The Last Amateur Sport:
Automobile Racing on the Bonneville Salt Flats

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2003, Volume 2, Issue 2

Jessie Embry
Brigham Young University

The Bonneville Salt Flats--a 200 square mile area east of Salt Lake City near the Utah-Nevada border--is world famous as the place where drivers broke the Ultimate Land Speed Record from 1935 to 1970. Yet the area remains a mystery to most. I visited car museums and archives in England during the summer of 2002. The employees accurately described the salt flats to me, but they could not locate them on a map. Many Utahns have never noticed the exit off I-80 just east of Wendover for the raceway.

My only contacts with the salt flats in the 1960s were looking at Ab Jenkins's Mormon Meteor car in the Utah State Capitol Building and reading newspaper articles about Craig Breedlove's jet car, the Spirit of America. I was unaware of the subculture of amateur, make-and-fix your own car group that has used the salt flats each year since 1949 (weather permitting) until Ron Shook, an English professor at Utah State University, and Wes Potter, an active member of the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association (USFRA), introduced it to me.

The story of driving at the salt flats starts in Southern California, the capital of the car culture and home of the hot rod movement. In February 2003, I visited the archives of the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA). That organization was the beginning of the amateur experience at the salt flats over fifty years ago. Its records are stored in Jack's Garage, literally the garage at Jack Underwood's home. Each weekday morning, men gather to share driving stories, to discuss ways to improve their cars, and to plan upcoming trips. They join other car enthusiasts almost every Saturday morning from 6:30 to 9:30 a.m. in the parking lot near a doughnut shop in Orange County. A few are there to sell, but most want to discuss their cars with the regulars and the tourists who wander by. Nearly all are men, many over sixty who became involved in the hot rod movement in the 1950s and who remember the "good old days." The few women are usually with men. While they share the same passion for cars, they are the observers.

Underwood put me in touch with Chuck Embrey who lives in the Los Angeles area, and when I suggested that we meet at the Saturday event, he knew exactly what I wanted. After most of the cars had left, Embrey and I walked around the parking lot, and he told me in detail his experience with hot rods on the streets, at drag races, and at the Bonneville Salt Flats. He had been to the salt flats only a few times, and he said with a sigh that he wished he had gone there more often. He felt a camaraderie there that he missed and tried to recapture by coming to Jack's Garage. He also longed for a legal place to drive fast.

Unlike Embrey, when I attended USFRA meets in 1993 and 1994, I met men who had focused their racing on the salt flats. When I went to World of Speed in September 1993, I was surprised to find an ant bed of activity in the desert. Everyone was madly running around working on his or her assigned task. I stopped at the souvenir stand, and Ellen Wilkinson, fondly referred to as "the t-shirt lady," talked to me briefly between customers. She reminded me that we had been in the same high school class in northern Utah. Other women sold food, operated the timing devices, and ran errands. I visited the pits which were full of men working on cars. Nearly everyone was working. Few were spectators.

Activities stopped when an announcer broadcasted that a car was ready to make a run. All eyes focused on the track. A truck pushed a car to the starting line, and then it took off. The driver built up speed, went through the measured mile, and then slowed down. The whole process took just minutes. After a break, the car returned. Then things went on as they had before.

I walked along the racecourse past a few cars full of observers. The heat was unbearable, so I was delighted when two men offered me a ride. We exchanged greetings. They were from Connecticut and had driven across the United States to experience something that they had only read about. We shared stories. They were interested in my research; I wanted to know their impressions of the salt flats and the racing.

The next year I returned to the salt flats for the Land Speed Opener in July (an event which is no longer held because the salt is not always dry). I brought a tape recorder and walked through the pits, looking for friendly men who might be willing to talk. Several took the time to answer my questions and share their views of the racing. All the interviews were short though; they wanted to get back to work. Unfortunately, their work did not pay off. A car spun out on the wet salt, and the organizers decided it was not safe to continue. Once officials cancelled any more runs, everyone packed up and went home.

I had not been to the salt flats for almost ten years, so in August 2003 I decided to return. A lot of things had changed. For the last six years, Reilly Industries, Inc. had worked with the Bureau of Land Management and the racers to transfer salt back to the track. It was the second year that SCTA had two tracks—one nine miles long and one seven miles long. Before the meet started, SCTA expected nearly 400 cars; they got 320 entries. The heat was unbearable, but drivers and crews waited for hours in the hot sun for their chance to run the course. One driver got to the starting line and then had to pull aside because the visor on his helmet did not meet the safety code. I was boiling; I could not imagine what it would be like to wear a fire suit and helmet in that heat. Everyone was very busy. The BLM woman assured me that the men and women working on the cars would talk to me, but I decided not to interrupt their work.

