Devastating Damage From Bonneville Salt Flats Decline
When a streamliner is forced to be a porpoise on the Bonneville Salt Flats
By Louise Ann Noeth and Marlo Treit
This is not going to be an easy read. This is an ugly, stinging bit of truth offered so that honest decisions can be made by land speed racers hoping to make participate in the 2020 racing season at the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Breaking parts in motorsports is inevitable. Only skill and luck can minimize how much, how bad and how often. What happened to the Target550 Racing Team in the 2019 racing season can only be characterized as metal carnage of jaw-dropping proportions. All of it a direct result of a once stellar, now dreadful racing surface that also brutalized drivers with blind abandon that dared to run much more than 250MPH.
“I have NEVER had anything like this level of catastrophic damage,” revealed a bewildered Target 550 team principal Marlo Treit who, for years, has successfully campaigned 300MPH plus cars, is abandoning Bonneville in favor of venues with better racing surface conditions.
“In 50 seconds of a single run this past September, our streamliner sustained more damage than I’ve ever seen in any of my 50 years of car racing. The damage was devastating. That first run in September was the car’s last until Australia.”
He is not the first, the World’s Fastest motorcycle (376MPH) Ack Attack built by Mike Akatiff and ridden by Rocky Robinson left a few years back for the same reasons – Bonneville’s racing crust has dwindled so much that it is now a hazard to high speed record attempts.
“Bonneville is just not safe anymore,” lamented Robinson, the current fastest man on two wheels. “We are trying for a record in excess of 400MPH and safety is a priority. We are an American team forced to leave the United States. All the history is at Bonneville, it is where we want to push the limits, but we no longer can do that safely anymore. It’s pure frustration for all of us.”
The deteriorating conditions first took the absolute record from Bonneville in 1983 when Richard Noble chose Nevada’s Black Rock Desert to eclipse the 1970 Blue Flame rocket car’s 622MPH record. Today, the curtain has dropped on any further FIA world records for the plus 400MPH speed machines.
Positioned one-mile from the starting line with my telephoto lens locked onto Valerie Thompson’s first, and only speed run in September, I witnessed a puzzling, new phenomenon of the car acting more like a porpoise in the ocean than speed machine on a race track as it tried to gather speed and traction.
She was not the first. About 6 previous racers had flew by exhibiting the same odd behavior. Initially, I thought the suspension set-ups were wrong, or broken, but as each vehicle came and went, the flex began to show me what was happening: the undulating salt surface was literally bouncing cars, bikes and trucks right off the salt!
Although neither were as long, or as heavy as Target 550, Rex Svoboda’s Saab blown fuel competition coupe, Rob Freyvogel in his gorgeous Carbiliner streamliner both experienced the same discombobulating sensations in different degrees.
Svoboda later told me, “If hadn’t been strapped in so tightly the violent beating I got from the surface would have knocked me out cold, the car shook that badly.” Freyvogel felt some bounce, but his car’s triangular wheel footprint dampened the surface sucker punching and he turned out just before the worst part of the ripple section.
Dallas Volk, campaigns the #590 Volk Brothers and Nish Racing blown fuel modified roadster, shared that the team severed two front leaf springs on the 5,000 pound car. “It was very rough course,” he said.
Thompson told me it was the roughest run of her entire career, and that it had given her a blinding head and neck ache from hammering her head into the roll cage bars.
What once lured competitors from around the world to Bonneville – the rock hard, billiard table flat 14-mile international speedway is now mostly a memory. In its present condition the raceway no longer favors the high-speed cars, trucks and motorcycles.
“Bonneville is a Mecca no longer,” Treit noted trying to come to terms with the needless damage visited upon his precision speed machine. The BLM has allowed decades of mining to deplete the depth and length of the salt crust. The federal government has allowed this process to continue despite repeated outcries from a number of organizations that brought the blight to their attention over and over again. NASA aerial photos over the last 20 years are all you need to see to be convinced it is gone. Our entire Target 550 team would much prefer to make its speed attempts on the Bonneville Salt Flats, but what happened in September proves that it’s no longer possible.”
In March 2020, the Target 550 will attempt to set a new World Record in its class down under. The current record is 416 mph.
Essentially, all the rotating parts got confused abruptly ending the lives of engines with less than 5 cycles of operation. A tough pill to swallow, Treit clearly believes the Target550’s many destroyed parts are “Sacrifices to the BLM Management of salt.”
He is far from alone in this opinion.
Gone is the 1,500-mile round trip from the shop to Utah, replaced by the 23,000-mile sojourn to Australia’s Lake Gairdner. . , and back. More than 2,000+ hours of repairs were made before Target550 was loaded into 3 shipping containers. Treit loses the use of 50% of his shop tools, his racecar and dozens of spare parts for 5 months. The nominal 10-day commitment from team members has ballooned to 5 weeks for some. And the cost? Perhaps you have the heart to press him.
