|| Sunday Features
David Abbott "Ab" Jenkins didn't look like a race driver, but they called him Utah's Son of Speed, this unassuming country boy from Spanish Fork who eventually claimed most of the worlds automobile endurance records and put Bonneville Salt Flats on the international map. Born in 1883, Jenkins died almost forty years ago. In his day he made history by challenging time and distance with machines that became forerunners of passenger cars in the 1990s. He established more world records than any other man in the history of automobile racing.
It wasn't just speed that Jenkins sought from a car, but endurance--the ability to take punishment and not break down. His famous Mormon Meteor III, in which he rewrote the record books, has been restored to its original glory and this week will be put on permanent display in the State Capitol along with a bust honoring its late designer and driver. He sold the sleek car to the state in 1943 for $1.
As a youngster of 14, he began working in the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad shops and later learned carpentry and masonry, skills that would take him into the building-contracting business across three states. His determination was the key to success. As a general contractor, he designed and built homes in Salt Lake City's Gilmer Park area and the upper Yale Avenue districts. He was good at what he did, but his deep-rooted interests focused on cars and the internal-combustion engine. When his profession began to interfere with his racing, he gave up his profession.
In his heyday during the 1930s and '40s, Jenkins made the Bonneville Salt Flats the nation's most famous racing ground. His achievements on the salt caught the attention of such great international speedsters as Sir Malcolm Campbell, John Cobb and Captain G.E.T. Eyston, diverting them from Daytona Beach in Florida.
Jenkins' career as a king of speed got its start in 1926 when he and his friend Ray L. Peck, owner of Thompson Flying Service, set out to drive from New York to San Francisco faster than a train could make the trip. It took Jenkins, with Peck as his relief driver in their Studebaker touring sedan, 86 hours and 20 minutes, compared to the train's 100 hours. That was enough to impress Studebaker Corp. executives, who offered the genial general contractor a year-round job as their safety and development engineer.
Among his early assignments was to look over a V12 engine the corporation's subsidiary, Pierce Arrow, was developing. Jenkins came away impressed by the size and performance of the engine and suggested he could make a successful attempt at the world endurance record with the brutish 12-cylinder Pierce Arrow.
So it was that 1932 found Jenkins driving one of the company's roadsters with running board and fenders removed and the cowling replaced. The scene was the salt flats west of Salt Lake City and close by the Nevada border. The salt was white, hard and corrosive. A 10-mile circular track had been laid out on the salt bed, with white cat's-eye reflectors mounted on rods four feet above the salt surface every 100 feet for the entire ten miles.
William D. Rishel, head of the Utah State American Automobile Association, timed the run. Jenkins drove the roadster the full twenty-four hours, stopping only to refill the fuel tank or change tires. He averaged 112.9 miles an hour, but the test was disqualified because it was not officially timed.
They tried again the next summer, with Pierce Arrow once more providing the car and Jenkins arranging for the timing and official sanction as well as oil-, sparkplug- and tire-company sponsors. When they suggested Jenkins run on a Sunday, the Utah Mormon--who drank nothing stronger than milk--explained that as a member of the LDS Church that was out. Period. No further discussion.
Ab roars off: With all the protocols observed, the timing instruments calibrated and the track measured, Jenkins roared off on his 24-hour endurance trial. When it was over, he had averaged 118-plus miles an hour driving something under 3,000 miles in the process. It was a prodigious achievement--which he promptly surpassed in 1934 when he clocked 127.22 mph for the 24-hour mark. That shattered all existing records in the 10-mile, 100-mile, 100-kilometer, three-hour, six-hour, 12-hour and 24-hour classes.
Pierce Arrow folded that year, a victim of the Great Depression. But its vice president, Roy Faulkner, was named president of Auburn, Cord, Duesenberg. That company then retained Jenkins and offered to build a car specifically for an attack on the endurance records. So was born Mormon Meteor I. In those early years on the salt flats, the experience gained by Jenkins and his colleagues resulted in scores of advances and improvements in tires, engines and other aspects of automotive engineering.
