Once a year in mid-August teams from all over the world bring their race cars to the Bonneville Salt Flats in the search for pure speed. This gathering, an almost religious pilgrimage for some, is known as Speed Week and boasts every shape of vehicle imaginable. Almost as soon as I received the call that I would be moving to Utah for an internship last spring, I began dreaming of shooting at Bonneville. Growing up I was never a huge gear head in the sense of wanting to build cars, but I was attracted to the appearance and performance. Lucky for me I was able to find a team with some local Utah County ties, and after a few phone calls I was on my way out to motoring heaven.
The team I feature in my story is mostly from West Branch, Iowa, but includes a few other engineers brought in from different locations. Their goal at this year’s Speed Week was to break the record held for a diesel powered car. This car, driven and custom built by Roy Lewis, is one of a kind. It has two 5.9 liter engines, and puts out about 2000 horsepower along with a mind numbing amount of torque. After a few test runs early in the week, it looked as though the car would crush any existing set speed. The problem with running at Bonneville though is the extreme conditions the vehicles are placed in. Each car is pushing it’s absolute hardest on a 5-mile track, but when you add in the salt and heat the sustained power to the engines can become a BIG problem. During Roy’s first real run, the team was hoping to put down speeds well over 300 mph. Around the second mile however, an issue with the transmission forced the front engine to sustain pretty significant damages. The team was on the road home only a couple hours later.
I cannot thank the team enough for letting me hang out for a couple days, and I hope that this was not my last assignment to the salt. I heard someone say that at Bonneville that everyone has their own idea of how to go fast, and after witnessing it first hand I couldn’t agree more. It is truly a one of a kind experience, and it could not be filled with more passionate people. Below are photos from my two days spent with the team, and under the story there are some photos I made while briefly wandering around. Enjoy.
Under the harsh Utah sunlight what would appear to be a bright yellow rocket glistens into view. As it moves across the surreal scene of the bleach white salt, the vehicle displays little visible effort or audible sound. Before one can register the tremendous beauty and power of the yellow streamliner, it has disappeared into the bright horizon.
Each year during the month of August, a race team from the small suburb of West Branch, Iowa migrates to Utah in the interest of achieving mind-bending speeds. The team, mostly comprised by Chassis Engineering Inc. employees and friends, has had plenty of success over the years at the famous Bonneville Salt Flats, but recently extended it’s ties for help into Utah County.
Cameron Schmidt, a local to Utah Valley who is helping on the team and is part owner of Utah Diesel Center in Pleasant Grove, is no stranger to the salt either. After growing up with his father racing at Bonneville, he was asked to help work on the twin diesel engine yellow streamliner again this year.
“We have never moved this far this fast,” Schmidt said, referring to the progress the team made this year.
“We just got so much accomplished in such a little time,” he added.
To prepare for this year’s Speed Week, the team was given an opportunity at Utah Valley University that would help them sort out typical issues before they reached the salt. With the help of Schmidt and the faculty at UVU, the car made its way to the school’s garage for a multi-day prep. The team was granted access to the school’s dynamometer, or dyno for short, which measured the car’s power and how it would react under Bonneville’s extreme conditions.
While in the garage, the car looked as though it were on life support. Its outermost panels were stripped away, and multiple wires ran from it into nearby computers. Tools littered the area, and groups of people scurried about. With a couple switches flipped on, the car roared to life.
“We wouldn’t have even be able to pull it off this year,” Schmidt said. “We really needed the dyno.”
Doug Humble, a team member and long time friend of the car’s owner agreed.
“If it wasn’t for putting the car on the dyno, we would have had a problem as soon as we got out there,” Humble said. “We would have found one problem when we got out on the salt, and probably would have called it quits.”
Schmidt’s specialty is focused on gaining the highest possible performance out of a diesel engine. In 1992, he helped pioneer and implement a water injection cooling system that minimizes the heat produced by a diesel engine. Due to the extreme heat and length of the track at Bonneville, keeping a car running at such a high level is often the most common challenge facing each team.
“When you’re running something in that condition and at that level, you really need everything to be tuned in,” Schmidt said. “It’s kind of like holding a torch on a piece of metal.”
On Aug. 11, the team loaded up their yellow streamliner from UVU and headed out to the Salt Flats.
When arriving at the Bonneville Salt Flats, one might think there is little going on. A few people pepper the entrance, but it isn’t until you drive several miles onto the salt to understand the enormity of the event. The pit lane stretches for several miles, and is more than three rows deep. Teams from all over the world work on their unique vehicles from sunrise to sunset, but each have their own idea of how to go fast.
After a couple test runs during the week, the team’s car had reached a speed of 270mph fairly effortlessly. The twin 5.9-liter Cummins diesel engines were running seamlessly, and the team was ready to make a real attempt at the record speed for a diesel-powered car. For any racing team however, mechanical breakdowns are a part of the game. On Thursday the car’s transmission gave out, causing significant damage to one of the engines.
It was a crushing blow to the team who has worked all year for a single week of racing, but everyone understands that there is a constant risk whenever pushing a car to it’s max. Although the team hopes to return next year, nothing can be promised this far in advance. With that being said, where else are you going to drive a car over 300mph?