Students of History

College teams at Bonneville

John Gunnell - July 11, 2013 10:00 AM


For Your Information


Southern California Timing Association (SCTA)

(559) 528-6279


Utah Salt Flats Racing Association (USFRA)

(801) 485-2662


Brigham Young Universty’s unique power tool battery-powered electric streamliner got lots of attention at Bonneville. TOP 


Wind resistance was not a big problem when Utah State University’s bio-diesel fueled streamliner made its runs.


An FVTC team member was taking in the automotive sights and natural beauty of the Salt Flats when this photo was snapped. 


After returning from Bonneville, the car went to the Muscle Car and Corvette Nationals where Linda Vaughn autographed it. (Pete Sweely photo)


It took some unusual student teamwork to lower the front of the car so the suspension could be chained down.


ABOVE All four colleges competing at the “World of Speed” got together for a group shot on the salt early last September.


Team members in flamed shirts spent hours taping the car and pushing it up to the starting line. 


The Utah Valley University team set records with El Camino in 2011, but could not get it hooked up just right for 2012.


The sights and sounds of Bonneville Salt Flats racing were an education in themselves. 


When preparing the cars prior to heading to Bonneville, the team had the modern resources of Fox Valley Technical College’s auto technology department.


Both young and old team members kept smiling most of the time, but generational differences did arise under the pressure of competition. 


Athol Graham’s “City of Salt Lake” streamliner disintegrated during his fatal run in 1960, but his son Butch has now restored the famous Bonneville car.

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Tell people you went to Bonneville and they’ll ask if you saw The World’s Fastest Indian.

That’s the 2006 film in which Anthony Hopkins plays a kooky, combative Kiwi who travels to Utah to set records with his home-modified 1920 Indian motorcycle. Racer Burt Munro breaks all the rules and wins — and it’s a true story. The film taught many people about the annual races at Bonneville Speedway, but we knew about the legendary Salt Flats in the eighth grade.

In 1960, a dozen cars were poised for world land speed record attempts at Bonneville. Athol Graham’s “City of Salt Lake” streamliner reached a speed of 300 mph at the two-mile mark on August 1 before crashing. Some witnesses said wheels came off the homebuilt car. It went into a skid, flipped over and slid for a half-mile. Graham was flown to a hospital, but died hours later. Sports Illustrated said the wreck was a “shockingly tragic beginning to a season which was to see the biggest assault ever on a land speed mark.”

It was also the year that Mickey Thompson made his famous record run. It took place on September 9 and unofficially made Thompson the fastest man in the world. Unfortunately, a broken driveshaft kept Thompson from making a second run to officially become the fastest man ever.

We read about Graham and Thompson and other world land speed record challengers as a new school year began in the fall. From then on, the Bonneville Salt Flats near Wendover, Utah, became part of our enthusiasm for automobiles. Yet, who could imagine actually taking race cars to the Salt Flats 52 years later as part of a Utah Salt Flats Racing Association program designed to get students of all ages interested in the history of the Bonneville Salt Flats and the races.

Our team from Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton, Wisconsin, brought two cars: a 1986 Firebird built for the 200 mph class and a 1996 Camaro for the younger team members to use to get their 130 mph Bonneville licenses. The other colleges competing in the 2012 “World of Speed” were all Utah schools. Brigham Young University brought an electric streamliner powered by 888 power tool batteries. Utah State ran a bio-diesel fueled streamliner. Utah Valley University returned with its big-block El Camino No. 396 that held the record of 222.501 mph in AA/CBCC class.

Our team spent several weeks preparing the two cars at Fox Valley Tech’s auto technology department. It gave us the know-how, tools and equipment to build an extremely strong LT1 V-8 for the bright red Firebird. The dark blue Camaro was basically an $800 street car that was donated to the school and fixed up by the students on the team. At Bonneville, it competed on borrowed racing tires that had to be changed for each run. A former FVTC student was qualifying in his own Gen III Camaro and then swapped his tires over to the school’s car each time another young team member qualified.

Every auto enthusiast knows that the Bonneville Salt Flats is a unique place, but going there for the first time was a shock. You can see the salt flats from the highway long before you reach the entrance to Bonneville Speedway. After that, you drive even more, past campers, hikers and ATV riders. Finally, you reach the “outpost” where USFR representatives sell tickets and give out passes. Then, you finally start driving out onto the “Salt” itself.

From the outpost, it is a fairly long drive to the two race courses. The starting line for the seven-mile-long “Long Course” sits by the return road to the pits. The starting line for the three-mile short course is off to the right. The two straight courses come together in a “V.” What you probably won’t realize from looking at a map is that the distance between the starting lines and the pits is several miles. If you compete at Bonneville, you’ll drive back and forth many times.

To get a license to drive at Bonneville, each new driver and vehicle must demonstrate an ability to maintain stability through each of six licensing categories which are E for those with a current state license; D for those who can run (successfully) at 125 to 149 mph; C for those who run 150 to 174 mph; B for those who run 175 to 199 mph; A for those who run 200 to 249 mph and Unlimited for those who go 300 mph or faster. There are many different classes.

The pits at Bonneville also stretch out a long distance in three or four straight lines with cars scooting up and down between them. There are trailers everywhere. Before a car can run, it has to go through tech and be checked by safety inspectors. This takes an hour or more the first time. Each time a car runs, it must go through tech again. After all systems are checked or re-checked, the car can proceed to its starting line.

Depending on how smoothly things are going and how many vehicles are already on line, the waiting period for making a run can be several hours. The waits are said to be longest at the traditional SCTA “Speed Week” event in mid-August. The USFRA “World of Speed” early in September and the SCTA “World Finals” in early October see a bit shorter lines.

We put the wait times to good use. Talking to other racers can help you learn how to make your car go faster. In a couple of short interviews with the owners of different types of cars, we discovered that small changes in the design of a hood scoop can drastically up maximum rpm. Making friends with other racers can also help you when you need a part or piece of racing gear. Motorcycle racer Doug Meyer of Redmond, Oregon, loaned us a helmet shield.

Dave Sarna made three runs in the Firebird and upped his best speed to 192 mph and change. Unfortunately, the transmission failed on the third attempt. This was after we’d replaced a pinion bearing, lowered the body, improved the aerodynamics and cut front wheel rolling resistance. Had the overdrive automatic held up, 200 mph would have been a certainty.

The Camaro did not break. Nearly all of the young team members and one of the adult advisors used the car to get qualified at the 130-mile driving level. Not bad for an $800 street car.

Members of the student teams from all four colleges got a real education on the salt. In addition to lessons in automotive technology, they learned how teamwork can help organizations accomplish goals and how the weather in the Wendover area can change almost every half hour! Our team even learned how to read the instructions on the electric generator we used to run power tools. Who knew it was designed to shut itself off if the oil level dropped too low?

One truly fascinating aspect of the trip was when a fleet of school buses started driving onto the salt on Saturday and unloading students from schools all over the state to have a lunch on the salt flats with the Utah-based college racing teams. Those of us who worry about the future of automotive enthusiasm could learn a thing or two from this program. Why not bus school kids to the big car shows at Carlisle and Hershey and show them how much fun this hobby can be?

We are planning to take the Firebird back in 2013 and top 200 mph. Why? As one of the veteran racers told us, “The main reason I come here year after year is that not many people get this opportunity and those of us who do are a close-knit fraternity.” Chances are pretty good that once you go to Bonneville you’ll catch “Salt Fever” and go back. There is simply nothing else like it in the world of automobiles.