For reasons that are as arcane and convoluted as a Freemason initiation ceremony, there’s actually two major speed-related events at the Bonneville Salt Flats: last month’s Speed Week, which we covered here, and this past weekend’s World of Speed, which we’re covering, um, now. I’m not complaining, though: the salt flats bring some truly astounding cars, and the more chances to have them out there running, the better. Even better, some of the cars are just bonkers, and that’s what makes life so grand.
(Disclaimer: I was at the salt flats at Volkswagen’s invitation to watch their Jetta attempt to beat a specific speed record. They flew me out there, fed me, slapped me when I wouldn’t stop licking the salt, and at least hid their rage when I spent a whole lot of time looking at and driving cars that weren’t their Jetta.)
The World of Speed event is smaller than Speed Week, and appears to be a bit less, formal, somehow, than Speed Week, with a lot of amateur teams with wonderful cars full of strange engineering showing up, in addition to some heavy-hitters, like the team that set a new wheel-driven land speed record in a turbine-powered streamliner.
There’s all kinds of fascinating stuff around, so, let my eyes be your eyes! (smoke bomb)
One of the first things I saw when I got to the flats was this amazing, home-built all-riveted aluminum Volkswagen Kubelwagen-like buggy. The construction was like an aircraft, and I’m not even sure if it was there to compete at all, because at the Salt flats, even the spectators show up in remarkable, custom-built machines.
I’ll let you in on a secret: one of the reasons I was there was to shoot a new episode of Jason Drives, and that episode will be about the amazing 36 HP Challenge, where a bunch of amazing kooks use one of the lowest-powered VW engines they can find to try and set speed records out on the flats.
That strange Beetle up there was built by Dick Beith, the man who set the original 36 HP Volkswagen speed record back in 1961. He’s still playing in the salt, but he now figures that the incredible luxury offered by a 36 horse VW engine, with it’s lavish four cylinders is just too decadent.
That’s why his Beetle-streamliner has a two-cylinder 750cc engine, with a supercharger from an ‘80s Thunderbird bolted on, along with a pair of snowmobile carbs:
It’s like the Large Hadron Collider was able to isolate the fundamental particle of bonkers, the bonkron particle, and use that to create the element Bonkersonium, of which this car is built.
If that’s too strange, here’s a nice palette cleanser: a Chevy Monza with a massive hood scoop, covering a massive engine. I haven’t seen a Monza in maybe decades. I forgot I kind of like them!
Another sort-of forgotten car is represented here at the Salt Flats: a Dodge Rampage sport-truck! In sour-apple Life Savers green!
This might have started life as a Porsche 917 replica kit car called a Manta Mirage, but now it’s got a massive LS engine in the middle there and looks fast as a photon late for a movie.
Ghias get to play in the 36 HP Challenge too, of course.
This old army truck I think was used for some speed runs, and, like many of these cars designed for just short, quick runs, seems to have no cooling system whatsoever:
I didn’t see this one actually running, but I’d like to believe it was out there, barreling along like a drunk rhino.
Of course AMC was represented, and represented quite well by this Javelin.
I like the ‘kilroy’ detail on the hood bulge.
This ‘52 Chevy was really beautifully constructed and incredibly clean and well-detailed.
It’d be easy to say it’s too pretty to run, but the truth is everything is prettier when it’s out there, running.
This Saab Sonnet was a great example of the incredible variety of cars that show up to the salt flats. This one was running the original Saab two-stroke three-cylinder DKW-derived engine, making 750cc. It was also fast as hell, with a string of records in the 120 mph range. That’s pretty amazing for 250cc short of one liter.
There were, of course, plenty of more “traditional” salt flat racer cars, though by any other standard, they’re hardly conventional. I think I’ve seen party sub sandwiches larger than that windshield.
There was a whole clan of Studebaker Starliners running around, too.
There were a number of these people-torpedo cars around, where the driver lays prone on their stomach, and gets launched at 200 mph into the white, salty void. I can’t really imagine what these things must be like to drive.
The proportions of some of these things is absolutely insane.
At the other comfort-extreme was this Jaguar XJ, re-powered with a massive Buick straight-eight:
So many good Volkswagen 36 HP Challenge cars. That one’s camo, so you probably can’t see it, but trust me, it’s cool.
The VW Challenge crew tended to be very brand-loyal, even when they weren’t exactly brand-loyal.
More fun 36 HP Challenge cars. Hold on, I’ll mix it up more here so I don’t oversaturate you with 36 horse stuff.
This home-built, twin-V-twin Indian motorcycle was really incredible. The two engines share a pulley to drive the rear wheel, and the owner/builder told me the two V-twins sort of operate like one V4 split in half, somehow. This bike was fast.
Here it is, America’s Pride, the Pinto! This is why we keep going as a nation, people.
Also, it’s worth noting that there once was a time where this maneuver with a Pinto would have been considered suicide.
It’s worth noting that when we talk about “speed” here, it’s a wonderfully relative thing. Take this bike, for example: it’s got an electric motor and a 3.25 hp leaf blower-type motor on the back, and the rider’s goal was to hit 43 or so mph. In context, that’s fast as hell.
Also wonderful about the World of Speed is that it’s very inclusive: if you want to go fast on the salt, there’s a category for you to just take your daily driver and have at it, like this kid with his strategically-taped and de-mirrored Subaru. I love that.
Here’s another taped-up daily driver, a Firebird, complete with a special car-hat.
For you astronomers out there, here’s a wonderful picture of the legendary Ford Galaxie.
Of course there were Mustangs there, but I think the best one was this Mustang II King Cobra.
Here’s Volkswagen’s Jetta speed record car; we’ll tell you how they did as soon as VW’s embargo is up tomorrow.
It’s worth noting that the 36 HP cars don’t have to just make 36 HP; there’s different classes, they just all have to start with a 36 horsepower block. That’s how you end up with insane things like this, with its massive headers and turbocharger.
This guy drove this single-cab pickup all the from Saskatchewan to run the 36 HP Challenge, and he came with two extra engines so he could run it in multiple classes. That’s fantastic, in every way.
That’s Once More, the ’55 Beetle I got to drive. I’ll save details about this fascinating car for the Jason Drives episode, but, oh boy, it’s good.
It’s nice of that Beetle owner to give people something to read in the rear-view mirror.
Somewhat unrelated to the speed week itself, but this chopper had some really inspired lighting equipment, like this lantern taillight:
...and these wonderful hamentaschen-shaped headlights.
Here it is! The best Chevy Citation in the world! I mean, that’s not really a high bar, but still.
This bonkers streamliner was powered by a diesel V10 from a wrecked VW Tuareg. To meet the requirements of the class, it has to have four wheels, but in order to get the aero as rocket-like as possible, the front two wheels are in tandem, one in front of the other.
Just a pair of lovely classic salt flat racers.
Look at this lovely Willys pick up! I bet it tastes like Dr. Brown’s Black Cherry soda.
The way these speed runs are done isn’t like a drag race; the only thing checked is the maximum speed at either the one-mile mark for the under 130 mph cars, or the five-mile mark for the faster cars.
So, the takeoff and accelleration are less important than just how fast you end up. That said, takeoffs aren’t easy, as you can see with that poor guy up there, who spent a lot of time getting prepped and ready only to have it all go to hell at the very start.
Look, Bonneville is amazing, the salt flats are otherworldly, and the people and the cars are absolutely worth encountering in person.