from Brigham Young and Ohio State, are the only preregistered noncombustion cars. Since the Triplets’ streamliner uses neither fuel nor electricity, it is entered in the Omega class — the catchall for engines using any thermodynamic cycle other than Otto. The last Omega-class car to compete was powered by rubber bands.

The Triplets have been blogging for months about building their car, the Saline Burner. As rendered by Google Translate, their French is fabulously poetic:

You can see the beautiful connection, the precious couple and its very valuable setting.
It grows.
It falls again pile hair!
Cutting the opening component of adjusting tank, and voila a perfect trap!
It’s what the Triplets!
Nothing stops us.

The trouble is, we can’t find the Triplets. Instead, we wander around the pits, getting distracted by an impromptu history of American speed. Speed Week has six general car categories, each with a plethora of engine classes, so there’s everything from Model A’s to muscle cars to Ferraris to streamliners — aerodynamic speed machines with airplane tails and wheels cloaked by cowling. Even I have to admit that the streamliners look exciting. They aren’t rocket cars — all cars at Speed Week must be wheel driven — but they still reach speeds of over 400 miles per hour. And they share the Salt with contraptions that look like garage-built go-carts.

“This is pretty much the last bastion of ‘run what you brung,’” Rick McCambridge tells me. “There’s no money in it. Pennzoil and those guys aren’t out here with bleachers and girls in tutus.” Rick’s shiny green home-built racer, The Flying Pickle, bears him out: it looks like a giant kosher dill suspended between four thin tires.

The Flying Pickle is a lakester. When GIs returned from World War II with mechanical training and a lust for action — both courtesy of Uncle Sam — they began tinkering with used cars, putting high-horsepower engines in lighter frames and jettisoning running boards, fenders, and windshields. The more intrepid even began building their own cars, attaching motors and tires to scrapped “drop tanks” — fighter plane spare fuel tanks designed to be ditched in a pinch. Lakesters, so-named because they raced on dry lakebeds, are rolling symbols of a world with fossil fuel to spare. Rick is making his tenth attempt to beat the world record in the Flying Pickle’s class: 263 miles per hour. On the five-mile-long course, the Pickle burns thirteen gallons of fuel.

“This is gonna be my year,” he says.

It’s late afternoon by the time Bob and I find the Triplets, hovering over their streamliner in matching turquoise t-shirts and turquoise Converse sneakers. The Saline Burner, parked between two RVs, is the same shade of turquoise. In fact, their whole encampment is color-coordinated. The car’s sculptural fairing has been removed, and in its rear end we can see what looks like a pair of oversized scuba tanks. It’s a non-Otto engine, all right.

There are four Triplets — “like the Three Musketeers!” they point out. This seems a little subtle for the context. Also, they don’t look like gearheads. Tanned, dark-haired crew chief Gilles Pujol looks a little like Jean-Paul Belmondo. Frank Figuls is impish and slight. Jean Caillou has the floppy hair and goatee of a bassist in an emo band. Yann Bruneau, sporting a buzz cut, looks the least out of place, but even he doesn’t really fit in. They speak some English, but they’re shy about it. They summon their American spokesman, Shiva Vencat, to do the talking.

The crew, Shiva tells me, is making some last-minute safety adjustments requested by the SCTA officials. Tomorrow, he tells me, they will go to Tech, where cars are inspected and cleared for racing. They expect to make their first run on Monday.

“We think we’re going to be able to get to 150 miles per hour,” he tells me. The car has been tested once, on a French runway. It got up to around 70.

I ask Shiva about the compressed-air motor. Is this technology something he believes has promise for mainstream use?

“This is the future of the automobile,” he says with conviction. In fact, he heads the U.S. arm of the French company Motor Development International, one of the car’s sponsors. He points out the MDI logo on the car’s side, near the logos of MasterCard and Retrodor, a French baguette maker. MDI already has several compressed-air cars in development; its latest concept car is called the AIRPod. Later, I look it up on the company website. It looks like a Smart car reinterpreted by Dr. Seuss. If an AIRPod showed up on the Salt, the motorheads would probably tear it to bits.

