Story and photos by John Gunnell
Along with cars such as the “Step-Down” Hudson, Olds Rocket 88 and Chrysler 300, the fuel-injected ’57 Pontiac Bonneville convertible is considered a stepping stone to the muscle car era. One way that Pontiac promoted its performance just before the 1957 Bonneville’s debut was to have race driver Ab Jenkins speed over the Bonneville Salt Flats in a dual-carb 1956 Pontiac.
Nowadays, muscle cars of the ’60s and ’70s sprinkle the Bonneville Salt Flats during the Utah Sale Flats Racing Association’s (www.saltflats.com) “World of Speed” each September in Wendover, Utah. The 2012 entries included pristine ’69 Camaros; a hot but not-so-pristine AMX; a Cobra-Jet Torino; a GTO; a Formula Firebird; and an El Camino raced by Utah Valley University students.
The World of Speed, with its broad selection of racing vehicles, offers muscle car owners an opportunity to “run what you brung” as well as to compete with purpose-built muscle racing cars. In fact, two unique classes with muscle appeal are available only at the World of Speed: the 130 MPH Club and the 150 MPH Club. Muscle cars driven in off the street can compete on the Short Course, a three-mile straightaway where the 130 MPH and 150 MPH timing is completed.
Bonneville records are set by making qualifying runs in excess of an existing record. If a muscle car sets a record, the owner has one hour to get to an impound area 3-1/2 miles from the starting line. While the car is in the impound area, fluids can be checked and general maintenance under the watchful eyes of officials is allowed. Then, the next morning, a second run is made. The average of the two runs, if in excess of the existing record, becomes the new record.
To get a license to drive at Bonneville, each new driver and vehicle must demonstrate an ability to maintain stability through each licensing category. The driver’s license requirements are as follows: Category E requires a current and valid state driver’s license. Category D is for 125 to 149 mph. Category C is for 150 to 174 mph. Category B is for 175 to 196 mph. Category A is for 200 to 249 mph. The unlimited category is for drivers who go 300 mph and faster.
Each car — including off-the-street muscle machines — wears a racing number and class designation letters. For instance, the No. 766 GTO pictured here runs in A/CGALT. The letter to the left of the slash (AA through K) indicates the engine size range. The A on the GTO (actually taped over a painted B) indicates a 440- to 500-cid engine. The taped-over B suggests that the GTO formerly had a 373- to 439-cid motor. There are 11 engine class breaks in all, from AA for engine displacements over 501 cubic inches down to the J class for engines of 31 to 45 cubic inches. (The J class is usually for motorcycles.)
The class designation letters used after the slash are B for blown; C for classic; F for fuel; G for gas; M for modified; V for vintage; S for streamliner; L for Lakester; R for roadster; 2Rs for rear engine; STR for street; CC for competition coupe; A for altered; S for sport; P for pickup; PRO for production; PS for production supercharged; GT for grand touring; and DT for diesel truck. Combining the letters creates the class name.
The CGALT designation on the built-for-racing GTO stands for classic, gas, altered. CGALT actually covers 1928-or-later coupe or sedan bodies that are unaltered in height, width, length or contour, and no streamlining is allowed. Bumpers, grilles and headlamps may be removed and their openings may be covered. The yellow 777 GTO is the record holder in the class. It is known as the Interwest Truck & Tractor entry and the record it set is 246.063 mph.
A muscle car — as well as its driver’s safety gear — must go through a technical inspection prior to making a run. Then the car is driven or towed the 3-1/2 miles to the starting line and until it can make a run. It can take hours of waiting before the driver can assault the salt. After shut down, it takes a while to get the car back to the pits, which are in the tech inspection area. If an owner decides to run the same muscle car again, the car must go through tech again. If there is a driver change, the car has to have a different number and go through tech again.
Entering and running a muscle car at the World of Speed in September is relatively easy. Hitting certain speed goals or attempting to set new records is where the challenge really comes in. A muscle car that blows everyone’s doors off in stoplight “Grand Prix” or drag races may fall short at Bonneville. As one competitor who ran a muscle car in road races said, “It’s a different deal when you run early in the day on wet salt and the car starts moving around and you just can’t put any power to it because the salt is too unstable.”
For this racer, the answer was changing tires, dropping a gear and putting more weight in the car, but nearly every Bonneville competitor espouses his or her own individual formula for success. The nice thing is that most salt flats racers think of themselves as part of a community and are willing share different tweaks and ideas with neighbors. To go faster — or even to score some gear or a part that you broke — asking the muscle car owner next door for help will probably work and make you part of the fraternity.
According to the World of Speed program, this kind of ever-growing involvement in Bonneville racing is called “Catching Salt Fever.” It’s what brings the owners of muscle cars and other vehicles back to Wendover year after year to enjoy the thrill of going fast, the roar of unmuffled engines and the acrid odor of exotic fuels.
If you bring your muscle car and hope to set records with it, do your homework first. Start with writing, calling or visiting the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association online.
The mailing address is: USFRA, PO Box 27365, Salt Lake City, UT 84127-0365. The phone number is 801-485-2662 and the website is www.saltflats.com.
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