Photography and writing by Willy Weston. See more of Willy’s photography on Instagram @willysf
The annual Bonneville Speed Week attracts gearheads from around the world to a dried up lake bed, covered with a crust of salt, in attempt to break world land speed records. Drivers have been bringing out vehicles to the salt for official speed records since the 1930s, but Speed Week only started to get popular after World War 2. With the end of the war, all of the mechanics, engineers, and pilots from the nearby air force base were looking for an outlet in speed and engineering. With the surplus of materials and knowledge from building planes at Wendover, the Salt Flats made for a convenient proving grounds to see how fast one could go on wheels.
This thirst has continued on to present day, where we celebrate the 70th annual Bonneville Speed Week with the same vehicles that started the craze and and largely popularized the breaking of land speed records in the 1940s and 1950s. It is these same vehicles, in the same setting, that makes Speed Week such a special event when compared to other motorsport events. Seeing drivers and mechanics push the limits of the now antiquated technology, in a backdrop similar to the original event, is what has inflicted me with “Salt Fever.”
Although there have been minor changes over the years, period-correct hot rods are still littered everywhere on the salt. Attendees travel from all over the world, in their chopped 1930s Ford coupes and lowered 1950s family sedans, to spectate and crew with the same friends they met on their first journey to the salt decades ago. These spectators have been infected with the same Salt Fever that I was infected with when I first attended in 2016. Driving along the access road, known as “the bend,” you wake up to the sound of flathead V8s racing by at full throttle, setting the tone for a day full of speed and salt.
Beyond the event tradition and vintage hotrods, teams from around the world bring their modified cars, bikes, and other wheeled vehicles built from complete scratch to set records with some of the biggest names to ever run on the salt, like Mickey Thompson, Ab Jenkins, Donald Campbell, and Burt Monroe. Teams show up in rows of semi trucks and rented U-Hauls, with everything from twin-engine streamliners to hand-built show quality motorcycles. As these teams push the bounds of their vehicles’ mechanical ability, records are often broken, and a shared celebration is had among the team, spectators, and officials.
This is the one automotive event that I would solely attend out of all others. The wild variety of people and vehicles have yet to fall short of expectations for the few years that I have attended. Beyond the cars and bikes, are the people; few events have as welcoming and friendly attendees as those that make the trek out to the salt. Showing up year after year, in a black sheep of a vehicle (a crusty 70s BMW), I have always felt welcomed, whether it be at the bend in the road, driving through the pits, or parking at the start line.
If you’re on the fence to attend this coming year, just go. It’s one of those events that are hard to explain, even with all of the media in the world. You don’t even need a car to attend; book a flight to Salt Lake City, grab a rental car, run to the store and grab a cheap sleeping bag, tent, a gallon of sunscreen, and make the short trip West to Bonneville. It’s an experience worth experiencing.