“We plan to market it as a short-term rental in cities here and in Europe,” Shiva tells me. He believes that setting a land-speed record with the Saline Burner will generate much-needed publicity for compressed air technology.

I give Shiva my mobile number so he can text me when the future of the automobile is heading for the starting line.

A CENTURY AGO, the car of the future was electric. In 1900, nearly one-third of the cars produced in the U.S. ran on electricity. Improvements in range and performance came quickly. In 1910, after two electric cars with batteries built by Thomas Edison completed a thousand-mile endurance test, the New York Times declared the trip “merely a forerunner of greater achievement the electromobile is bound to make.” By 1915, ten U.S. companies were making electric cars. In 1917, electrical engineer Charles Steinmetz told the Wall Street Journal that the electric car’s future was “assured.” “We have seen electricity supplant other forms of power in the street car, the driving of machinery, the railroad,” he said. “I believe it is destined to do the same thing for the motor vehicle.”

But by then, the first electric era was about to go bust. After World War I, eight of the ten electric car companies disappeared. By the end of the 1920s, electrics were a negligible percentage of the American auto market, and despite hype for the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf, they remain so today. Theories about why abound. There’s the Who Killed the Electric Car? theory, which blames automakers in collusion with Big Oil. There’s the Betamax theory, by which an inferior technology won out because of random factors — such as falling oil prices and mass production — that let it undersell the competition. There’s the sneaky dealer theory (dealers pushed gas cars because they make all their money on maintenance, which electric cars don’t need), the “sissy car” theory (the marketing of electric cars to women cast them as inferior to macho gas guzzlers), and the government blowback theory (federal road improvements made it desirable to drive farther than the standard electric car range). And there’s the automakers’ theory: internal combustion is simply the most efficient, most awesome technology humans have ever invented for getting themselves from one place to another. Vroom vroom!

SUNDAY PASSES without any texts from Shiva. Hanging around the Budweiser-fueled crowd at the starting line, I learn that many of the motor fans have heard of the Triplets. They are famous for having turned up as rookies in 2008 with a 50cc motorcycle they carried over from France in their suitcases. They assembled the cycle in their hotel room and raced it with and without its sidecar, in both the gasoline and “other fuel” categories. That way, each of them was able to set a world land-speed record in a different class. It sounds downright socialist to me, but the gearheads love the suitcase bit.

After a while, I go back to the Triplets’ encampment. They are working on installing their HANS device, a new type of safety harness. It’s not regulation until next year, but officials have decided that the Triplets, with their untested car, need it now. Watching the Triplets attack the cockpit with a variety of tools, it occurs to me that the Saline Burner looks a bit like a baguette.

Air-powered cars are not as novel as you might think. By 1931, American automakers had already introduced seven different compressed-air cars. But Google “compressed-air car” today and the companies you see are French, Spanish, South Korean, and Australian. Shiva’s employer, MDI, is the most frequently mentioned, especially after 2007, when Tata Motors, India’s largest automaker, licensed their technology for all of India. It remains to be seen whether Tata will actually produce a compressed-air car. But in the U.S. the concept generates a lot of vaguely hostile skepticism. Wikipedia — always a good barometer of the hive-mind’s prejudices — gleefully reports that the CEO of the South Korean company Energine is “the first compressed-air car promoter to be arrested for fraud” — as if many more indictments are brewing. Even the New York Times, typically bullish on green innovation, has blown hot and then cold on the concept. Skeptics complain that air must be compressed somehow — usually by electricity — and that compressed air doesn’t store energy as efficiently as batteries. They point out that the lightweight cars could never meet American safety standards.

You can’t help but suspect the hostility would be less intense if the companies were American. But that seems patently hard to imagine. Look at the cars on our roads. Somewhere along the line, American-made became synonymous with oversized and inefficient.

