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Original Issue


Much of the magic of Bonneville lies in illusions: The light refracts, bending and bouncing off the Flats; sometimes objects seem to float, while at other times they dance eerily on the wind. The mountains are all around, yet not connected to the earth—a thin and wavy ribbon of space perpetually separates them from the horizon. Underfoot (and under wheel), the salt gives off a marvelous crunch to the touch, granulating into what appear to be many-faceted diamonds. Here, annually, the Southern California Timing Association plays host late in September to all manner of wheeled objects—ungainly '32 Ford "hot rods," envelope-bodied streamliners, vehicles with chassis culled from jet-aircraft wing tanks—as they attempt to set straight-line speed records. It is said that all of Bonneville's images remain locked somewhere inside this strange continuum, reappearing from time to time as mirages, and that, on hot autumn mid-days, one might squint off into the distance and see the Conestoga wagons of the Donner party crossing the far eastern edge of the desert. They did just that, on a diagonal run into the winter of 1846, and such is the character of that part of Bonneville that, in a few spots, their wagon tracks can still be seen. Or, over here, flickering along, one might see the long-nosed, 12-cylinder Pierce-Arrow of Ab Jenkins, Ab wearing his cap turned backward, busting along at 120 or so miles an hour—a 1932 reality brought back from its time warp. The Salt Flats have seen and retained it all, or so the legend goes—and just imagine what a marvelous playback the world record runs will make on that day when the light and temperature are perfect and the sun's at just the right angle. There'll be Sir Malcolm Campbell and son Donald in their Bluebirds, and John Cobb hitting his 394.20 mph, and old Captain George E.T. Eyston in his seven-ton eight-wheeler. And Mickey Thompson hitting 406.60 one way, followed by the irrepressible Craig Breedlove, who crashed at 539.89. Think of the mirage: Art Arfons in his jet-powered Green Monster, setting his world land-speed trick-record of 610 in 1966 when the Monster cartwheeled for a measured 560 feet and then slid for another mile after that. The machinery rolls on, coming into focus for a fleeting moment, then flashing away, trailing heat waves and frightening sound. As Breedlove said on emerging from his Spirit of America: "It's a whole lot scarier to watch one of these cars on the Flats than it is to drive one." Well, good thing that such days of glory are preserved, if only on an ethereal plane, because the racing days of the Great Salt Desert are numbered. The drainage ditches of potash-mining operations now crisscross the Flats like the canals on Mars, and the character of the salt is changing—its hard-packed diamonds growing soft and losing luster as ground water seeps into the spaces voided by mining. But while the racing may soon end, the memories will remain, preserved in salt, as it were, to perpetuate the fame of Bonneville as a place of wonderful mystery.