Thursday, August 23, 2018
Every year in the middle of August, the high desert of western Utah turns into Graceland for gearheads. Car enthusiasts from all over the world make the pilgrimage to the Bonneville Salt Flats to watch racers strapped into souped-up machines chase land speed records across the moonscape.
The teams of drivers and technicians don’t compete in Speed Week, as it’s called, for money or fame. There’s no prize purse at the finish line and little chance of becoming a household name. Instead, they travel to the salt with dreams of joining the venerated ranks of the 200 MPH Club, or winning a title in one of the class-specific competitions featuring rocket ships on wheels that crest 500 miles per hour and chopped-up jalopies that barely break 100.
The event is a chance to admire the handiwork of others, to meet single-minded millionaires and weekend garage stars and talk shop without fear of politics or people problems creeping in. It’s full of the easygoing fellowship of a Burning Man celebration mixed with the screaming decibels and gleaming chrome of a Mad Max chase scene, all fully sanctioned by an organizing body called the Southern California Timing Association.
For this year’s Speed Week, a Santa Barbara race team made the two-day journey to Bonneville with their long-bodied Blown Fuel Lakester in tow. The goal was to reclaim their class record by breaking 306 mph. They wanted it bad, and confidences were high. But the trip didn’t go as planned. The title eluded them.
The team, however, comprising decorated racing veterans and younger ace mechanics, wasn’t bothered. They shrugged off the results, reminded each other, “Hey, no crybabies,” and vowed to return next year. That is the beauty of Bonneville. They may not have returned home with a record, but they saw other milestones smashed and got a chance to rub fenders with some of the quickest cars on earth. It was a lesson in patience and serenity delivered rather unexpectedly by a group of guys just itching to go fast.
Ever the Clean Slate
The Lakester, a specific class of vehicle with a streamlined body and four exposed wheels, was built purely for land-speed attempts by three legends of Santa Barbara hot rodding — Fred Dannenfelzer, Bob Richards, and Paul Madsen, who make up DRM Racing. Only Dannenfelzer was able to travel to Utah this year. Although he was once a wizard on the track, his driving days are now mostly behind him, but with his hawk-eyed attention to his rig and a booming voice that commands attention around the pits, it’s clear he’s still running the show.
The #44 car — typically one of the top-performing entries in its class — can accommodate a variety of engine setups and was powered for Bonneville by a 300-cubic-inch Chrysler Hemi that runs on a fuel mixture of nitromethane and methanol. In the racing world, it’s considered a midsize motor, but it packs a wallop, producing upward of 5,000 horsepower; my Volkswagen puts out roughly 170 horsepower. And while I can drive 35 miles on one gallon of gas, #44 turns fuel efficiency on its head, guzzling 48 gallons in a single minute. Race-car builders generally aren’t too concerned about emissions.
The Blown Fuel engine is the baby of Hunter Self, who operates J&S East Valley Garage in Montecito, a go-to pit stop for owners of high-performance and classic cars from all over the South Coast. If Dannenfelzer and his compatriots are the brawn of the racing operation, Self is the brains. He knows the motor inside and out and calls it exactly what it is: a bomb, albeit one whose explosions are captured and controlled. Self’s respect for the awesome, piston-powered force at his fingertips is obvious, and he has a whole lot of fun with it.
Our first afternoon on the flats, as the temperature danced around the century mark and fresh ice was packed into coolers stuffed with Gatorade and Keystone beer, Self drove us in a golf cart around the staging area with a wide-open grin. He pointed to the famous #911 Roadster out of Chico and a fan favorite, the Big Red Camaro. We passed the shaded work areas of numerous U.S. teams — the Death Traps from Idaho, the Hot Rod Hoodlums from Texas, the Hudson Boys from Seattle, and so on. We met a mechanic nicknamed “Boom Boom” because he has a tendency to blow out engines.
International crews from Mexico, Ukraine, Great Britain, France, Sweden, and New Zealand flew their flags, too, and worked on cars of every size, shape, and color under the relentless sun. There was even a V16-powered diesel freightliner crouched like a hulking linebacker in a four-point stance. That monster, of course, was American.
The human melting pot was just as eclectic. There were the standard motorheads with thick beards and ripped sleeves but also refined lads in tasseled loafers and crisp polos. The former tend to congregate near jet-black Fords; the latter, cherry-red Ferraris. Some women managed camp; others donned race suits, ready for their own runs. Kids wearing neon-green hearing protection stood at elbows and learned the ropes. Local “salt rats” wandered here and there with permanent squints and leathered skin.
When an engine is fired up for testing — i.e., has “heat put into it” — a reverent crowd gathers around, iPhones out, to witness the thing come to life. They watch, but mostly listen, because it’s the acoustics that are the most impressive, as the beast sucks in desert air, swallows a belly full of fuel, and combusts the concoction to make its cylindrical limbs run like crazy. Onboard computers track timing and watch for drivetrain slippage. Serious discussions are had and the necessary tweaks made with arrays of tools laid out like surgical kits.
