'It's a real tragedy': Disappearing Utah salt flats, rain to blame for renowned land speed race cancellations
For the last century, passionate thrill seekers and curious spectators have journeyed to northwestern Utah to satisfy their need for speed, while also reveling in the beauty of one of nature's geologic wonders.
On the vast, pristine white terrain of the Bonneville Salt Flats, hundreds of land speed records have been set by a bevy of vehicles. Racers have long preferred racing on the hard, flat surface of the salt, where land speed records of 300, 400, 500 and 600 mph have been shattered. However, weather conditions have to be just right.
Recently, the weather hasn't cooperated, leaving parts of the surface muddy and water-logged. Such exhilarating events have become less frequent, keeping fans and competitors from making their pilgrimage to the world-famous landmark.
"We are at the mercy of Mother Nature," Dennis Sullivan, 68, president of the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association (USFRA), said. "The salt flats are so flat, that any water we get, just kind of spreads out and just creates this lake that covers acres and acres."
For the second consecutive year, Speed Week, an event organized by the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA), was canceled in August. The SCTA has already shelved its World Finals, originally scheduled for later this month. Next was the postponement of the Bonneville Motorcycle Speed Trials, also in August. Then, on Aug. 28, Sullivan and several other members of the USFRA went and examined conditions for the World of Speed competition, slated for Sept. 12-15. Soon thereafter, the group announced that World of Speed would not occur.
The USFRA team was unable to find safe course conditions that could be available for a 300-vehicle, multi-day event, the organization said on its website.
"It is with [a] heavy heart and great disappointment that the World of Speed for 2015 is canceled," the USFRA announced.
Unlike other automotive competitions such as NASCAR or drag racing, using jet dryers to dry the track is not an option at the salt flats, Sullivan said.
Along with above-normal rainfall, heavy mining activity has also taken a toll on the flats, with an estimated 50-70 million tons removed over the past six decades, according to the Save the Saltfoundation, a nonprofit organization striving to preserve the Bonneville Salt Flats and promote its storied history of racing. Because of those combining factors, there is "great concern" for the immediate future of land speed racing at Bonneville, Sullivan said.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oversees The Salt Flats, located nearly two hours west of Salt Lake City and has established them as an "Area of Critical Environmental Concern."
According to Save the Salt, the flats have been in jeopardy for decades. Save the Salt said the racing community alerted the BLM in the 1960s but no protective action was taken until 1997, when a salt brine-pumping program was initiated.
The program to replenish the salt crust continues today. Save the Salt says that areas that were once at least 5 feet thick have dwindled to only a couple of inches. During the winters of 2011 and 2012, nearly one million tons of salt was pumped back onto the salt flats, with another 600,000 added in 2013, the foundation said. Additionally, the underground aquifer that supports salt crust volume has been improved.
"While this is a significant accomplishment, even more salt needs to be transported back to the [Bonneville Salt Flats] in order to restore the area," the group stated.
The BLM, state and government officials, the Bonneville racing community and the local mining company, Intrepid Wendover Potash, are working in unison to prevent further deterioration. In a recent interview with Scientific American, Gary Kohn, a spokesperson for Intrepid, estimated that the company has returned 4.5 million metric tons of salt over the past 15 years.
"We want to be good stewards of the environment, and we want to help understand what's going on," Kohn told the magazine.
Going back more than 17,000 years, depths at Lake Bonneville once reached more than 1,000 feet and the lake's expanse covered two-thirds of Utah. As the lake dried up over time, a large amount of minerals were left in the surrounding soils.
According to the BLM, "Wind, periodic rainstorms and regional climate also play an important part in changing salt crust conditions throughout each year."
When the weather reverts to cooler conditions from November to May, water from surrounding watershed floods the flats several inches deep. During the spring and summer, when the temperatures rise, the salty water evaporates and the minerals, including halite and potash, are left behind to form the salt crust, the BLM states.
However, the excessive rains this year and last have served as a "double whammy" of sorts, Sullivan said. Not only has the salt been unable to dry properly, but about a half an inch to an inch of mud has formed underneath the layer of halite salt, which is something racers haven't had to deal with before, according to Sullivan.
Prior to the World of Speed cancellation, USFRA officials searched to see if salt conditions were suitable for setting up the standard 3- or 5-mile straightaways as well as pits, return roads and spectator areas. Finding space isn't just necessary for accelerating towards a finish line, but also for a safe deceleration afterwards.
"You take a vehicle that's traveling 400 mph, it takes a little bit of space to get that thing shut down in a safe manner," Sullivan said.
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Despite the detrimental weather and dwindling space to hold competitions, Bonneville remains a landmark and a top draw for competitors. Over 600 racers were scheduled to partake in Speed Week and 300 for World of Speed before they were postponed.
Part of the attraction is that as amateur competitions, they're open to anyone from automotive enthusiasts who build and fine-tune cars as a hobby to competitive racers who are sponsored, according to Sullivan. Prize money is not offered; the only gratification available to entrants is getting their name in the record book.
From hot rods, lakesters and motorcycles, to streamliners and roadsters, virtually anything with wheels and an engine powerful enough can be raced at Bonneville.
"Everybody has their own idea of what makes a car go fast. And if you think it will work, you build a car and you take it out and you race it," Sullivan said.
Two years ago, Sullivan said there were cars and motorcycles preregistered from 11 different countries and 26 states for one event.
"Everybody that's an 'automotive guy' in the world, I don't care where it is, they know what the Bonneville Salt Flats is," Sullivan said.
"And it's going away and it's a real tragedy."