Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Bonneville Speed Week

One week every summer, racers come from all over the US to the Bonneville Salt Flats in western Utah to try setting land speed records. They drive everything from little, historic motorcycles to creations that look like missiles on wheels. I've read about it and seen it on TV. Now that I live 160 miles away, a road trip was overdue.

The first thing you notice is the salt. It's everywhere. During the spring, the rains flood the flats. As the summer cooks out all the moisture, you are left with a nice, smooth, flat race surface.

The bad news is that salt is a powdery, sticky mess that attaches to everything. I need to vacuum my car today.

You can watch people in the pits beating the salt off the cars and tires.

This really sums it up. I saw a few people wearing this t-shirt. I only went for a day, but I have to guess that anyone who stays for the full week could have easily created this shirt.

When you go to a road race, like NASCAR, you are off sitting in the stands. Only the rich or well-connected get to visit the pits or chat with the drivers. Bonneville is incredible. While they keep you a good distance from the vehicles on their speed runs, you can walk through the pits, meet everyone, and even stand right at the start line. Bored in one spot? Just hop in your car and drive somewhere else.

Check out the wide variety of cars.

Most pits had large tarps spread to try to minimize the salt in their work area.

This is one of the rolling missiles I mentioned.

This looked like a dragster, with a bit of tweaking. Notice that this race team's name matches the t-shirt we just saw.

They can't all look fast. This was a wee small 1972 Honda. I guess they have a race class for everyone.

Back to the fast ones again.

My favorites were the older ones.

... and this one in particular. It was gorgeous. It was definitely a show car and wasn't being raced. Even though there were interesting cars everywhere you looked, this one had people stopping to take pictures almost constantly.

Who would want to get into one of these things and drive along at 200 mph? Tuxedo man! Actually, it was just his racer's fire suit, but it looked very formal.

When the driver gets in the missile, his pit crew straps him in. When I did my race class in Atlanta, I got used to putting on a five-point harness. This is much worse. The drivers legs and hands are strapped in. It seemed absurd until a crew member explained that they can't afford to have a limb outside the car, at all, in the event of a crash. If anything is outside the protective frame of the car, you probably lose it.

Self confidence too high? Sit in a missile about 18 inches off the ground. Steer with something that looks like an 8 inch long stick. The streamliners (missiles) go well over 300 mph. That should put life into perspective.

One problem with loading up the drivers was the heat. They all wear fire suits and helmets. Then they get into vehicles with giant engines. The fancier solutions had portable cooler-sized boxes that pumped chilling fluid through the racer's suit. The would disconnect it right before the start. Others just went with pit crews holding umbrellas and using little $2 portable fans.

The cars are geared for very high speeds. This means that some of them can't actually get started on their own. Normally they have a pickup truck shove them from behind for the first 200 yards or so. The timing doesn't start until the get to second mile, so it's not cheating.

This guy had an antique truck with a matching paint color. Styling.

These guys had something called "The Mothership". Perhaps a little larger than really needed.

Or you can try the poor man's approach. This one started, then the engine died. These guys pushed it down the track a few hundred yards before it finally caught and took off on its own. The crowd was loving it because for a while, it looked like they were going to run along with it for the entire 5 mile course.

Who the hell thought of doing this in August instead of something nice, like October? It is a desert after all. The salt reflects the sun back up, just like snow. It makes it easier to get sun burned, but the salt surface stays at a reasonable temperature.

This thermometer shows how it feels standing out in the sun.

This one picture tells you almost everything about the Bonneville fan base. Almost 100% male. Almost 100% aged 50+. Almost 100% wearing straw hats. I'm surprised they let this guy with the baseball hat stand around.

If you ever go, just remember: you can't bring too much water, sunscreen or shade.

Hot car. Looks fast.

But then you go look inside. It looks stark and uncomfortable.

But then you look at the door. It looks like someone's fridge. I do wonder why the cat got a bigger picture than the kids. No spouse?

I tried to shoot the cars as they did their speed runs. There was very white sand, no plants, no background, and a hazy sky.

You have to stay a long ways off the runs, but I managed to do OK by using a long lens and once again, pretending to have a press pass. My invisible press pass has been great at a number of recent events. Just keep telling yourself "I belong here".

Every car had a parachute to slow it down. I think they also keep the car pointed the right direction as they brake.

I threw on an ND filter and tried doing some longer exposures. It is tough to keep the car crisp and sharp in the picture as it passes at 200 mph. Note to self: keep practicing your panning.

Just as I started to get the hang of it, this thing came by. I could barely get it in the frame, much less keep it sharp. I talked to the timers and found it had come by at 417 mph. I'm not even going to feel bad about that one.

Forget it. I'll just stick with things that move slow enough to track and focus on.

I have a bad habit. When I go see something exciting and different like this, I frequently get and urge to get involved somehow and give it a try. Not this time. Aside from having to be a bit crazy to drive the vehicles, you have to love, love, love tearing apart cars and slowly putting them back together. As I walked the pits, almost every car was in some state of tear-down. When you are trying to break a speed record, you don't get credit for reliability (like a 500 mile lap race). Here, you push it to the very limits, and then some. This is traumatic for the cars and they failed frequently.

The two highlights for me were the incredible variety of vehicles being raced and the unequaled access spectators get to the cars, the racers and the crews.
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