Speed Week is under way at the Salt Flats, but recent rains may keep records from being set

Photo courtesy of Tom Wharton | The Taniwha was shipped from New Zealand to run on the Salt Flats during Speed Week. The crew is hoping to hit 400 MPH. It took five weeks to ship.

Wendover • Veteran land speed racer George Poteet has seen all sorts of conditions in years of chasing records on the famous Bonneville Salt Flats course.

So folks who brave the elements tend to listen when the 70-year-old driver talks.

“In the good years, you don’t have to drive that much,” said Poteet, who took the Speed Demon to a 332 mile per hour speed Tuesday as the delayed Speed Week finally opened. “I’m having to drive this year.”

Speed Week was supposed to begin Saturday but a rainstorm that hit early last week cancelled the first three days of racing and had event organizers from the Southern California Timing Association scrambling to lay a safe course for the 71st annual event.

“The course is very wet,” said SCTA media liaison JoAnn Carlson. “When we had rain Thursday night, it delayed the meet three days. We’ve been moving courses. The salt is not as good as last year.”

Organizers were forced to eliminate one course this year. That resulted in two courses that were basically for rookies and one four-mile course that drivers of elite cars such as Poteet and Dave Spangler of Turbinator II use in record attempts.

“The course is rough,” said Poteet. “I had to drive the car pretty hard.”

Rick Vesco of Rockville, which sits in the shadow of Zion National Park, built Turbinator II and it became the first wheel-driven vehicle to exceed 500 miles per hour last year.

The Utah-based Vesco crew had Spangler, from California, ready to roll on the salt as the first vehicle out Tuesday, but a delay on the course caused Turbinator II to stall.

Then, when the crew tried to trailer the vehicle to take it back to the pits for work, the winch on the trailer broke, causing a frustrating morning for what is probably the fastest vehicle in the meet.

“We have a failsafe that shuts the engine off,” said Vesco, whose late father Johnny raced in the first Speed Week in 1949. “So we have to restart it again.”

He called the course “very slippery” and like many expressed concern about conditions on the Salt Flats.

Photo courtesy of Tom Wharton | James Wantanabe of Tokyo hopes to go 200 MPH at Speed Week.

Vesco said the goal is still for Turbinator II to record Speed Week’s fastest time again this year. With a shorter course and less time, he is hoping to hit about 425 MPH before the meet ends Saturday at noon.

As is always the case, there are numerous interesting stories at Speed Week. Carlson said there were 446 pre-registered vehicles that includes teams from 12 countries.

One of those teams was Cook Racing, which shipped its bright orange G/BFS vehicle from New Zealand to Los Angeles by boat in a 40-foot container, a process that took five weeks.

Crew member Mark Ballantine of Auckland, New Zealand, said they were hoping to set a land speed record of 350 miles per hour in their class.

Others, such as Tokyo-based driver James Watanabe, have more modest goals. He is hoping to join the 200 mile per hour club by Friday in his relatively small car.

Some car owners, such as Salt Lake-based Jeff Nish, are just making technical runs this to prepare for meets in September and October on the salt.

He is working on a new and as-yet unnamed car while brother Mike prepares the Royal Purple. The cars could approach 400 miles per hour by the end of the meet.

Other events scheduled on the Salt Flats this year include the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association’s World of Speed September 12-18; Mike Cook’s Bonneville Shootout September 20-24, and the SCTA’s World Finals October 1-4.

For now, the scene on the Salt Flats was typically colorful Tuesday as the delayed Speed Week opened.

Several hundred spectators lined the course and the pits were filled with colorful vehicles of all shapes, sizes and colors including the Trojan Thunder from the University of Southern California.

A makeshift campground filled with tents, trailers and all sorts of ways to sleep formed near the entrance to the salt.

The spectator entry fee is $20. It’s a good idea to bring shade of some sort, sunscreen and plenty of water, though a vendor is selling ice.

The salt opens to spectators at 6:30 a.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Racing ends at 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and 11 a.m. Friday.

Photo courtesy of Tom Wharton | Utah-based Team Vesco hoped its Turbinator II would hit 500 MPH at Speed Week, but condistions on the Salt Flats could make that difficult.