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Why was World of Speed 2005 Cancelled?
By Dan Wright
The Bonneville Salt Flats are simply not a usual racing surface. Today folks are used to televised rain delays. The rain comes over the paved NASCAR track, they park and cover the cars, wait till the rain quits, the jet engine powered track dryers come out and it’s “Gentlemen Start Your Engines!!” So why did the USFRA cancel World of Speed nearly two weeks before race day??
This year, myself (a student of all things Bonneville) my racing partner in Michigan and several USFRA officials began being concerned about race course and weather conditions as early as March. I have only been living in Utah for a little over 10 years, but I have never seen so much rain in the spring and early summer. It rained regularly, in March, April, and May. It doesn’t rain here. Only the state of Nevada gets less annual rain than Utah. This is a desert. But not this year, the desert has bloomed and has mostly remained green thru the entire summer. We are usually experiencing wild fires in the dried grass and brush by late summer, but not this year. It rained---a lot.
When it rains at Bonneville, where does the water go?? In
late June, I was given photos and first hand reports of 24” of water
standing off the end of the access road. In late July it was gone. So where
did it go??
I have heard experienced Bonneville racers say “If the high temp for the day is 100 degrees, Bonneville can evaporate 1 inch of water from the track per day.” Can this be true?
This year, one of the local racers conducted an experiment at Bonneville. He took an antifreeze jug, cut it down to three inches tall, and measured out exactly 2 inches of clean water into it. He placed it where it would get sun all day, but wouldn’t be disturbed and carefully measured the evaporation every day. With daily highs in the mid 90’s, he was only able to document approximately 1/16” of evaporation per day, for a total of 3/16” evaporated over three days.
So were the folks who said an inch per day confused? Prevaricating—Er, I mean Bench racing?? Out to lunch??
Nope, none of the above. They were speaking truth from valid experience and observations. Under normal conditions at Bonneville, when it rains followed by hot weather, the water level can easily be reduced by an inch or more per day. But it isn’t accomplished by evaporation. It is accomplished by percolation.
1. To cause (liquid, for example) to pass through a porous substance or small holes;
The water is slowly allowed to pass down into the aquifer below the salt surface. That aquifer has a bottom. According to the BLM Hydrology study the bottom of this aquifer is a solid impermeable pan of clay. This non porous clay layer begins at approximately 9 feet below the salt surface. If you have ever taken the opportunity to look at the man made canals or ditches created to move brine from the salt flats across the I-80 to the south for the magnesium plant, you can see that clay layer at the bottom of the trench. Most years, the water level in the ditch is several feet below the salt surface. This year, those canals are full to the very top.
So when the deluge came and ended Speed Week early, that water had nowhere to go. The aquifer with the impermeable clay pan at the bottom of it is full. The water table at Bonneville is at the level of the salt surface. This results in a “Pond”. This Pond is water standing on the surface that can not percolate into the salt. Since the flats are level, this water doesn’t really have a place to live. It is at the mercy and whim of the wind. When the wind blows from the north for a few days, the Pond ends up at the south. When the wind changes, so does the location of the pond. It moves around, but it can’t leave. It is trapped on and in the salt flats.
So much for the Geology and Meteorology pieces of this puzzle.
The next part of the puzzle is more complicated, and less
logical. It involves fuel prices, salt conditions, and the least understandable
item of all, the mentality of the Bonneville Racers. We host an amazing
variety of racing vehicles. From light weight, low powered motorcycles to
streamliners with thousands of horsepower and diesel trucks weighing thousands
of pounds. While motorcycles running under about 180 MPH may be satisfied
with a wet course, higher powered vehicles are more sensitive to race course
quality. Most folks going “fast” know that the real key to excelling
at Bonneville is traction. If the folks with the high powered and the heavy
vehicles stay home, and only the folks who can run on a less than ideal
course show up, we have a problem. It takes all of these diverse vehicles
to have a successful meet. It still costs the same amount of money to put
on the race. The USFRA still has to pay for BLM and Tooele County permits
and Porta-Potties, and dumpsters, fuel for drag trucks, and per dieum expense
reimbursement for timers, and course stewards, and wire layers, and starters
and registration people, and lets not forget those damned tech inspectors,
and on and on. To put it in a nut shell, the event expenses for the USFRA
don’t go down, no matter who shows up or who doesn’t.