Meteor I used a Duesenberg supercharged engine of just under 400 HP, and the Meteor II was the same Duesenberg chassis, but powered by a Conqueror aircraft engine capable of 650 HP. Both cars were designed and built by Augie Duesenberg, as was Mormon Meteor III. That car was powered by the Curtiss Conqueror engine, but with a redesigned chassis. Its sole purpose was to crack the endurance records.
Meanwhile, Ab Jenkins, who preached automobile safety, took time to run for mayor of Salt Lake City in 1939--and won by the merest of margins (51 votes) without making a single campaign speech or spending a nickel of his own money. He served four years.
Assault records: By May 1940, it was time to put the Meteor III to the test, to assault the records with a vengeance. While his son, Marvin, ran equipment tests, Mayor Ab journeyed to San Francisco to inspect that city's fire equipment. He told Mayor Angelo Rossi he had been driving since 1906 without an accident and had never been arrested. To which Rossi replied, "You've never been ticketed, because nobody could catch up with you!"
At Bonneville, Marvin reported he whistled the Meteor through a trial lap at 208 mph over the circular track in tire tests. "It wasn't the fastest we were able to go," he said, but even on a 10-mile circle, "you knew you were in a turn." That July, Ab tooled the 2-ton, 750 HP Mormon Meteor III around the track, and at the end of a day and a night, the records were his. The AAA made it official: 161 miles an hour average!
The endurance and speed marks tumbled like dominoes. Two hundred miles at 196 mph, 1,000 miles at 172 mph, and 3,000 miles at more than 165 mph. His land records stood just six months shy of a half-century, before being bettered by a team of professional drivers in 1989.
Munches Meteor: The stocky white-haired gentleman who drank milk by the bottle was only three minutes away from a new one-hour record in July 1951, when he hit a wet spot on the track, skidded into a course marker and munched the radiator of the Meteor. He stepped from the famous race car and declared it was his last race. "At 68, I've outworn the car." And so it stood until 1956, when at 73 and after a lengthy layoff, he contemplated just one more challenge--in a stock car.
That June, with Marvin as his relief driver, Ab Jenkins took a stock-model series 860 Pontiac around the salt circle at an average speed of 118.375 mph, eclipsing the old 24-hour mark of 109 mph and shattering all existing American unlimited and class C stock-car racing records in the process. Even with Marvin in relief, Jenkins drove almost two-thirds of the 2,841 miles himself. Pit stops for fuel averaged about 30 seconds, during which Ab gulped down milk.
"Everything went perfectly," he said. "We didn't have any trouble except on the west end where the track was torn up for about a mile." Marvin had broken all existing marks up to 100 miles with an average speed of 126 mph in a preliminary run the day before. In all, he claimed 28 records. The father-and-son team ruled the record book.
In August '56, Ab went to Wisconsin to drive a pace car in the Road America auto races in Milwaukee. On the night of Aug. 9, he attended a baseball double-header with George Bourke, regional manager of the Pontiac Motor Car Division. As they were driving to the hotel in an automobile, Jenkins turned to Bourke and, pointing to a billboard showing a farm tractor, remarked, "I took a wild ride on one of those a few years ago." Then he slumped in his seat and collapsed. He was pronounced dead on arrival at a nearby hospital of a heart attack.
The next year, General Motors introduced the 1957 Pontiac Bonneville in honor of Jenkins' achievements. The Mormon Meteor I, which Jenkins had sold to a motion-picture company, attracted a bid in 1992 of $3.5 million. Its present owner, an Alabama collector, refused the offer. Mormon Meteor III, which had been placed in the Capitol for display fifty years ago, suffered from benign neglect and has been reclaimed by the Jenkins family.
The racer the state received for $1 is now valued at $5 million. In a settlement with the state of Utah, the car was restored and refurbished by Marvin Jenkins at Dixie College in St. George and a scholarship fund established in Ab Jenkins' name. Dedicatory services for the new Mormon Meteor III exhibit and the bust by Utah sculptor Jerry Anderson are scheduled for Thursday at 4 p.m. in the Capitol.