First time Speed Week racer savors land speed attempt
Salt Flats • Hundreds turn out for 64th annual event.
Published: August 15, 2012 10:02AM
Updated: August 11, 2012 08:44PM

Bonneville Salt Flats • When Denver car buff George Michel celebrated his 65th birthday in September, he and his wife, Roma Lea, offered a toast in honor of good health and lives well-spent.

Then began to talk about what was left to do on their bucket list.

She wanted to play football and has started a women’s flag football team in Denver.

He hoped to join the 200-mph club in one of his beloved Corvettes. That goal brought he and partner Michael Bogan to the Bonneville Salt Flats for the 64th annual Speed Week.

So as land speed trials opened on a cooler-than-normal Saturday, Michel was getting his 2000 Corvette ready for a technical inspection, a rookie driving test and then two other driving tests where he could get licensed to go over 200 mph by the safety-conscious Southern California Timing Association, which organizes this annual event.

He and Bogan hope to challenge the Class B GT record of 239.6 mph before the week is over.

“The only time you leave early is if you break something — a record or a car,” he laughed, saying he had reservations at a nearby Wendover motel until Friday.

Michel has loved Corvettes his entire life. He has owned 26 different Corvettes — including five right now — is a member of the National Corvette Racing Society and used to run his cars in road races.

In 2006, he was traveling and came to the Salt Flats. It was there that the dream of going over 200 mph and racing a car on the famous surface took hold.

Michel noticed another thing.

“The neat thing about this is all the participants are willing to share information, even in the same class,” he said. “This is the largest amateur car event there is. I think there are 556 participants this year.”

Others were catching salt fever, as well.

Chris Aseltine, of Torrance, Calif., was visiting as a spectator. But he owns a 1927 Model T that supposedly ran on Bonneville right after World War II. He is thinking about getting it into shape for a run in the next few years.

“I love this,” said Steve Baumgarten, of Bakersfield, Calif., who was attending Speed Week for the first time. “There are so many different cars and so many things you don’t see anywhere else.”

Spectators and participants would do well to bring a book to help them identify the flags of nations and states seen flying from colorful setups on the Salt Flats. This is truly an international event, with participants and race fans coming from all over the world to enjoy it.

You never know what you might see. One guy in an ancient roadster was driving around with a stuffed bear in the passenger seat. A car with a California license plate reading Speedwk drove around the pits. Events such as a “Racers for Christ” 6:30 a.m. religious service on the salt or a Sausage Sunday event in Wendover spice up the fun.

Race crews sell or trade T-shirts. Many fly flags high above the tents and shelters constructed on the salt flats to provide reprieve from the heat. Fans ride from outfit to outfit on dozens of strange vehicles.

The event got off to a rough start when a summer monsoon rainstorm hit about 4 p.m. Friday. Media liaison JoAnn Carlson said the rain forced closure of one of the four courses set up to handle a huge number of land speed enthusiasts and made camping in the area just of Interstate 80 wet and muddy.

Speed Week continues through Friday, with the salt opening at 7 a.m. for set up and closing at 8 p.m. Spectators are welcome. The fee is $15 per person.

wharton@sltrib.com

Twitter @tribtomwharton

How to break a land speed record

A record requires that the race vehicle pass over the same relative or physical miles two times, and the average speed of the two passes exceed the current record. The first segment of a record attempt is a regular qualifying run during the day. If the speed achieved exceeds the existing record, the vehicle is then qualified to make a second attempt starting at 7 a.m. the next morning. The second segment will be run over the same timed mile or miles in the same direction, depending on course conditions. There is no prize money involved. Racers compete for a spot in the record books and a trophy.