A photo of Brazil's Cacá Bueno racing his stock car across the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, USA.
© Bruno Terena/Red Bull Content Pool
Formula Racing

A bluffer's guide to the Bonneville Salt Flats

Check out this beginner's guide to outright land speed records and one of the places they're synonymous with: Utah's famed Bonneville Salt Flats.
By Chris Parkin
5 min readPublished on

7 min

Bonneville Speed Week

Meeting the drivers racing across the salt flats at Bonneville Speed Week. Featuring: Stacie B London, Ali and JD Youngblood, Mixed Nuts Racing, John Stoner, Jim Mosher and Mitsuhiro Kiyonaga

Scoring a land speed record is the holy grail among speed freaks the world over. But to have even a slim chance of breaking the supersonic barrier, like Andy Green did back in 1997, you need financial backing, scientific expertise and nerves of steel.
Once you've got all of those nailed, though, it's off to either the Black Rock Desert in Nevada or the legendary Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Watch the video above, then read on for everything you need to know about those glistening white flats and the history that's been made on them.

Who is Bonneville?

It's not who, but where. The Bonneville Salt Flats are in Utah, USA, near the border with Nevada, and as the name suggests it's a very big and very flat area of land. Speed freaks began using the terrain for racing way back in 1912.
Since 1935, Bonneville's been one of the the primary venues for land speed record attempts, with most land speed records recorded between 1935 and 1970 set there. Before 1935, most record attempts took place on beaches.
Take a first-person look at Bonneville:

2 min

Bonneville Speed Week: Youngblood POV

Meeting the drivers racing across the salt flats at Bonneville Speed Week.

Why there?

Its long, thick stretches of salt-encrusted earth are perfect for driving at high speed. The area was formed during the last Ice Age, when a huge lake dried up, leaving behind mineral deposits. Every summer the flats' salt crust hardens again after the winter rains, leaving a perfect speedway.
Torrential rain and cooler temperatures have led to the cancellation of events there in recent years, and the US Geological Survey estimates that the crust has thinned by nearly half a metre.
The first outright land speed record at Bonneville was scored by Malcolm Campbell and his famous Bluebird in 1935. They notched the first-ever 480kph (300mph) pass. After 104 years of racing and record-breaking there, the place will forever be a motorsport utopia.
An image of Gary Gabelich standing by his car, the Blue Flame, in which he scored the outright land speed record at Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, in 1970.

Gary Gabelich and his trusty Blue Flame

© Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images

Who holds the outright land speed record today?

The UK's Andy Green and his ferociously fast Thrust SSC. In 1997, he zipped across the earth in a twin turbofan jet-powered car at 1,227.986kph to notch the first ever supersonic land speed record.
This didn't take place at the Bonneville Salt Flats however, but at Nevada's Black Rock Desert instead. In fact, the last three outright land speed world records were set at Black Rock.
The last outright record to be set at Bonneville Salt Flats was on October 23, 1970, when Gary Gabelich's rocket-powered Blue Flame peaked at 1,014.656kph, making him the first to exceed 1,000kph.

Who measures these land speed record attempts?

There are a bewildering number of bodies and different records, but, in terms of the outright land speed record, the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile) or affiliated local clubs, measure the average speeds on a fixed-length course – a one mile flying start – over two runs (or passes) made in opposite directions within one hour of another.

What kind of vehicles can claim the outright land speed record?

Quite a few, actually. But not motorcycles.
Craig Breedlove and his jet-powered Spirit Of America 'car' changed everything at Bonneville in 1963, when he recorded a new outright land speed record… on three wheels.
To begin with, the FIA refused to recognise this as a new official record, but eventually they changed their minds and, in conjunction with other governing bodies, introduced new categories, including one for the previously dominant and still standard wheel-driven car, as well as an outright land speed record.
Since then, with record breakers developing new weird and wonderful looking machines with as much aerodynamism as possible, no wheel-driven car has held the absolute record.
There are now four main categories (and countless other sub-categories) represented in land speed record attempts, with Category C (jet-thrust propulsion) dominating the absolute world record.
A photo of Craig Breedlove standing by his three-wheeled car Spirit Of America at Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah before his land speed record attempt.

Craig Breedlove and Spirit Of America

© Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images

What's going on at Bonneville Salt Flats now?

Bonneville Salt Flats hasn't seen any absolute land speed records set for a while now, but in August 2018, Danny Thompson scored a new record for wheel-driven cars in a refurbished version of the 50-year-old Challenger 2,the car in which his dad, Mickey, made a record-breaking attempt in 1968 in the same location. The new fastest speed for a wheel-driven, piston-powered car now stands at a not inconsiderable 722.1kph.
Thompson recorded his major feat during Speed Week, which has been descending on the Flats every year since 1949. As well as being a gathering of cars of all shapes, sizes and speeds, it also sees motorcycle speed records broken on a fairly regular basis.
Fans of the TV series Mad Men will also recognise the Bonneville Salt Flats from the show's series finale, when Don Draper races a 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle at Bonneville Speedway.
Essential viewing for speed freaks who want to know more about the Flats are the the films The Donald Campbell Story and The World's Fastest Indian.
Take a run at the Bonneville Salt Flats with Mixed Nuts Racing:

2 min

Bonneville Speed Week: Mixed Nuts POV

Meeting the drivers racing across the salt flats at Bonneville Speed Week.

Be sure to download the free Red Bull TV app and catch the motorsports action on all your devices! Get the app here