YAKIMA, Wash. -- The first time Jim Kunz saw the Bonneville Salt Flats up close, he was in awe. “A geological wonder,” he recalled of that first reaction. “Very cool to see.”
The first time the Yakima businessman saw daredevil drivers testing the limits of both their vehicles and their valor on those 50 square miles of absolutely flat salt crust, he was hooked.
Now he’s on hold.
So is every other car enthusiast and adrenaline junkie for whom the highlight of every summer entails a return to northwestern Utah for a few adrenaline-pumping runs at the Mecca of motorized speed.
One high-octane extravaganza has already been canceled this summer and two more — including the Sept. 12-15 World of Speed, for which Kunz and his playfully-named “Monkey Business” buddies have been fine-tuning their 1997 Camaro Z28 for months — may face the same fate.
The short-term concern is simple and short-term: too much water.
Residual water and mud from a wet spring and summer forced the Southern California Timing Association to cancel last week’s annual Speed Week extravaganza there for the second straight year. Standing water from a summer storm had wiped out the 2014 event.
The long-term concern, though, is more troublesome: not enough salt.
A century ago, the Bonneville Salt Flats spanned nearly 100,000 acres. Today they cover less than a third of that.
You’ve seen that iconic expanse of crystalline salt, even if you didn’t know it.
As a visual backdrop for automobile commercials, it is all but ubiquitous.
Portions of two dozen feature films have been shot there. Will Smith dragged a dead alien quite slowly across it in “Independence Day,” and Anthony Hopkins drove a motorcycle quite rapidly across it in “The World’s Fastest Indian.”
And, of course, for the past century it has attracted anyone wanting to travel inordinately fast in a motorized vehicle. Landspeed records have been set in piston-engine vehicles of all kinds, motorcycles, turbine- and diesel-powered cars and even jets.
But nearly all of those records were set on Salt Flats “tracks” that were greater than 10 miles long — enough for vehicles to reach top speed, like planes on an airport runway, and then to decelerate safely.
Those wide open spaces no longer exist.
“The main international racetrack used to be 13 miles in length,” said Stuart Gosswein, spokesman for Save The Salt Coalition, a non-profit group of organizations and companies with the land-speed racing community. “Now we can’t even find seven miles.”
The Utah Salt Flats Racing Association, which puts on the World of Speed, says it will announce by Sept. 1 whether this year’s event will go on as scheduled. Only then will people like Kunz and fellow “Monkey Business” speed-driving enthusiast Jerry Russell know if their long hours, days and weeks of preparation will be for naught.
“We’ve been working on the car for the last month and we’ll be ready to go, but we just don’t know for sure if we’ll be able to run,” said Russell, a resident of Moxee. “They had two and a third miles that were dry enough to run, but you’ve got to have a minimum of three miles even for the short track.”
Above a salt-water sea
The Salt Flats’ glass-like surface — the very reason it attracts so many speed merchants — results from a natural process that lends itself to the mining of potash, a valuable commodity used in making fertilizer.
Some 15,000 years ago, what we now know as the Salt Flats were the floor of a huge freshwater lake that took up two-thirds of Utah. It dried at the end of the last ice age, leaving enormous concentrations of dissolved minerals that led to the creation of a shallow aquifer of brine — essentially a subterranean salt-water sea.
The Salt Flats lie above that aquifer and are constantly being replenished by it, as the brine percolates to the surface and hardens into that flat, salty crust.
Its composition isn’t so different from common table salt, and being on top of vast miles of it is a unique experience.
“It’s really salt. You wet a finger and get a few grains of it and taste it — it’s salt,” Russell said. “And it’s hard-packed. When the humidity is dry, it’s like walking on asphalt.
“And when you’re in the car, it’s like driving on the smoothest road you’ve ever been on.”
Kunz, Russell and their “Monkey Business” cohorts have been making annual pilgrimages to that smooth raceway for the World of Speed, in hopes of going faster than the year before.
The first year, in a 1994 Ford Probe Kunz had purchased from his son — “after it quit on him,” Kunz said — they managed 119 mph. By year three they were nearly at 130. Last year, driving the Z28 they’d found at Craigslist online, they topped out just under 170 mph.
This year, they may top out at zero.
‘Seems like a no-brainer’
Prior to 1900, the Bonneville Salt Flats (BSF) covered some 96,000 acres. Today, it spans about 30,000 acres.
A 1997 U.S. Geological Survey report estimated the Bonneville Salt Flats had lost than 55 million tons of salt from its crust between 1960 and 1988, with the maximum salt-crust thickness dwindling from seven feet in 1960 to 51/2 feet in 1988.
“We have documents that say there used to be five feet of salt here,” Gosswein said. “And now it’s inches.”
So where’s all that salt disappearing to? It’s being put to use elsewhere.
Brine is invaluable in the production of potash, used in making fertilizer. Because the primary components of potash, salt and water-soluble potassium, are both in plentiful supply at the Salt Flats, for seven decades the federal Bureau of Land Management has allowed an adjacent potash mining operation to collect brine through long canals reaching out into the salt flats.
As the brine leaves, the Salt Flats get smaller.
“Where does the salt go? It seems like a no-brainer when you put in trenches and you’re taking salt brine away,” Gosswein said. “We look at the areas around the trenches where there used to be salt, and now there’s no salt. It’s all mud.”
After the 1997 USGS report, the Bureau of Land Management implemented a five-year experimental “salt laydown” project with Reilly Industries, then the owner of the potash mining operation.
The project called for replacing each year’s removed brine with matching amounts of dry salt — more, as it turned out, than was removed. Over the five years, 4.2 million tons of salt was mined out; 6.2 million tons of dry salt was put back in to replace it.
And it worked. According to the BLM, satellite imagery indicated a five-square-mile increase in the salt crust between 1997 and 1999.
Does anybody really care?
In 2004, Reilly Industries sold its Salt Flats operation to Denver-based Intrepid Mining, which insists it has been returning the sodium chloride (salt) to the flats after extracting the potassium necessary in the potash production.
The Save the Salt Coalition, though, wants more — more salt being returned to the flats, and more action from the BLM, especially since the Bonneville Salt Flats are in the National Register of Historic Places and are officially designated an Area of Critical Environmental Concern.
“Those are not just titles. They mean something,” Gosswein said. “If the BLM took seriously its responsibility to protect the Bonneville Salt Flats, they would be losing sleep over what’s happening and they would be brainstorming about how we can protect it.
“Over the decades the BLM has done a number of studies. They throw their hands up and say, gee, this is really complex, we don’t really exactly know what’s happening. And the racing community says it’s obvious: You put in these ditches and the salt brine is being removed.”
If the Bonneville Salt Flats are indeed disappearing, so are the opportunities for people like Jim Kunz to see just how fast they can go.
“I do wonder, if it matters to anybody else that it’s going away. It would be good to find out,” Kunz said. “I don’t know if anybody would really care, but we do, and lots of other people like us do.
“But I don’t expect that would be enough.”