Utah’s “Ugly Duckling” Salt Flats

John Cobb's Railton Special, 1947

John Cobb’s Railton Special, 1947

Jessie Embry and Ron Shook
Utah Historical Quarterly 65 Fall 1997

In the United States, the Bonneville Salt Flats had an inauspicious start as a racecourse. In 1896 travel promoter Bill Rishel crossed the flats while helping locate a coast-to-coast route for a bicycle race. He discovered the salt flats were not bicycle friendly as his two-wheeler bogged down in the mud. But he wondered how automobiles would perform. In 1907 he and two Salt Lake City businessmen tested the area with a Pierce-Arrow. Encouraged, Rishel urged other drivers to come to the flats. In 1914 he convinced a barnstorming driver, Teddy Tezlaff, to test his Blitzen Benz there. The railroad agreed to haul the car out if the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce could sell 100 tickets. The event was successful; 150 people turned out. Though Tezlaff went 141.73 miles per hour, faster than the record at Daytona Beach, automobile clubs refused to recognize the record. According to Rishel, “Consequently the salt beds were forgotten and the flats faded into [temporary] racing oblivion.”

Rishel claimed that Ab Jenkins, a local Utah racer, finally brought fame to the salt flats. Jenkins crossed the desert for the first time on his way to the James J. Jeffries-Jack Johnson boxing match in Reno by riding the rails on a motorcycle “like a bronco-busting cowboy.” He returned to the flats when Rishel asked him to race the train to the 1925 dedication of the new Lincoln Highway. Jenkins explained, “That was my first time on the salt with an automobile, and right then and there I realized the tremendous possibilities of those beds for speeding.” He believed the salt, which “appeared to be a large lake of frozen ice,” was a good racing surface because there was open space and “the concrete-like salt” cooled the tires.

Jenkins referred to the salt flats as the “ugly ducking” because of its unattractive and remote location. Even after he set an unofficial 24-hour endurance record (112.935 mph) on the salt in 1932, Salt Lake newspapers refused to carry the story for a week. “Bigwigs of the automobile concern” told him that it was foolish to take “a wild ride on a sea of salt somewhere in the middle of Utah’s desert.” But Jenkins continued to push the salt flats as the place for setting speed records.

At the same time, a change was taking place in the racing world that made the salt flats a logical place to compete in spite of its distance from population centers and its inhospitable nature. Drivers had used stock machines for early automobile races and speed trials. A person could buy a car in the morning and race it that afternoon with a good chance of winning. However, as racing grew in popularity, drivers began to modify their cars and finally to build special cars for individual types of races. By the 1930s the fastest land speed racers were already too fast for most venues. They were thirty to forty feet long with huge wheels and 1,000-horsepower aircraft engines. Lacking maneuverability and good brakes, they needed wide open space. Even Daytona Beach, where some impressive records had been set, was too small. Racers started looking for new places to drive. The salt flats became a likely candidate.

The year 1935 was pivotal for racing in Utah. After hearing Ab Jenkins’s glowing reports, English racers started testing the area. John Cobb, a fur broker, arrived first, hoping to break Jenkins’s records. In his test run, Cobb broke twenty-four records, including distance traveled in an hour, on July twelfth. Two days later he started his twenty-four-hour endurance run. Despite bad weather, he set new records. The Salt Lake Tribune was impressed, reporting that Cobb “put away some sixty-four records in brine” such as 12-hour average speed, fastest average speed for 200 miles, and averaging 127.229 mph during a twenty-four hour period. The Tribune continued to cover activities on the flats, including Jenkins regaining his records which included the twenty-four hour average at 154.76 mph.

In August Sir Malcolm Campbell, the world’s foremost auto racer of the time, arrived. Americans knew Campbell; he had already established the land speed record at Daytona Beach. Unable to top 300 mph there, he was ready to try a new place. His tests on the salt flats were successful, and on September third he made an official try. Initially, the timekeeper showed that he had just barely missed the magic 300 number. But when his required two runs were averaged, a recalculation showed that Campbell had attained 301.1202 mph.

Increasingly, race enthusiasts praised the Bonneville surface. Campbell himself, though never to return, was especially impressed. “The course appeared to be perfect . . .” he said. “It was the most wonderful sensation that I have ever felt. Here we were, skimming over the surface of the earth, the black line ever disappearing over the edge of the horizon; the wind whistling past like a hurricane; and nothing in sight but the endless sea of salt with the mountains fifty miles away in the distance . . . I felt . . . that we were skimming along the top of the world and the earth appeared to be acutely round.” The British magazine The Autocar described the track as “a vast white expanse of salt, dead smooth, varying but little from day to day.” The London Times explained, “The use of a smooth surface instead of the rippled, sandy beach of Daytona clearly meant much in the conversion of power into speed.”

U. S. publications also complimented the flats. Time magazine, for example, wrote: “No novelty, the Bonneville Salt Flats have been in their present position and equally well suited to high-speed automobile driving for centuries . . . For 200 square miles the residual salt is as flat as a concrete highway, so hard that iron tent-stakes often bend when driven in . . . Moisture in the salt cools friction-heated tires. The salt’s resistance minimizes skidding.” According to the New York Times, “The record made in Utah speaks for itself.” If a car was going to go fast, the track had to be “straighter and smoother” than Daytona Beach. After quoting this article, the Salt Lake Tribune editorialized, “In this recognition, Utah is made conscious of a natural asset, which merits progressive development.”

Racers continued to come to the salt flats during the rest of the 1930s. John Cobb and George Eyston came from England each year to compete for the land speed record. Cobb, Eyston, and Jenkins also went after endurance records. They bounced the records back and forth. It was a glorious decade for racing in Utah.

Ab Jenkins testing the Mormon Meteor I

Ab Jenkins testing the Mormon Meteor I

Each year brought electrifying runs and new records. A good example was 1938, the most spectacular year on the salt flats to date. Both Eyston and Cobb set the land speed record within a month of each other. Eyston was not accorded the record at first because his car did not trigger the timing devices on the return trip. Officials claimed the “bright glare of the morning sun and the light reflection from the white salt beds . . . prevented the . . . shadow of the speeding white car from registering its image.” Eyston painted his car black and set a record (345.49 mph) on the “snow-like plains.” He commented the run was “one of the most casual trips I’ve made on the salt flats . . . The course was in splendid condition and there was never a tendency to slip or skid.” Cobb broke the record at 350.2 mph two weeks later, but within two days Eyston regained it at 357.5 mph.

While Cobb and Eyston set the records, the salt flats shared in the glory. The Tribune declared August and September “the biggest in all history with the eyes of the entire racing world centered on the greatest, safest and fastest course known.” The paper was especially pleased that H. J. Butcher of Auckland, New Zealand, said the beaches of his home country “hardly compare to your salt flats. This is without question the greatest and safest racing course in the world.” Eyston echoed those feelings: “There is no place in the world like these bloomin’ salt beds.”

The outbreak of war in Europe interrupted racing for the Englishmen. Jenkins raced by himself in 1940, but the next year the United States entered the war and no one used the salt flats for the next several years.