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No. 737:
Bonneville Salt Flats

Today, we cross a desert -- first slowly, then rapidly. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In 1832 Captain Benjamin de Bonneville led a team of trappers west. He sent his lieutenant, Joe Walker, out to see what lay west of Salt Lake. Walker found the large dry lake bed we call the Bonneville Salt Flats.

It covers 40 square miles, but it's only a remnant of a prehistoric lake that once covered all of northern Utah. The Salt Flats are alternating layers of salt and mud, hard like concrete.

In 1846 my great-grandfather walked across those flats behind an ox-drawn cart. He wrote,

... the rising sun appeared before us like a large, round red disk slowly emerging from the endless plain ... [We passed abandoned] wagons ... hills and mountains were reflected in a surface that looked like a sheet of water ... only a mirage ...

The crossing took days. He was lucky to make it.

Sixty years later those eerie Flats filled two needs. We needed good table salt. We also needed smooth hard surfaces where the new automobiles could strut their stuff. Both racing cars and salt companies arrived in Utah.

The first race car showed up in 1900. Then the English joined the game with airplane-engine-driven race cars. In 1935 Malcolm Campbell made the Salt Flats into the world's premier high-speed race course by exceeding 300 mph.

The American Mickey Thompson gave the record back to America. In 1960 he broke 400 mph with four souped-up Pontiac V-8 engines. But when Craig Breedlove reached 600 mph with a jet-powered car in 1965, the game began losing its charm. What's a 40,000-HP jet car but an airplane trying keep its wheels on the ground? Where's the fun?

Now racing on the Salt Flats has gone another direction entirely. Now almost 300 classes of four-wheeled vehicles race there. And it remains an amateur business -- prizes without purses. In the profusion of stock-cars and formula racers we read a simple sense of play and a real love of excellence.

Best of all, a peculiar coalition has formed. Environmentalists and racers have teamed up to stop salt mining and preserve the Flats. Gary Gabelich, who set a 622-mph record in 1970, says, "The salt flats are a unique gift of God ... "

The Utah Salt Flats Racing Association echos Gabelich. Their theme is, "travel across this vast Salt Desert and marvel at God's work." In the end, that's what great-grandpa did.

And I think he would rejoice at the spirit that now moves over the road he once traveled. Even if he traveled at only a 200th of the speed.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Lienhard, H., From St. Louis to Sutter's Fort. 1846, (tr. and ed. by E.G. and E.K. Gudde) Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1959, Chapter 14.

Post, R.C., The Machines of Nowhere. American Heritage of Invention and Technology, Spring 1992, pp. 28-36.