Each time as I drove home, I thought about what I had seen. Here were people who were excited about what they were doing. Despite the heat and the salt, they were having fun. They were trying to break each others' records, but at the same time they were an extended family, always helping and sharing stories, equipment, and advice. They were not going after cash or even a trophy. In fact, no one received any prizes. Their reward was the sense of accomplishment--theirs and others who had the same vision.

These events happen three times a year. SCTA sponsors Speed Week in August and World Finals in October. USFRA holds World of Speed in September. The organizations spend all year planning for a weeklong activity. In September 2002 though, after USFRA had made extensive plans and had media coverage, World of Speed had to be cancelled three days before the event because a rare fall storm flooded the salt flats.

Despite these setbacks, the events attract men and women who enjoy fixing up their cars, creating new cars, driving as fast as possible, and watching other cars speed down the course. Those who participate often brag that they are the last amateur sport. They receive no pay; very few have sponsors. They work on their own cars and pay their own way. Very few people are spectators; either they run cars, or they are involved in setting up and making the event run. While most Americans focus on professional sports, the SCTA and USFRA events are a remaining sport that is a "leisure activity--a type of escape from the tensions and worries of life," typical in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Layton vii). H. F. Moorhouse studied the hot rod culture which has some professional elements. The racing at the Bonneville Salt Flats is an amateur subset of that story.

Racing on the Bonneville Salt Flats

The Bonneville Salt Flats did not start out as a racing venue. The Native Americans avoided the area because there was no water and nothing would grow there. Emigrant trains like the Donner-Reed Party learned how difficult it was to travel across the thin salt. Bill Rishel, later president of the Utah Automobile Association, introduced the concept of automobile racing on the salt flats. He first crossed the salt on a bicycle in 1896 as part of a nationwide contest. That crossing was slow, but Rishel recognized the potential for automobiles. In 1907, he and two Salt Lake City businessmen tested the area with a Pierce-Arrow. Encouraged, Rishel convinced a barnstorming driver, Teddy Tezlaff, to test his "Blitzen Benz" there. He drove faster than drivers at Daytona Beach, but the automobile community did not recognize his achievement. Rishel claimed that Ab Jenkins brought fame to the salt. When the salt flats portion of a cross country highway was completed in 1927, Jenkins drove a car and beat the celebrity train from Salt Lake City to Wendover, a distance of 125 miles (Jenkins and Ashton 29, 34-35).

Jenkins continued to use the salt flats for racing. In 1932, he set an unofficial record for driving twenty-four hours nonstop (112.94 mph), but even the local newspapers refused to carry the story for a week. "Bigwigs of the automobile concern" told him it was foolish to take "a wild ride on a sea of salt somewhere in the middle of the Utah desert" (Jenkins and Ashton 17, 34-36). Those opinions changed, however, when the most prominent land speed driver of the time, Britain's Sir Malcolm Campbell gave up trying to break the 300 mph barrier at Daytona Beach and accomplished his goal at the salt flats in 1935 (Embry and Shook 165-166).

From 1935 to 1970, the Bonneville Salt Flats was the place to set the Land Speed Record. During the 1930s, British drivers George Eyston and John Cobb brought their carefully designed cars to the flats and challenged each other for the fastest mile record. In 1938, they each set a new record within a month of each other. They also exchanged twelve and twenty-four hour records with Ab Jenkins. World War II stopped the racing, but in 1947 Cobb returned and drove 394.2 mph, a record that stood for fifteen years. During the 1960s, American amateur drivers such as Mickey Thompson and the Summers brothers--Bob and Bill--and British professional driver, Donald Campbell, the son of Malcolm, drove faster than Cobb in conventional cars. But it took jet cars to set extremely fast records. Americans such as Craig Breedlove, Art Arfons, and his brother Walter Arfons brought their home-made designed cars and broke each others' records, sometimes within a week of each other. In 1970, Gary Gabelich broke the record for the last time on the salt flats at a speed of 630.39 mph (Embry and Shook 166-71).


