The History of the Bonneville Speedway

With Bonneville Speed Week just ending we’re sure many of you still have salt fever and wouldn’t mind reading about the history that surrounds the salt flats. To hot rod and motorcycle enthusiasts around the world – the Bonneville Salt Flats are the ultimate speedway and proving ground to test and see if your rod truly is the fastest around. It’s a place where an individual’s imagination comes to life and their creations achieve speeds that were once believed to be impossible.

The Early Years

Bonneville is named after Benjamin Bonneville, who was an Army Officer that explored the Western United States back in the 1800s. The salt flats were first discovered to be driveable when a man by the name of Bill Rishel and two of his business partners drove a Pierce-Arrow across the salt in 1907.

Teddy Tetzlaff would be the first to set a land speed record which he did in a custom-built 200hp car known as the Blitzen-Benz - setting the record at 141.73 mph.

Soon after this test drive, word began to spread that Bonneville was driveable and the first land speed record was set there in 1914 by American race car driver, Teddy Tetzlaff who was well known for his Indy 500 racing fame. Tetzlaff would set this first record in a custom built 200hp car known as the Blitzen-Benz. To set this record, Tetzlaff was able to get the Benz up to 141.73 mph on the flats.

However, despite Tetzlaff setting this land speed record, promoters had a tough time getting more drivers to attempt setting records at Bonneville. This proved to be a problem till the mid 1930s when a local Utah man by the name of Ab Jenkins began setting long distance and endurance records at the salt flats.

Jenkins got his start on the flats back in 1925 when a highway was being built. A friend who worked on the highway asked him to race against a Union Pacific Railroad train across the flats and Jenkins won the race and beat the train by nearly five minutes.

After this race, Jenkins became inspired to set land speed records of his own on out on the flats. He also felt it would be a great place for other racers to come out and set records. However, he had a problem convincing racers to come out since most of them preferred more established race venues. Jenkins kept setting his own endurance and land speed records at Bonneville and in 1932 he was able to attract the attention of the car manufacturer Pierce-Arrow.

Jenkins got his start on the Flats in 1925 when he raced against a Union Pacific Railroad train across the flats. Jenkins won the race and beat the train by nearly five minutes.

Pierce-Arrow was testing a new 12-cylinder car at the time and they contacted Jenkins to see if he could help them improve the performance since, at the time, it was slower than the v8. Jenkins did some tuning to the engine and he then came up with an idea to test the performance of the new 12-cylinder. He would drive the car as fast as he could at Bonneville for 24-hours straight to show how powerful and durable the engine is and prove to the racing world that Bonneville was indeed the place for land speed records.

With the help of his friends, Jenkins ran the car on a 10-mile course that was set up at Bonneville. He would only stop every two hours for fuel and during the 24 hour period he never once left the driver’s seat. His average speed during the endurance test was an amazing record of 112.916 mph.

He would then make another endurance run using the Pierce-Arrow in 1933. During this run he was able set a new record by getting up to an average speed of 125 mph. Also at this run, three of Britain’s top racers John Cobb, Sir Malcolm Campbell, and Sir George Eyston happen to be in attendance and became interested in setting some of their own records.

The British Invasion of Bonneville

John Cobb was already a well-known land speed record holder back in Great Britain and after witnessing Ab Jenkins, Cobb decided to give the salt a try. He asked Jenkins if he could use his car to perform the 24 hour endurance run at the flats. After driving for 24 hours Cobb would end up beating Jenkins’ record with an average speed of 134.85 mph! This record Cobb went on to say, “would open the door for many more records to be broken at Bonneville.”

1935 would prove to be one of the best years in Bonneville’s early history. John Cobb would open up the year with a new record but Ab Jenkins would crush his record in his new Duesenberg hot rod, nicknamed the “Mormon Meteor.” On August 31st of 1935, Jenkins would use the Meteor to set a new 24 hour endurance record of 135. 47 mph. However, that record was quickly forgotten because just days later on September 3rd, Sir Malcolm Campbell of Britain became the first man to break the 300 mph barrier on land by setting a record speed of 301.129 mph.

