Utah Provides $5 Million for “Restore Bonneville” Program

SEMA News—June 2019


By Eric Snyder

Utah Provides $5 Million for “Restore Bonneville” Program

SEMA and Racing Community Now Seek Federal Contributions

  BonnevilleA streamliner chasing a dream at the Bonneville Salt Flats.

A major milestone was achieved when the state of Utah appropriated $5 million in its fiscal year 2019–2020 budget to help save the Bonneville Salt Flats. SEMA applauds the Utah state government for allocating funding to create a 10-year “Restore Bonneville” program that will dramatically increase the amount of salt being pumped onto the flats in an effort to restore the historic racing venue.

Bonneville has played a significant role in land-speed racing and in the history of the performance-parts industry. Many of SEMA’s founding member companies tested their products at Bonneville, and racers today continue to chase land-speed records at the salt flats.

Bonneville is a unique land formation that brings visitors from around the world to Utah. For racers, the surface is unequaled. The hard salt crust is perfect for both speed and safety. Hundreds of land-speed records have been set and broken in a variety of automotive classes at Bonneville ever since racers started competing there in 1914.

BonnevilleThe U.S. Bureau of Land Management has managed Bonneville since 1946. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is designated an Area of Critical Environmental Concern and the Bonneville Salt Flats Special Recreation Management Area.  

Bonneville is more than 60 mi. long and divided in half by railroad tracks and Interstate 80. Racing activities have been located on the north side since the ’30s, with potash mining to the south. The two activities lived in harmony until the ’60s, when the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued leases allowing salt to be transferred for use in potash mining. Millions of tons of salt were transferred over a period of decades. As a result, the surface crust is thinning, and the overall size of the flats is shrinking.

While racers were once able to compete on a 13-mi. racetrack at Bonneville, race sanctioning bodies are now unable to find more than 8 mi. that are safe enough for competition. Racing in two opposite directions within one hour as required for world records has been abandoned, and the racecourse at Bonneville is not long enough for the world’s fastest vehicles to compete. While the conditions at Bonneville have deteriorated significantly over the past few decades, SEMA and the racing community have identified a pathway to return the salt flats’ status as a preeminent race venue.

  BonnevilleBonneville Speed Week attendees gather at the starting line to watch the Speed Demon pursue another record.

Until 1997, salt was transferred from Bonneville to remove the potash (about 3% of the salt mineral compound). The remaining sodium chloride was a waste product for the mine leaseholder and was never pumped back onto the flats. Recognizing that Bonneville was imperiled, SEMA and the racing community worked with the mine owner to create a salt brine return program. From 1997–2002, an average of 1.2 million tons per year were pumped onto the salt flats, and studies showed that the salt crust thickened and the brine aquifer beneath the surface was improved. In recent years, however, the volume of salt pumped back onto the salt flats has been consistently under 600,000 tons due to limited infrastructure.

SEMA and the racing community have been working with federal and state lawmakers, the BLM and the mining company, Intrepid Potash, to craft the Restore Bonneville program to pump as much as 1.5 million tons of salt annually. The restoration will be accomplished through infrastructure upgrades such as rebuilding wells, relining and covering water ditches, relining processing ponds, and installing new pipes and pumps.

BonnevilleVintage photos show race vehicles in a variety of classes competing on the Bonneville Salt Flats.  

The Restore Bonneville project will cost an estimated $50 million over a 10-year period, and infrastructure upgrades will be maintained in the years following to ensure that the gains made from the pumping program are sustained. The state of Utah’s $5 million investment is the first step in funding the program, but it is contingent upon securing the other $45 million needed to complete the project.

The bulk of the money will come from the federal government, with additional contributions from the motorsports community. Accordingly, SEMA and the racing community have turned to the U.S. Congress and BLM to provide funding and make commitments to ensure that Restore Bonneville becomes a reality.

The Bonneville Salt Flats is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. SEMA is a partner in the Save the Salt Coalition, which represents the racing community and is comprised of automotive and motorsports companies and organizations. Contributions from the racing community are to be directed to the Save the Salt Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to restore the Bonneville Salt Flats. For more news or information, visit www.savethesalt.org.

SEMA’s Legacy

Bonneville played a crucial role in SEMA’s formation. Bonneville, El Mirage, Muroc and other Southern California dry lakes were primary venues for industry pioneers to try out new products in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. Those pioneers would adjust their equipment when racing and then go back to the garage to create the next generation of speed equipment.

Many of the inventors then started companies and helped create race sanctioning organizations. Whether for a ’32 hot rod, a ’60s musclecar, a streamliner or anything in between, Bonneville has been a proving ground for SEMA-member companies and their customers for decades.