The land speed records were set in cars especially designed for that purpose. But ever since the automobile was invented, men have tried to see how fast they could go. At first, they drove cars designed to be driven on roads; then they supercharged them to go even faster. In the United States, this racing included driving on open roads, hills, deserts, and oval tracks. But the drivers started looking for better places to go fast. In 1931, the Gilmore Oil Company sponsored speed trials for the first time at the El Muroc Dry Lakes in California. But those driving on the dry lake beds there often had poor driving conditions that led to crashes and injuries, sometimes even death. As a result, car clubs had poor press. To counteract that, several formed the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) in 1937 and started to look for better sites to race (Noeth 41).

The Bonneville Salt Flats with its Land Speed Record history seemed like a logical place to the SCTA since it was a flat, open place which had already shown that cars could drive fast there. So ten years after their organization, members of SCTA examined the salt flats and then wrote to the American Automobile Association asking to use the flats to establish hot rod records. The AAA refused the request, arguing that it was "highly unlikely a 'hot rod' could ever achieve the speed of 203 miles an hour," the existing record for that category of cars. Car classes are determined by the style and size of engine. Many hot rods fit in the C Class (Parks).

But the amateurs did not give up. At the time, the Salt Lake City Bonneville Speedway Association, a Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce committee, scheduled the salt flats. A group of Southern California men representing SCTA and Hot Rod magazine drove to Salt Lake to visit with Gus Backman, the chamber's secretary. After studying the situation, Backman agreed to let the SCTA use the salt. With that permission, SCTA formed a Board of Management. Otto Crocker, the American Power Boat Association chief timer, agreed to time events. Union Oil, Hot Rod, Grant Piston Rings, and Service Sales of Texas all agreed to be sponsors. Lee Ryan, the publicity manager, told Firestone's racing director, that the event would become "the biggest thing in this country in the way of time trials” (Noeth 42, 44-45).

SCTA scheduled the first event for 1949. By mid-August 200, roadsters, lakesters, streamliners, coupes, sports and racing cars from eleven states had signed up. Eventually only sixty showed up. Three divisions of cars--roadsters, lakesters, and streamliners--using four sizes of engines drove on the salt flats the first year. According to Ak Miller, "The people who went, loved it. We could race flat out and the cars would disappear over the horizon, taking their exhaust note with them, on this beautiful, hard, smooth surface. We saw right away the salt was a rolling dynamometer, you just followed the black line up and over the peak power curve" (Noeth, 50-53). The racers established ten new records. The Salt Lake Tribune reported in 1949 that "these boys" agreed "there's no place like it for real speed." SCTA lost three hundred dollars on the first meet, but they got enough positive feedback that they decided to return, and the Bonneville Speedway group agreed to let them (“Bonneville Flats Offers” 20).

The next year, ninety cars showed up and completed 1,307 runs. Mickey Thompson, a hot rodder who went on to set speed records, worked at a garage and could not miss work the first year. But he took vacation time to come in 1950. He later said, "The whole show was the dream of a lifetime come true, of pinch-penny kids turned loose on the world's greatest race course" (Noeth 50, 55-56). In 1953, the AAA came for the first time and the hot rodders created the 200 Club to recognize those who drove over 200 mph and set a record on the salt. In 1971, the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) sanctioned the meet, providing insurance. That was the first year that the international French organization recognized the event so that Land Speed Records could be set (Bonneville Speed Week Program, 1971).

Over the years, Speed Week continued to grow. The 1952 program reported, "There is no racing. Rather, competition is between the machine and time." In 1953, Life explained, "The glistening salt flats of Bonneville, Utah were overrun this month by some of the oddest shapes the motor age has produced” (“Speaking of Pictures” 17). The Speed Week program that year agreed, but added while not all hot rod designs had practical application in car production, they focused on design, engineering, and construction. For those involved, hot rodding was a "fascinating hobby." The program concluded, "We do not strive to outguess the engineers. We deeply hope to make their best efforts more interesting, and in the long run, more usable" (Bonneville Speed Week Program, 1952). For many, there were no winners or losers; Speed Week, like the Olympics, was "an experience more than a contest” (Bonneville Speed Week Program, 1953).

Each year was similar: cars broke records, drivers joined the 200 mph club, a few drivers went over 300 mph, and some had accidents. There were even a few fatalities although not very many. In response to each accident or possible problem, SCTA added safety rules. In 1957, a driver put the first parachute to a car. That year, Ray Leslie set a new American record of 266.204 mph. It was the second time he had broken the record in three day (“German Cyclists” 6). In 1966, Bob Herds and Bob McGrath had two way runs of 301 mph in their B-Class Streamliners. The wide open space helped those who had accidents survive. A Lakester rolled at 220 mph, but the driver walked away without any injuries (“Two Cars” 8). Nolan White had neck and back injuries when his modified sportster rolled at 230 mph, not bad considering the car rolled four times and was completely demolished (Colbath 86).

In August 2001, Don Vesco drove his brother Rick's car, named the Turbinator, and set a record for that class at 458 mph (“Vesco Brothers”). At the same time, Nolan White set the record for a piston/wheel driven automobile on the salt flats at 413 mph. Seventy-two-year-old White averaged 420 mph in the last measured mile and had a top speed of 434 mph. He blew his right tire at 430 mph, and his main parachute ripped off the 5,000 pound car. Thanks to White's forty-five years of experience at the salt flats, he turned into an open area with little salt. He wore out his braking system, but the car stopped when he sank into the mud. He was not as lucky two months later. A shortened racetrack meant White had only five timed miles, and he planned to decelerate after the fourth mile, allowing room to stop. His first run was perfect, reaching a 422 mph four mile average speed. However, his first parachute ripped off, and the other two also failed. White attempted to steer off the course as he had in August, but as he turned to avoid the highway, the car slid and then flipped. Sadly, he died from internal injuries (“Tribute to Nolan White”).

Over the years, there were a few similar accidents, but they were the exceptions. Most of the time drivers were protected because of the wide open spaces and the way the tires held to the salt. The annual articles in Hot Rod magazine from 1949 to 1976 described the August event as a friendly, family event where drivers and families came each year to drive as fast as they could and renew friendships. They rarely mentioned the discomforts of the salt flats: the heat, the unpredictable weather, the concerns about less salt, spinouts, and accidents. In fact, the magazine pointed out, and racers continue to explain, that there are very few accidents, and those who do suffer everything from broken bones to death are doing what they love. Current racers mourn the loss of friends, but, interestingly enough, they would like to go the same way.

According to Louise Noeth, the "Golden Age" for the SCTA ended in 1969. She explained, "It was certainly the period of greatest change, engines, techniques, body styles, and, of course, an explosion of new faces" (109). Since then, the track has been unpredictable, but even without a "golden age," the racers continued to come. The fiftieth anniversary of Speed Week in 1998 was a celebration; forty-two of the original forty-nine racers returned. SCTA honored Bob Higbee, known as Mr. Salt, for his continuous attendance and role as safety inspector. But many who had been faithful attendees had passed on, and Speed Week was dedicated to them (Noeth 127-28). In 1987, for example, Mrs. Hospitality, Vera Aldrich, who had greeted the racers for fifteen years, died. For Aldrich, "the racers [are] my family. I just love being a part of it all" (Noeth150).

For a quarter of a century, SCTA sponsored the only amateur event at Bonneville. In 1976, racers in Utah formed the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association. Several factors led to the creation of the new organization. By then, control of the salt flats had shifted from the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce to the state of Utah then to the Bureau of Land Management. While the Southern California racers complained that the salt flats and their race track were disappearing, the government said it was difficult to respond to these complaints from an out-of-state organization that only used the salt flats for a week a year. Another concern came from Utah racers who wanted another time other than Speed Week to use their cars. While the SCTA members could use the dry lakes in California, the Utah racers did not have another place to go. For a while, they took their cars to the dry lakes, but that was a long way to go for testing. So Utahns started testing on the salt flats (Potter; Wilkinson).

When insurance issues made just having a timing event too expensive, USFRA started its own event on the salt flats, World of Speed in September. The organization planned its first World of Speed in 1985. The scheduling was bad; that year there was so much water that rivers flowed down the main streets of Salt Lake City, and the Utah state government put pumps in the Great Salt Lake to control the overflow. It took a couple of years for the salt flats to dry out so the Utah group did not sponsor its first event until 1987. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, "The salt will come alive for the second time in 45 days following the annual 'Speed Week' in August. It is sanctioned by the Federation Internationale Automobile in Paris so they can go for official Land Speed Records. The event is an attempt to focus more attention on the world-famous salt flats, which have been used only sporadically for high-speed runs since the early '70s" (Rosetta 7). For a while, USFRA members also sponsored a Land Speed Opener in July, but, like the year I went in 1994, the salt was often too wet. In addition, the volunteers did not have vacation time or resources to run both (Potter; Wilkinson). SCTA added the World Finals in October 1990 to use the salt more.