Sir Malcolm Campbell was already a well-known land speed record holder back in Britain and had already set several records at Daytona Beach. A record in 1933 at 272.46 mph and again in March of 1935 at 276.82 mph. The records were set in what many consider to be the first Bonneville Streamliner which was a car known as the Campbell-Railton Blue Bird.

The Campbell-Railton Blue Bird was built in 1933 and it was the fourth car of Campbell’s to carry the “Blue Bird” name. The car was built from the last Blue Bird and it had a 13-foot 8-inch wheelbase and its body was designed to be as aerodynamic as possible. The Blue Bird was powered by Rolls-Royce “R” Schneider Trophy aircraft engine that produced over 2,500 hp at 3200 rpm – which was as a lot of power for the 1930s!

Campbell’s run at Bonneville was his 9th and final land speed record, after his 300 mph achievement he was hailed a National Hero in Britain and then retired from land speed to focus on setting other records on the water.

Campbell's final rendition of the 1935 record setting Thunderbolt.

Just two years later a new land speed record would be set at Bonneville. Another Brit, Captain George Eyston who also had previous fame as a land speed record holder would push the envelope a little further using a custom car of his own known as the Thunderbolt.

Thunderbolt was powered by two Rolls-Royce “R” Schneider Trophy aircraft engines which were equipped with centrifugal superchargers. The mighty 24-cylinder beast produced around 4,600 hp.

On November 19, 1937, Eyston was able to achieve a record speed of 312 mph, but this wasn’t fast enough for Eyston and he know that John Cobb was on his heels and would try to break the record, so Eyston spent the next year improving the aerodynamics of the car and the performance of the engine.

On September 15th, 1938 John Cobb would break the 350 mph barrier in his hot rod nicknamed the Railton Special.

In 1938 Eyston returned to the salt flats with his improved Thunderbolt and set a new record of 345.49 mph, but this record still wasn’t sufficient to keep Cobb off his tail. On September 15th, 1938 John Cobb would return to Bonneville and break the 350 mph barrier in his new hot rod nicknamed the Railton Special.

The Railton-Special was a newly designed vehicle that was powered by two supercharged Napier Lion V11D (WD) aircraft engines that produced 2,500 hp and for the first time, this one was 4-wheel drive. John Cobb reached an astonishing new speed of 350.20 mph but it was one of the shortest records yet, because on September 16th Eyston would set a new record with Thunderbolt of 353.30 mph. So the battle was on, and more and more people began to take part in breaking records of their own.

On August 23rd, 1939 Cobb would return with the Railton-Special where he would set an amazing record of 369.27 mph. Sadly however, this would be the last record of the 30s because the very next day, Nazi Germany declared war on Great Britain and WWII for the British had begun.

After the war John Cobb would return to Bonneville in 1947 with a Rebuilt Railton-Special and he had a new goal of reaching 400 mph! On September 16th, Cobb would make a run of 385.6 and another of 403.1 giving him an average of 394.196 mph between the two runs.

The American Hot Rod at Bonneville

By 1949 a new era in Bonneville had begun, an era not just of streamliners trying to break the 400 mph mark, but the era of home-built hot rods and rock ‘n’ roll began to take shape. In 1949 the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) decided to expend its land speed events from the dry lakes of So-Cal to Bonneville. Instead of just big budget streamliners, Bonneville was now full of returning GIs and their ’32 Ford Coupes, and Highboy Roadsters.

The Belly Tank Lakester was one of the earliest post war Bonneville developments. The idea came from a Southern-California hot rodder named Bill Burke who wanted to build a streamliner for land speed racing similar to that of John Cobb, Sir Malcom Campbell, and Captain George Eyston. But he didn’t have the budget for that caliber of project.