There have been several short-lived attempts to change this. In 1968, the Senate held hearings on pollution that included testimony from scientists who had developed an automotive steam engine. “This is a creative concept which should capture the imagination of millions of Americans,” declared Senator Warren Magnuson, a Democrat from the state of Washington. Executives from Ford and GM disagreed. The steam engine was complex and hazardous, they insisted. The following year, a bill banning the sale of internal combustion motor vehicles in California after 1975 passed twenty-six to five in the state senate. Detroit dispatched more executives to insist that the technology just wasn’t there. As if to prove it, GM exhibited a variety of experimental cars that May, all of which looked as safe and roomy as a Barbie camper. The California bill was killed in the assembly Transportation Committee — by one vote. Still, in 1972, Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson introduced congressional legislation to outlaw the internal combustion engine nationally by 1975.

“Expert after expert outside the automobile industry has confirmed that we can produce alternatives to the present automotive engine that are efficient, economical, quieter, and virtually pollution free,” Nelson told Congress. By then, Detroit had fine-tuned their defense: banning internal combustion wasn’t necessary, they insisted. Banning leaded gasoline would do the trick. If the oil companies would get on board, the president of GM declared, the internal combustion automobile would be “fume-free” by 1980. The New York Times characterized this as “an effort to head off attempts to ban the engine and force the auto makers to produce electric or steam-powered cars.”

“Detroit intends to delay and stall when it will have to give up on the internal combustion engine,” wrote Ronald Buel in his jeremiad Dead End: The Automobile in Mass Transportation. “If there is any sanity at all left in the political processes of this country, that day is coming.” Buel’s book was published in 1972.

IT’S ONLY MONDAY, and folks on the Salt already look pink. The Triplets have failed Tech a second time. They’ve been told to add a bar for their harness and side windows so the driver can see out. One of the Saline Burner’s many quirks is that it has no windshield — just a clear nose. Gamely, the Triplets are sawing holes in the car. There’s no run happening today.

Bob and I decide to check on the electric cars. We learn that the Brigham Young team has had balance issues with their rear tires and gone back to Provo to make some adjustments. Only Ohio State remains on site. We drive out to the edge of the pits, where a red tractor-trailer reads BUCKEYE BULLET. Under a canopy, a college student is asleep in a folding chair. Another team member is hunched over a laptop inside the trailer. He tells us the car is having problems with its newly engineered battery pack and is being tested out on an abandoned dragway at the Wendover Airport.

We visit the starting line. A crowd has gathered around a long, black, demonic-looking streamliner with SPEED BY SPECTRE painted on its bullet-nose. The car, the Spectre Infidel, already holds the streamliner land-speed record in engine class AA: 330.569 miles per hour. This year its team has removed the AA engine and replaced it with a smaller A engine. Presumably, they can work their way down the eighteen engine classes in the category: the Infidel looks fast.

Race cars are typically geared too high to start from a standstill, so each one has a push vehicle to get it going. The Infidel revs up while its push vehicle eases into position. It’s loud. Head starter Bill Taylor, white-jumpsuited holy priest of the starting line, gives the thumbs up, and after about a minute, the pickup nudges the Infidel forward. About a quarter mile out, the push truck peels off to the left, and the black streamliner can be seen zooming away, engine roaring higher and higher. The crowd’s attention stays glued to the car until the first shift breaks the spell, though a few diehards squint down the course until the Infidel’s tail disappears over the horizon. The Bonneville Salt Flats are one of the few places on the planet where you can actually see the curvature of the Earth.

Bob and I drive off the Salt and over to the Wendover Airport. Richard Brown, the airport manager, takes us onto the grounds in his truck. An old backstop used for nose-gunner target practice looms nearby. By the time we get out to the dragway, the Buckeye Bullet, a six-thousand-pound monster in sleek silver and black, is being pushed slowly toward its trailer.

“Uh-oh,” Richard says, amused. “It’s pretty bad when you have to push your electric car.” We get out to take a look, and the harried students offer vague assurances that the problems are being worked out. Richard snickers all the way back to the hangar.

HOT RODDING HAS ALWAYS BEEN about innovation. It began in the 1920s and ’30s, when Detroit’s cars were underpowered; car nuts would put engines from bigger cars into smaller bodies. After the war, as Detroit turned out gaudy, living-room-sized cars, hot rodders would remove the excessive “gorp” — fins, decorations, huge bumpers — that had been added to ensure planned obsolescence. In the 1960s, when the Big Three began building muscle cars — the Ford Mustang, the Plymouth Barracuda — hot rodding declined. It returned in the early ’70s, when the energy crisis and a raft of new regulations forced the auto industry to refocus on efficiency and safety. New car performance decreased, and once again the tinkerer was king.