As with all new organizations, some members of the SCTA resisted the Utah group. For years, they had controlled amateur racing at the salt flats, and they did not want to share. Others saw increased exposure to racing at the salt flats as positive. The more people who understood the successes and the problems, the more the government might work to improve the salt. Members of both organizations acknowledge that personality conflicts and territory claims created tensions, but they insist that over the years the two organizations have developed a good working relationship. There are still some Californians who do not like sharing with Utah; there are Utahns who dislike Californians taking over part of their state. But their voices are muted as most see the overwhelming benefits.

Over time, the two organizations created their own place and learned to support each other. The salt flats became a negotiated space rather than a contested space. Speed Week attracts 200-300 entries each year. To make sure everyone has a chance to run, SCTA adopts very strict rules, and cars must meet the requirements. The organization refers those who do not have cars that meet their rules to the more relaxed World of Speed event. Since the event is much smaller, USFRA is not as strict. It has also added its unique events. For example, it created the 130 mph club where, with a few modifications, drivers can test how fast their street cars can go. USFRA even has an electric bar stool competition (Wilkinson).

In 2003, most see advantages for both organizations. According to Jack Underwood, the SCTA historian, the USFRA has given more political pull to the racers and their attempts to force Reilly Industries, a mining company to return salt to the racetrack. USFRA members formed "Save the Salt," a nonprofit organization that publicizes the disappearing salt and works with the federal and state government and Reilly to improve the track. Utahns and even the BLM listen to those who live in the same state as the salt flats. They are reluctant to respond to out-of-staters--especially Californians--who only come to the state twice a year. In addition, SCTA and USFRA share inspectors at their meets. USFRA maintains the trucks used to mark the track and lay the timing wires, so SCTA does not need to bring them from California each year. Both organizations recognize records set at all events. (Potter; Wilkinson). Phil Freudiger, an SCTA member, summarized the values of most about the new organization, "The USFRA is the greatest. They really work hard on saving the salt.”

Racers at the Bonneville Salt Flats

To understand why the SCTA and USFRA members go to the salt flats, it is essential to listen to their individual stories. I learned them at the Land Speed Opener in 1994 and at Jack's Garage in 2003. They show men dedicated to hard work at what most consider play.

Ben Zimmerman first came to the salt flats in 1958. After reading hot rod books, he "wanted to come down and see all these famous people do what they did best which was drive fast." Mickey Thompson and others were "kind of my heroes. They could do nothing wrong." With the possible exception of Mickey Thompson (who had many enemies and some understand why a still unknown person murdered him), racing at the salt flats was not about hero status among spectators. First, there are very few consistent fans. Those who only came to watch either stopped coming or got involved in a pit crew or assisted with the racing. Second, most drivers focus on the event and not the observers. They improve their cars and then give parts and advice to others who are competing for the same record. Zimmerman followed that pattern. He came to see drivers, and then became a driver. He continued to come to drive and see the "kids that came down the same time I did [who] are all grown up and . . . are still coming back" because coming to the flats "is kind of a fever."

Zimmerman recognized the dangers of racing, but felt safe on the salt. He had "blown [his cars] up three or four times." He added though, "I look forward to coming down and breaking something. If you don't break something, you are not trying hard." But there was more to the experience, "It is not just running a car. It is just being around here." He enjoyed the low key, lack of pressure missing in other associations, "This is just a really layback kind of place" (Zimmerman).

Charles Salmen's father was a professional racecar driver, so Charles was always interested in cars and driving fast. He got his first roadster, a 1932 model, in the 1940s when he was sixteen or seventeen and started racing in the Long Beach and Los Angeles area on Saturday nights. It was, as Salmen noted, "illegal drag racing." By 1957, he figured he had done it all, and he wanted to try the salt flats. So he built a car, a "1957 two door Chevrolet sedan with a hopped up engine." Not content to use just one car, in 1968 he brought a new Mustang fastback, "a street legal car" and spun it four times at 160 mph. He added, "That was pretty scary." In 1991, after he retired and had time to work on cars, he built a roadster like the one he started with. His new car had the same dimensions as the 1934 Ford. In three years, he had had one way runs of 239 mph and 233 mph, but he had not put together the return (Salmen).

For E. J. and Mark Lingua, coming to the salt flats was a male-bonding father-son affair. E. J., a physician, first came in 1965 because another doctor from Burbank had come the year before and E. J. wanted to do better. He broke the record in a 1965 Chegelle Malibu SS that he drove up, raced, and then drove home. After the first time, he continued to come because it was "an addictive enlightment." E.J.'s son Mark came for the first time when he was twelve and worked on the car along with his brother John. Mark remembered the time he set four motorcycle records on four different motorcycles in 1976. For him, driving on the salt was "kind of like driving in the rain at 50 or 65 mph where the tires are not quite sticking. It is just on the edge of hydroplaning" (Lingua).

