In Utah’s salt flats mirages are as common as thirst, disorientation Ã¯Â¿Â½ and race cars.
Day 2, Race Day:
Challenging the World Land-Speed Record in Your Rental Car
Fearing that we’d get busted if we lingered too long in our ill-gotten campsite, Josh and I rose at first light and began making our escape. With utmost stealth, we broke camp and quietly drove past the empty gatehouse. We made it undetected! Karmicly speaking, it was too good to be true. Sometime during the night the rangers had closed and locked the barricade across the entry drive, presumably to keep the bears safe from the aforementioned gangs of roaming teenagers.
“Maybe we should try to ram it,” I joked.
“Wait a second,” Josh coolly replied. He reached into the back seat and produced two books. One had a safety-yellow cover, the other emergency-red. He began to thumb through them until he came to the passage he was searching for.
“How to ram a barricade with your car.” There in his hands were complete instructions on how we could escape our predicament. Why Josh had thought to bring not only The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook but The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook: Travel Edition as well was beyond me, but at the moment I was glad.
“You bought the insurance, right?” he asked.
He was serious, but I had some reservations. Our little Mitsubishi Mirage rode just a little too low to have been completely effective anyway. As we waited and the sun crested the ridge, it became clear that we were not alone. A moose in her morning grazing had found an attractive patch of willow just off the track where we sat. She regarded us with little interest and kept browsing the willow. So there in the Utah dawn, accompanied by the sound of one moose chewing, we waited to be reprimanded by a USFS park ranger. Anticlimactically, when he arrived to unlock the gate he simply bid us a good morning and waved us on our way.
High on Josh’s list of things to hit in Utah were the salt flats west of the Great Salt Lake. The lake itself is all that remains of a vast inland sea, which at one time covered much of the desert southwest. The region immediately west of the lake stretching to the Nevada border has any number of names: Great Salt Lake Desert, Newfoundland Evaporation Basin, Bonneville Salt Flats, etc. In any case the flats epitomized the stark desert emptiness that Josh wanted to experience.
Miles and miles of uninterrupted white, it was quite surreal even from I-80. We stopped at the highway rest area just east of Wendover and struck out on foot across the flats. Getting beyond the sounds of the trucks on the freeway we were left in an eerie and blindingly bright world. Even though it was only mid-morning, already it was hot enough to be uncomfortable. The texture of the ground revealed how the wind and water sculpted clumps of loose salt into tiny ridges and dunes. Here and there were the desiccated carcasses of insects unfortunate enough to be blown in from who knows where. Perspective and scale were greatly distorted. New arrivals stood out at great distances against the white backdrop, while earlier victims were covered in layers of wind-blown salt. Heat rising from the flats created that water-shimmer mirage in all directions. Early pioneers driving cattle westward across the flats were sometimes seduced by these mirages. Thirst-crazed cattle would charge toward them only to collapse and die. We were smart enough to plan ahead and take plenty of water.
On October 15, 1997, Andy Green caused a sonic boom while pushing his jet car to speeds over 750 mph on the Bonneville Speedway. He currently holds the world land speed record of 763 mph. Given the isolation we had experienced on the flats just a few miles to the east of the speedway, I’m not sure what I was expecting when we approached the Bonneville Speedway. Whatever I was expecting, it certainly wasn’t the hub of activity that greeted us as we approached the end of the paved road north of the town of Wendover.
“Spectators?” we were asked as we pulled up to a group of paunchy, baseball cap-wearing men sitting beneath a beach umbrella at the road’s end.
During the months of August and September the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association holds a series of time trials and competitions for a variety of classes of vehicles. Today was a race day, for exactly what was unclear. With Josh behind the wheel we tore off the road onto the salt. Other than a few cones directing the way there was nothing in place to prevent us from driving off into oblivion.
Dodging some oncoming traffic we made our way to the pits. Josh put on an Autechre CD, creating an electronic post-apocalyptic atmosphere. With clusters of vehicles and tents visible on the horizon and ATV’s zipping between camps, it looked for all the world like the approach to Thunderdome out of a Mad Max movie.
In the United States we are so conditioned to being told what to do and how to do it at every turn, that the absence of such structures can be disconcerting. Ironic, considering that we tout ourselves as being the “land of the free”. No one seemed particularly interested in directing us, so we took it upon ourselves to explore the course. We left the pits and drove to the starting line. As we approached the line we noticed a group of assorted vehicles lined up. They didn’t look like competitors, so we fell in with them. A man at the start waved us onward and before we knew what was really happening we were on the Bonneville Speedway.
“Why are they going so slow?” Josh wondered out loud as he skillfully weaved in between the cars.
At the end of the course, without direction everyone very orderly lined up and waited… and waited.
“I wonder what they’re doing?” I asked.
“Who knows,” Josh replied as he breezed by the unmarked line where everyone else had stopped.
Unobstructed by the other raceway traffic, we whizzed back to the starting line. Again, no one seemed particularly interested in us. At about the halfway mark of the course, Josh had seen a lonely looking tent. He figured that we might be able to watch the races from there. Back down the course once again. There was a young woman with a radio sitting in a lounge chair out of the sun. (One thing to know about Josh is that he will never miss an opportunity to chat up any young woman. It’s a remarkable way to get information.)
Lovely Carrissa’s job was to give the racers their official time slips after their race as they drive back along the return road. She was also able to tell us about the “race” we had participated in. Before each day’s events begin, the drivers use their own vehicles to drive a trial run of the course. The purpose is two-fold: to acquaint the drivers with the course and to pack the salt smooth.
“Do you ever get bored out here?” Josh asked the lovely Carrissa.
“All the time.” Apparently Carrissa wasn’t a fan of racing. It was the family business.
It wasn’t long before a man in a white pickup truck came over to inquire who we were and to tell us that we needed to go back to the pits if we wanted to watch the races. After a lame excuse or two we bid our new friend goodbye and moved on. The lesson here to me was, if you want to attract any attention in the anarchy of the Bonneville Salt Flats, stop moving.