So it’s not really the American auto industry being celebrated at Speed Week; it’s a countertradition of automotive ingenuity, the do-it-yourself spirit that underlies every American mythology — pilgrims heading for the New World, pioneers settling the West, geeks building Facebook. Every night, after the Salt closes, the parking lot at the Wendover Nugget becomes a celebration of hot rod culture. People line up classic cars from the ’20s through the ’50s, hoods open to show off their engines, salt artfully splattered on their fenders. Cocktail waitresses glide over the asphalt taking orders, and a steady stream of admirers circulates, some dressed in ’50s-style clothes. It’s like American Graffiti, only the cruising car nuts are middle-aged men, and the cars are museum pieces. In the Nugget’s neon glow, it’s clear that the gasoline-powered automobile has already peaked. And since alternative-fuel vehicles have failed to arouse that American spirit of invention, nostalgia has replaced innovation.

ON TUESDAY, several guys in the food tent are badmouthing Al Gore.

“We ran him out of the state of Tennessee,” one says.

“I figured out global warming,” another declares. “It’s Al Gore running his mouth. All that hot air.”

A rusted Model A drives up; the owner has chalked “Rust is Rite” on the side. One of the Gore-bashers notices me transcribing their conversation, but before he can ask me about it, I point to the car.

“What’s this about?” I ask him. “These cars that look like junkyard jalopies at an event that’s all about speed and performance?”

The man eyes the Ford.

“This is where it all began,” he says. “The guys who came back from World War II . . .” He stops, overtaken by a wave of emotion. His lip actually quivers.

“The men who came back from World War II, they put a man on the moon. We owe them so much. They started it all. It’s a tribute,” he manages to say.

After breakfast, Bob and I arrive at the pits to find that the Triplets have failed Tech again. First the inspectors made them shorten the yoke. But when they did that, the inspectors sent them back to install a horizontal bar on it.

“They are very cooperative, but also very . . . Anyway, they do their job,” writes Frank on the Triplets’ blog.

IN THE 1970s, publishers released one screed after another bewailing car culture and internal combustion. Whether the solution was electric cars, steam-powered cars, natural-gas cars, or even replacing cars with public transit, the authors seemed baffled that American ingenuity had not tackled the problem.

“An automobile worker once had reason to be proud of what came off that assembly line,” wrote Nicholas von Hoffman in the Los Angeles Times; “the car was the symbol of the American social genius. Now it’s a sign of our idiocy.”

We all know how ’70s idealism gave way to ’80s materialism; hence Madonna and the SUV. But where are we now? The EV1, the Prius, the waiting list for the plug-in hybrid Volt: every shred of evidence suggests that Americans will buy alternative cars, Americans want alternative cars. The technology has been around as long as the car itself. The first gasoline-electric hybrid was introduced in 1900. And I got excited about buying a Prius? Sure it’s innovative, but it’s not nearly innovative enough. That’s why I call it The Hummer: to keep myself from thinking it’s a real solution.

Through the exhaust-tinged air over the former Lake Bonneville, I’m starting to see the hallmarks of cognitive dissonance. Hot rod culture — in fact, American automobility itself — idealizes individualism and creative independence: cue the montage of lone visionaries banging out groundbreaking gadgets in basements. But the Greatest Generation didn’t win World War II by dint of individual genius. America didn’t build the bomb in a basement. America didn’t even build the Model T in a basement. The auto industry we have today — like the railroad network that preceded it, like the space program, like every great national accomplishment that supposedly exemplifies our spirit of independence — is the product not of individualism at all, but of massive amounts of teamwork, broad coordination, and huge investments of both public and private money. A new transportation economy is going to require the same. We’re not going to get sustainable transportation by throwing out a few tax breaks, coughing up some platitudes about American ingenuity, and leaning back while the consumer does the right thing. American ingenuity has never operated as a free agent; it has always required subsidies, coordination, and, yes, regulation.

