The nearest approach to a new drug is the drug of speed.
Careening towards the future, we live by the belief that speed is a matter of will – everything can be, and must be faster. In a desolate corner of the American Southwest, the Bonneville Salt Flats is a land that has become synonymous with the devout pursuit of speed.
In the hollow of a long-forgotten lake, the smooth, flat corridor of the ‘Bonneville Speedway’ is the holy land for the possessed. Patterned only by the fault lines that split the salt and trace the earth’s curve, it is a land outside of reality. A high-speed mecca straight out of Mad Max, this glittering white plain has called speed hungry pilgrims for over half a century. Beautiful and cruel, it seduces them to tread the flatland; luring them back each year to its hostile grounds. After months of tireless building and planning, they return annually with their monstrous machines, flocking in from around the world to battle it out in the nothingness. ‘The Speed King’, Mickey Thompson was one of the many devout to answer to the call of the bone-white plain.
Catching The Bug
Danny Thompson, son of ‘The Speed King’ Mickey Thompson
When you tinker with cars, you want to make ‘em go faster, you want ‘em to make more noise. Somehow that bug has got in my blood.
On a dry-hot summer in late ‘30’s, a young Mickey Thompson caught the bug. Hailed as ‘The Speed King’ by many, he made history in 1960 when, seated in his sky blue streamliner (Challenger I), he became the first American to break the 400 mph speed barrier. Lured in by the uncanny landscape and in pursuit of the world land speed record, Mickey was a man who dedicated his life to coaxing speed out of engines. Racing against the professional elite, whose machines were sponsored by big motoring corporations, Mickey’s junkyard vehicle represented the triumph of the back-yard engineer.
Tinkering away in his garage until his eyes grew heavy, Mickey’s reputation was the stuff of legend- an everyman’s genius whose single-minded determination forged his name in automotive history. Sharing a technical drawing that Mickey sketched out idly out over dinner, his son explained, “the guy was very intense. He never slept and would wake up in the morning with pages of ideas he’d had. He wasn’t an academically trained engineer, he was an innovator.” Tragically, his legacy was cut short when he and his wife were mercilessly gunned down outside his family home.
Today Mickey is survived by his only son who carries a legacy that has been passed down the bloodline. Marking the 50th year after the Challenger II was built, Danny Thompson sits in his father’s seat, ready to return to Bonneville Speedway to break the world record. Gearing up for this year’s race, we speak to Danny about the menacing lure of the salt flats, the business of family and the trailblazing spirit of the men and women who run the track.
(Above- From the Thompson family archives, Mickey Thompson’s sketchings)
The Bonneville Speed Demons
We are not all rational creatures. Living a life defined by the rhythm of restraint and routine, we seek out danger.
The speed-junkies that descend on the stark white salt flats are a rare breed. Willingly possessed, they fill the stark white landscape with colour and noise. They are a ragtag posse, of tattooed petrol-heads, leather-clad veterans, and white collar workers. Accountants on vacation come to test drive souped-up Honda Civic’s and battered DeSoto’s, ex-fighter pilots bring turbocharged engines and septuagenarians ride in on 50cc bikes. These races are the Wacky Races in 3D- each mutant motor that revs up on the start line is a labour of love. Danny explains, “somebody might build up their Plymouth, and even though it’s the ugliest thing in the world, it’s cool because it was that guys idea. And, if he goes a mile faster this year than he did last year that’s a huge success”. Racing only against the clock, achieving very little credit outside their closed community, the Bonneville races are more of a personal battle for each rider. Each race is an opportunity for their dreams of speed to be realised.
It can be the most beautiful, mystic place in the world. And, at the same time, it can be the cruelest place in the whole world. Nothing grows out there, nothing lives out there.
With the hundred degrees heat beating down on the alloy “frying your brains”, the vehicles are death traps. Reaching speeds that match a commercial jet plane, the slight twitch of the steering wheel can land you in trouble. Danny explains, “The track is 80 foot wide, and that’s pretty wide but when you’re at 400 mph that’s like driving down a bowling alley. A touch left and you’re in Salt Lake City, right and you’re in Rhino Nevada”.
Shadowed by the danger of death, the thrill of risk calls in the speed-hungry addicts from across the globe. We are not all rational creatures. Living a life defined by the rhythm of restraint and routine, we seek out danger. Danny adds, “There’s one lady, she’s 73 years old, and she’s up there hitting it hard every year.” The dopamine that surges through their veins on the narrow line of the racetrack is what keeps the Bonneville racers hungry for more. It is this chemical that pushes us to take risks, make mistakes and learn new skills. Often sexed-up for column inches, dopamine is the invisible force that motivates us to get up and try again, it is what drives the human race forward.
You’re never 100% successful because you’re always on that cutting edge. So, when you fail you can’t ever accept that as a failure, just as another lesson you’re learning.
Racing towards Forward
Mickey 'The Speed King' Thompson to his son
Stand on the gas.
Every year, Danny doggedly returns to the salt flats. For Danny, living under the long shadow of his “Speed King” father was a legacy intermingled with history and blood. After decades of racing in different lanes, his father reached out, he wanted to restart the engine and reclaim his crown before the clock ran out. The pair never made it to the start line. As the conversation turns to his father, his eyes start to glitter, his face softens and something clicks. Taking a breath from his story he looks up, “look, it’s made the hair on my arms stand up just thinking about it”. For Danny, the journey towards the pale salt flats in Utah is a journey back to his father. In honour of his father’s legacy, Danny has resurrected the fifty-year-old vehicle and readying it for the salt flats.
Remembering his last run, he explains, “It can be the most, mystical, magical place in the world, at the same time it can be the cruelest place in the whole world. When you’re sitting there at the start line, you’ve got a helmet on and you’re looking straight down the track, all you can see is what we call ‘The Floating Mountain’.” Racing towards the ghostly mountain like his father before him, Danny races towards an uncertain future, embracing the pioneering spirit of a lost America.
Four boutique ateliers locate time, memory and place in scent.
Danny Thompson has maintained and expanded his family’s celebrated history in motorsports. He began his career in Motocross, winning his first eighteen consecutive events, before switching to cars and progressing through the Formula Atlantic Series, Supervees, and CRA Sprint Cars. He won the opening night of the Mickey Thompson Off-Road Grand Prix and continued performing as a Chevrolet factory driver for the next seven seasons. After a decade of retirement, he came to Bonneville for the first time in 1992 and subsequently became a record holder in multiple classes. He gained further notoriety in 2007 for building and piloting the world’s fastest Ford Mustang in partnership with Hajek Racing.
Photography (unless stated otherwise) – Simon Davidson – ‘The Bonneville Salt Flats’ series.