Speed Seeking: Chance of a Lifetime on the Salt Flats [Part 1]
I’d been waiting for this moment for years, and it was finally here. I was sitting behind the wheel of a 1955 Studebaker, in full race gear and 100-degree heat, waiting for the official to give me the signal to press down the skinny pedal. I’d practiced bailing out of the car — unhooking the wrist restraints, reaching to open the door, unhooking the safety net, moving aside the head restraints and unbuckling the 5-point harness to fish myself out past the racing seat and roll cage while wearing a helmet. What I hadn’t practiced, couldn’t practice, was grasping exactly what it would feel like taking my first run down the salt. It’s like the first time getting a tattoo and not knowing what the sensation will be when the tattoo needle first pricks your skin. But, it’s better than you could ever imagine: quiet, otherworldly and — lacking any better way to describe it — magic.
To be honest, I never would have come out to the salt on my own. To outsiders it can sound like a monumental bad idea — a desert in the middle of August, a hodge-podge group of racers and no easy way to spectate a mile-long race of a car against the clock. But, in 2009, I trekked out on press assignment and instantly, I was hooked. It didn’t matter that my eyeballs wouldn’t stop watering it was so bright. I loved every minute of it. The cars, the salt and especially the people. The following year I couldn’t wait to go back, something deep in my soul wanted to be there. So much so, that I drove my ‘55 Studebaker from Los Angeles to Wendover in the cover of night on a penny and a prayer to get there. I was already dreaming up what car I would build to bring there and race.
An Opportunity to Race at Speedweek
At the time, my hands were full just trying to keep my daily driven Studie on the road, much less having the funds and space to build a Bonneville racer. But each summer I returned to the salt, feeding my growing addiction and stoking the coals of desire. Following Speedweek 2013, I received an email from a guy named Jerry Hansen, asking if I had been to the salt that year; he’d been hoping to meet me. Jerry went on to explain that he’d built a ’55 Stude — the same year/make as my classic car — to race Speedweek with. No record breaker, but Jerry and a few of his friends had just gotten their rookie SCTA land speed racing licenses in it. The email ended with a question…
Would I like to drive his Studebaker at Bonneville?
Flabbergasted, I never considered getting an offer from a complete stranger. Jerry told me that he’d found my writing after googling “Speedweek Studebakers” and could tell how much of a fan I was. Waiting through two cancelled Speedweeks, in 2016 I finally arrived at the salt flats with my fireproof racing long johns, my own ’55 Stude and more excitement than an 8-year-old in a room full of kittens.
The Bonneville Salt Flats have been the mecca of hot rodding since before hot rodding was invented. In fact, you could even say that the salt flats invented the hot rod. To get there, you veer off the 80-freeway just east of Wendover, which sits on the Nevada-Utah border. Passing a gas station and a bend in the road, both of which sit nearly vacant much of the year, they become epicenters of activity during Speedweek. From there it’s a couple miles drive down a two-lane road, transporting you into the middle of a vast, empty expanse of white. An official Bonneville Salt Flats sign sits where the pavement ends. Most tourists take a picture here, turn around and leave. During Speedweek, this is as much of a “gate” as there can be on wide, open land.
Entering onto the salt, the only directives leading you to the action are a few placed cone markers and, of course, the steady flow of traffic. It’s a mile or so before the starting line, another mile from there and the pit area starts. This is also where driver registration and tech inspection take place.
The first matter of business after arriving was to find Jerry’s Studebaker and, oddly enough, meet him in person for the first time. We’d emailed a handful of times and talked details over the phone — but really, I had no idea what to expect. Immediately, his understated friendliness and generosity made me feel more like family than stranger. He’d even added my husband’s and my names to the drivers-side door, extending Ethan the offer to license as well.
Getting the Green Light to Race
Before racing can start, the car must get through tech inspection. Volunteer inspectors comb each inch to ensure the vehicle is within both class and safety regulations. The car is poked and prodded as teams look on anxiously and stand by to answer any questions. This process can take hours.
The Studebaker’s inspection book was already filled in with notes and signatures — greatly expediting tech inspection. Jerry nervously answered the inspector’s questions on minor changes they’d requested from the last event, hoping the fix met their satisfaction. After what seemed like forever, the Studebaker received the thumbs up along with a 2016 Speedweek competition sticker.
