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
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
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