Built for Speed – Racers Flock to Bonneville for Speed Week 2021
The first Ford rolled off the assembly line in 1913, and it didn’t take long for people to find a way to make their cars go faster. In 1914, Teddy Tetzlaff came to the Bonneville Salt Flats and drove the “Blitzen Benz” to a land speed record at 142.8mph. Bonneville became internationally famous on September 3, 1935, when Sir Malcolm Campbell wheeled the Blue Bird to a new land speed record of 301.13mph, becoming the first human to surpass the 300mph barrier in an automobile, and people have been chasing speed records there ever since.
Fast-forward to 2021, when the Southern California Timing Association’s 73rd annual Speed Week started off with 70mph winds on Thursday afternoon that destroyed several pit areas, turning pop-up tents and awnings into tangled and twisted messes. But Bonneville is all about horsepower, grit, and determination, so by Friday morning teams had restored everything to working order, and on Saturday morning the first records began to fall.
From 400mph streamliners to 100mph roadsters, there are literally hundreds of classes based on engine displacement, fuel, aspiration (naturally aspirated vs. supercharged) and body style. From wild to weird, Bonneville Speed Week has it all.
E.J. Kowalski from Reading, Pennsylvania, was just one of the many racers who earned the right to have his name added to the Bonneville record book. Kowalski made his first trip to Bonneville when he was 18; that was in 1988. “The Bonneville Salt Flats is a place where big things can happen to little people,” Kowalski says. “In any other type of racing you only have to beat the second-place guy. In our racing you have to beat the fastest guy ever.”
Kowalski did just that, setting four records in two different cars this year using vintage parts. Kowalski used a 1932 Ford flathead four-cylinder engine in his rear-engine roadster and a 1930 Model A flathead in his vintage oval-track racer. (Speaking of flatheads, Steve Moody recorded the fastest speed ever by a Flathead V8 when he drove the Mariani Farms streamliner to a speed of 312.171mph.)
It was great to see Danny Thompson back on the salt this year. The last time Thompson was strapped into a car was back in 2018, when he drove the Challenger 2 streamliner to a new AA/FS record at 448.757mph. This year he was at the wheel of the beautiful Ferguson Racing streamliner and reset the B/FS record at 385.561mph.
Fans were also excited to see another veteran driver, George Poteet, and the Speed Demon. After suffering a fire on Sunday morning and chasing mechanical gremlins throughout the event, the team was forced to swap engines several times during the week. In the end, the Speed Demon lived up to its name: the streamliner, tuned by Kenny Duttweiler and Steve Watt, recorded the second-fastest speed ever by an automotive engine-powered vehicle. The Speed Demon stopped the clocks at 475.410mph using an alcohol-burning 443c.i. small-block Chevy, earning the Speed Demon its 10th Hot Rod Magazine Trophy.
Awarded each year since 1949, the Hot Rod Magazine Trophy is land speed racing’s most prestigious award and is given to the driver who records the fastest flying mile speed during Speed Week. “Many work hard for their entire career to have their name on this trophy one time, let alone 10, or not at all. It is with the most humble and respectful thoughts that we accept this award for the 10th time,” said Speed Demon crew chief Steve Watt.
Bonneville isn’t just for race cars. The hot rod scene here is special and Speed Week has been on countless hot rodders’ bucket lists for decades. Hot rods can be seen parked all over the salt taking in the action, and each night they head back into town where they invade the Nugget Casino parking lot, which has been transformed into a giant car show. There’s no need to wash your car after leaving the salt because when you’re in Bonneville, salt on your car is worn like a badge of honor.
By the time Speed Week 2021 came to a close, more than 100 records had been set, making this one of the best Speed Weeks in recent memory.
2021 Bonneville Speed Week Photo Extra!
Photos by Marc Gewertz