Before leaving tech area, all rookie drivers need to demonstrate a fully suited “bail out” procedure. This involves suiting up (with helmet, arm restraints and all); getting buckled into the car; and proving you can go through the proper steps to shut the car down, activate the fire safety system and get out of the car in under 30 seconds.
This may sound like more than enough time to get out of a car, but if you’ve never been buckled into a race car, you’ve got to remember we’re not just talking about opening the door and stepping out. While this step is more of a formality, it begins to assert the reality of risk being taken. Land speed racing is not without its dangers — one wrong move or mechanical failure at speed can send the car spinning into a hundred pieces.
Racing day begins with a driver’s meeting at the start line. Excitement is heavy in the air as racers — from first time rookies like me to long-time veterans — gather for the national anthem, a prayer and any relevant news and announcements. Directly following, all rookies peel off to the short course area, the stretch of track they’ll initially be racing. During rookie orientation, I hung on every word of direction, horribly nervous that somewhere during the racing process I’d fall out of line and embarrass myself. It didn’t help that my own Studebaker was acting up, leaving me in fear of it breaking down at any moment.
Making it through rookie orientation without issue, it ended with a slow drive down the course to see the lay of the land. The Bonneville Salt Flats are white and flat no matter where you’re at, but being on course meant seeing it in an entirely new way. I was pacing through what I’d be doing in the car as I made my rookie run, looking up toward the floating mountain ahead to cement its location in memory.
*Finally* Time to Race at Speedweek
Checking off all the “have-to’s,” it was finally time to head to the start line. Depending on the salt conditions, there’s usually two long courses spanning 5 to 10 miles, and two short courses spanning 3 to 5 miles each. Race cars are only allowed to drive when on course; all other areas they must be towed. Many aren’t capable of “normal” driving anyhow due to their gearing. A stupid grin grew as I drove the truck pulling Jerry steering the Studebaker behind it. I was no longer just an onlooker; I was a participant.
Speedweek is exactly that — it’s a full week. Hardcore racers come and stay the full time, but the majority of people arrive on Friday and leave by Monday, which means that Saturday and Sunday are crowded. Racers stay posted up in line for hours waiting their turn. You’re lucky to get two or three runs in on these busy days. The racing line is the best place as a spectator to see all the cars and talk to the crews; they’re less distracted there then when in the pits.
The short course line moves a bit faster than the long course for obvious reasons, and we found ourselves up at the start line earlier than expected. My husband Ethan had stepped away momentarily, leaving only Jerry and me to launch the car. He was taking the first run, assuring everything was operating as planned after lying dormant the past few years. Rushing to get everything in place, I buckled Jerry into the driver’s seat and jumped in the truck behind to follow him on down the side of the course.
We’d all waited so long for this — finally the Studebaker would have its run! Looking on in anticipation, Jerry sped off from the line as expected as I pulled out behind him. As the car was just starting to become a mere dot on the horizon, I saw it turn off course. My heart sunk as I saw the car’s profile come into view and realized what happened. The hood had come up and was now bent over the top of the car. Was Jerry OK? Was the car OK? Would this be the end of our Speedweek?
Next Time, Make A Checklist
Noticeably shaken, Jerry was out of the car when I pulled up. In our rush between tech and the start line, the hood pins hadn’t been put back in. It was a rookie mistake. It was none of our fault and all our fault. Next time, we would use a checklist to ensure each item was seen to.
Luckily, the hood hadn’t crushed the windshield. If we could peel it back down, straighten it out, reinforce it and pop the roof back up, we may still be able to race.
Heading back to the pits, Jerry and I didn’t take long to transfer from despondency to get-er-done determination. Making easier work of the job, my dad, brother and uncle had come along for the adventure. My dad and brother both work with metal for a living, and they knew just how to manipulate the hood to get it back into place with the least amount of structural damage.
I took on the role of monkey, hanging from the roll cage bars and pushing the roof out with my feet. It took all my strength to get that vintage American steel back into place.
As the sun set on our Saturday, we surveyed the finished repairs. All things considered, the car didn’t look too worse for wear. (Keep Reading...)