To the outsider, land-speed racing at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats looks like much ado about nothing; just mat the throttle and steer straight down the middle of a 120-foot-wide, 6-mile-long track fashioned out of one of the smoothest natural surfaces known to man. Big freaking deal.
The action looks a lot hairier from the cockpit of an über-yellow 2014 Volkswagen Beetle hurtling along the salt at 208 mph, its bodywork buffeting like a flag in a typhoon and a pylon marking the course’s left edge looming alarmingly large through the windshield. Abrupt steering inputs are verboten at Bonneville — they’re a surefire way to cause a spin — so I hold my breath and just kind of will the VW back to the center of the course. But bounding over a set of ruts sends the car into a spooky series of oscillations not unlike a tank slapper. I’m a heartbeat away from pulling the parachute, and my butt cheeks are clamped together so tightly that I’m going to need an industrial-grade crowbar to pry them apart.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The story starts in 2013, when VW decided to showcase the Beetle’s performance potential by running a GSR — a one-year-only model that stands for Gelb Schwarzer Renner, or Yellow Black Racer — faster than 200 mph. And where better to do it than on Bonneville’s weirdly, wondrously alien terrain?
Bonneville has been a mecca for automotive daredevils since “Terrible” Teddy Tetzlaff set a land-speed record in 1914, and the salt was immortalized in racing lore during the jet wars fought by Craig Breedlove and the Arfons brothers during the 1960s. Hot rodders began flocking here on an annual basis in 1949, when the Southern California Timing Association put together an event at Bonneville because the salt flats offered so much more room than the Mojave Desert dry lakes that had been used in the past.
The Utah Salt Flats Racing Association sanctions this weekend’s fall meet, known as World of Speed. Though it shares a rulebook and record book with SCTA, USFRA sanctions smaller, more casual events. About 100 cars set up in the pits, which is a temporary village resembling a Bedouin encampment. They range from old-school warhorses such as belly-tank lakesters and highboys packing big-block Chevrolets to oddities like a fish-out-of-water Triumph TR3 and a woman trying to go 168 mph on a bicycle.
Some racers are one-and-done types who consider Bonneville a bucket-list item. But most are longtime hot rodders and drag racers who’ve been infected with “salt fever,” a disease for which there is no known cure. They make their pilgrimage year after year, decade after decade, as faithfully as the swallows return to San Juan Capistrano. “You have to be a little bit crazy to race here,” says Jerry Wortman, who’s wrenching on a 1935 Ford roadster with a supercharged flathead. “There’s no place like it. It’s like racing on the moon.”
One of the biggest attractions is the diversity of the cars and motorcycles. With roughly 750 classes in the rulebook, just about anything goes. “We like the freedom to think for ourselves,” says Frank Morris, who with Doug Grieve is running a streamliner packing a blown Buick straight-eight they perviously campaigned in a Jaguar XJ6. “The NHRA makes you build belly-button cars; every one is the same. Here, you can build anything you can dream up.”
Entrants, too, come in all shapes and sizes. A large team from New Zealand with matching crew shirts has been here for weeks with a right-hand-drive Nissan coupe and a stunning streamliner festooned with custom graphics. Nearby is a cruder, more angular ’liner that could be mistaken for a farm implement. “I named it the Tijuana Taxi because there’s nothing in the world that isn’t better than a Tijuana taxi,” owner Jesse Winders tells me. Winders built it for about $9,000 around a funky, one-off VW diesel. The car holds three records, but they were a long time coming. “If you own a record out here,” he says, “you earned it.”
Volkswagen chose to chase the Blown Gas Coupe record, and a production Beetle was shipped to Tom Habrzyk, proprietor of THR Manufacturing, a quietly but supremely competent veteran of the Bonneville scene. (He’d previously built the Honda Civic that held the class record at 203.925 mph.) From the start, Habrzyk knew the biggest challenge was going to be the Beetle’s brick-like aerodynamic qualities. But because body modifications are prohibited, all he could do was fit the car with a front air dam and splitter and lower it on coilovers.
Fortunately he was able to go crazy with the EA888 engine, a 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbo making 210 horsepower and 207 lb-ft of torque in stock form. In addition to all the usual upgrades—forged rods and pistons, custom-ground camshafts, ported cylinder head, etc. — the motor was modded with a second turbo and elaborate, immaculately fabricated intake and exhaust manifolds. A high-performance aftermarket ECU replaced the original unit.
