Flat out: End of the road for Utah's speed plains

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Since Bluebird drove into history, America's salt flats have been the arena of choice for the fastest folk on wheels. But as Guy Adams finds, mineral riches may put the brakes on

You hear them before you see them, the cars that Larry Volk and his fellow speed freaks race over the Bonneville Salt Flats in western Utah. After a while, they become dots on the horizon; then, pretty soon, noisy blurs that cover a mile of track in as little as ten seconds.

This famous patch of desert, wide, perfectly flat, and covered by a smooth layer of white salt, has been part of motor racing history since the 1930s, when Sir Malcolm Campbell appeared on the scene, with his leather hat, Biggles goggles and famous car Blue Bird. On his first visit here, he became the first man to drive a vehicle at more than 300mph.

Today, the Bonneville Salt Flats remain home to world-famous annual "hot-rodding" championships. Volk visits three times a year to race his pride and joy, a 1929 Ford roadster fitted with a 1200 horsepower Chevrolet engine. "It's hard work," he says. "Some days, holding the steering wheel is like going to a hula dance; but what a thrill!"

Thrills can be fleeting, though. And in recent years, Larry Volk and his peers have been faced with a nagging problem: though huge, vibrant crowds still travel from across the world to watch them race, there are growing fears for the future of these octane-fuelled high-speed sporting events.

To see why, you only have to walk across the flats, which have provided a unique setting for such films as Independence Day, Pirates of the Caribbean and Tree of Life, along with countless TV and print adverts. Every now and then, beneath the photogenic white surface, a patch of dirty brown will appear.

This is mud. And its appearance illustrates a sad fact: in recent years, the smooth, fast salt cover which is so essential to the business of setting land speed records has begun to disappear. "We started noticing the deterioration in the 1960s," says Volk, who first came to the flats, about two hours west of Salt Lake City, in 1958.

"Back in the day, the salt used to be two feet thick. Over the years, we noticed it starting to get thinner and buckling. In places now, it's only around half an inch thick."

That's thick enough to race on, but only just. Sometimes, in recent summers when the racing season comes around, the hot-rodding community has struggled to find the necessary seven-mile stretch of unblemished salt on which to build their temporary track, known as the Bonneville Speedway. The flats, originally 90,000 acres, are now a mere 30,000.

The blame, the racers say, lies with potash. Or more specifically, a potash mine run by a company called  Intrepid Potash-Wendover, LLC, which sits a few miles south of their sporting playground, on the far side of Interstate 80 which connects Utah with Nevada. The mine uses a series of canals and pipelines to collect salt brine off the flats in the rainy winter season. Then, when summer comes around and the water evaporates, they process the remaining minerals to remove the potash, which is mostly used in fertilisers.

Over the years, the process has taken a heavy toll on the unique geological formation of the salt flats. Since 1963, when the mine was started, Bonneville has lost more than 55 million tonnes of salt, and about a million tonnes are still being extracted each year. As a result, geologists estimate that 18 inches of salt crust have completely vanished.

"When you remove brine from the flats in winter, you are draining off water with dissolved salt and minerals that would naturally be used for replenishment," explains Kenneth Kipp of the US Geological Survey, who has studied the disappearing salt. "That, naturally, affects the whole basin. The average decrease in the thickness of the salt over the entire area is in the order of 1 per cent per year. Over time, that sort of loss can of course add up."

 Intrepid produces about 100,000 tonnes of potash a year, worth about $50m (£31m). In order to protect that income, it has in recent winters begun voluntarily pumping thousands of gallons of leftover brine back on to the speedway section of the flats.

Larry and his fellow hot-rodders are convinced that this replenishment operation works, and will over time reverse the decline of the flats and protect a unique environment which, eighty years after Malcolm Campbell, remains essential to the business of setting land speed records.

There is, however, one big problem: it is currently being done by Intrepid on a purely voluntary basis. Since mines and mining companies can often change hands, the racing community says it needs to be mandatory. They have formed a lobby group, the Save Our Salt Coalition, which is seeking a change in the law that will require all future operators to pump back the processed salt they have removed.

On paper, it's common sense. But in practice, things have proved complex. Like much of the rural West, the Bonneville Salt Flats are run by the US government's Bureau of Land Management (BLM). And the wheels of officialdom turn painfully slowly. "We told the Bureau about this problem 20 years ago," says Volk. "Since then, all they've said is that they're 'working on it'."

There have been studies, and committee meetings, and endless delays because of staff changes and budget cuts. "Only when we bring in lawyers and threaten legal action do they ever seem to make any kind of progress."

Last summer, Larry Volk and his peers were told to expect a final decision from the BLM on their compulsory pumping plan. But the summer came and went, and no decision was announced. The BLM's current position is anyone's guess. It didn't respond to multiple inquiries about the flats this week.

Meanwhile, the salt keeps getting thinner. "I love everything about this place," says Larry. "The cars, and the people, the thrill of watching someone setting a land speed record. My sons and my daughter have all raced here, and I hope my grandchildren will too. But you can't do that without a good layer of salt."

Suggested Topics
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
The Pipes and Drums of The Scottish Regiments perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park on July 23, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Commonwealth GamesThe actor encouraged the one billion viewers of the event to donate to the children's charity
Sport
Karen Dunbar performs
Entertainers showcase local wit, talent and irrepressible spirit
Sport
Members of the Scotland deleagtion walk past during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
News
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game