To a little outfit like the USFRA, a successful event is simply one that breaks even financially. That means we will be able to try and run an event again next year.
This year, there was an added wrinkle. Everybody heard about
the condition of the Speed Week long course. Those reports were not full
of praise. Add to that uncertainty about of the quality of the course for
World of Speed. Factor in the big spike in the price of fuel due (at least
in part) to the Hurricane in Louisiana. The question many racers across
the country were asking themselves was this—“Do I want to gamble
$3.00+ per gallon to drive across the country to see if the track has improved
Yet another issue to consider is the Pond. On Saturday Sept 3 when the decision was made, the Pond was situated at the end of the paved access road. If the USFRA sells a spectator in their family car admission and directs them to drive out into this pond and across it for a mile or two to get to the track, who is responsible when that car gets it’s ignition wet (or worse) in the middle of that pond? Is the USFRA’s liability limited to dragging them back to dry land? Pull them back to the access road and say—“Too bad—Sorry Charlie”?? We need to ensure that spectators enjoy the event enough to come back year after year. Without a reasonable turnout of spectators (hopefully happy enough to purchase a T-shirt or two) to pay admission, and buy an event shirt and maybe a hamburger from the Red Flame, we won’t have a successful event— That is, we won’t cover our expenses.
As unhappy as some racers were when they heard the WOS ’05 was cancelled, imagine how they would feel if the Officials of the USFRA miscalculated (screwed up) two or three years in a row, and suddenly no longer had the resources to host an event at Bonneville. Imagine this situation--11 miles+ of smooth hard salt, perfect cloudless 80 degree September weather and (Big Bummer) no money to fuel drag trucks, buy permits, rig out timing system or rent porta-potties. No local meet maybe ever again. All because we ran a few crappy meets, made a couple of unwise decisions. Nobody wins in that scenario, and nobody wants that to happen.
On Sunday August 28, a van loaded with 6 members of the senior staff of the USFRA went to examine conditions at the salt. By my rough calculation, there was 100 years + of Bonneville event experience. It included 200 MPH Club members, save the salt board members, racers, timers, and long time organizers. That group of six combined had thousands of hours of salt time spent laying wire, picking up wire, surveying courses, driving drag trucks, racing motorcycles, streamliners, cars, officiating, working tech, starting racers down the course and working as course stewards. They all live with in 100 miles of the salt, all of them (and most other locals in the USFRA including myself) drive out to the end of the road and onto the salt (conditions permitting) every time they get west of town on I-80. In short, it would be very difficult to name any group of six people with more Bonneville time, experience, and knowledge.
They were all saddened by the conditions they observed. What
they saw is best summed up by the report they sent to me, it reads in part:
“The one problem that I felt was the largest obstacle was how wet
the first mile was. Even if we slid the course North, there would still
be almost a mile of wet and tender salt in the areas where cars are trying
to accelerate the hardest. I felt like it would be junk in a half day. It
did not really look that bad until we drug through it and it looked like
a wave machine in front of the drag. All the water was just under the salt
crust so the sun could not really get to it to evaporate it. Also, anything
that went past the 7 would have to start a slow left turn to run down beside
the angled dike in the area. The dike would be about a mile or so straight
from the 7 and the salt gets really thin about the 9 when turning left.
We thought about running back towards I-80 as the salt on the other end was dryer but was thinner down there. We actually stuck the flat-bottom drag 200 yards east of the course in some really thin salt at the 7.5 mile and had to pull it out end-wise. Also, I think any 300 mph cars would be hesitant to run hard towards I-80 with a dike on the left and water on the right. We also went East of the drag storage area about 2 to 3 miles to see what was there but it got thin on the North end pretty quick even though there was 3 or 4 miles of smooth and dry salt over there. My bottom line was we had to be able to put in 7 miles with a good starting line and a decent shut down past the 7 to meet the rule book and give a chance for the 300 mph guys.”
They made the right call. I applaud their difficult decision.
As a Bonneville racer you should appreciate the guts it takes to make a No-Go call. I hope that this long winded explanation helps you to see the reasoning that went into making this decision. I also hope you can see that the volunteers of the USFRA take a great deal of pride in putting on “A quality meet – or no meet at all”.
The volunteers of the USFRA believe that Quality and Courtesy never go out of style.
We hope to see you at Bonneville for the next USFRA event.
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