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
News
people Emma Watson addresses celebrity nude photo leak
News
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
News
Boris Johnson may be manoeuvring to succeed David Cameron
i100
News
His band Survivor was due to resume touring this month
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
News
In this photo illustration a school student eats a hamburger as part of his lunch which was brought from a fast food shop near his school, on October 5, 2005 in London, England. The British government has announced plans to remove junk food from school lunches. From September 2006, food that is high in fat, sugar or salt will be banned from meals and removed from vending machines in schools across England. The move comes in response to a campaign by celebrity TV chef Jamie Oliver to improve school meals.
science
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
Life and Style
fashionPart of 'best-selling' Demeter scent range
News
i100
Sport
Tom Cleverley
footballLoan move comes 17 hours after close of transfer window
Sport
Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Mario Balotelli
footballRadamel Falcao and Diego Costa head record £835m influx
Life and Style
fashionAngelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
News
i100
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

Art & Design Teacher

£120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Group: We are looking for an outstandi...

Assistant Management Accountant -S/West London - £30k - £35k

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: We are working with an exciting orga...

Deputy Education Manager

Negotiable: Randstad Education Sheffield: Deputy Education Manager required, S...

Bookkeeper -South West London - £25k - £30k

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: We are working with an exciting orga...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering