The Last Amateur Sport: Automobile Racing on the Bonneville Salt Flats

By Embry, Jessie | Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

The Last Amateur Sport: Automobile Racing on the Bonneville Salt Flats


Embry, Jessie, Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood


The Bonneville Salt Flats--a 200 square mile area east of Salt Lake City near the Utah-Nevada border--is world famous as the place where drivers broke the Ultimate Land Speed Record from 1935 to 1970. Yet the area remains a mystery to most. I visited car museums and archives in England during the summer of 2002. The employees accurately described the salt flats to me, but they could not locate them on a map. Many Utahns have never noticed the exit off I-80 just east of Wendover for the raceway.

My only contacts with the salt flats in the 1960s were looking at Ab Jenkins's Mormon Meteor car in the Utah State Capitol Building and reading newspaper articles about Craig Breedlove's jet car, the Spirit of America. I was unaware of the subculture of amateur, make-and-fix your own car group that has used the salt flats each year since 1949 (weather permitting) until Ron Shook, an English professor at Utah State University, and Wes Potter, an active member of the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association (USFRA), introduced it to me.

The story of driving at the salt flats starts in Southern California, the capital of the car culture and home of the hot rod movement. In February 2003, I visited the archives of the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA). That organization was the beginning of the amateur experience at the salt flats over fifty years ago. Its records are stored in Jack's Garage, literally the garage at Jack Underwood's home. Each weekday morning, men gather to share driving stories, to discuss ways to improve their cars, and to plan upcoming trips. They join other car enthusiasts almost every Saturday morning from 6:30 to 9:30 a.m. in the parking lot near a doughnut shop in Orange County. A few are there to sell, but most want to discuss their cars with the regulars and the tourists who wander by. Nearly all are men, many over sixty who became involved in the hot rod movement in the 1950s and who remember the "good old days." The few women are usually with men. While they share the same passion for cars, they are the observers.

Underwood put me in touch with Chuck Embrey who lives in the Los Angeles area, and when I suggested that we meet at the Saturday event, he knew exactly what I wanted. After most of the cars had left, Embrey and I walked around the parking lot, and he told me in detail his experience with hot rods on the streets, at drag races, and at the Bonneville Salt Flats. He had been to the salt flats only a few times, and he said with a sigh that he wished he had gone there more often. He felt a camaraderie there that he missed and tried to recapture by coming to Jack's Garage. He also longed for a legal place to drive fast.

Unlike Embrey, when I attended USFRA meets in 1993 and 1994, I met men who had focused their racing on the salt flats. When I went to World of Speed in September 1993, I was surprised to find an ant bed of activity in the desert. Everyone was madly running around working on his or her assigned task. I stopped at the souvenir stand, and Ellen Wilkinson, fondly referred to as "the t-shirt lady," talked to me briefly between customers. She reminded me that we had been in the same high school class in northern Utah. Other women sold food, operated the timing devices, and ran errands. I visited the pits which were full of men working on cars. Nearly everyone was working. Few were spectators.

Activities stopped when an announcer broadcasted that a car was ready to make a run. All eyes focused on the track. A truck pushed a car to the starting line, and then it took off. The driver built up speed, went through the measured mile, and then slowed down. The whole process took just minutes. After a break, the car returned. Then things went on as they had before.

I walked along the racecourse past a few cars full of observers. The heat was unbearable, so I was delighted when two men offered me a ride. We exchanged greetings. They were from Connecticut and had driven across the United States to experience something that they had only read about. …

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