I got my first taste of the salt in the bright-yellow Beetle in the fall of 2014. But during the second of three required licensing runs, while I was doing about 170 mph, the engine laid down and died. “Sometimes you get a record relatively easily,” Habrzyk said. “And sometimes, you eat humble pie.” It was too late in the year to return for another attempt, and there was no racing at Bonneville in 2015 because summer rains left the salt too wet for competition. It wasn’t clear until a few months ago whether there would be racing in 2016, either.
This time, the issue wasn’t rain but the condition of the salt flats, which have gotten smaller, thinner, and more brittle for the past half-century. Though the science of salt production and erosion is mysterious, it appears unlikely land-speed racing causes the problem. On the contrary, the culprit seems to be potash mining, which involves siphoning off brine from the salt flats in the winter and using solar evaporation to expose the salable material.
Concerned racers formed the Save the Salt Coalition in 1989, and mining companies have been pumping brine back into the salt flats since 1997. But this salt lay-down program is strictly voluntary, and it hasn’t kept pace with depletion. Plus, critics are convinced the Bureau of Land Management — the federal agency that oversees Bonneville — cares more about mining than it does about racing, so they’re focusing their lobbying efforts on elected officials. “If we don’t have legislative action on the congressional level,” says Louise Ann Noeth, a journalist who serves as Save the Salt’s public information officer, “then land-speed racing is done.”
To widespread joy, the SCTA hosted Speed Week—the granddaddy of land-speed events — in August 2016, even though the salt was sketchy. Habrzyk returned with the Beetle, now featuring a different development of the EA888 — making 543 horsepower and 421 lb-ft of torque — and fitted with twin parachutes cleverly mounted to effectively extend the length of the rear wing and increase downforce. During Speed Week, another driver pushed the Beetle to 188 mph before nearly spinning.
A month later, I’m back at Bonneville with Habrzyk and mechanic Dakota Martinez. It takes me a while to get reacclimated to the awkward seating position; I sit so low and far back in the gutted interior that I feel as though I’m submerged in the car. But I knock out my third and final licensing run at 193.18463 mph with no drama, so Habrzyk dials up the boost, and we roll the car into line to chase the record.
It’s late afternoon, the hottest time of the day, by the time I’m waved off, and as soon as I launch the Beetle I sense the salt is slipperier than it was in the morning. The wheels are still spinning as I grab fourth gear, and I make a confidence lift (or two) when the car veers left after the 2-mile marker. I give myself a stern talking to as I approach the final mile of my run. “Keep your foot planted, dammit!” I tell myself. Out loud.
It takes almost 18 seconds to cover a mile at 200 mph, and it’s a white-knuckle ride from start to finish. The general rule of thumb is that there’s no saving the car once it yaws more than about 15 degrees, so I’m constantly making tiny course corrections, and I’ve got a death grip on the steering wheel. I can see the 4-mile marker, the end of my timed run, when the car starts changing direction faster than I can keep up. With each counter-steer, the car drifts further out of control. Hating myself for being a weenie, I breathe the throttle. Dammit! A few seconds later, when I pull the ’chute after powering past the 4-mile timing lights, I ping-pong between relief at not having wrecked and frustration at not having flatfooted it all the way home.
Although I saw 208 mph on the digital readout, records are based on average speed over a measured mile, so I’m not sure how fast I’ve gone, and I tell an emergency worker that I may have blown it with my late throttle lift. It’s not until I hear the squawk from his radio that I realize I’ve been timed at 205.12217 mph. That’s enough, I believe, to qualify for the record. Habrzyk drives up in his tow vehicle and crows, “Two-hundred mph in a stock-bodied Beetle! Yes!”
But even as we’re exchanging high fives, I notice smoke wisping out from beneath the hood. When Habrzyk tries to start the car, there’s no compression. Turns out the aftermarket water pump failed during the run, and the rings have disintegrated. This means there’s no chance we’ll be able to “back up” our speed with a second run the following morning. (Records are based on the average of two consecutive passes.) Later, after we get back to the pits, we get a second kick in the teeth when we learn that John Hanson had bumped up the record past 208 mph earlier in the day — in the Civic built by Habrzyk. Sigh.
So we have a dead motor and no record, which means I don’t earn one of the coveted red hats worn by members of the 200 MPH Club. Then again, we have the world’s fastest Beetle, and Habrzyk is stoked by what we accomplished. “We knew from day one that this was going to be hard to do,” he says. “If it was easy, everybody would do it.”
I still think we can snag the record. Two more runs is all it would take. No problem. A snap, really. Of course, I’m not sure if that’s me talking … or the salt fever.