J. D. Tone represents another male generational story. His father loved cars, and Tone grew up with a dream of driving, not setting records, on the salt flats. In 1981, he purchased the Bantam from Gary Barrious and Bob Minall, a car they built in 1969. Over the years, Tone gradually modified the car. His goal was to go as fast as he could with his equipment. In the 1990s, his son expressed an interest in racing and being a member of the 200 Club. Tone realized that his car would never go that fast, so he teamed up with another racer, Joe Fontana in 1997. They put Fontana's engine in Tone's car, and in 2002 Tone's son went 202 mph.

Tone is among the men who gather at Jack's Garage. Tone told me how he had purchased a car that did not match the standard--a 1928 Ford--and pushed the SCTA rules for size, always staying just inside of them. While Tone complained about the close inspections his car received, Underwood laughed and suggested that he was trying to join a club where his car did not exactly fit. Maybe he should form his own club! Underwood convinced Tone whenever he needed work done on his car to do it himself. So Tone learned how to work with fiberglass and paint.

The men that I talked to at the flats and in California did not mention their wives. Underwood's wife came into the garage, shared greetings, and then left for work. While Underwood has retired as a contractor and explains he has enough to live comfortably, his wife continues to work at a candy store for "something to do." Although cars did not appear to be her thing, she was very kind. She teased the men when I was working and Ron Shook, my co-researcher, joined the car discussion. I felt anyone who would allow her garage, driveway, and half her backyard to be taken over by cars, parts, and the SCTA archives supported her husband's passion.

There are women, however, who share the excitement of Bonneville. Jonathan Amo's brother, Joe, and his wife went to the salt flats for their honeymoon. It was a compromise they worked out. Joe wanted to go to the flats for the first time and get married too. The couple has gone to the flats every year since. I did not see any children when I went to the salt flats, but the Amos do bring theirs. Their first daughter Kyaera was born in January 1993 and went to the salt flats that August. Their son Aero (named for aerodynamics) went when he was only three days old. The Amo brothers race their Kawasaki ZX10 in the MPS-F (modified partial streamlined--fuel 1000 cc) class. Joe set a record on his honeymoon at 189 mph and since gone 223 mph (Amo).

Most women go as spectators or workers; they do not drive on the salt. They go to cheer on their husbands, fathers, brothers, and others. Because they enjoy the event, they find something that they can do. For several years in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ginnie Geisler, wife of a member of the SCTA board, published an article in the annual program. She explained that her first date with her husband-to-be was at a SCTA award dinner. She went to Bonneville with him while they were dating and later after they were married. For her, "Bonneville was excitingly different--a combination of heaven and hell. . . . I was commanded, reprimanded, sun burnt, wind blown, and ignored" (Bonneville Program, 1971). She decided to become more a part of the Bonneville experience, so she read the rule books and learned about what was happening. Her editorials explained how the SCTA officials prepared for Speed Week and described her experiences there. While she never drove a car across the salt, she kept her fingers crossed that her husband's runs would be successful.

Ellen Wilkinson and Mary West are essential parts of USFRA and Save the Salt. Mary was the first secretary for USFRA and kept track of everything. Her home was the club's office. Ellen got interested in the salt flats because she and her husband Gary wanted something that they could do together. They enjoyed skiing, but it was too hard on both of their bodies. They tried dirt bike riding, but Ellen had an accident. So they started going to the salt flats. Gary worked in the pits; Ellen enjoyed watching the cars and meeting the people. But she wanted to do more. So one day when Mary West seemed overwhelmed trying to arrange t-shirts for sale, Ellen said, "I can do the t-shirts." And she had a job.

Since then, Ellen has replaced Mary West as secretary. She collects dues, prepares the organization's quarterly newsletter and annual World of Speed program, assists in setting up and taking down the equipment, serves as a go-for at the meets, and, of course, she is still the t-shirt lady. She does not always get to watch the cars race down the track, but she listens to the announcer. And sometimes those who had successful and less than successful experiences come around and tell her what happened. She loves the people at the meet; they are a special extended family. Ellen also goes to Speed Week, but she only goes for a day since she has no responsibility. She enjoys the experience, but as she talked about being busy at World of Speed, I could tell that she wanted to be involved. As she explained, everyone has a job to do, and everyone else depends on her doing hers (Wilkinson).