All of this precipitated by three seconds, when all four wheels of the 43-foot long, 9,000 pound streamliner were flicked into the air. People, just how badly do you think this team wants that world record?
RACING SURFACE REVEALS NEW SAFETY CHALLENGES
In 2019, the Target550 streamliner attempted speed runs in August and September. Both meets were well attended and both organizations did their best to groom the surface, but the tissue paper thin salt crust made the efforts akin to putting lipstick on a pig.
“For years we only need 2 or 3 days to prep a course,” revealed Utah Salt Flats Racing Association President Dennis Sullivan. “Now the surface demands 5 to 7 days to prep, more than double because we have to fill in so many holes and manipulate the granular salt into as smooth and hard racing surface as possible. It is so thin on the high-speed portion of the course that the polishing drag often picks the big chunks of thin salt crust surface as it passes over.”
“SpeedWeek had some 550 entries and at least half of them required the long, 5-mile course,” Treit observed. “Reviewing the results, I found less than 30 entries even attempted to run the long course. Our team was there to get a new driver some "seat time" at speeds less than 300 mph. Nonetheless, even at the slower speeds "rodeo bull" ride caused significant damage in less than three miles.”
The September World of Speed used a different course layout that purported to be better. Repairs were completed and the team returned to get more seat time for the driver.
“The first run turned out to be the worst decision of my career,” confessed Treit. “The car was severely damaged in the first part of the course, and it bounced high enough that spectators could see under the car and identify the cones on the other side of the track at a speed close to 300 mph.
Our driver brought the car to a safe stop. Other entries not so fortunate and were completely destroyed, drivers hospitalized and one may require years to fully recover. I will never put a driver in harm’s way again.”
Treit was referring to Lee Sicilio, from Fort Worth, Texas and Rob Frevogel from Butler, PA, who both crashed destroying their respective rides in horrifying fashion. Standing in the intensive care unit of the University of Utah’s hospital, I was riveted motionless place realizing that two very capable, talented gentlemen were fighting for their lives and wondered if that shoddy salt crust had helped them to this place. I have no answer. Only those who have dominion over the throttle have the right to weigh in. So hard to judge.
Target550 is powered by a pair of HEMI engines producing more than 4,000 horsepower. Like all high-speed streamliners, the Target 550 has no suspension system, being designed to run on smooth, hard salt. While it was the second fastest car at both 2019 events, the car was 200MPH short of the speeds it is capable of producing on smooth course conditions.
PUMMELING POWER OF POOR SALT
It is important to recognize that this team arrived ready to do battle with the timing clocks. They may operate in an amateur segment of motorsport, but their approach, preparation and execution is as good as any top level professional team anywhere on the planet. They were beaten back onto their trailer and now forced to leave their country because the withered salt crust of Bonneville is simply a dangerous place to race.
When the team reviewed the video of the run it was plain to see how rough and rutted the course was early in the run, not far off the starting line – despite nonstop grooming efforts expended by the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association to get it in shape.
Treit sums up summarizes the damage to car, driver and team hopes.
“Target 550’s wheel fairings have but a few inches of clearance and were damaged almost immediately after the car left the starting line. Between mile 1 and 2 the car had accelerated to nearly 300MPH. Approaching the mile 2 marker, the car went airborne, unloaded the tires, and the engines freewheeled.
When the car landed, the shock load destroyed the gears in the drive units; the engines again freewheeled unloaded. The confused, precision-built and assembled parts, no longer operating in a controlled manner began breaking with ferocious fury.”
No rev limiter currently known would have been able to prevent the engines from spinning into motorized Valhalla. The bright spot was the flawless performance of the new Kevlar parachutes because the team had previously -- in six runs -- destroyed nine nylon parachutes. Flanked by a new deployment method the car can now stop in a reasonable distance.
“Many built-in safety features kept the broken parts mostly within the car’s body to protect the driver and the racecourse,” Treit continued. “This meant the restrained, shattered parts ricocheted around inside breaking other parts and punching gaping holes in both engines. Both were destroyed in seconds.”
To her driving skills credit, Driver Valerie Thompson maintained complete control of Target 550 throughout the mechanical mayhem and brought the car to safe stop.
“Other drivers, other cars, were far less fortunate,” explained a somber Treit who was amazed his streamliner did not catch fire. “Our entire racing community has pulled together to support them during their long, hard road back. We are shaken by the realization that the current salt condition adds a risk to people we care about and threatens the future of land speed racing in the United States.”
Treit closed with guarded optimism noting it is impossible to host a premier racing event where the premier cars and racers can’t safely race:
“We look forward to a time when the Bonneville Salt Flats are restored and it regains its world class reputation,”