Last September, two hooligans drove their custom-built Ford Crown Victoria onto the racecourse at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah and proceeded to do donuts, gouging deep ruts into the salt-crust surface. Naturally, they shared their little adventure on social media. As reckless as their antics were, these two served as useful idiots by getting people talking about the problems that could end racing at the Salt Flats.
Each year, the land speed racing community gathers at Bonneville International Raceway for three major speed trial events in August–October, with Speed Week in August being the largest. The Crown Vic clowns caused surface damage that could potentially endanger racers who might drive over it.
“Going over something like that could make the car unstable, cause tire failure or wheel damage, and the vehicle could lose control,” explains “LandSpeed” Louise Noeth, public information officer for the Save the Salt Coalition. The non-profit organization was founded in 1989 to protect the Bonneville Salt Flats and to promote its history and motorsports legacy.
This particular vandalism episode was especially egregious, Noeth says, because the background in the photos the perps posted was likely taken near the 5-mile mark, which is the finish line at the end of the long course for 175+ mph cars.
Noeth, who is also a photographer and journalist, has covered salt flat racing for decades and formerly campaigned a 250-mph jet dragster. (The late Gray Baskerville of Hot Rod magazine gave her the nickname “LandSpeed” Louise.) She says the area, which is administered by the Bureau of Land Management, does not deploy effective deterrents to such activity. As a result, people drive onto the Salt Flats in their 4x4s, tear up the surface and sometimes get stuck in the sticky mud that lies beneath.
“Over July 4 weekend, the local towing company had to pull six vehicles off the salt,” she says.
Dragging B.F. Goodrich through the mud
We might not have known about the “Crown Vic Incident” had its operators not garnered additional coverage in an unfortunate way. Without vetting the source, the agency working for B.F. Goodrich reposted the shenanigans on the tire maker’s website and Facebook page, putting the names right there for all to see: Cameron Ramage and Skyler Pittman.
The land speed racing community and other enthusiasts quickly brought the hammer down on BFG, because it appeared the company was going for cheap-shot publicity, since the salt-ripping Ford was wearing 33-inch B.F. Goodrich tires. That was not the case, however. When the adults at BFG became aware of the postings, they removed them and apologized on the company’s social media platforms. BFG, which is a major supporter of Bonneville activities, also contacted Save the Salt to explain the situation and donated $5000 to the organization.
Representatives from Save the Salt asked the Bureau of Land Management to investigate further. Ramage and Pittman, it seems, had pulled similar stunts before, including times when driving on the Salt Flats is prohibited and the crust is especially vulnerable to damage. Of course, they posted photographic evidence of their misdeeds then, too.
Salt of an older Earth
Driving on Rt. 80 near Wendover, Utah, you’ll pass the Bonneville Salt Flats, an area that looks like a frozen lake bed covered with snow. In winter, a shallow layer of standing water floods the surface of the Salt Flats. In spring and summer, the water evaporates while wind smooths the surface into a vast, nearly perfect flat salt-crust plain.
That surface, which stretches for miles, attracted the hot-rodding community decades ago. The ability to drive in a straight line at very high speed for many miles made the area ideal for setting speed records. Reckless stunts like the “Crown Vic Incident” have become more damaging to the salt crust due to surface depletion, which many blame on the mineral mining that’s been ongoing since the 1960s.
Mining for answers
Mining at the Bonneville Salt Flats does not involve digging. Rather, the briny water that covers the area for part of the year is sucked up and pumped into giant evaporation ponds on the other side of Rt. 80, across from the race course. Minerals including potash, magnesium, and lithium are precipitated out, and the waste product left behind is salt.
“They keep it on the other side of Rt. 80 and use earth movers to spread it around,” Noeth says. “In the 1990s, a United States Geological Survey showed that the mining was contributing to the degradation of the racing area.”
At that time, Save the Salt was instrumental in getting the Salt Restoration Program started. The mining operation pumped back 1.5 million tons each year for five years.
“At the end of the test in 2001, it was one of the best salt surfaces we’d had in 20 years,” Noeth says. “It was the year that Don Vesco set the world land speed record for wheel-driven vehicles at 458.440 mph, taking it away from Donald Campbell, who’d held it since the 1960s.”
In 2003, Reilly Chemical, Inc. sold its mining operation to Intrepid, and Noeth says the practice of returning salt to the race area dropped dramatically.
“They’ve not put much back for the past 15 years,” she says. “This year it was just 300,000 tons, one of the smallest returns since 2001. The salt thickness used to be measured in feet, and now in some places it’s at an inch.”
The usable salt crust area is also shrinking. Noeth says that what had once been a 13-mile racing length has shrunk to less than 8 miles.
“That’s OK for up to 200 mph, but getting a world record requires turning around and going over the same course within 60 minutes. Getting the national record, you can make two runs over two days for the average.”
The Southern California Timing Association, which governs Speed Week, cancelled the event in 2014 and ’15 due to the wet, muddy conditions, blamed on salt erosion. On its Facebook page on July 21, the organization reported favorable conditions for this year’s event.
Who’ll fix the Flats?
Noeth says that language in the federal mineral leases essentially requires the mining operation to extract as much mineral as possible, as expediently as possible.
“Under direction of the BLM [Bureau of Land Management], they don’t have to repair anything until they’re finished extracting the minerals and give up the leases,” she says. “And even then, it just needs to look good, not necessarily be functional for the racers.”
Somewhat ironically, the BLM in 1985 designated the Bonneville Salt Flats as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern. According to the Bureau’s own website, “ACEC designations highlight areas where special management attention is needed to protect important historical, cultural, and scenic values, or fish and wildlife or other natural resources.”
Noeth says she doesn’t see that kind of attention being paid to the Bonneville Salt Flats. And, critically, the money collected by BLM in fees from racers does not go to restoring the race area.
“Bonneville is the only racetrack in the world where the racers have to take care of the track,” she says. “But we don’t want to put the mining out of business. They have the infrastructure in place to return much of the salt from the other side of the highway.”
Noeth says Save the Salt commissioned an engineering study that presented the Bureau of Land Management with three methods for returning salt to the track.
“They can put the salt back into a brine solution and pump it back onto the speedway,” she says. “We know it works.”
As reported in the Salt Lake Tribune in February, that plan calls for 540 million gallons of brine to be pumped onto the Salt Flats over a 10-year period, with a goal of depositing 15 million tons of salt. The work would require a new network of ponds, ditches, pipelines and pumps at a cost of $50 million.
In April, the Utah legislature appropriated $5 million to help restore the historic flats, contingent upon getting an additional $45 million for the project from private sources and the federal government—or “non-state funds.” It’s a start.