There are few places in the world of motorsports that are as legendary as the Bonneville Salt Flats. The massive bed of salt flats are home to some amazing land speed records and an incredible amount of motoring history.
For car lovers, motorcycle fans and even those who just get excited about engineering, it is a must-see destination.
And while the salt flats are amazing all year round to drive onto and experience, there’s one week of the year that is especially exceptional — Bonneville Speed Week. Hosted by the Southern California Timing Association, Speed Week is when cars from all over the world, that were built to race exclusively on this natural wonder, descend to put down their fastest times.
It doesn’t matter what type of car you’re into, chances are, it will be represented at Speed Week. Muscle cars? There are plenty of them. Small-displacement Japanese sports cars? Got those too. There’s even impressive vintage European sports cars, such as a ‘gullwing’ Mercedes 300SL. There are big American machines from the 50s, a wide variety of rat rods and of course dozens of purpose-built streamliners that more resemble aircraft and rockets than automobiles. There are also a wide variety of bikes, from old American classics, to newer Japanese machines. Whatever it is you like, it’ll be there.
The Bonneville Salt Flats are fairly easy to get to. They are less than a two-hour drive west of Salt Lake City along Interstate 80 and about 400 miles from Reno. Just a few minutes drive away are the border towns of Wendover, Utah and West Wendover, Nevada. On the Nevada side there are a number of hotels and casinos and all the services you would need. But be aware the hotels do jack up their prices when Speed Week is in town.
Once you pull off the interstate, a paved road leads you into flats and at the end of the road, you’ll pay your entry fee ($15 in 2012) and get onto the salt. You’ll see a large pack of cars in the distance, which is the start line. There are four racing lanes, with the fastest lane on the west side of the track, on your left as you approach it. You can park near the start line and see the cars queuing up to race and then get pushed off to start their run. You can also park all along the west side of the track, about a quarter mile from the fastest track.
Because of the extremely high speeds, spectators are kept a ways back from the speedway, so definitely invest in some good binoculars if you want to see the cars close up as they speed by. If you want to get great photos, you’ll need to bring a very long lens. The longest lens I had when visiting was a 200mm and it didn’t have anywhere near the reach I needed to get in close on the races. Bring something 500mm or longer is you want close up shots.
The combination of the sun and salt make for very bright conditions. I couldn’t even take my sunglasses off, so make sure you bring some or you’ll probably toast your retinas. Take all of the other usual precautions for heat as well – bring a hat, plenty of water, sunscreen, etc. If you have room to bring a tent or something else to block the shade, bring it! There is food on site — burgers, hot dogs and salads — so bring some cash, or you’ll be trekking in to Wendover and missing the action. The SCTA also sells some souvenir items such as T-shirts, stickers, patches and very informative programs. Pick up a $10 program that includes info on each car and get a shirt early as they sell out fast.
After driving out on the salt, you’ll want to give your car a very thorough wash. The Chevron in West Wendover has an automatic car wash and there is a do-it-yourself wand wash in town as well. I was fortunate to come across a school group who was hosting a car wash fundraiser on the main street through West Wendover, who gave my car a very good wash. I think the charity wash is a common event during Speed Week, but probably not throughout the year.
Bonneville Speed Week runs for six days and if you’re keen on checking out the action, you won’t need to spend that long there, unless you’re involved with the race or a driver somehow. I spent a good part of a day there and it was amazing, but also exhausting with the sun and the heat. I’d say if you’re going to check it out, you’d probably need two days at the event, maximum. One day will give you the chance to see a lot of cars, talk to a few drivers about their vehicles if you’re interested and take the obligatory photos of yourself and your car on the salt.
Being such an exciting event in such a unique setting, it’s a must-see for every car or motorcycle enthusiast.