Burke remembered when he served in WWII in the Pacific, while in Guadalcanal he saw the P-51 Mustang belly tanks being unload. He was impressed with how aerodynamic the tanks were and he purchased a surplus tank for $35 after the war to use for his streamliner. He built his hot rod out of it using old Model T and Model A parts to run in the dry lakes of Southern California.

Seeing Burke’s hot rod, inspired Alex Xydias the owner and founder of the famous So-Cal Speed Shop to by a P-51 Mustang drop tank and build a Lakester of his own. His Lakester had a bubble canopy and the vents around the engine looked similar to those of an aircraft. The So-Cal Lakester was powered by a 156 ci V8 engine and in 1951 at Bonneville, Xydias reached a speed of 145.40 mph.

That night Alex and his So-Cal Speed Shop team swapped out the 156 ci V8 for a 259 Mercury flathead and they were able to get the car up to 181.08 mph the very next morning, which set a new record for their class! Things really started to heat up, and guys were swapping motors right out on the salt to try and top one another.

The Bonneville Coupe was another unique development to happen in post war salt flats racing. Originally coupes were not supposed to run at Bonneville, because the SCTA didn’t consider them hot rods back then. They only considered Roadsters, Lakesters and Streamliners for the hot rods classes which soon changed thanks to yet more hot rod ingenuity.

It made Bob and Dick Pierson want to set out to prove to the SCTA that Coupes were true hot rods. Dick originally bought a 1934 Ford coupe to be his daily driver, but the brothers agreed that they would turn this car into their Bonneville racer. The Brothers went to their good friend Bobby Meeks who worked for Edelbrock to help them hot rod their coupe for the salt.

One of the first things they did was give the roof an excessive chop, then they streamlined the body by 9 inches and channeled the car by 3 inches. They first tested the car in the dry lakes of So Cal were they set a few record runs. The car then went out to Bonneville in 1950 where it pulled off an amazing run of 150 mph which was faster than any Roadster at Bonneville that year including the Edelbrock Special.

The Edelbrock Special is still around today and remains a part of Bonneville history.

Roadsters also flooded the salt and became very common at Bonneville after the war and were eventually given their own class. One of the earliest roadsters to have success at Bonneville was Vic Edelbrock’s 1932 Ford roadster nicknamed the Edelbrock Special (pictured here).

Vic and his team built the roadster in late 1949 to be ready for the 1950 Bonneville season; the Special was powered by a 259 Ford Flathead engine which was hooked up to a three speed transmission. Bill Lakes drove the roadster at his first Bonneville appearance in 1950 and was able to set a new record of 146.36 MPH. This was an amazing accomplishment for a roadster and it also let other hobby and home-built hot rodders know that they can build fast cars on a budget.

Dean Moon also played an important part in the early days of post war Bonneville. Not so much as a record setter but as someone who developed parts that would help others set records. Dean Moon started out by making parts for his own Hot Rod in the late 40s while he was still in school. After coming back from the Korean War as an Air Force photographer, Dean Moon used his money to open up a hot rod shop in the back of his Father’s Cafe to sell his new parts.

His first best-selling part was the “foot shaped” gas pedal which sold like crazy in the first month it was out. He used the profits to develop a part that would help improve top speed performance in land speed racing in places like El Mirage and Bonneville. After weeks of testing and experimenting, the part he came up with was a hand-spun aluminum hubcap known as the Moon Disc. The Moon Disc was designed to help improve a cars top speed while on the flats through aerodynamics and they are widely used even today on every type of car from Roadsters to Streamliners.

The Right Stuff – Battle of the Jet Cars

The early 60s brought on a new era for setting records at the Bonneville Salt Flats. American Streamliners were now regularly getting over 300 miles per hour but none were coming close to John Cobb’s 394 mph record that was set back in 1947.

An American Hot Rodder by the name of Mickey Thompson made it his goal that he was going to be the first to break the 400 mph barrier. He was already famous for building the first dragster in the early 50s and for setting a record of 294 mph with his twin-Hemi Engine dragster in 1958.

To try and reach 400 mph he built a custom streamliner that was nicknamed Challenger. The Challenger was powered by four Pontiac 415 V8 engines that are hooked up to four ’37 Cadillac transmissions. Mickey took the Challenger to Bonneville in October of 1959 and was able to reach a speed of 363.48 mph. However, this was not the 400 miles per hour record that Thompson had hoped for.

Thompson would spend the next year improving the cars aerodynamics and engine performance. A 6-71 GMC supercharger was added to each individual Pontiac V8 motor, and other minor adjustments were made which gave each engine 750 hp. Mickey Thompson and his crew then took the Challenger out to the Bonneville Salt Flats on September 9th, 1960 and made an amazing one way record of 406.60 mph which made him the fastest man on Earth! 

Walt Arfons Wingfoot Express was powered by a Westinghouse J49 triple jet powered engine.

By 1962 Jet cars had begun to become a more common appearance at Bonneville with a few different jet cars trying to achieve speeds that were thought impossible to reach. Those who brought jet cars to compete were; drag racer Art Arfons, known for his Allison V12 powered Dragsters and his brother Walt Arfons, another man by the name of Dr. Nathan Ostich, and a drag racer by the name of Craig Breedlove. 

During this era record setting at Bonneville changed from being a weekend hobby into a full scale competition with high dollar cars, a high level of competitiveness and it finally became a serious business.

Art Arfons ran a series of cars that were powered by General Electric J79 turbo-Jet engines that continued running the name Green Monster which is what he nicknamed his dragsters.

His brother Walt Arfons would run a car nicknamed Wingfoot Express, which was powered by a Westinghouse J49 triple jet powered engine. Craig Breedlove would run a three wheeled car that was nicknamed the Spirit of America which was powered by a J47 engine out of an F-86 Sabre fighter plane.

Craig Breedlove ran a three wheeled car that was nicknamed the Spirit of America which was powered by a J47 engine out of an F-86 Sabre fighter plane.

The record setting in this era became similar to that of the test pilots; Chuck Yeager, Scott Crossfield, Gordo Cooper and Gus Grissom of “The Right Stuff” and NASA fame. Every time one of the Arfons or Breedlove would set a record, the other guys would go back and rebuild their cars or build a new car just to beat that last set record, even if it was only by a couple miles per hour.

The competition officially started in August of 1963 when Craig Breedlove beat Mickey Thompson’s 406 mph record with a new record of 407.45. The record would stand until October of 1964 when Walt Arfons and his driver Tom Green would set a record of 413.20 mph in Wingfoot Express. This record would be short lived because like any good brother Art was competitive and had to crush his older brother’s record. 

Just three days after Walt set his 413 mph record, Art took his budget-built Green Monster to a record breaking speed of 434.02 mph. Art just didn’t beat his brother’s record, he crushed it!

Like most records of this time, Art’s record would only last eight short days because Craig Breedlove was back at Bonneville with a rebuilt Spirit of America to push the envelope even further. Thanks to his rebuilt J47 engine and improved streamlining on his car, Breedlove was able to achieve a new record speed of 468.72 mph.

However Art’s record would only last just eight short days because Craig Breedlove was back at Bonneville with a rebuilt Spirit of America to push the envelope a little further.

However, Breedlove knew his Spirit of America was capable of going even faster, so back to the garage he went. They made a few minor engine adjustments and were able to run and crush all previous records by breaking the 500 mph mark with a record setting run of 526.28! He achieved a speed of 539 on his return run before his parachutes tore off and he lost control crashing through a telephone pole before crashing into a brine lake that was at the end of the course. He would escape completely unharmed but his Spirit of America was completely destroyed.

Art Arfons would then break this record with his rebuilt Green Monster at the end of the month by setting a new record of 536.71 MPH which was the final record set for 1964.

Breedlove achieved a record speed of 539 on his return run before his parachutes tore off and he crashed through a telephone pole before crashing into a brine lake that was at the end of the course.

Breedlove would return to Bonneville in 1965 with a brand new car nicknamed Spirit of America Sonic 1 that used the faster J79 engine with a 4-wheel design. During his first run of the season Breedlove would temporally lose control of his car and almost end up in the same lake as last year, but he was able to recover his car in time. He found out at high speeds that his front end was lifting off the ground and causing the control problems, so they added fins to the front of the car to add more down force to help keep it stable at higher speeds.

On November 2nd of 1965 Breedlove would set a new record of 555.483 mph. Art Arfons and his rebuilt Green Monster would then break this record when he managed to achieve a speed of 576.553 mph. He was still able to break the record despite having to regain control of his car after one of his rear tires blew out and one of his parachutes ripped away. However just eight days later, Breedlove would then shatter Art’s record by breaking the 600 mph barrier and setting a record of 600.601!

Art Arfons would return in 1966 with a newly rebuilt Green Monster to try and break Breedlove’s record. However, during his first attempt at setting a new record one of the front wheel bearings broke and his car went out of control while he was at the speed of around 610 mph. Sadly, the car was totaled but Art survived with only a few minor scratches and some salt burns to the eyes. Arfons would soon retire from Land Speed Racing and begin a career in tractor pulling.

Craig Breedlove’s record would stand for five more years until 1970 when a man by the name of Gary Gabelich would shatter his record. Gary Gabelich used a car which was powered by not a jet engine but a rocket engine that used hydrogen peroxide oxidizer combined with liquefied natural gas.

The Final Record

On October 28, 1970 Gary Gabelich would do the impossible, not only would he break the 600 MPH barrier and shatter Breedlove’s record he would set the fastest record in Bonneville history!

During his record breaking run Gabelich pushed the Blue Flame to an average speed of 630.478 mph!

During his record breaking run Gabelich pushed the Blue Flame to an average speed of 630.478! His record was not broken until 13 years later by Richard Noble but that was done in Nevada so Gabelich’s record still stands as the fastest record in Bonneville.

It really amazes us how much ingenuity and hard work that gets put into the cars that have run at Bonneville throughout the years. Bonneville is a really unique and special place that has so much history and so many stories that it’s hard to fit them all into one piece. We sincerely hope that Bonneville will remain the ultimate proving ground for generations of hot rods to come and we support all of the “Save the Salt” efforts to ensure that those who have the desire to create one of a kind machines and the courage to drive their machines as hard and as fast as possible will have the opportunity to become the fastest man (or woman) in the world!

Special thanks go out to one of our new up and coming Rod Authority writers, Josh Couter for compiling this special feature.

About the author

Mike Alexander

With over a decade of automotive print and editorial experience, Mike Alexander enjoys shooting and writing about cars, and has several projects cars in his stable.
Read My Articles

Classic Street Rods in your Inbox

Build your own custom newsletter with the content you love from Rod Authority, directly to your inbox, absolutely FREE!

Free WordPress Themes
Rod Authority NEWSLETTER - SIGN UP FREE!

We will safeguard your e-mail and only send content you request.

Rod Authority - The #1 Authority for Street and Rat Rods

We'll send you the most interesting Street Rod articles, news, car features, and videos every week.

Rod Authority - The #1 Authority for Street and Rat Rods

Rod Authority NEWSLETTER - SIGN UP FREE!

We will safeguard your e-mail and only send content you request.

Rod Authority - The #1 Authority for Street and Rat Rods

Thank you for your subscription.

Subscribe to more FREE Online Magazines!

We think you might like...



Hot Rods & Muscle Cars

Classic Chevy Magazine

Corvette Enthusiasts

Rod Authority - The #1 Authority for Street and Rat Rods

Thank you for your subscription.

Subscribe to more FREE Online Magazines!

We think you might like...

  • Hot Rods & Muscle Cars
  • Classic Chevy Magazine
  • Corvette Enthusiasts

Rod Authority - The #1 Authority for Street and Rat Rods

Thank you for your subscription.

Thank you for your subscription.

Rod Authority - The #1 Authority for Street and Rat Rods

Thank you for your subscription.

Thank you for your subscription.

Loading