Over the years, some women have actually driven on the salt flats. For professional drivers, it was usually because the men wanted to keep the competition off the salt flats or for novelty. The women went for a separate women's record rather than the land speed. For example, Paula Murphy, a professional driver, used Art Arfons's car in 1963. Two years later, Craig Breedlove had his wife Lee drive. Breedlove broke the record, but he had scheduled the salt for another week. Rather than let Arfons use the salt and break his record so soon, Breedlove asked his wife to come and drive for the first time (Breedlove 169-71). As with many other sports, women became more acceptable as part of the women's liberation movement. They were allowed to drive at Speed Week for the first time in 1972 although the decision came too late to include their entries in the program (Bonneville Speed Week, 1972). Since then women have set records on the salt, and they no longer have to go into a separate record book.

I did not see any women driving racecars on the salt, and my impression is that men dominate the sport. When I asked why more women were not involved, the answers varied. Wes Potter told me that most men drive their own cars that they fix up and maintain. They are very picky who they allow to drive--men or women. Most women do not have the mechanical interest. There are two female members of the 200 Club, an exclusive club for people who have gone over 200 mph and broken a record. But they drove someone else's car. Ellen Wilkinson told me that she would love it if someone would offer to let her drive a car. She has driven equipment trucks and her own car on the flats, and even at the slower speeds, she enjoyed the experience. She described driving on the salt flats as hydroplaning--a feeling of being in control but also out of control. Jack Underwood, diplomatically refused to speculate: "The girls drive some very fast cars and motorcycles. I have no idea how many or why more don't.”

Sports and American Popular Culture

Sports like the amateur racing at the Bonneville Salt Flats are an important part of American popular culture and illuminate American values. As major league baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti explained, "It has long been my conviction that we can learn far more about the conditions, and values, of a society by contemplating how it chooses to play . . . than by examining how it goes about to work" (13). In 1917, historian Frederick Paxman even explained that sports were the new safety valve for Americans after his fellow historian and mentor Frederick Jackson Turner declared that the frontier had closed in 1890. Paxman argued that as Americans moved to cities and worked in factories they needed an escape and sports brought them together (143-68).

Paxman described amateurs, defined by Webster Collegiate Dictionary, as "one who engages in a . . . sport as a pastime rather than a profession.” Since then athletics have become professional. Most Americans still see sports as an escape, but they are spectators rather than participants. This shift is true of some forms of automobile racing, the most watched sport in America. Yet some elements of hot rodding remain on an amateur level. For me, the activities on the Bonneville Salt Flats fit that description because no one does it for pay. A few get sponsors to help with parts, but most do all the work themselves. The drivers take their vacation time to bring their cars to the desert to set records.

Some scholars who study hot rodding would disagree. H. F. Moorhouse explains in Driving Ambitions: An Analysis of the American Hot Rod Enthusiasm that since there is some media coverage and some drivers have sponsors, the salt flats are no longer an amateur sport (98-99). Yet the media coverage is very small, and even Moorhouse's main source, Hot Rod, rarely covers the events at the salt flats anymore.

But the debate over whether the salt flat racing is an amateur sport is not the most interesting question. More important is what the SCTA and USFRA tell us about American culture. Several scholars have tried to answer that question about hot rodding in general. In 1953, Robert H. Boyle referred to hot rodding as a sport for lower middle class men looking for fulfillment in a world in which the economic system will not allow them to get ahead. Boyle also argued that the men used cars to deal with sexual insecurities (146-47). In his Ph.D. dissertation published in 1978, James Preston Viken described drag racing as a social community based on play, but one requiring a lot of work. Quoting a 1952 article on the "Psychological Components of the Hot Rodder," Moorhouse argued in 1991, "The hot rod movement involved a more vital working out of basic cultural values than the rather flabby and cluttered life of advanced capitalism now allowed" (157). He defines four elements of the American dream: a do-it-yourself attitude, a desire to succeed in a war-like activity, a substitute for women, and an outlaw breed similar to the western American gunmen breaking the law and getting away with it (173-76, 187, 190-97).

