CAR RACING AND MOBILITY HISTORY: British Automobiles and the Bonneville Salt Flats

Article excerpt

Studying car racing history is an important but neglected aspect of mobility history. Whereas car enthusiasts publish trade and popular books about the vehicles and the races, academicians rarely study racing.1 Yet the emergence of the automobile cannot be fully understood without its early context of leisure and sport. It was only after cars became more safe and reliable that the general public started to depend on them as a way to travel. And racing helped improve car technology and publicise cars. Even after cars became an accepted means of mobility, racing continued to be a sport that attracted racers and fans. As such, racing can also help understand a society's culture. Our research focuses on racing against the clock, a practice neatly fitting in the turn-of-the-century crave for records.

Both authors got interested in this aspect of mobility history because of the connection of the land speed record (LSR) with Utah. Embry grew up in Utah during the 1960s, so she thought she knew something about the Bonneville Salt Flats. She read in newspapers about Craig Breedlove, Art Arfons, and Gary Gabelich breaking the land speed record with their jet cars. She visited Ab Jenkins's Mormon Meteor in the Utah Capitol Building basement. Shook was always interested in automobiles and knew a lot more about the drivers, the cars, and the racing at the salt flats.

We discovered that the Bonneville Salt Flats were also well known in Great Britain. That was because in the 1930s Jenkins convinced three British drivers, Sir Malcolm Campbell, John Cobb, and George Eyston, to bring their record-breaking cars to the United States. These automobiles' role changed over time. Initially manufacturers used the technology of these cars to improve highway cars. Eventually the speeds increased, and the new machines had no practical use. But British car manufacturers continued to use the Salt Flats for national pride and to sell cars.2

Practical uses and British national pride

At first racing had a practical element. Manufacturers tested their automobile parts such as tyres and engines on race cars and then introduced them on everyday vehicles.3 Ab Jenkins, a Utah endurance racer and promoter of the Bonneville Salt Flats, pointed it, 'I don't want to drive an automobile 125 miles an hour [200 km h] or even 100 miles an hour [160 km h], and I doubt you do either. But I do want to own a motor car that is built so perfectly, and engineered so smoothly, that normal speeds are child's play for it.'4

Eventually, though, traditional automobile parts could not withstand the increasing speeds So drivers switched technology. LSR cars started using areo-engines in the 1930s. The British drivers focused on these time races because their cars could not compete in road races. Why? At first they rarely took part in road races (which started in France in 1894) because they did not have a track. In 1907 Hugh Locke-King opened Brooklands, the first motor track in the world, on his estate near Weybridge. While Brooklands struggled financially, British manufacturers used it to test cars. As a result, Sunbeam developed engines that could compete in the Grand Prix. Major Henry Segrave used them when he won the French Grand Prix in 1923 and the Spanish Grand Prix in 1924.5 Sunbeam dropped its support of Grand Prix racing after 1926. German companies received funding from their government for winning race cars. As a result, Mercedes and Auto-Union dominated the Grand Prix from 1934 to 1939. Instead the best British drivers 'tended to devote much or all their attention to the pursuit of the world land speed record'.6

For years British drivers owned that record. At first drivers set the land speed record on tracks and roads. But as the speeds increased they needed a beach and later salt flats where there was wide, open space. From early 1927 until the summer of 1935 Daytona Beach, Florida, was the home of the land speed record. However, the beach was too short, too soft, and too crowded for the speeds the racers wanted to attain. …