“This is one of the few motorsports that encourages innovation,” said Self, referring to other racing events with narrow rules and high costs of entry, such as the quarter-mile drag competitions that are the territory of the wealthy and connected. “This is a car hobbyist’s dream,” Donny Cummins agreed. Cummins is a professional dragster who took a break from the circuit to attend Bonneville and reconnect with the spirit of the sport. “These are ordinary people doing extraordinary things,” he said.
As for the why — why spend umpteen hours and hard-earned money to pursue maybe the most difficult, esoteric kind of racing there is, and do it with a bunch of adrenaline junkies in the middle of nowhere — Al Eshenbaugh answered that question head-on. “I don’t play golf, and I’m too old to screw, so what the hell else am I supposed to do?”
To participate in Speed Week is also to commemorate a legacy of barrier-busting daredevils, starting with Indy 500 top gun Teddy Tetzlaff, who set the first Bonneville record 104 years ago by driving 141 mph in a car called the Blitzen Benz, and continuing with a hot-dogging Brit named Sir Malcolm Campbell, who became the first person to pilot an automobile over 300 mph in 1935.
Only the worthy, whether slightly crazed or completely obsessed, or some combination thereof, have burned their names in the record books over the decades. It’s an honor hard to explain but easy to respect. Ten people have lost their lives in the pursuit.
Eye of the Bonneville Beholder
The 30,000 acres of salt flats where this all takes place are remnants of a lake that dried up during the Pleistocene era and are now overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. The expanse is so vast and so smooth that you can see the curvature of the earth dip away in the distance. In the morning, the sun rests crimson and swollen right upon the whitewashed countryside. At the starting line, drivers point their cars toward Floating Mountain, an optical illusion created by the sloping effect that separates nearby mountain bases from their summits.
The flats on their own are a dead-calm purgatory that mutes the heart and dumbs the senses until the racers arrive, electrify the air, and deliver one and all to hot-rod heaven. Spectators and competitors camp directly on the salt in tents or trailers, or they room in the nearby town of Wendover, which is split in half by a state line — Utah, with Mormon influences to the east, and Nevada, full of sin, to the west. Crusty boot prints litter carpeted hallways like snow.
Raising his voice above the percussive snarls of warming engines, and just as a patch of nitro vapor slapped our nostrils, Self gestured over the wild scene: “Like Yosemite is beautiful, so is this. It’s just a different kind of beauty.”
In the lead-up to the Lakester’s first run, Self crouched with fellow technician Brian Hawkins to check spark plugs, do some rewiring, and attach the nose to the chassis. As the engine turned over, Self ran his hand over the flame-spewing headers to make sure all cylinders were functioning right. He and Hawkins are comfortable working directly next to the mechanical firepower. For a tender greenhorn like me standing even 15 feet away, the fumes and noise make my eyes run and ears tingle.
The #44 driver for this run was Alan Fogliadini, whom everyone calls Fogie, a Carpinteria native with sandy hair, round bifocals, and many a win under his belt. He worked with Hawkins to get his seat height just right within the narrow confines of the cockpit, a womb-like space that leaves just enough room for gripping the steering handle, toeing the throttle, and reaching buttons that trigger an emergency fire extinguisher and the parachute that complements the hand brake.
In a car like this, Fogliadini explained, there’s not much steering to be done. The driver makes small adjustments to keep the nose straight and watches as the front tires swell with centrifugal force, but mostly he concentrates on the tone and vibrations of the engine behind him. “You think with your ass,” he said.
With Fogliadini focused on the dangerous task ahead, longtime racer Arley Langlo elaborated on how to drive at breakneck speeds. The trick, he said, is to “keep the car on the ragged edge,” meaning give it enough gas to generate G-force but not so much that the wheels spin out. In order to calm nerves at the starting line, Langlo explained, it helps to concentrate on the start-up sequence routine — back off the motor, check the oil pressure, turn on the computers, and spin the starter. Watch to see which side of the course other drivers are favoring, he said, and make sure your transmission is in low gear.
Langlo vaulted into the 200 MPH Club his first crack at Bonneville in 1966, when he was 24 years old. “I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “It hooked me.” Back then, a safety suit was a pair of coveralls dipped in flame retardant. Langlo has been going fast for nearly five decades now and doesn’t expect to quit anytime soon. “When it stops being fun, I’ll hang it up,” he said. “But it’s still fun.” Especially satisfying, he said, is that moment at the end of a good, “stout” run, standing alone outside your car, miles from anything or anyone, hearing only the “tink-tink” of the cooling engine and the proud voice in your head.
Langlo, tall and soft-spoken with giant, scuffed-up hands, is now building his own rig, a streamliner, in his Goleta garage. He recently dug 12 feet by hand into a hillside to extend the workspace. Self is doing all the body welding. Like the rest of the DRM Racing outfit, Langlo is a purist, preferring piston engines over jet power; they have propelled cigar-shaped cars to the absolute top land speed record of 763 mph. He still uses a pocket watch.
While the #44 Lakester is packed with horsepower, its off-white paneling chipped here and there from years of hurtling down the tracks, it is an aerodynamic nightmare, a fact the crew is proud of. They like to quote Enzo Ferrari: “Aerodynamics are for people who can’t build engines.”