But given our national reluctance to pay even marginal lip service to collectivity, are we even still capable of such a thing?

ON WEDNESDAY, under the Tech canopy, an orange-capped inspector and a boy of about eight lean in side-by-side to examine an engine. “Mom, I really like race cars,” the boy declares. Bob and I know how he feels. We have Salt Fever. I’m on the Salt early every morning, obsessed with seeing the Saline Burner make its run. Bob has discovered that the record for electric cars under fifteen hundred pounds is open, and he’s been eyeing the carts at the West Wendover golf course. Forget it, I tell him; you’d never get your HANS device installed in time.

The Triplets are pushing the Saline Burner into one of Tech’s three lanes. Indefatigable, they are snapping photos like parents at a school play. I ask Gilles whether they will pass Tech today.

“Yes, today,” he says simply. “We ’ave to.” To earn a record, a car has to complete two runs on two consecutive days using the same engine block. Friday is the last day of racing, so if they’re going to qualify, the Triplets have to complete a run on Thursday, then sit overnight in Impound, where potential record-breakers are secured against unauthorized changes.

Several orange caps converge on the Saline Burner. They want to see a bailout. Kiwi Steve, an inspector from New Zealand, explains that the driver has to prove he can get out of the car in twenty seconds. If he can’t, the car fails Tech.

“These are the guys who brought a motorcycle over in a suitcase, assembled it in their hotel room, and set a record,” a bystander tells me. The crowd settles itself expectantly as Frank suits up and gets strapped into the car. Dave gives the nod, and Frank starts unlatching buckles and yanking off belts. With some difficulty, he maneuvers the yoke out of his way. Then he executes an acrobatic backbend and exits the car feet first. The Frenchmen break into a Gallic round of applause. The inspectors look dubious.

Tech director Lee Kennedy, a strapping man with a toy sheriff’s star pinned to his orange hat, borrows one of the Frenchmen’s cell phones and calls the manufacturer of the compressed-air cylinders. He describes how the Triplets have them mounted and has a long conversation about how they might behave in possible crash scenarios. At the end, he issues a verdict. The air cylinders are fine. But the Triplets have failed Tech again. The harness is not tight enough, and Lee wants a piece of metal installed in the area between the driver’s head and the top air tank.

“Because,” he says, gesturing at the tank in an attempt to make himself clear through the language barrier, “it’s three thousand pounds and, in a crash . . .”

Frank is nodding.

“Gonna get frozen, yeah,” he says cheerfully.

Gilles materializes next to me.

“We built this car in six months,” he says, apropos of nothing, and everything.

THURSDAY DAWNS METALLIC GRAY. Curtains of rain hang on the horizon, sparking with lightning. Only a light spittle has landed on the Salt, but racing is delayed an hour; water can turn the raceway to mush. At the Triplets’ pit, a representative from Deist, the safety harness company, has his top half buried deep in the cockpit of the Saline Burner, tightening the seatbelt. Two crew members with mallets are pounding on the car’s frame, and Gilles is sawing a large piece of foam with a kitchen knife. We go to the food tent for breakfast. When we come back, Gilles seems crabby for the first time all week. A slew of inspectors have arrived at the pit, and now there’s an issue with the arm restraints.

“Yesterday, they were okay. Today they are not,” Gilles says.

The Spectre team glides by, towing the Infidel. They set it up on an empty stretch of Salt and line themselves up for a commemorative photo shoot. They are leaving, having broken three records. Two were their own: they beat the A-engine record so easily that they went back and beat themselves, so the record wouldn’t be “soft.” Then they reinstalled their AA engine and beat their own record in that class too.

A bad vibe is brewing in Tripletville, so we decide to go check in with the Buckeyes. The Bullet is parked under their canopy. Gildo Pallanca Pastor, a young millionaire from Monaco, is on a lawn chair working on a laptop. Ohio State’s Center for Automotive Research gets about $10 million a year from the auto industry, but it isn’t enough, so the car has additional sponsors, including Pastor’s electric car company, Venturi.

We chat about the car with some of the students. This is the third iteration of the Buckeye Bullet. The first was powered with batteries taken from cordless drills, the second by hydrogen fuel cell. This one, powered by lithium batteries, is Buckeye Bullet 2.5, because it’s a bridge to next year’s car, which they hope will break 400 miles per hour. To distinguish it from Buckeye Bullets 1 and 2, it has a French name: Jamais Contente — Never Satisfied. We would be satisfied, we tell them, just to see it go.

Back at the food tent, some inspectors are having lunch. Kiwi Steve arrives and tells them that the Triplets are ready to be inspected again. They don’t budge from their burgers. I go over and mention that I’m keeping tabs on the Saline Burner. “We will not let a car go if we don’t think it’s survivable,” Kiwi Steve declares with the same exasperated tone all the inspectors take when discussing the Triplets. Then he tells me I ought to be following the BYU car. It sailed through inspection this morning, he says, and just completed its qualifying run.

Annoyed at having missed the first alternative-power run, Bob and I race over to Impound. The BYU car, a shiny blue beak-shaped beauty, is lounging on its trailer slurping watts. Clean-cut Mormon boys in khaki pants and polo shirts buzz around it. It’s much smaller than the Buckeye Bullet, but, like the first Bullet, runs on batteries from cordless drills. It takes thirty-three minutes to recharge, and their first run clocked in at just over 139 miles per hour.

The blue car gleams in the sun as if lit from within. Unlike everyone else on the Salt, the Brigham Young team doesn’t seem to be sweating.

IT’S MIDAFTERNOON by the time the inspectors return to the Triplets’ pit. Frank is in the car. This time he executes a mock bailout without any acrobatics. The Frenchmen clap again. The inspectors act resigned.

“We want you to be safe,” Kiwi Steve says. It’s not an apology, just a statement. And then, at last, they affix stickers to the car: inspected: 150 mph speed limit. Everyone is ebullient.

A regular entourage sets out for the starting line: Gilles driving the push vehicle, Frank being towed in the Saline Burner, the rest of the Frenchmen piled into a VW microbus, Bob and I bringing up the rear, a new BONNEVILLE SPEED WEEK PARTICIPANT sticker proudly affixed to The Hummer’s bumper.

On the queue for the starting line, people keep coming over and getting down on their hands and knees to look through the clear nose. “It looks like a pontoon!” someone says. The general attitude is bemusement.

The overeager Triplets have poor Frank suited, helmeted, and stuffed into the sweltering cockpit before the driver ahead of them, hanging out in his tighty-whiteys, even starts yanking on his jumpsuit. It seems like the last twenty minutes take forever, but finally we are at the starting line. Bill Taylor, antennae poking up from his headphones, gets his face right down next to Frank’s.

“We got a lotta wind down there, 15 miles per hour,” he says. “That’s maybe 20, 25 kilometers.” He tightens the harness.

The Triplets’ “rookie run” is only to test the car. Frank is told to go two miles, then turn out and come back. Inspector Lee Kennedy will follow in a pickup. If all goes well, they then make the actual qualifying run.

The car starts. It makes a lazy jackhammer noise. Gilles gets in the push truck. Jean and an assistant lower the hatch. They’re about to step away when Frank whistles. They take the hatch off. He needs something adjusted. They do it, and put the hatch back on. He whistles again and the same thing happens. Then again. Bill Taylor is looking nervous. At last, the hatch is on and the car is idling. Bill peers in at Frank through the side window, then gives the thumbs up through the nose. Several people — including me — are filming it. Just as the push truck engages, Jean dashes out and wipes a smudge off the moving car.

Frank obediently leaves the track after two miles. The announcer, misinterpreting his exit, declares: “The air car has run out of air.” People at the starting line laugh.

On the other course, Jamais Contente has finally appeared for its qualifying run, and Bob and I dash over to catch it while the Saline Burner heads back. We get there just as it’s about to go. After the cobbled-together Burner, the boxy, high-tech Bullet looks like the space shuttle. It launches — barely needing its push vehicle — smooth and silent as a shark. The two guys next to me turn away in disgust.

“You can’t even hear it,” one says.

“Takes all the excitement out of racing,” his buddy replies.

