The Bonneville Salt Flats are among the world’s natural wonders, and the Salt Lake Chamber helped make them famous, thanks to the persistence of a local hero.
The Salt Flats cover hundreds of square miles of some of the most desolate land on earth, home to no growing thing, hostile to travelers. It’s a dazzling expanse of salt left over from ancient Lake Bonneville, land so flat that you can actually see the curvature of the earth.
Its emergence as a premiere racing site began slowly enough, however. A travel promoter named Bill Rishel first tried to cross it on a bicycle in 1896 (that didn’t go well; he walked about a third of the way), but in 1907 he was back testing a Pierce Arrow on the concrete-like salt in a day when paved roads were rare. Then, in 1907, he approached the Commercial Club with a proposal. If they could sell 100 tickets, he would bring a barnstorming race driver named Teddy Tezlaff to the flats to try out his Blitzen Benz. It worked, and 150 people came to see Tezlaff fly down the course at 141 miles an hour. It would have been a record, but automobile clubs refused to recognize it.
A decade later, Ab Jenkins, a native of Spanish Fork, who was a building contractor, fell victim to the speed bug. Rishel, ever the promoter, talked him into racing a train across the salt flats while it was on its way to the dedication of the new Lincoln Highway. Driving a Studebaker, he beat the train by ten minutes. Historians Jessie Embrey and Ron Shook quote him as saying, “That was my first time on the salt with an automobile, and then and there I realized the tremendous possibilities of those beds for speeding,” Not only was the lake bed wide open and flat, but the salt helped cool the tires.
Jenkins began racing on the salt flats, but it was hard to gain any attention. He set an unofficial 24-hour endurance record going 112.9 miles an hour in 1932, but the newspapers ignored it for a week.
He did get someone’s attention. Gus Backman, executive secretary of the Chamber, was new to his job, but he knew that part of his role was to promote the state’s attractions. Later, he recalled those days when no one would pay attention to the salt flats. With the encouragement of the Chamber officers, including Harold Fabian, he created the Bonneville Speedway Association, and would serve as its president for thirty-five years.
“This originally was organized for the purpose of promoting and assisting Ab Jenkins in the development of his speed runs on the Salt Flats,” he said. “Later it was expanded to include racers from everywhere in the world. And there has never been a charge for any participant on the salt beds excepting his own liability insurance,” he said. “And it has been operating now for thirty-eight years.” His remarks were recorded in 1970.
Racers did come from all over the world now that the speeds were being timed and recorded through the Chamber’s sponsorship. Jenkins’ glowing reports of the Salt Flats’ conditions attracted the fastest men on earth to Utah. In 1935, Englishman John Cobb, in his first appearance, set a number of world speed records, including an average speed of 200 miles an hour. Later that year, Sir Malcolm Campbell, who had been unable to break 300 miles an hour at Daytona, Florida, came and set a new record of 301 miles an hour.
The Salt Flats had arrived as a world-class racing site, and Utah would reap the benefit of glowing reports in national and international publications. The records continued to fall as faster machines were built. In 1936, the Chamber’s board of governors, while deliberating the affairs of the city, kept their ears open to a shortwave broadcast from the Bonneville Salt Flats, where their home-town hero, Ab Jenkins, had just brought back nine speed records to the United States. Then they talked about Cobb coming back.
Ab Jenkins continued his racing career for years while becoming Salt Lake’s mayor from 1940 to 1943. Driving Mormon Meteor III on Labor Day, 1950, he set twenty-six world and American records, achieving a top speed of 199.19 miles an hour on a twelve-mile, circular track.
Other kinds of racers also wanted to try the salt flats. In 1948, hot rod enthusiasts, who had been rebuffed by the American Automobile Association when they asked to use the salt flats to set records, appealed to the Bonneville Speedway Association. The association, still headed by Gus Backman, let them experiment, and by 1949 Speed Week had become an annual event.
Conditions changed, however, and after 1970 the salt flats weren’t attracting competitors for world land records, who were now being shot down the course by jet engines. The last world speed record at the Salt Flats was set by Gary Gebelich at 630.35 miles an hour in 1970. But the flats still draw hundreds of racers of other types of vehicles, and they still are known throughout the world as the place where you can go faster and faster.
Sources: Jessie Embry and Ron Shook “These Bloomin’ Salt Beds, Racing on the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah Historical Quarterly 65 (Fall 1997) 355-72. Kevin B. Hallaran, “Bonneville Salt Flats,” in Utah History Encyclopedia (Salt Lake City, Utah: University of Utah Press: 1999). Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, History of Utah County (Salt Lake City: Utah Historical Society and Utah County Commission, 1996). Gus Backman typescript, 1 July 1970, and Board of Governor’s minutes, 28 September 1936, Salt Lake Chamber papers, Special Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah.