Since 1949, generations of speed demons have gathered along the salt flats of what was once Lake Bonneville, Utah, where an annual cycle of flooding in the winter months and evaporation in the dry summer has formed a dense surface of salt crystals and minerals. It’s a place so flat and wide that you can see the curve of the earth’s surface, making it perfect, when conditions are right, to drive faster than anywhere else on earth. The crowds come here for the record-breaking time trials of Speed Week. It’s a place for legends in waiting. But since 2013 – the last time before this year that Speed Week took place – there has been a lot of waiting.
The first land speed record at Bonneville was set over one hundred years ago, in 1914. Teddy Tezlaff, driving his Blitzen Benz, clocked in 141.73 miles per hour. In 1970, Gary Gabelich’s Blue Flame shot out at 622.407 miles per hour, making it the fastest automobile on record at the time. In 2012, Brandon Nozaki Miller set a record for the first electric motorcycle to go over one hundred miles per hour.
The salt flats’ unique ecological makeup has made this one of the only places in the world where vehicles can reach speeds of over four hundred miles per hour. But things are changing here. The event had been canceled the last two years due to poor salt conditions and rainstorms. The long track, once twelve miles, has now been reduced to just seven, even under perfect conditions, making the ability to achieve the speeds of the past all but impossible. This year the races returned, but organizers were only able to create a five-mile-long course.
The changing conditions of the salt is thought to be brought on by a combination of climate change, one hundred years of mining potash (a mineral found in the salt crust that is used in fertilizers), construction of railroad tracks and highways, like I-80,which runs through the flats, and the races themselves.
“It’s not gonna go back to the state it was at one hundred years ago. Too much has happened. Too much has changed,” said Brenda Bowen, a University of Utah geology and geophysics professor, who’s leading a team of scientists with the help of a $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant, in an attempt to understand why and how this unique expanse of land is changing to the point where future Speed Weeks are increasingly uncertain.
A solution is elusive and questionable. Some politicians, including Utah Governor Gary Herbert, have called for restoration of the salt – though no clear path to doing that exists.
“You can’t really legislate nature,” explains Bowen. “[The salt flats will] continue to change… Nothing on our planet is a permanent feature. And on geologic time scales this is really young, only a few thousand years old. To presume that it naturally would be there for another thousand years, I think, is absurd. We have no reason to think that.”