Alice, the 1950 Chevy, makes her way across America's Mother Road to the Bonneville Salt Flats for Speed Week, then off to California and back home again... twice!
The 100th anniversary of Bonneville will be remembered as the race that didn’t happen, but at least we got there in fine style
By Jim Leggett
Originally published: August 19, 2014
JUNCTION CITY, KS – It had been another day of driving across America, and undulating ride on Interstate 70 from the lush farmland and forests of eastern Missouri to the endless fields of corn and dry prairies of Kansas. This was one of those epic road trips that most people dream of but somehow never find the time to do. We were driving a mostly original 1950 Chevrolet two-door Styleline from Montreal to the salt flats of Bonneville and then beyond to the custom car mecca of Southern California.
Why would my traveling partner, photographer and daughter, Liz Leggett consider a journey of 8,000 miles in a 64-year-old car with less than 90 horsepower, three speeds, no power brakes or steering OR air conditioning across the open desert to a dry lake bed?
This year marks the 100th anniversary of land speed racing across the sun-baked salt left over when a massive lake dried up thousands of years ago. The granular surface left behind turned out to be nearly perfect for man to test the speed of their automobiles. This has evolved of the past century into perhaps the last pure form of motorsports.
The rules are quite simple, with safety being at the forefront. Build whatever you want, power it with whatever you want, burn whatever fuel you want and once the organizers assign your car, truck or motorcycle to a class … run it down one of four courses of varying length as fast as you can against the clock. That’s it, no restrictor plates to limit horsepower to bunch up the cars like NASCAR, no need for hundreds of millions of dollars like Formula 1. Land speed racing records are set with vehicles built in the garages of talented fabricators from around the world. There is no limit to the ingenuity and innovation by these competitors.
Teams and individuals are travelling from Europe, New Zealand, the U.S. and Canada. Typically, there are two dozen entries from Canada and the pre-entry list indicates this year will have several teams present in both the car and motorcycle classes.
While it would certainly be quicker to fly to Las Vegas and rent a car for the day’s drive north to Wendover, Utah, the closest town to the Bonneville Salt Flats, the challenge of driving our old Chevy across the continent and back to be a part of the event in as part of the hot rod car scene that comes along with the racing is simply to hard to resist.
I spent several days at Le Car Shop in St-Catherine, Que., under the guidance of owner Luc Mathieu, preparing the Chevrolet for her endurance test by fabricating a shroud for the fan, a heat shield for the carburetor and adding a coolant expansion tank from an old Corvette. Along with this there was the usual tune-up, replacement of the spark plugs and distributor cap plus an oil change.
Driving from Montreal, we headed west and soon crossed the border into the United States, much to the amusement and disbelief of the U.S. Customs officer of our intended destination. Nonetheless, the kilometres turned into miles that rolled by hour after hour. Within days, we had passed from the cool forested hills of New York and Ohio, the fields of Illinois and into the dry range lands of western Kansas. We were amazed at the thousands of oil pump jacks in people’s front yards and farmer’s fields as far as the eye could see. In Colorado, there are seams of coal that rise from the depths of the earth to surface ready to be scooped up.
As our old Chevy steadily made its way westward, there were storm clouds reading eastward unbeknownst to us.
After climbing 10,550 feet to cross the Wolf’s Creek Pass and two slightly lower ones, we had conquered the mighty Continental Divide. But Colorado would also be the location of our first mechanical failure … in a rural area on a State road one of the fan blades sheared off causing the engine to vibrated badly because of the imbalance but fortunately did not damage the radiator or hood. My fan shroud and the cold air intake duct took the hit as the blade disappeared along the roadside. We walked back a mile or so looking for it with no luck. Thankfully, we could still drive but very slowly while looking into backyards of the few homes hoping to find a fellow hot-rodder and it took just five miles to find just such a young fellow named Taylor. Within two hours, we had installed a spare electric fan from one of his projects and were back on the road again.
Meanwhile, thousands of competitors, mechanics and spectators were converging on the small town of Wendover in anticipation of Speedweek. We were closing in on Las Vegas, where we would be picking up a rental RV. This is when we caught word that there had been significant rainfall in the Bonneville area but the organizers were still confident that the courses would dry out in time for the racing and so we kept to our plans.
Rolling into Wendover, it was apparent that there had been additional rain showers and there were rumours of the event being postponed by a day or two. The town’s various parking lots at the casinos and truck stops were packed with transport trucks and trailers, RVs and hot rods in a carnival of mechanical marvel. It was a rare sight to see such a large concentration of the fastest cars and motorcycles condensed into a confined space unlike to open air of the salt flats.
I was driving the RV while Liz split off from me to park somewhere at the daily car show in front of the Golden Nugget Casino. After parking our home on wheels, I went looking for Liz and Alice (the car) and was amazed to see them parked in the front row alongside the Rolling Bones car club from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and other such luminaries of the hot rod world. Alice, still covered with the dirt of a week-long cross-country drive and we were welcomed by friends and strangers alike. The sheer mileage driven in an unrestored old car earned us a place amongst some of the neatest cars and nicest people.
The warm feeling of accomplishment soon faded into crushing disbelief when the SCTA officials were forced to cancel the 2014 Speedweek. The water levels would not recede in time to lay out the miles of wiring needed for the timing systems. The pit area had a foot or more of standing salt water, not what you put any custom-built race car into even if you could get it the five miles out from the end of the paved road.
People milled about pondering the costs of travelling so far with no chance to even race. The beauty of Bonneville is that there is no prize money, but that was little comfort if you had travelled from Norway, France or Australia. There was a group of motorcycle racers from the United Kingdom with 10 bikes and nearly 20 people. Instead of working feverishly on their machines to squeeze out and extra mile an hour from dawn to dusk for a week, the racers and builders and fans spent a couple of days socializing, a rare treat in the world of motorsports.
In an odd case of déja vu, Danny Thompson and his crew were faced with the same conditions that prevented his father, Mickey, from making a run at the 400+ mph record back in 1968 with the same Challenger II streamliner. Danny’s quest to fulfill his father’s dream of hitting 450+ mph with a piston-powered wheel-driven car is not diminished, only delayed.
But this is the nature of salt fever at Bonneville… the first time you come here out of curiosity, then you come back again and again because of unfinished business and records that call to be broken.
The 100th anniversary of Bonneville will be remembered as the race that didn’t happen but nearly everyone I spoke to vowed to return no matter how far they had travelled to reach this unique place on earth.
For us, we will continue our journey west to California in search of interesting cars and people to photograph and interview. When you are handed lemons, make lemonade … even with salt water, if need be.