After taking in the famous Bonneville Speed Week, the journey home provided time to reflect upon the experience. We've concluded there's a subtle importance not reflected in any record book of the event.
It was on the last day of my pilgrimage to Bonneville when the full importance of the place came into focus. I broke camp before the sunrise and watched the light blue melt the stars away and the fiery red sun rise rapidly on the horizon, turning the sky into a painting the Renaissance masters could never have captured. I drove out to the starting line well before the beginning of racing, and stood in the silence, occasionally taking photographs of the cars parked in anticipation of the day. It was cool, with a light breeze, and they'd moved the track over to a new path, virgin salt awaited the man eager enough to make it to the line first. A special kind of privilege on a day like that day.
One of the line officials asked another gentleman and me if we'd mind helping him set up their tent for the day, and of course we obliged. Afterward, I and the older fellow got to talking. This was his first time on the salt since 1963. He'd been active in the racing community in his youth and drag raced with friends all over southern California during the 60's. The joy which came from recalling those memories played on his face and in his voice. He recalled his plans of a Bonneville racer, but his life got in the way. He took a wife and had some children, and his drag racing had to be put on the shelf along with his land speed record chasing dreams. He gladly shouldered the responsibility of working for his family rather than himself. But that dream was still there, the salt fever was always present. For 45 years he'd played with various projects cars and eventually started his own shop having nothing to do hot rods or racing, but bears the name Bonneville as a reminder. An homage.
As he stares retirement in the face, he's honest about age in this sport; vision must be acute, reaction times fast, and strength at the ready. He can sense his window of opportunity closing, but it's not closed yet. Coming to this event, this Mecca of speed, he's found some measure of resolve, after the decades of "maybe next year"s, maybe it's this year. He's got a car perfect for the salt, and an engine that would do the job in a modified stock class. He'd be happy with just one run, just one time down the salt which has carried so many legends to their glory.
This is Bonneville. It is important not because of the records, but because it is a goal, a community, a dream. A marking post by which men and women measure their future and pay respect to the past. At every pit they share each others insights, their failures, and their successes. It puts men to the test as much as machine, and makes them think bigger, bolder. They live more because of Bonneville. It is said there is only one class of people on the salt, a community of people who leave their wallets behind. From the slowest stock class to the most unfathomable streamliners, the only difference is the record they chase, and all are given equal respect. Any man behind a wheel faces the same danger of death as another.
There are sponsors for the event, but they remain transparent. This is a rare commodity when modern wheeled sports are oftentimes in danger of dilution through promotion. The remoteness of the place and the brutality of the conditions filter out the riff raff and the hawkers and the television crews and the ready market demographics. Bonneville happens because of a burning competitive spirit and force of will, not because of network contracts and merchandise deals. Bonneville is important because it has somehow in this day and age managed to remain pure. It is important because it can seduce a man to hold a dream for 45 years.
Eventually the salt will go silent. The memories of the racers and their triumphs will disappear. The record books will reduce to dust. Our rational mind tells us when these things happen the world will go on, this dry lake bed will continue being a dry lake bed, and the trivialities we place importance on will continue being trivialities in geologic time, but a little, irrational part of us hopes the salt will remember.