Boyle, Viken, and Moorhouse's theories on gender, race, and class apply here as well. Nearly everyone who races is European American. They have to be rich enough to be able to afford the time and money to buy and maintain their cars. Yet they do not have the luxury or the sponsorships to make racing their life’s work. It is, as Moorhouse explains, their enthusiasm that keeps them going. Minorities are not excluded; early National Hot Rod Association publications clearly state that anyone is invited. Moorhouse argued that the hot rodders feel like a minority and, therefore, would never leave someone out. Women are not excluded, but they fulfill the support roles typical of traditional, middle-class homes, or they have to be as good as the boys in mechanical and driving skills (185). As these theories explain, the salt flats are one place where men feel empowered.

But beyond theory, professional and amateur drivers alike enjoy going fast. They take risks as a means of adventure. As automobile expert Ron Shook explained, men are attracted to speed and noise. Fast cars provide both. Ralph Keyes explained in his book Why We Take Risks, "We do our best to make life safer. . . Yet we find most memorable those moments when all our efforts are for naught" (13). He cited Michael Cooper-Evans, a British race driver, who believed that, as a driver, "[H]e alone has the authority to decide between life and death." Keyes continued, "By tempting death--[racers] choose life--repeatedly. And in doing, they confirm and reconfirm who's in charge of their destiny" (113-14).

George Eyston, a professional car racer who set records during the 1930s at the Bonneville Salt Flats, explained, "Conquering the unknown always has had a thrill for me." For Eyston, that unknown was going faster than anyone else because "in order to get a record, one has to outdo the best that has ever been done. In racing, the opponent may fail, allowing victory, but in setting records the race is against the clock" (1-3). Many SCTA and USFRA members would agree. Going fast is the goal whether they are in a streamliner going over 400 mph or on an electric bar stool clipping along at five mph. The challenge of breaking a record at the salt flats is their goal.

Those at the salt flats do what they enjoy not to exclude others but to meet their own goals. They are a close extended family, but they are willing to let me, a female historian from a conservative religious university, look in and participate as much as I want. The USFRA invites anyone who wants to test their cars' speed drive as long as they meet the safety requirements. The SCTA needs to be stricter because their time on the salt is limited. There is no attempt to leave people out because of class or race. While at one time sport cars may have been the elite and not as accepted by hot rodders, as Moorhouse argued, they are now accepted. While the ideal roadster may still be a Ford, those at the salt flats let others participate if they meet the guidelines. For those who go to the salt flats, the experience is hot and miserable but still fun. According to Mary West, Art Arfons's favorite saying was, “I can’t wait to get here to race. When I get here, I can’t wait to leave, and after I’ve left, I can’t wait to come back” (Wilkinson).

Women can take part where they feel comfortable. Sterling Moss, one of the greatest race drivers of all time, may have been right in 1963 when he explained he had "never found a woman who . . . enjoyed speed for its own sake." That is still true for many women (the author included), but some women like Ellen Wilkinson do want to go fast. Her limitation is mechanical interest. Those who drive cars on the salt flats do all the work on their own cars; they are their babies and they will not let just anyone drive them. Although historian Charles Sanford argued in the 1970s, "women have virtually swarmed into the car repair business," that has not been my experience (540). In the automobile shops I go to, men fix the cars and women are the office staff just as they are at the salt flats.


A 1980 Speed Week program summarized what the Bonneville Salt Flats mean to the SCTA and the USFRA. "Bonneville is many things to many people. To some a vacation, to others fruition of a dream, to all Bonneville is an American tradition. This is the bastion of Hot Rodding. The diversity of equipment and machines as well as personalities gives credence to that. Bonneville is a legacy to the future generation of those who will quest after speed. Let's hope they take the road not taken. That has made all the difference" (Bonneville Speed Week Program, 1980).

Today in a world of professional sports, the SCTA and USFRA members stand out as people who are willing to spend their own money and vacation to take a risk and do something they love. Like others who participate in extreme sports though, they are part of American popular culture. They enjoy the challenge of a sport and take a risk to show that they control their own destiny. Racing on the salt flats is a work-play experience that provides adventure as the western frontier did for European American men in the 1800s and sports did in the early twentieth century.

Works Cited

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Viken, James Preston. "The Sport of Drag Racing and the Search for Satisfaction, Meaning, and Self: Work and the Mastery of Accrued Skill in Suitable Challenge Situations." Diss. U of Minnesota, 1978.

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Zimmerman, Ben. Interviewed by Jessie Embry. Bonneville Salt Flats Oral History Project. Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, L. Tom Perry Special Collections and Manuscripts. Brigham Young University. Provo, Utah. 1994.

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© 2003 Americana: The Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture