A race against time on the Bonneville Salt Flats

Are the best days of the Bonneville Salt Flats behind us?

Louise Ann Noeth has been fascinated with automobiles since she was 10 years old. She had driven nearly every notable muscle car by age 18, and was thoroughly enjoying herself with piston engines until she discovered jet engines in the mid-1970s. Soon after, she was invited to race a jet dragster across the country. 

Eventually, Noeth decided to make racing a full-time commitment. She headed to Southern California, where she started writing and earned the nickname “Landspeed Louise,” (which she still uses every time she answers the phone — “Hello, it’s Landspeed Louise!”).

“Landspeed” Louise Ann Noeth (right), author of “The History of the Bonneville Salt Flats,” with Les Shockley | Provided by Louise Ann Noeth

It was during her job as a stringer for Sports Illustrated in 1998 that Louise traveled frequently to the Bonneville Salt Flats International Speedway to cover land speed racing.

To Noeth, the Bonneville Salt Flats are a dream come true. The terrain is ideal for racing: The moisture in the surface prevents tires from overheating at high speeds; plus, it’s barren and flat, allowing cars to drive straight without obstacles for miles on end and for a string of world records to be set. 

The Bonneville World Finals, which begin September 28, is one of three annual racing events on the flats. | Provided by Louise Ann Noeth

The racing history of the Bonneville Salt Flats

By the time Noeth arrived at the Salt Flats, generations of drivers had made memories and history on the seemingly endless veneer of white salt, earning the flats the nickname “Speed Capital of the World.” Utah native Ab Jenkins had set records in the 1930s in a car christened the “Mormon Meteor III,” which had a bizarrely long snout designed to fit an aircraft engine and a tiny cockpit (he also set a 68 mph record on the flats driving a tractor and once drove the same 10-mile track for 24 hours, emerging from the car clean-shaven, having used a razor while driving the last loop at 125 mph without a windshield). 

By 1949, the Salt Flats had become the premier place for racers to see if their vehicles were truly the fastest in the world. The 300, 400, 500 and eventually 600 mph records were all set and broken there. In 1970, Gary Gabelich — a handsome Californian who had worked as an Apollo test astronaut — drove the Blue Flame, a rocket-powered car that looked like an outsized missile, setting a world land speed record of 622 mph. 

The Salt Laydown Project is now a required element of Intrepid Potash’s mining operation plan. | Alvis Upitis/Getty Images

Noeth came along shortly after that. In 2001, she was part of “Team Vesco’’ when the Turbinator, a glittering blue 31-foot fuselage adorned with an eagle and American flag, set a record for the world’s fastest wheel-driven car. The record, 458 mph, stood until 2018. The driver, Don Vesco, crossed the finish line in his matching blue racing jacket with an American flag emblem covering his chest, his wavy white hair framing his aviator glasses.

“It’s a family of sorts,” Noeth says. “A family of speed.”

With a wide smile and blond ringlets, Louise continues, “That’s my favorite part about it. These are regular people. They aren’t fancy, wealthy or anything. They have an idea and they execute it.”

Friends were made. Records were set and reset. But all that while, the salt was disappearing. 

A land speed racer finds shade during Speed Week in 1974. Temperatures can reach up to 120 degrees on the Bonneville Salt Flats. | Alvis Upitis/Getty Images

Mineral extraction from Utah’s Salt Flats

The Salt Flats began forming thousands of years ago when Lake Bonneville dried up, leaving behind the Great Salt Lake and a vast expanse of seasonal marshes filled with salts and minerals such as potassium chloride (potash), gypsum and sodium chloride (table salt). These salts are suspended in a brine aquifer that rises during wet winter months and subsequently evaporates in warming temperatures, leaving a fresh layer of snow-white crystals every spring and summer.

Originally 96,000 acres in size, the Salt Flats have now withered to about 30,000 acres. At least a third of the loss came from mineral extraction — mainly potash mining. If this rate of shrinking continues, the Salt Flats as we know them may not exist for future generations. 

The extraction of potash — potassium-rich salts that are used as fertilizer — began on the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1917, when World War I suspended importation of the salts that had previously come from Germany. However, production didn’t ramp up until 1963, when the Bureau of Land Management leased 25,000 acres to Bonneville Ltd., a private mining company. By 1979, the Utah Geological and Mineral Survey’s salt drilling measurements indicated that the flats were shrinking. The salt crust became thin and easy to puncture. 

In 1960, the salt on the International Speedway was multiple feet deep. In May 2021, it was a quarter of an inch thick. Recently, severe crashes have occurred due in part to the poor salt quality.

The impact of salt removal on the Bonneville Salt Flats

Today, the largest regional source of dust is the Bonneville basin, which impacts local air quality and speeds up spring snowmelt in the Wasatch Mountains — the main source of water for nearly 2 million people living along the Wasatch Front. Without a salt crust to contain the dirt beneath, more dust is on its way to becoming windblown particles.

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University of Utah geoscientist Brenda Bowen works in collaboration with the flats’ many stakeholders — land managers, the land speed racing community and the general public — to enable data-informed decision-making concerning the flats’ future.

As she explains, potash mining is “actively extracting salt much faster than it naturally accumulates.” Currently, Intrepid Potash extracts more than 5 billion gallons of brine from collection ditches annually, which in turn becomes an economic boon for the region. In 2020, Intrepid’s records show sales of $108 million, and, as of 2016, five companies were extracting various minerals from the Great Salt Lake and Salt Flats, contributing $1 billion to the Utah economy.

But it’s a losing game. As the brine is removed, surrounding groundwater flows in. Research suggests this decreases the salinity of the brine. New salt can’t form. This is what the land speed racing community has been warning about for years.

The future of the Bonneville Salt Flats 

The Salt Laydown Program — a collaboration between the mining company Reilly Industries (which bought the leases from Kaiser) and the Bureau of Land Management — attempted to refresh the salt by pumping brine made from the salt waste byproduct onto the flats during winter months. In the late ’90s, Reilly opted to empty one of their evaporation beds and pumped 1.5 million tons of salt per year onto the flats. During that time, NASA imagery shows the Salt Flats growing.

Following five years of salt laydown, the International Speedway, which had shrunk, expanded in length. This is when Don Vesco’s record-setting speed runs occurred, as his team had been waiting several years for the salt to recover for the attempt.

When Intrepid Potash acquired the mining leases in 2004, it drastically cut back the ongoing program. Once again, aerial imagery shows that the Salt Flats are contracting.

In 2019, the Utah Legislature approved $5 million for Bonneville Salt Flats Restoration. Additionally, the BLM is currently funding research and collaborating on the future of the Salt Laydown Program while also exploring other options, such as buying the mining leases north of the highway from Intrepid to end brine collection near the publicly accessible parts of the Salt Flats and the International Speedway.

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But over the decades, mines have extracted tens of millions of tons of salt, so even when replacing 1.5 million tons of salt a year, it would take many years of laydown with no additional mining to restore the Salt Flats. That is, if the experiment works. Currently, there is no no data showing that salt laydown will actually work.

Some fear the best days of Bonneville are behind us.

“Bonneville is in trouble,” Noeth says. “I predict that land speed racing at the Bonneville Salt Flats will be done in five years. People do not think the Bonneville Salt Flats could disappear. But if you want to see them, you better go fast!” 

This story appears in the September issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.

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