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Could land speed racing fade from Bonneville Salt Flats?

Utah’s changing landscape casts doubt on the future of a sport.

 

A vehicle is hauled to the starting line at the Bonneville Salt Flats, outside of Wendover, Utah, in August, where racing speeds can exceed 420 mph.
Rick Bowmer/The Associated Press

Ali Youngblood sat in the driver’s seat of her blue Ford roadster, inching toward a start line drawn across the Bonneville Salt Flats. It was day four of Speed Week, a series of speed trials held on the glittering white plain every August, and Youngblood wanted to set a new record.

Youngblood, 44, is one of the world’s top female land speed racers, a tribe of amateur racecar drivers made famous by the 2005 film, The World’s Fastest Indian. Land speed racers from around the world have long flocked to the Salt Flats near the Utah-Nevada border, whose 30,000 acres offer a perfect testing ground for their specialized cars and motorcycles. For the last couple of years, however, most of the races have been canceled due to poor conditions. The sturdy salt crust that racers rely on is deteriorating, and though the precise cause remains unknown, the changes have revealed the surprising fragility of the landscape — and raised questions over whether or not it can be saved.

On the start line, Youngblood had other things to think about. After two seasons plagued by cancellations, she was just thrilled to race again.

When the starter’s hand dropped, Youngblood floored the accelerator until the car’s turbo-charged engine was revving at 170 miles per hour. “Such an animal of a car,” she thought, feeling the wind whipping over the open cockpit. Then, suddenly, she spun off course. Her speed had caused the car’s back wheels to lift just enough to lose traction — a common occurrence on the crunchy, snow-like surface. Youngblood prayed she wouldn’t flip as her car spun one 360 after another.

 

Ali Youngblood with the salt-dusted 1932 Ford Roadster she drove in August at the Bonneville Flats Speed Week, where she reached speeds of 170-180 mph, but missed the speed record — and entre into the “200 Club” (for reaching the 200 mph mark) — she was hoping for.
Courtesy Ali Youngblood

The Bonneville Salt Flats formed roughly 12,000 years ago in the waning days of the last ice age. The massive lake covering central Utah began drying up, leaving behind a vast expanse of salt. By the early 1900s, speed enthusiasts had begun testing their cars on the hard wide-open surface, and over the years, faster cars were built and new records set.

But land speed racing remained largely a niche sport. There’s little prize money or sponsorship, so most racers have regular jobs. And aside from the Bonneville Salt Flats, there aren’t many places where they can practice. For the fastest cars — those capable of going over 400 mph — the only comparable spot is a dry lakebed in the middle of the Western Australian desert. Not surprisingly, most racers prefer Bonneville.

Lately, however the once-dependable cycle that regenerates Bonneville’s salt crust has faltered. Right before Speed Week this year, the crust was so slushy and thin that race officials nearly cancelled the event for the third year in a row. Conditions improved, but just barely. In places, the crust was less than an inch thick, allowing the underlying dirt to seep into the racetrack and increasing the danger.

Eventually, Youngblood’s car came to a stop, but her heart kept racing. Although Youngblood believes the spin’s cause was mechanical, the thinning salt did not help her confidence. “You never know how a piece of mud might dislodge something on the underside of your car,” she says.

Larry Volk, founder of the Utah Salt Flat Racing Association, uses a pick to demonstrate the quality of the salt at the Bonneville Salt Flats near Wendover, Utah, where Speed Week resumed this year after its cancellation for the last two, due to wet weather and rough salt.
Rick Bowmer/The Associated Press

The crust’s decline began in the 1960s, and Utah racers have long blamed the century-old potash mining industry, which removes salt from the Salt Flats as part of its extraction process. But the mine operator, Intrepid Potash, replaces all the salt it removes, as required under the terms of its permit with the Bureau of Land Management. Last year, for instance, the company put back over 500,000 tons of salt — far exceeding the amount it removed, though still short of the 1.3 million tons that the previous mine owner restored voluntarily each year from 1997-2000.

Racers would like the BLM to increase the salt-restoration requirements to meet the older target, and many have been petitioning the agency to update its 30-year-old Salt Flats management plan. “We feel that if they increase the amount of salt they put down, the salt flats will come back,” says Dennis Sullivan, president of the Utah Salt Flat Racing Association and chairman of the Save the Salt Utah Alliance.

Still, that may not solve the problem, says Brenda Bowen, an associate professor of geology and geophysics at the University of Utah. Wetter springs and summers have grown more common in recent years, preventing the evaporation that regenerates the salt crust. Add the increasing number of people driving across the Salt Flats, and it’s not surprising that the conditions are changing, says Bowen, noting that land speed racing also impacts this sensitive environment.

For Youngblood, the changes offer a hard lesson. “We’re really at the mercy of mother nature,” she says. After a storm blew in at the end of September, the final racing event for 2016 was canceled. “I keep joking with my dad that we need to come up with a new sport where we race remote control boats.”

Correspondent Sarah Tory writes from Paonia, Colorado, covering Utah, environmental justice and water issues.