Bloomberg News

Speed Freaks Race Utah Salt Flats With Rocket Truck, Barstools

November 04, 2011

Review by Jason H. Harper

Nov. 3 (Bloomberg) -- I recently drove on Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats, famous for records of more than 600 miles per hour. My top speed was 122.

Let me repeat: 122 rather paltry miles per hour, driving a slightly modified Suzuki Kizashi sedan. I’ve gone faster uphill in an old pickup truck.

It was a lesson. Nothing goes according to plan in amateur racing, and the salt flats can be a cruel place. Even so, I had an uproariously good time.

How could I not? I was surrounded by homebuilt machines created with the singular purpose of blurring across the desert at 200, 300 and 400 miles an hour.

Speed demons have been making pilgrimages to Bonneville since the early 1900s, when “Terrible” Teddy Tezlaff drove an open-cockpit car 141.7 mph. By the 1960s, jet-powered machines that look like ground-skimming rocket ships were breaking 600.

The former lake is located off Interstate 80 along the Utah and Nevada border. The vast expanse has no trees or shelter, but is partially covered by a layer of naturally-occurring salt. The surface on the salt is hard and flat. There are miles to reach extreme speeds and -- more importantly -- slow back down with the aid of rear parachutes.

The area is public land, so anyone can enter official events like Speed Week or World of Speed and drive most anything, as long as the vehicle passes safety inspections. The list of vehicles includes everything from motorcycles with turbine engines to 45-mph barstools. Yes, barstools.

Broken Records

It’s the ultimate “race-what-you-brung” ethos. With the variety of classes, world records are made and broken every year.

A sedan from Suzuki Motor Corp. probably qualifies as an unlikely record holder. In 2010 a company-backed team heavily modified a four-cylinder Kizashi sedan, using a turbocharger to amp up the engine to more than 500 horsepower, and drove it 203.7 mph, setting a record in the Blown Gas Coupe class. This year, Suzuki offered to let me try it for myself.

My record-setting dreams went sideways when I arrived and was offered a far less potent Kizashi -- an almost-stock machine with a very small turbo and a very showy exterior. (A stock front-wheel-drive Kizashi Sport starts at about $23,000. The 2.4-liter four-cylinder is naturally aspirated with 180 hp.) At least my Kizashi looked fast.

Newbies have to start at lesser speeds -- in this case breaking 130 mph -- and then work up in controlled increments. Safety is paramount. After passing inspection, I pulled the car into the long line of vehicles looking to gain entry into the “130 MPH Club.” (Those guys in blue baseball caps? They’re members of the 300 mph club.)

One-thirty never happened. We’ll come back to that.

Land Rockets

When I wasn’t not going 130, I spent my time gawking at the array of vehicles. I’ve never experienced such a dazzlingly diverse group of crazy machines, some impossibly long and low, with massive stabilizing fins on the back. Buck Rodgers, your car is ready.

Others look like old-school hot rods. Then there were the motorcycles. How does one drive over 200 mph on two wheels? A guy named Mark DeLuca would run his bike that day at 237.6 mph.

For pure shock and awe, however, my favorite was the Joint Venture diesel truck. A “highly modified” 1997 Freightliner originally designed to pull a trailer, this semi has more than 4,000 hp and rear tires from a Boeing 737. Monstrous doesn’t begin to describe it.

Some of the cars are disappointingly quiet as they rocket away down the desert, quickly lost to the shimmer of heat rising from the salt. You’re less likely to miss the pilgrimage of the Joint Venture. The desert shatters with sound and the exhaust pipes spew smoke into the sky, leaving a black trail as it hurtles through the miles.

Slow Suzuki

In 2006 the truck set a record of 228.8 mph. If a not-so- aerodynamic semi could go that, surely I could hustle a little Suzuki to 130. The 130 strip is a standing mile, with speeds recorded at several points along the way.

Starting off in the salt wasn’t as easy as I’d first imagined. Traction is tricky. Too much torque and your tires spin; too little and you’re just slow.

I passed the mile marker and began the long slow circle back to the starting line, stopping at the timekeeper’s hut.

He wore a grin and a sombrero. He also had bad news: Only 120. I tried again. And again. Each time the car would stop accelerating in fifth gear, the revolutions per minute stuck at 5,000. The timekeeper was too kind to make fun of me.

Something was wrong with the car. Suzuki engineers finally determined that it was dropping a cylinder -- not good since I only had four to start with.

Turns out humility is best served with a side of salt.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

--Editors: Adam Majendie, Daniel Billy.

To contact the writer of this column: Jason H. Harper at Jason@JasonHharper.com or follow on Twitter @JasonHarperSpin.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.


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