Since 1949, generations of speed demons have gathered along the salt flats of what was once Lake Bonneville, Utah, where an annual cycle of flooding in the winter months and evaporation in the dry summer has formed a dense surface of salt crystals and minerals. It’s a place so flat and wide that you can see the curve of the earth’s surface, making it perfect, when conditions are right, to drive faster than anywhere else on earth. The crowds come here for the record-breaking time trials of Speed Week. It’s a place for legends in waiting. But since 2013 – the last time before this year that Speed Week took place – there has been a lot of waiting.

Spectators line up on the salt flats to watch as cars whiz by trying to set land speed records.
Spectators line up on the salt flats to watch as cars whiz by trying to set land speed records.

The first land speed record at Bonneville was set over one hundred years ago, in 1914. Teddy Tezlaff, driving his Blitzen Benz, clocked in 141.73 miles per hour. In 1970, Gary Gabelich’s Blue Flame shot out at 622.407 miles per hour, making it the fastest automobile on record at the time. In 2012, Brandon Nozaki Miller set a record for the first electric motorcycle to go over one hundred miles per hour.

The salt flats’ unique ecological makeup has made this one of the only places in the world where vehicles can reach speeds of over four hundred miles per hour. But things are changing here. The event had been canceled the last two years due to poor salt conditions and rainstorms. The long track, once twelve miles, has now been reduced to just seven, even under perfect conditions, making the ability to achieve the speeds of the past all but impossible. This year the races returned, but organizers were only able to create a five-mile-long course.

The changing conditions of the salt is thought to be brought on by a combination of climate change, one hundred years of mining potash (a mineral found in the salt crust that is used in fertilizers), construction of railroad tracks and highways, like I-80,which runs through the flats, and the races themselves.

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Paul Makarushka from Denver, Colorado shades himself with an umbrella before attempting a land speed record on his 650 CC production pushrod motorcycle. “When you look at the salt you don’t realize that it can be like concrete,” said Makarushka. “It looks like it’s soft. Like it’s snow. But it’s not. It’s just amazing. You find a groove and you just go.”

“It’s not gonna go back to the state it was at one hundred years ago. Too much has happened. Too much has changed,” said Brenda Bowen, a University of Utah geology and geophysics professor, who’s leading a team of scientists with the help of a $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant, in an attempt to understand why and how this unique expanse of land is changing to the point where future Speed Weeks are increasingly uncertain.

"Bonneville Bill" Bernstrauch at the starting line of the long track on the first day of the 2016 Bonneville Speed Week. A participant since 1984, Bernstrauch ran a car for 22 years and set nine records. Now he watches the races and has recorded numerous record-setting runs with his VHS camcorder.
“Bonneville Bill” Bernstrauch at the starting line of the long track on the first day of the 2016 Bonneville Speed Week. A participant since 1984, Bernstrauch ran a car for 22 years and set nine records. Now he watches the races and has recorded numerous record-setting runs with his VHS camcorder.
 
Wally Kohler's sidecar bike travels down the five-mile course in an attempt to set a land speed record for this class of motorcycle.
Wally Kohler’s sidecar bike travels down the five-mile course in an attempt to set a land speed record for this class of motorcycle.

A solution is elusive and questionable. Some politicians, including Utah Governor Gary Herbert, have called for restoration of the salt – though no clear path to doing that exists.

“You can’t really legislate nature,” explains Bowen. “[The salt flats will] continue to change… Nothing on our planet is a permanent feature. And on geologic time scales this is really young, only a few thousand years old. To presume that it naturally would be there for another thousand years, I think, is absurd. We have no reason to think that.”

 
Spectators gather at the starting line of the long track and catch a glimpse as drivers attempt to set land speed records.
Spectators gather at the starting line of the long track and catch a glimpse as drivers attempt to set land speed records.
 
At his perch at mile zero, spectator John Thompson from LaGrainge, Georgia, listens to the results of the races from a radio broadcast. Thompson has told his wife and oldest son that he wants some of his ashes to be spread on the salt.
At his perch at mile zero, spectator John Thompson from LaGrainge, Georgia, listens to the results of the races from a radio broadcast. Thompson has told his wife and oldest son that he wants some of his ashes to be spread on the salt.
The shaky future of the event contributed to an uptick in entries: seven hundred this year, the most to date.
The shaky future of the event contributed to an uptick in entries: seven hundred this year, the most to date.
Generations of fans come to each Speed Week. “I think it's a disease: some people call it salt fever and there is no known cure," said Lou Bingham from San Diego, California, who has been coming out to the races since 1950. "It's as much about the people as it is about the cars. It really is a cult.”
Generations of fans come to each Speed Week. “I think it’s a disease: some people call it salt fever and there is no known cure,” said Lou Bingham from San Diego, California, who has been coming out to the races since 1950. “It’s as much about the people as it is about the cars. It really is a cult.”

