My Ford Escort at the Bonneville Speedway starting line.
Any adventurous television-watching American growing up 30 years ago remembers the footage: Lee Majors blazes through the sky to supersonically crash his experimental aircraft in a mile-long plume of desert dust.
The Six Million Dollar Man. We can rebuild him. We have the technology.
On the Bonneville Salt Flats early last Saturday, these images raced through my mind as I nervously tapped the accelerator and listened to the engine purr. Ahead lay a childhood fantasy: to speed unhindered down Bonneville Raceway where 600 mph jet-powered cars break land speed records.
The plan was a chancy one, however. Aside from obvious risks I was using the wife’s brand new four-cylinder Ford Escort ZX2 Ã‚â€“ without permission. Nevertheless, at sunrise as she slept in our Wendover, Utah hotel room, it was off to the flats with re-runs of Ben Gazara’s “Run for Your Life” in my head..
I was a bad boy.
But oh well. This was a rare chance. I’m not in Wendover often, and usually the adjacent Silver Island Mountains have flooded the raceway in melt water. This time was different, though. September is hot and dry with the hard-packed track beckoning crystalline white through rising sheets of early morning heat.
‘End of the Line’ about 12 miles out.
It was perfect. Mercedes Benz’ filming of a TV commercial here had cleared the track of traffic. No supersonic vehicles today. Just me and the Escort, driving slowly past the filming area to a black starting line reaching for infinity in the salt.
From this point in the Salvador Dali landscape rocket cars such as “Challenger” and “Spirit of America” attained speeds greater that 500 mph during the early 1960s. And now a four-cylinder beauty stood in their tracks, as my boot tip nudged the gas to follow that line.
Color me gone.
For a glorious six minutes at speeds nearing 120 mph Ã‚â€“ enough to peg my speedometer Ã‚â€“ the Escort burned at the horizon. Nothing but still blue sky ahead. I was moving at two miles per minute, but in a space so large the trip seemed motionless. Only the engine’s hum and a slight white blur of salt said otherwise.
Then it dawned on me. Something else was missing. In its absence probably the most liberating thing: There’s no speed limit here. No stop lights. No police. Nothing but land, sky and vehicle shrinking me to a red dot in the distance. I was free!
For a glorious six minutes, until Floating Island Mountain loomed dangerously large in the windshield, the Escort flowed unhindered. But now the black line painted in salt by the last hyper-velocity racing team to venture here had run out. The hard pack turned to loose shimmering moon dust. Time to stop, before we need the technology to rebuild him. Looking back on the raceway in relief, I was alive. On Monday I wouldn’t be the only kid in the trailer court without a story to tell. Now it was time to return, however.
Mercedes Benz film crew near the raceway.
As an anti-climax I took a picture of “the end of the line” and prudently cruised back to Mercedes Benz at 60 mph. This seemed logical, since it was more likely to meet a crazed speed demon coming from that direction. Who knows, maybe some early bird on a Harley had the same idea I did. But the way was clear, so after some photographic shop talk with the Benz folks I headed back to my room in Wendover’s State Line Casino for a brew and a stern lecture.
On the way there was one final stop, though. Apparently Mercedes hired a contract ambulance driver, just in case problems arose. I asked her again if my jaunt was illegal. “No,” she said. “Just a little dangerous.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” I replied. “But ‘Danger’ is my middle name.”
Gosh, I’ve always wanted to say that to someone.
Note: To access Bonneville Raceway, proceed east from Wendover, Utah or Wendover, Nevada Ã‚â€“ both towns straddle the state line Ã‚â€“ on Interstate 80. Follow the Bonneville Speedway signs.