Its technical or chemical name is sodium chloride, a compound that has morphed again and again in the hands of man down through the ages. Common, ordinary salt that most of us see as coming in a round blue box with a white top, Morton's table salt, with or without iodine added.
Once early man found out that you could surround almost any food with salt to keep it from rotting and making him sick, salt became one of the most valued and valuable substances on earth, and was actually used as currency in some European and Middle Eastern societies. Today's salted dishes like salted cod and salt pork, have been around for a very, very long time. Salt was also found to bring out the moisture, and flavor, in fresh foods, and was therefore prized even more highly. Every place in Europe that had those horrible salt mines to work in also had a thriving economy because everybody wanted salt, and lots of it. Salzburg, Austria, home of Mozart, is named for salt, and still has salt-mining operations.
Although it now comes to us in a variety of forms, rock salt for gaining traction on wintry surfaces, sea salt for epicurean cooking, kosher salt for Jewish cooking, salt is as important as ever, although it's a lot cheaper now than it has ever been, No matter how you slice it, dice it, size it, bless it or crush it, it's still pretty much sodium chloride.
All that preamble brings us to the central subject, the largest single surface deposit of natural salt in North America, the Great Salt Lake near Salt Lake City, Utah. It's huge, it's white, and it's completely uninterrupted by vegetation because no plant can grow in salt.The best part of this gigantic deposit of sodium chloride is called the Bonneville Salt Flats, that hallowed place where racers from all over the world have come for parts of two centuries to try to go really, really fast. Some have gone fast, some have not, and some have died there trying to go faster.
Since the end of WWII, the Bonneville Salt Flats near Wendover, Utah, has seen thousands of annual assaults on the speed record books, with some racers perfectly content to take their old hot rods just as they were, some who wanted to build streamlined cars for very high speeds, and some who wanted the big prize, the World Land Speed Record.
Some years in August, September and October, the traditional time for record runs, the salt has been so wet with naturally occurring water that traction, and records, were impossible. Some years, the salt flats themselves were threatened with permanent closure to the race cars so that our friends at Morton's could just mine the salt. But Bonneville has survived weather, politics, racer fatalities and cruel commerce and continues to thrive under the sanction of Bonneville Nationals, Inc., an outgrowth of the old Southern California Timing Association that used to run the speed trails on the salt.
Bonneville is a special, magical place. It's an 8-mile-long racetrack for parts of a couple of months each year, but there are no fences, no gates, no grandstands, no snack bars and no admission tickets. Just a black stripe painted on the white salt to guide the racers down the straight and narrow course, through the starting clocks, up to speed and through the shutdown area.
Not just a few seconds of full throttle, but several minutes, yielding a thrill like no other in motorsports. Bonneville is the one place in North American racing that is absolutely, completely and totally about racers going fast. They don't give a damn about TV rights, spectator appeal, or gate revenues, they just want to go fast.
Over the years, we have seen motorcycles, roadsters, production cars, streamliners, pickup trucks, diesel tractors, jet cars, rocket cars and turbine cars, cars that looked like teardrops, cars that looked like airplanes, all trying for a few days to go faster than last year, set a record or join the exclusive 200-mph Club (there are much smaller clubs for 300 mph and 400 mph).
The variety of machinery that shows up for one of the Bonneville timing sessions each summer is unique in all the world of racing, and the Bonneville folks see to it that there are enough classes for nearly everything to run in, and that the cars are safe. Rookies have to be tested, and contestants are closely scrutizined for their racing histories. At speeds over 450 mph, nothing can be left to chance (the official wheel-driven land-speed record is a touch over 458 mph, held by the late Don Vesco and his brother Rick in their turbine-powered streamliner. Jet cars and rocket cars have gone considerably faster, finally over the speed of sound). Everything has to be checked, again and again.
Over the years, all kinds of teams from Europe have shown up at this quiet, unearthly white speed palace, including the unprepared, the ill-prepared, and the overp-prepared, The over-prepared ones were the ones who flew across the Atlantic with record certificates in their brief cases. MG, Jaguar, Norton motorcycles, Triumph motorcycles, Triumph, Ferrari, ad infinitum, the teams have come and after months of hard work, realized the most fleeting kind of glory before an audience of a handful.
This year, we are going back to Bonneville with a binary mission: reset a record that has been standing for more than 40 years with a European car of the same year and make, and set a record for the oldest racer ever to take to the salt, as the Lyco Engineering Special once again heads to Bonneville.
The car in question is a 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing coupe owned by old friend Bob Sirna, a long-time Mercedes-Benz enthusiast whose cars have been magazine feature cars and Meadow Brook Concours d'Elegance winners, entrants at the Lime Rock, Road America and Monterey vintage events, and perennial attendees at the exclusive Gullwing Group events.
This is the Sirna Gullwing's third try for the record in F/GT, where the record is 153.711 mph, and this time he's bringing his stock-bodied silver Gullwing, a 400-bhp 3-liter Gullwing engine and one of the most experienced racing drivers on Earth, John Fitch.
Fitch, who has been a racer since 1949, is 87 years old, and has already passed his rookie test during a 2003 attempt. Fitch will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 300 SL Gullwing at Pebble Beach and then go directly to Bonneville to start celebrating the 50th annversary of his win in the GT class in a Gullwing in May, 1955, at the Mille Miglia, the same year Stirling Moss and Denis Jenkinson won overall with a Mercedes SLR roadster at nearly 100 mph average.
The remarkable Mr. Fitch designed and managed the Lime Rock Park road course, still lives less than 2 miles from the front gate, is the only American ever to drive for Mercedes (1952-54), raced Corvettes for Briggs Cunningham, ran the factory Corvette racing team, built souped-up Corvairs and his own streeet car, the Phoenix, and has several patents for highway and racetrack safety systems. These two, who ran the Mille Miglia Storica 2 years ago in this same car, are out to celebrate history and make history, and we'll be there to record whatever happens. Stay tuned.