Bonneville Speed Week

American Festivals Project: Issue #1

If I told you there’s a place as flat as a sheet of college-ruled paper, where there are no cops, no traffic signals, no turns, no intersections, no on-coming traffic, and no speed-limit, would you push that accelerator as far as it could go? Of course you would.

And that would only mean you were in one special place – the Bonneville Salt Flats in western Utah.

Speedweek is the annual gathering of the tribe, where speed devotees make an annual pilgrimage to the fastest racetrack in the world and put their best effort against history.

There is no head-to-head racing. Drivers are racing against the historical speed precedent set for that engine class. The attention is purely on getting the cars to run at top speed. Everything else is secondary.

There are three courses at Bonneville: the long-course, the short-course, and the special course. Each of them are essentially a straight line marked by black paint. For each, there is one starting line and no preset order to lineup, it’s a first-come, first-served system and the wait is usually an hour or more. This is when spectators can inspect the cars and if there is a social scene during the day, this is it.

The mood and vibe around the starting line is respectful, even subdued. Certainly, the heat and extreme sunlight reflecting off the white ground has everyone rationing their energy output.

There is a shared understanding for the danger of each ride and the potential for a fatal crash or engine blowing incident that would erase everything.

Death is not a common outcome for any of the festivals and competitions the AFP has covered. Injuries yes, but fatalities no. Perhaps this is the reason Speedweek felt the least like a party. To be sure, there’s plenty of good times coming out of Bonneville. But there is a precision and underlying focus on exactitude that dominates the culture of the salt flats racing. Bonneville is a break from all the other distractions. It’s a time to concentrate purely on your car.

It’s a week of adjusting and studying and listening and head-scratching and readjusting and trying again and again. There is too much at stake to goof around and be bothered by corporate giveaway parties and mid-day raffles.

Think of Bonneville more as a mad scientist laboratory and Speedweek as more of a rite of passage. It is a place where there is no finish in sight. A place for endless tinkering and trial. And ultimately a place where limits are set only by the failure of imagination.