World of Speed 2014
The World of Speed event at Bonneville is run each year by the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association, and participants were able to run what looked like their choice of 3 or 5-mile courses laid out on the salt. That’s much shorter than they would like, but current weather conditions dictate how much of the track will be dry enough to run on. Most of the vehicles don’t need any more distance, so only the big boys had a crimp put in their style.
I attended one day when the weather looked most cooperative, though I did have to wade the big Ford s-l-o-w-l-y through nearly a mile of brine to get there. I ferried the Evelo Aurora and trailer across in the front bike carrier, and then broke it out to tour all around the dry pits and racing area. Considering my phobia about splashing salt on the underside of the pickup truck, the decision to attend was no small one. Looking at upcoming weather, I had a gut feeling that this one day might possibly be it for the season, so it was either go, or gamble. The depth of the water between the access road and the racing surface looked manageable for once, not more that 6 inches in spots, and I heroically ventured forth in 4WD Low, near idle, to avoid any splashing or thrown brine. It worked well. The path choices to get out there were so wide that other vehicles were able to go around with ease as I and one other guy in an older Ford just patiently idled on out.
I’m not attempting to cover the day’s runs in this post, but simply relate my overall impression and show you more pictures than you want to look at. After all, this was the first and maybe only land speed record event I’ve attended in two years of trying. What’s it like? Laid back. These events are not really spectator events as such. Most of the spectators were family and friends of the participants. Each driver picks the course length best suited to his type of vehicle and gets in line. If you have an old VW Beetle (as many did), you pick the short course. If you have a huffed big-block Camaro or a streamliner, you pick the long course. Once at the front, an official radios your number in, and waits for the reply to release the vehicle for a run down the course.
As a would-be competitor, you can run pretty much whatever you like, from motorcycle to rental car to 300 MPH streamliner. The faster the vehicle, the greater the challenge to find traction on the racing surface. Bonneville’s salt has been compared to concrete. I’d call it concrete with a dusting of salt powder on top. Heck, I saw cars fighting wheelspin as they hit fourth gear at well over 100 MPH. The big bikes were finding traction to be especially elusive. The track surface must be groomed in order to set up a path, as the natural surface is perfectly flat, but not perfectly smooth. Most of the natural surface is rough enough that I had to limit the e-bike’s speed to 7 MPH or less, to avoid shaking things up, myself included.
As long as you stay safely out of the way, you can hang around the launch point, or even wander down the side of the track several miles to see the racers fly past at speed. Naturally, the farther down you go, the further away from the track itself you are. Cones are laid out for miles, to define where to stay out of. I went down to the three mile point, but by that time you’re about a quarter-mile from the vehicle. The club broadcasts on a low-power FM frequency so you can follow who’s running now, and what their trap speed is at each mile marker, which helps a lot, especially when it comes near to or exceeds the existing record for that class. Naturally, I didn’t remember to bring my own little portable radio, but enough people parked downcourse under shading canopies had their radios on loudly enough for me to keep up no matter where I was.
It was also downcourse where I found that my old DV tape video cam equipment and I were both past our limits. That was a disappointment, but also okay, because I discovered that it’s a lot more pleasant to just relax and watch a car or bike move past at 200+ MPH, than it is to try to record it acceptably. I discovered that even hanging a monopod under the camera couldn’t steady it enough to keep the car from wobbling in the viewfinder near maximum magnification. I discovered that my images were getting pretty fuzzy at high magnifications, too. That’s just the nature of the camera. The colors wash out at any magnification on this 10-year-old fossil, and having to shoot the shaded side of every vehicle wasn’t doing them justice. Shoulda packed the tripod, and a better digital video cam – that I don’t have.
See, video camera manufacturers dropped optical viewfinders years ago when they found that they’d be cheaper to make and more compact with electronic viewfinders, and people liked big color LCD screens anyway. Today, you can’t find a digital videocam with a viewfinder, optical or electronic, for less than $900. All pro and semi-pro rigs include viewfinders, because they work in all situations. Display screens do not. The trouble here is, LCD screens are useless in bright sun, because you can’t see anything on them. The reflectance of the white salt makes the washout even worse. Yet again, there was one more frustrated lady next to me at the starting line, trying to take some footage with her shiny new $350 Canon video cam, eventually holding it out at arm’s length like a dead fish. Her son was at the line, and she was having to shoot blind. Where was it set for telephoto magnification? What was it seeing? She had no idea. She thought there had been another more upscale Canon with a viewfinder for a little more money, but she’s in for yet another disappointment should she follow that up.
There is a small but persistent niche of people who lament that there are no longer any consumer-level videocams available with viewfinders. They want to buy one. This is an example of manufacturers developing a myopic “mass consumer” mentality, and becoming overly-obsessed with competing with each other, model for model, to dominate “the market”. They feel that pros are smart and know that one is needed, while “consumers” care only about a $14 price reduction and won’t know the difference, at least until they shoot in bright conditions and cry for a brighter LCD. I may not live to see the day, but someday, some bright young visionary is going to discover the benefits of trying to cover wider niche opportunities like, oh, say, including a viewfinder again. If he can break through the bureaucracy and fend off the counterrevolutionaries, he will. And he’ll sell a tidy quantity at $500 each. Someday.
I wound up alongside the starting line at fairly close proximity, sitting on my lawn chair, alternating between watching some cars take off, and photographing some. It was relaxing, mainly because some young dude next to me in jeans, boots, and cowboy hat, sat in the shade beside his ancient Chevy Blazer with bad steering, and commented every time a missed gearshift occurred. That was pretty often. My own theory held that the reliability of spark plugs is inversely proportional to the importance of their proper functioning. Fouled and misfiring spark plugs occurred pretty frequently that day, too. Imagine our mirth when both mishaps occurred on the same run. Then all too soon, it was after 5PM, and it was over. Nice day. I ended the day thinking “Well, I’ve seen it and it’s good, but I probably won’t attend another.” Now, I’m wondering when I should come back in next year.
The video below is 24 minutes long and is some 187MB in size. Click on it only if you have the bandwidth to spare. I’ll point out that there’s a weird-sounding little red sedan in it, being push-started by a truck. This is an old 1950s Saab, which at that time used a very small two-cycle motor. You’ll also notice three vehicles emitting smoke, two of them a lot of smoke. These are diesels, and they dump in extra fuel to get more power. While it may not be politically correct to do so, I think the world can stand enough smoke to cover 3 miles before shutting down. Lastly, many vehicles sound like they are not accelerating. They are, but are accelerating away so quickly that the engine sounds steady. You can hear gearshifts plainly, but may also notice their engine speed rising and falling at other times. This is wheelspin, and some early shots reveal the yawing that takes place when this happens. Given enough power, the driver really has to stay on top of things the entire way down the track. There were two wrecks that day (without injury), most likely with wheelspin as contributing factors.
Below is a 24-minute video of runs. I can’t seem to get it to embed, so if all you see is a text link, click on it.