With that, my Salt Fever breaks. There’s something childishly exhilarating about vroom vroom but what about the exhilaration of innovation? Where is the enthusiasm for something new and better, something that doesn’t just do what cars have always done — go faster than the cars that came before — but does it without burning fossil fuels? Ingenuity is where all this began, but the most ingenious cars here are treated with a steady stream of scorn. The message of Speed Week seems clear: if there is going to be a sustainable automobile in the future, it will come from students and foreigners.

THE SALINE BURNER makes its official timing run at the very end of Thursday, clocking in at 49.823 miles per hour. It goes into Impound, and on Friday it gets up to 60.455. Averaging the two runs, the Saline Burner now holds the world land-speed record in the Omega Streamliner category: just over 55 miles per hour. Frank cries like a baby. Then the Triplets pile into their VW bus to do some sightseeing. They want to visit Area 51.

Jamais Contente also gets its record, averaging 307.666 miles per hour. But for Brigham Young, this is not the year. On Friday, their driver loses control at around 170 miles per hour, rolls the car several times, and crashes. He’s okay — thanks to good design and the SCTA’s stringent safety rules. The car, however, will need a makeover.

Bob and I leave Wendover the next day and head east on I-80 through the Great Salt Desert. Having come clear across the country to catch a glimpse of the car of the future, we must drive the 2,300 miles back to New York. Even in a Prius, that’s fifty-one gallons of fuel. About sixty miles from Wendover, we pass a flatbed truck loaded with tan toilet units, exteriors smeared with salt. We recognize them at once: the portajohns from Speed Week. A few miles later, we pass a second truckload of toilets, next to a tanker truck labeled HUMAN WASTE. The tanker has a bumper sticker that reads GLOBAL WARMING: SCIENCE BY HOME SIMPSON. We take a picture before passing them in The Hummer. Neither of us needs to say it: we both know they’re full of shit. But then again, so are we.

Ginger Strandis the author of three books: Flight, a novel, Inventing Niagara, the untold story of America’s waterfall, and Killer on the Road, a history of the interstate highway system told through the stories of the killers who have haunted it. She has published essays and fiction in many places, including Harper’s, The Believer, The Iowa Review, The New England Review and the New York Times, as well as This Land and Orion, where she is a contributing editor.


  1. I never really “got” the urge to obsess about speed and automobiles in general, so contemplating Speed Week has always seemed to me like a glimpse at an alien culture. Except, it is the one all of us inhabit, isn’t it? I’ve always tried to perform my own vehicle maintenance and repairs, so I can identify with the urge to get your hands greasy, but beyond that, what is this fatal attraction to rolling steel we all our bound to?

    This piece helped me realize that Speed Week is not about pushing the level of innovation at all, except maybe only to the extent the participants can coax ever decreasing marginal returns from a gallon of fuel, through ever more elaborate technological investments. It is, as the author has so successfully portrayed, about nostalgia and trying to believe that the future and history are not converging and won’t be barreling down on us all at equivalent speeds. It is clear that even this emphasis is misplaced when you consider that the “innovations” of electric and air-powered vehicles are as old, or older, than internal combustion propulsion. I’m sure though that nobody sitting around the cooler at Speed Week dares to admit the heresy that none of it…not liquid fuel, not electric drives, not air powered cars…”pencil out” as large scale substitutes for anything we now have. Instead of just a roster of the faster and the slower, the Speed Weekers come across as a collection of anachronistic reality dodgers. All nice folks, I’m sure, but doomed to have reality clock a much faster run time on them. Well, all of us will too.

  2. Awesome story (and I’d never heard about the Enola Gay link). I’ve always to go to speed week at the Bonneville Salt Flats (I’d be driving there in my 110hp 1994 Honda Civic), ever since I saw a movie with Anthony Hopkins about an old Aussie bloke that raced an old motorcycle there when everyone said he couldn’t. I just hope today’s reality would be have as good as a nostalgic movie. 🙂
    Thanks again for a great story!

  3. “I saw a movie with Anthony Hopkins about an old Aussie bloke”. Burt Munro was not an “aussie bloke”, he was a New Zealander. Just had to get that off my chest.

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