Not even 30 years after Karl Benz built what is said to be the first automobile, Teddy Tetzlaff climbed into a Blitzen Benz racecar and blasted across the snow-white surface of the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, clocking in at 142.8 mph and setting an unofficial land-speed record.
This 1914 effort certainly generated publicity for Tetzlaff, a California-born racer, and the German automaker, Benz & Cie, that built his car, but the locale was most likely a mere footnote at the time.
The automotive legacy of the salt flats wasn’t cemented until 1935, when Malcolm Campbell rode his Blue Bird past 300 mph and into the record books: Bonneville was extremely well-suited to high-speed driving.
After Campbell’s feat, speed merchants from all over the globe came to realize that Bonneville was an excellent venue for those who want to drive fast. Very fast. The hard halite surface provided a smooth but grippy 13-mile straightaway for pursuing the ultimate prize in motorsports, the land speed record. Soon, attempts to drive faster than anyone had ever driven became a hallmark of the ancient lake bed. After 300 mph, more barriers fell: 400, 500, then 600 mph.
The otherworldly white surface began forming at the end of the last ice age when Lake Bonneville receded. The dry lake bed is composed of minerals — including gypsum, potassium chloride (potash) and an abundance of sodium chloride (table salt). The minerals are deposited on the surface when brine from an aquifer below rises in winter before drying in the spring and summer. As the liquid evaporates, winds kiss the lake bed, leaving a smooth layer composed largely of salt. The crust has been growing thicker in this manner for thousands of years.
But the past 50 years have distressed the course. Tom Burkland, board vice president of the Save the Salt Coalition, composed largely of racing enthusiasts, says the salt crust was more than 4 feet thick when he first raced at Bonneville in the 1960s. Now, in many places it is less than 1 inch thick and fragile.
And while the usable racecourse was once 13 miles long, it has now shrunk to about 7 miles. At this length, the course is too short for the fastest racecars and record attempts. (The current record is over 760 mph, set in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada.)
The world was reminded of the salt’s vulnerability in 2018 when two Utah residents tore it up doing doughnuts in a modified Ford Crown Victoria. Circling at high speed, they ripped up the now-thin surface, creating deep ruts. They did a lot of damage but rekindled national interest in restoration efforts that have long been championed by Save the Salt and the Specialty Equipment Market Association, a trade group representing manufacturers of equipment used by racers.
The Bonneville racing community believes that potash mining is most responsible for the salt flats’ degradation. Potash is a component of the brine that bubbles up in the spring and thickens the salt layer. But since the federal Bureau of Land Management first issued mining leases in 1963, mining companies have been pumping the brine into facilities across Interstate 80, south of the salt flats.
There, potash is precipitated out of the brine. The common salt is left behind and stored on the mining company’s property. Bonneville proponents have long argued that the salt should be returned to the racecourse once the potash has been extracted.
Today, surface mining of the brine has largely ceased, but it is still being pumped out of wells on the mining company property by Intrepid Potash, current holder of the mining lease. That lowers the aquifer below the salt flats and reduces the amount of brine that rises to the surface, so natural restoration is minimal.
The racers have regularly complained to the mining companies over the years, but according to Louise Ann Noeth, an author of Bonneville motorsports books and public relations representative for Save the Salt, they were complaining to the wrong entity. The Bureau of Land Management is at fault, Noeth said: “The lease basically says the mining companies can wreak havoc and only have to repair it when mining activity has concluded. The language in the lease was meant for other kinds of mines where damage can’t be repaired until mining has ceased.”
Brenda Bowen, director of the Global Change and Sustainability Center at the University of Utah, has studied the salt flats. “Everything that happens on and around the salt crust has some kind of impact on this ephemeral landscape,” Bowen said. However, it is difficult to pin the degradation on any single activity, she added: “A century of extraction has certainly changed the landscape, but so has the racing.”
At times, mining companies have been mindful of the need to preserve this natural treasure and have mixed some of the waste salt with water and pumped it back onto the salt flats.
In recent years, Intrepid Potash has been returning 0.6 million tons or less of salt brine to Bonneville’s surface. According to a document published by Save the Salt, Intrepid’s effort has helped stabilize the salt but is not sufficient to expand it.
“To Intrepid’s credit, they’re sending salt to Bonneville that wasn’t transferred from the north end,” said Stuart Gosswein, director of government affairs for the Specialty Equipment Market Association.
That’s all well and good, but the racers want the salt replenishment to be abundant and mandatory, and they let government officials know in an email campaign that sent more than 1,000 missives to Utah state legislators. That prompted the Legislature to create a Bonneville restoration project.
The Legislature appropriated $5 million, with a catch. The funds are contingent on securing commitments from other sources. An additional $45 million will be needed to complete the project, which will require new infrastructure. Save the Salt expects some of the funding will be provided through contributions from the motorsports community but realizes that Congress and the Bureau of Land Management will have to provide the bulk of it.
Gosswein is hopeful. When asked if an appropriation from Congress was forthcoming, he said, “We’re optimistic that there will be money set aside for the fiscal year, and that the BLM will allocate funds for the restoration.”
The $50 million in state and federal money would fund a 10-year brine-pumping program that would return 1.5 million tons of brine or more each year with the goal of restoring the original 13-mile racecourse and thickening the salt crust substantially.
Noeth, who is known as Land Speed Louise to the racers and her readers, is pleased but wants to see work begin.
“I want tomorrow’s children to have the same gee-whiz exposure to land speed racing that we have enjoyed,” she said.