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Living history: A century ago, cars started racing at Bonneville Salt Flats

Published August 16, 2014 4:30 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Last week, the Southern California Timing Association launched its 65th annual Speed Week on Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats. Some 500 drivers from around the world were expected on the glittery white expanse with droves of avid spectators imbued with "salt fever."

But before Speed Week could begin, heavy rainstorms flooded the flats. The show was canceled. Racers and crews packed up and left town. Two Californians had to pull the plug on their attempts to set a Guinness world record. And border town businesses took an economic bath.

Despite the 3 inches of standing water, one milestone remained: Bonneville's 100 years of speed racing on salt.

Conceived by Salt Lake Tribune automotive editor Bill Rishel, Bonneville became a reality in August 1914, when racing idol Teddy Tetzlaff went full throttle to set a land speed record on brine near the old Salduro rail station.

"Rishel believed this race course [the predecessor to Bonneville] would rival the Indianapolis Speedway," wrote automotive enthusiast Robert Rampton. "Built on a surface with unlimited potential for speed, the venue would make Utah the center of the speed world to which automobile companies would flock to test machines and set records."

But to get paying spectators to travel the 115 miles from Salt Lake City to the speedway, Rishel spent years promoting construction of a new highway, now Interstate 80, that followed the Western Pacific Railroad grade. Promising endorsements by the American Automobile Association, he persuaded national racing promoter Ernie Moross — who had been successfully headlining car shows in Salt Lake City and Ogden — to join the effort in 1914.

In July, Western Pacific railed Moross's crew and equipment to Salduro. While racers "Terrible" Teddy Tetzlaff, Billy "Coal Oil" Carlson, and Wilbur D'Alene and his Marmon Wasp traversed the salt pan and "ambushed" passing trains to the delight of their passengers, Salt Lake civil engineer, Frank Jacobs, surveyed the flats to create an official course.

The challenges were many. "Utah's high altitude and thin atmosphere caused carburetor problems, especially vexing among the temperamental Maxwells," Rampton wrote. "But surprisingly, the moist salt clinging to the tires caused no heat or chaffing to the expensive casings."

With the official race set for Aug. 12, The Salt Lake Telegram reported that a Western Pacific excursion train, with "two Pullmans, two coaches and a buffet car," transported 200 paying spectators at $25 each. Included in the group were Utah Gov. William Spry and Salt Lake City Mayor Samuel Park.

Before arriving, Rishel grudgingly accepted the AAA's decision to sanction only a half-mile record attempt. "Mirages caused by the shimmering surface heat prevented the timers from seeing one another at a mile distance," Rampton explained.

At 2 p.m., the affable Moross greeted the gallery and announced the various cars and drivers through his pigskin megaphone.

Tensions ran high, but never more so than during the finale, when Tetzlaff signaled the tow car to take him, mechanic Dominic Basso, and the Blitzen Benz onto the salt.

The Benz began rough — before it and the crowd roared.

As Tetzlaff gained speed and changed gears, Basso worked the hand pumps to keep the oil and gas tanks pressurized.

Suddenly, the Benz' front end shuddered. "For a split second," Rampton wrote, "Tetzlaff considered aborting. Instead, crouching as low as he could safely go, he opened the throttle as far as it would go."

Traveling at 142.85 mph, the Benz hurtled past the first flagman and then the second, covering a mile in 25.2 seconds."

"Besting the standing record by 1/5 of a second, it seemed Tetzlaff was the new Speed King of the World," Rampton wrote.

But sanctioned only for a half a mile, officially, he wasn't.

Historian Eileen Hallet Stone is the author of Hidden History of Utah, a compilation of her Living History columns in The Salt Lake Tribune. She may be reached at ehswriter@aol.com. Special thanks to Robert L. Rampton for his input and expertise.