Key Moments in Time

1846: The ill-fated Donner-Reed party crossed the Bonneville Salt Flats (BSF) on the way to California.

1907: Western Pacific Railroad completed tracks across BSF. Salt mining began at BSF but eventually converted to potash production.

1914: The first unofficial land speed record was set by Teddy Tetzlaff, who noted that the salt surface coolness did not overheat tires. Tire companies began sponsoring events as a way to test tires.

1917–1918: A brine collection dike was created, forming the Salduro Loop.

1919–1925: Highway 40 was constructed across BSF.

1932–1957: Ab Jenkins began a three-decade career, setting 56 speed and endurance records. He also became mayor of Salt Lake City.

1935: The first world land speed record (300 mph) was set by Britain’s Sir Malcolm Campbell. The new record prompted the land speed racing community to move from Daytona Beach, Florida.

1946: The U.S. Bureau of Land Management became custodian of BSF.

1947: Britain’s John Cobb ran a 400-mph race car on BSF as part of Utah’s Centennial.

1949: The first Bonneville National Speed Trials was held (precursor to the modern Speed Week).

1956: General Motors named the ’57 Pontiac model “Bonneville” after Ab and Marvin Jenkins set every American record with the new car.

1963: The federal government issued potassium leases covering 24,670 acres adjacent to the race venue. Fourteen miles of collection ditches allowed for the withdrawal of salt brine.

1960s: Racers first noticed a problem with the salt crust.

Late 1960s–1970s: Studies were undertaken by the Utah Geological and Mineralogical Survey and the U.S. Geological Survey to determine the extent of salt loss at BSF.

1963–1970: Craig Breedlove (“Spirit of America”), Art Arfons (“Green Monster”) and Gary Gabelich (“The Blue Flame”) focus worldwide attention on jet- and rocket-powered cars. Records increase from 394 mph to 622 mph.

1970: Gary Gabelich set the last world land speed record at the BSF. Salt loss forced the international land speed racing community to move the record-setting venue to Black Rock Desert, Nevada, and other locations due to the reduced length of the BSF race track.

1972: Interstate 80 replaced Highway 40.

1974: The Utah Geological and Mineral Survey study compared the salt crust thickness between 1960–1974, concluding that there was a 100% decrease in cubic yards of salt crust more than 4-ft. thick during that period.

1975: The BSF race track was added to National Register of Historic Places.

1979: The U.S. Geological Survey and a BLM study concluded that: “Weather cycles may partly explain changes on the Bonneville salt crust. But the activities of man, such as withdrawing brine and constructing surface-drainage barriers, have altered the hydrologic environment and have had a profound effect on the salt crust.”

1982: Britain’s Richard Noble set a 633-mph record at Black Rock Desert.

1985: 30,203 acres of BSF were designated as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern and were identified as the Bonneville Salt Flats Special Recreation Management Area.

1989: The Save the Salt Coalition was founded by racers, businesses and community members with the common goal of saving BSF.

1992: Bonneville Nationals and Speed Week officials were forced to change international timing procedures due to reduced speedway length, eliminating the within-an-hour two-way runs requirement. Officials focused only on setting national records. The Save the Salt Foundation was established to help raise funds to save BSF.

1995: Save the Salt, BLM, the state of Utah and the mining company negotiated a voluntary agreement for salt brine to be pumped onto BSF for five years during the winter months.

1997: Salt brine pumping began.

2002: The five-year pumping agreement expired, but the mining company voluntarily continued the pumping operation.

2004: A BLM study of the five-year pumping program noted that the 6.2 million tons of salt transferred did not produce the anticipated 2-in. increase in salt thickness. However, replenishment of the aquifer will eventually add more salt to the existing crust.

2011: The mining company and the BLM prepared a draft Environmental Assessment (EA) on the mining plan. The racing community urged a mandatory salt laydown component.

2012: The BLM approved the mining plan and final EA that required the mining company to pump at least as much salt as is removed.

2013: Racers observed continued degradation of BSF and worsening conditions.

2015: All 2015 racing events were cancelled due to rain and mud contamination from adjoining areas. The Save the Salt Coalition developed a draft restoration plan.

2016: The Save the Salt Coalition refined the restoration plan and pursued implementation by the BLM. Gov. Herbert signed a resolution passed by the Utah legislature urging the BLM to restore BSF to safe land speed racing conditions.

2017–2019: The Save the Salt Coalition pursued a Restore Bonneville program with Intrepid Potash, the BLM, and state and federal lawmakers. Utah pledged $5 million, and the Save the Salt Coalition sought additional funds from the U.S. Congress. The 10-year program is intended to restore the BSF racetrack to 13 mi. from the current 8 mi.

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