Left: Driver Scott Goetz readies himself before attempting a land speed record during 2016 Speed Week. Right: Kerry Hart from nearby Roy, Utah, has been coming to Speed Week since 1990, almost always wearing these flame shorts, his traditional uniform for the event. “I went through cancer surgery last year and it got rained out,” says Hart. “So luckily I got to heal up. This year I told [the doctors], ‘I am leaving on this date,’ so they had to double up a few of my radiation treatments to get me here.”
Left: Driver Scott Goetz readies himself before attempting a land speed record during 2016 Speed Week. Right: Kerry Hart from nearby Roy, Utah, has been coming to Speed Week since 1990, almost always wearing these flame shorts, his traditional uniform for the event. “I went through cancer surgery last year and it got rained out,” says Hart. “So luckily I got to heal up. This year I told [the doctors], ‘I am leaving on this date,’ so they had to double up a few of my radiation treatments to get me here.”
Reo Zentz sits in a rat rod car. He's been coming out to the flats for the past fifteen years.
Reo Zentz sits in a rat rod car. He’s been coming out to the flats for the past fifteen years.
“Five minutes in and my jaw was dropped open cause I've never seen so many cool rides, fast rides, cool people,” says “Hot Rod Vee” who came from Las Vegas to attend her first Bonneville Speed Week.
“Five minutes in and my jaw was dropped open cause I’ve never seen so many cool rides, fast rides, cool people,” says “Hot Rod Vee” who came from Las Vegas to attend her first Bonneville Speed Week.
Erin Hunter Sills, who has been racing on the salt for thirteen years, has set sixteen world and national records, and two Guinness World Records riding motorcycles. She was introduced to Bonneville by her late husband Andy Sills, who died in a motorcycle accident in 2015. In this year’s race, she joined the exclusive 200 MPH Club for racers who have gone over that speed. “I'm just in love with the sport. I try to encourage other people to do it and in particular women because men and women race equally against one another. So there aren't men's records and women's records but rather it's people racing against history.”
Erin Hunter Sills, who has been racing on the salt for thirteen years, has set sixteen world and national records, and two Guinness World Records riding motorcycles. She was introduced to Bonneville by her late husband Andy Sills, who died in a motorcycle accident in 2015. In this year’s race, she joined the exclusive 200 MPH Club for racers who have gone over that speed. “I’m just in love with the sport. I try to encourage other people to do it and in particular women because men and women race equally against one another. So there aren’t men’s records and women’s records but rather it’s people racing against history.”
“Save the Salt” paraphernalia is seen throughout the event. Many participants have banded together to try to mitigate the shrinking of the salt. "If we want to keep this style of racing, the Bonneville salt flats is the only place in the United States you can do it,” says Bill Lattin, president of the SCTA, the group that organizes Speed Week. “I believe time will fix it. Mother nature always repairs itself as long as you leave it alone.
“Save the Salt” paraphernalia is seen throughout the event. Many participants have banded together to try to mitigate the shrinking of the salt. “If we want to keep this style of racing, the Bonneville salt flats is the only place in the United States you can do it,” says Bill Lattin, president of the SCTA, the group that organizes Speed Week. “I believe time will fix it. Mother nature always repairs itself as long as you leave it alone.”
Driver Bob Blakely has been to speed week 25 times and has two records driving modified roadsters. “I've done NASCAR, too, and here everyone will help everybody else. So it's a great sport. The culture is great.”
Driver Bob Blakely has been to speed week 25 times and has two records driving modified roadsters. “I’ve done NASCAR, too, and here everyone will help everybody else. So it’s a great sport. The culture is great.”
Spectators watch vehicles race down the five-mile course attempting land speed records.
Spectators watch vehicles race down the five-mile course attempting land speed records.
“It's like the best car show on the planet,” says Luke Porter of Nevada City, California, who came to his first Speed Week this year.
“It’s like the best car show on the planet,” says Luke Porter of Nevada City, California, who came to his first Speed Week this year.

One of the crews gets an early start in the pits as the sun rises during 2016 Speed Week.
One of the crews gets an early start in the pits as the sun rises during 2016 Speed Week.

Kim Raff

Kim Raff is a freelance documentary, editorial and reportage photographer based in Salt Lake City, Utah. She is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and Associated Press. You can follow her work and adventures on Instagram and Facebook.