Saluting the women who broke the gender barrier at Bonneville Salt Flats
Author ‘LandSpeed’ Louise Noeth is bringing her new book about women drivers at the Bonneville Salt Flats directly to the salt for its unveiling
At 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 31, in the middle of the weeklong American Motorcycle Association’s Speed Trials, a woman appropriately nicknamed “LandSpeed” Louise Noeth will open the trunk of her car and, in the bright glare of the world’s fastest race track, unveil her new book that throws a long overdue spotlight on a little-publicized side of land speed racing.
“LandSpeed” Louise’s book, “Bonneville’s Women of Land Speed Racing,” recognizes the women who have raced across the salt at Bonneville, sanctioned or otherwise, over the past 100 years.
It’s not a long list — she’d found a total of 307 names by the time the book went to press this spring — but it’s a formidable one, because it traces the history of the never-say-die women who lobbied, elbowed and angled past the stereotypes and discriminations that blocked their path for a good part of that 100 years.
Consider, for example, that it wasn’t until 1972 that Joy Houston became the first woman to officially set a land speed record at the Southern California Timing Association’s Speed Week when she rode her 350cc stock-frame Yamaha motorcycle 109.154 mph; or that it wasn’t until 1978 that the first woman burst her way into the Bonneville 200 MPH Club when Marcia Holley recorded a two-way average of 229 mph on Don Vesco’s motorcycle streamliner.
Before that, in the 1960s, the pioneering motor car racer Paula Murphy, competing in non-Speed Week events, set numerous United States Auto Club endurance world records, once averaging 103 mph with partner Barb Neiland, taking turns driving a six-cylinder Studebaker 1,000 miles on a 10-mile circle course.
These were the exceptions that have gradually become the rule. Today, it’s no longer a novelty to see a female behind the wheel at Bonneville. The gender barrier has been broken. And rightfully so. As “LandSpeed” notes in her book’s introduction, “Never has any race car, truck, or motorcycle operated differently due to the operator’s gender.”
Her book is actually an outgrowth of a previous book of hers released a year ago, titled “Bonneville Salt Flats,” that commemorates a century of racing on Utah’s famed Salt Flats, where tires can get more purchase than just about anywhere else on Earth.
Intrigued by a chapter “LandSpeed” Louise included about women drivers, the book’s publisher, Arcadia Publishing, asked her if she’d consider writing a separate book exclusively about women.
“I told them yes,” says Louise, a photojournalist who has been coming to Speed Week and other Salt Flat events for decades. “But it had to be in color, because there’s lipstick and nail polish involved.”
She put the book together in just three months at the start of this year, from early January to March, managing to collect mostly color photographs of her subjects. Each photo is accompanied by a caption, although don’t call them captions around Louise.
“They are not, in any way, captions,” she says. “They’re masquerading as captions, but they’re really mini-stories introducing you to these women. I approached it as the only time, in many cases, they would be seen.
“This was a passion thing, a labor of love. A way to draw attention to the women that put the helmet on, with the skin in the game to get the thing to the starting line, and that had never, ever, been heralded in any appreciable way.”
She has invited every woman in the book to join her for two book signings she has planned on the Salt Flats. There’s the inaugural signing scheduled for Aug. 31, to be followed by another on Saturday, Sept. 11, when the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association holds its annual World of Speed event.
Joy Houston, the woman who broke the land speed record barrier on her motorcycle in 1972, is one of the women who have committed to attend both events on the salt. “She’s Joy Houston Schultz now, and she’s 80,” says “LandSpeed,” “and she wouldn’t miss it.”
One woman who won’t be there is Paula Murphy, the legendary racer whose photo is on the cover. She’d love to be there, explains “LandSpeed,” “but there’s the pandemic, and she’s 95.” So on her way to Bonneville, “LandSpeed” Louise made a detour to Paula’s home in Palmdale, California, and got her to sign every single book she’s taking to the salt.
The plan is to sell the books and the autographs, “until we run out of books or buyers.
“It has been a blessing and a joy to do this,” says “LandSpeed” Louise, who closes her book’s Introduction with this line: “Go now, turn page upon page, and meet fabulous females who luxuriate in the sodium spa of speed.”
Like she said, it’s colorful.
(Both of “LandSpeed” Louise’s books are available at landspeedproductions.biz. In addition, there will be a book signing at Weller Books at Trolley Square on Sunday, Sept. 5, from 12:30 p.m. to 3 p.m.)