Conditions were perfect the morning of DRM’s run. The salt was nice and dry, great for traction, with only a slight breeze blowing. Cars filed into rows for their turns on the designated long course, a five-mile stretch with a timing tower at the halfway mark and a contingent of emergency responders on standby. The crowd of spectators and press photographers grew near the announcer’s stand as the competitors leaped off the starting line one after the other like unchained cheetahs. They disappeared so quickly in the distance it did little good to watch. Instead, many turned their ears down-course to listen for good or bad signs from the engines. Successive pops, or “shooting ducks,” meant misfiring and trouble.
Dannenfelzer towed the Lakester to the line in his truck and then edged around behind it. The car is so high-geared it needs a push to get going. Self and Hawkins snapped the canopy into place, and with a final safety check of Fogliadini’s helmet and harness, Dannenfelzer gunned the truck’s gas and Fogliadini cranked the Lakester’s throttle. Seconds later, the Lakester pulled away and shot across the salt. But it never reached full power. A couple of miles in, Fogliadini heard a pop (“one shot duck”) and immediately killed fuel to the engine as a safety precaution. He coasted to a stop near the pits, where we found him staring down at the car, his hands on his hips.
I was expecting disappointment, anger. Maybe a few choice expletives and a kick of the tires. There was none of that. Instead, with the Lakester towed back to home base, Self rubbed his hands together and said matter of factly, “Well, let’s find out why.” Piece by piece, he began disassembling the motor, inspecting each component with a scientific concentration.
Before long, the problem was revealed. The team had asked a little too much from their motor. The outside edge of one of its cylinders had started to melt away under the pressure of the high-concentrate nitro fuel and an aggressive tune-up. Everyone took turns feeling the pocked metal surface and nodding their heads. It wasn’t a major break, but it couldn’t be fixed in the field. “That’s racing,” said Langlo. “Sometimes you’re one and done.”
With that, the Lakester’s Speed Week was over. Still, its operators stayed high in spirit. They cracked open beers and water bottles and settled into folding chairs to watch the other competitors. Stretched cobalt-blue and canary-yellow streamliners — the event’s speediest class of car, some with six wheels and two engines, all encased in shiny exoskeletons — buzzed above a watery mirage. Even from half a mile away, with nothing to obstruct your view, the cars came and went from sight in a breath.
Later in the day, a hush fell over the DRM Racing team as radio announcers signaled the start of Danny Thompson’s first run. Thompson, based in Orange County, was piloting a streamliner named Challenger 2 originally built by his father, Mickey, a giant among giants in the hot-rod realm. The two had been on the outs for many years, with Mickey forbidding his son from racing and Danny disobeying his dad at every turn, until finally, they made amends and Mickey started restoring the Challenger for Danny to race at Bonneville. Before they got the chance, Mickey was murdered by a former business partner. This was Danny’s shot at a record and some closure. Everyone talked about it. He clocked 446 mph on the first pass and hit 450 on his second, for an average of 448 mph and the title in his class.
Between the two runs, he stopped by the DRM camp to share the joy with old friends. There was a lot of handshaking and backslapping. A greasy rag was thrown playfully at his chest. “Nice run!” everyone shouted. “Nice run!” Later, Danny talked with reporters. “It’s the car’s 50th anniversary,” he said, “and the whole crew pulled together to get the record, so I feel like I’ve finally put the streamliner’s unfinished business to rest.”
Self and the others agreed it was a fine performance, one for the books, and they hoped, for Danny’s sake, the title sticks awhile. “But you never know,” Self said, thinking of Speed Week 2019 and the trophies he and the other salt warriors will go after. “These records are leased. You don’t have them forever.”
Speed Week in Peril
Bonneville organizers fear for the future of the event as the venue itself faces an uncertain fate. For the last seven decades, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has allowed a nearby potash mining operation to pump brine from an aquifer under the speedway. Normally, the aquifer replenishes the salt flats by periodically percolating to the surface and hardening into a level crust as solid as asphalt. But as the water level has gone down, so has the salt volume.
A 1997 U.S. Geological Survey report estimated the flats lost 55 million tons from their crust between 1960 and 1988. In some areas, it shrank from five feet thick to just a couple of inches. After that 1997 report came out, the BLM reached a compact with the mining company — Denver-based Intrepid Mining — wherein Intrepid is supposed to replace removed brine with matching amounts of dry salt.
According to the Save the Salt foundation, a nonprofit group working to preserve the speedway and surrounding countryside, which the BLM has designated an Area of Critical Environmental Concern, Intrepid has lived up to its end of the agreement, but more action is needed. “While this is a significant accomplishment, even more salt needs to be transported back to the [Bonneville Salt Flats] in order to restore the area,” the group states on its website. According to the BLM, “Wind, periodic rainstorms and regional climate also play an important part in changing salt crust conditions.”
As they do every year, Save the Salt reps called on Bonneville participants to donate a bit of their time and money to advocate for the speedway. To learn more, visit savethesalt.org.