Two different friends of mine have asked me about this place over the past few days, so I want to share some thoughts with you, while they are still fresh in my mind. Of all the places we’d visited during our recent epic road trip to Portland, Oregon, the Bonneville Salt Flats was among the least touristy, yet it stands out as having been one of my most memorable stops. It was significant to me, personally, that we stopped there. In fact I took our group a hundred miles out of our way en route to Portland, just to see this landmark, which is located in far-western Utah, just before the Nevada border.
Three things have happened that made Bonneville a bucket list item for me. First, in February of 2005, my family and I had the pleasure of meeting AMA Flat Track racing legend Chris Carr at the International Motorcycle Show in Rosemont, Illinois. We hadn’t realized it at the time, but Chris was soon to become a land speed record holder. More on that to come.
Then in 2006 a movie called The World’s Fastest Indian was released. Starring Sir Anthony Hopkins, this film is based on a true story about Burt Munro, a New Zealander who set several land speed records at Bonneville in the 1960’s, aboard his highly modified (and streamlined) 1920 Indian Scout. It’s a delightful film, and fairly true to the original story, from what I’ve been able to learn about it. This really piqued my interest in seeing Bonneville firsthand.
This third thing seems quite remarkable in retrospect. Also in 2006, Chris Carr set a land speed record at Bonneville, piloting the BUB Seven Streamliner, the first motorcycle to go over 350 miles per hour. In February of 2007, the BUB Seven was on display at the International Motorcycle Show in Rosemont. My then-13-year-old son John was so taken with this machine, he waited patiently to talk with Motorcycle Hall of Fame inductee Denis Manning, the owner and designer of the BUB Seven.
I had no idea what the kid had in mind, but I had to smile when Mr. Manning turned to greet John, who looked up at him and said, “Can I ask you something?” Then pointing to the sleek orange streamliner, he continued, “Where did you ever get the idea for that thing?”
“Well, uh…” he began, then turned to me and inquired, “Do you have a few minutes?” I smiled back and nodded my approval. Denis Manning then proceeded to tell my son about how he had become interested in land speed racing at a young age, when his dad had taken him to Bonneville. “Every other kid my age wanted to be Mickey Mantle. I wanted to be Mickey Thompson,” he chortled. He went on and told my son about his racing efforts, and then about designing and building machines that could go fast. Denis had a stack of rolled up posters he had been handing out at the show, but instead of giving John one of those, he said, “Wait a minute,” and then reaching down for an flat, unsigned poster, he asked, “What’s your name?” Denis Manning then proceeded to autograph a poster of the BUB Seven to John, adding his personal advice to “always follow your dreams.”
I just stood there and watched this interaction between Denis Manning and my young son. I’m sure other people, enthusiasts who knew who Denis Manning was, were made to wait while these two had their conversation. I’m not entirely sure who was more inspired by that, John or me.
Now you know why in 2016, I led my little band of merry travelers a hundred miles out of our way to see the remnants of a prehistoric salt lake bed. There was nothing special going on there at the time, though there were other people around us, including some visitors from New Zealand, whom John engaged in conversation while we were standing out there, miles from the middle of nowhere. But still, it was a big deal for us to be standing there. We even ate at the same little cafe where the real Burt Munro, and other racing legends like him, hung out during Speed Week at Bonneville.
Bonneville… I’ve been there!