(From the Archives – 08.16.02)
The big news this week is Bonneville, better known since 1949 as Speed Week. In fact today (Friday) is the last day of running, so I don’t really have final results. Gale went out last weekend for the opening days. Gale can’t stay away from Bonneville. He’s been competing there since the early ’60s. He has set many different records in several classes, and actually still holds two current records that have stood for more than ten years each (including what was, for a long time, the world’s fastest production-bodied car and the world’s fastest pickup).
Once you get hooked on Bonneville, you’ve gotta go. And plenty do, both as competitors and as spectators. Over the years land speed racing, which began at Muroc dry lake (now Edwards Air Force base) as early as the 1920s, has waxed and waned. The Southern California Timing Association (SCTA), an aggregate of local car clubs, was formed in 1938 to organize dry lakes racing and to help improve the image of hot rodders. During WW II Muroc was closed to racing, but after the war it swelled significantly in numbers, primarily at El Mirage dry lake in the high desert northeast of Los Angeles. By 1949, through the efforts of Wally Parks of the SCTA and Robert E. Petersen and Lee O. Ryan of Hot Rod magazine, Bonneville was finally opened to the hot rodders under the auspices of the SCTA. Though some years have been rained out, they’ve been racing there annually ever since. While interest in dry lakes racing tapered off, Bonneville was big in the ’50s and ’60s. Then its ranks thinned, too, during the ’70s. There was a point when you could count competitors by dozens. But in the last ten years interest in the lakes, but even more so in Bonneville, has really swelled, both in competitors and in spectators (especially spectators driving hot rods). I was quite surprised to see that the list of cars running this past week at Bonneville was over 300.
One of the greatest things about land speed racing is the variety, and inventiveness, of the machinery running there. While contemporary drag racing has become largely formulaic these days, you’re likely to see anything you can imagine—and even some you can’t—running at Bonneville. There are classes for everything from streamliners to stock production cars, and from electric or steam-powered vehicles to diesel big rigs. And within each of these classes there’s plenty of room for creativity, both in cheating the wind and making horsepower. They used to call drag racing “ingenuity in action.” It’s more true of Bonneville today.
The other thing that truly characterizes Bonneville is its strictly amateur status. There might be a few cars that have some minimal amount of sponsorship, but you can’t win any money there. There are no purses and there are no contingencies. The vast majority of cars are sponsored by their owners, or by a team. What sponsorship there is usually consists of engine parts, fuel, or spark plugs—stuff like that.
Besides his own vehicles, Gale has been partners with Bruce Geisler on the Geisler, Vail, Banks ’53 Studebaker Blown Gas Coupe for decades, as well as with Al Teague on his legendary, multi-record-holding streamliner. That’s one big reason why Gale was at Bonneville this year. Al announced that this would be his final year running the ‘liner, which is getting rather long of tooth at this point. Going in, it held the records in AA/BFS (Blown Fuel Streamliner) at 387.635; in A/BFS (409.986); in B/BFS (381.867); and in C/BFS (366.043), using different sizes of similar Hemi engines. The A class record, set way back in 1991, was the fastest speed set by any piston-driven vehicle for more than a decade. This year Al was running in the AA/BFS class. On Monday he ran 401.124. On Tuesday he ran 405.419, which would have substantially upped the AA record (you must average two runs on two consecutive days to set a record at Bonneville). However, long-time nemesis Nolan White—the only other car in the AA/BFS (Blown Fuel Streamliner) class—managed to set a new record of 413.156 on Monday, having made a highly commendable run of 420+ on Sunday. Somebody quipped that he was cheating because he used two engines instead of one, but that’s perfectly legal in the AA class. You could use four supercharged engines if you wanted, like Mickey Thompson and the Summers Brothers did to make their 400+ runs decades ago. So, Al Teague turned in a magnificent performance at Bonneville this week. It’s just that one guy did even better. That, as they say, is racing (and whether Al really retires or not remains to be seen).