● By Jon Lewis
Story: Jon Lewis
BONNEVILLE SALT FLATS SPEED WEEK
It’s the most straightforward of settings: a dry, barren, salt-crusted lakebed in the Utah desert that stretches for miles in every direction, resembling a bleached canvas waiting for the first touch of color. It’s little more than desolation to some, yet to others it’s a land of enchantment and unlimited possibilities.
“There’s something about going out to the Bonneville Salt Flats that’s just magic,” says Mike Wiley of Whitmore. “It’s a very harsh environment and everything gets corroded, but part of it is the light. The whiteness of the salt is just startling.”
Wiley is one of several North State residents who make the annual pilgrimage each August to the desert west of the Great Salt Lake to take part in Speed Week, a gathering of men (and women) and their machines who battle the elements, the laws of physics and aerodynamics for a chance to be entered into the record books.
“It’s about as pure a form of racing as you can get,” says Wiley, who is making his fourth visit in support of his buddy, Mitch Allen, who races a vintage modified roadster. “There’s no money involved and you don’t win a purse. It’s just one car against a record.”
Denton Hollifield of Redding, who has been building and driving Bonneville racers for 25 years, says it’s the last vestige of amateur racing. “It has a class for about every type of automobile there is. You can just about build anything you want, take it out there and race it and see how fast it will go wide open.”
Hollifield isn’t joking when he says wide open. His current creation is a Fiat coupe that competes in the “blown fuel competition couple” class. Powered by a 440-cubic-inch engine that can turn out 1,400 horsepower on a diet of high-octane gas and nitromethane, Hollifield clocked an astonishing 299.6 mph last year.
After tinkering with a balky transmission, Hollifield thinks he has a good shot at breaking the 307-mph record for his class of race cars. At that point, out on the salt at Bonneville, he truly will have “the world’s fastest Fiat.”
The North State collection of Speed Week regulars are no strangers to records. Chico residents Dave Davidson and John Beck raised eyebrows throughout the Land Speed Racing world in 2010 when their ’34 Roadster posted a 304-mph run, marking the first time a roadster cracked the 300-mph barrier.
Davidson, the driver, and Beck, the engine builder, will be back on the salt this month, hoping a new nitro-fueled Chrysler Hemi engine and some modifications will get their 911 car up to 320 mph. The pair has been feeding their need for speed at Bonneville for more than 20 years.
What’s the experience like? “Just imagine getting in your daily driver, getting up on the highway, getting into high gear and putting your foot on the floor and leaving it there for five miles. Even a Yugo will get going and get scary,” Beck says. “Now, imagine 10 times as much horsepower and do it on salt. We’re at full throttle for over a minute, and that’s a really long time.”
Lonnie Bonnett of Redding hopes a record is in reach for the modified 1929 Roadster he has been building since 2005, and if he succeeds it will be a team effort. A longtime hot rod and dragster enthusiast, Bonnett got the Bonneville bug a couple years ago and enlisted the support of fellow Shasta Roadsters members Steve White—an Anderson-based high-performance engine guru—and Herb Gehlken, a jack-of-all-trades who splits his time between Redding and Idaho.
An inveterate tinkerer, Bonnett hand-fabricated his car from the wheels up and figures he has about $15,000 invested. All three men have spent a considerable amount of time on the car’s design, coming up with ways to sidestep the challenges that come from pushing a 17-foot-long vehicle through the desert air.
“Everything changes once you get past 200 mph,” White says. “It’s a whole ’nother world.” The car, dubbed “The Santa Fe” thanks to Gehlken’s distinctive paint job, reached 160 mph its first year, 194 the second and 218 mph last year. The record for roadsters in Bonnett’s class is 266 mph.
Rather than finesse performance out of a small-block V8, Paul Ogden has opted to fight power with power. His 1968 Plymouth Barracuda, known as “The Flying Fish,” is powered by a massive 522-cubic-inch Chrysler Hemi with twin blowers. The setup is designed to crank out an earth-shaking 1,800 horsepower and move the ’Cuda along at 281 mph.
With former funny car driver Garrett Bateman behind the wheel, the Flying Fish has already set records at 222 and 241 mph. “If it doesn’t hit 300, we’ll tear it down and streamline it,” Ogden says.
Ogden, who retired in 2008 after selling Seco Manufacturing, says having a Bonneville race car “is one of those bucket list things.” He says he got inspired after meeting Hollifield at Kool April Nites in 2007 and has kept at it because it’s something he can work on with his sons, Mark and Mike. Plus, like all the others, Ogden has caught salt fever.
“I went to Bonneville for the first time and I just got hooked on it,” Ogden admits. •