The summer sun bounces off the salt in a singular blinding highlight, causing hazy vision and an almost immediate sunburn. In northwestern Utah lies the sleepy town of Wendover. Here, you’ll find two casinos, a 7-11 and four hotels. Wendover is also home to the famous Bonneville Speedway: a small portion of one of the world’s largest salt flats that’s dedicated to motorsport. And it’s here that speed junkies have attempted land speed records since the 1930s.
With a few events each year, men and machines are constantly being pushed on the salt. Yet SpeedWeek, held in August, is undeniably the largest gathering. With hundreds competing to set the highest speed in a number of categories, the turnout is unlike anything we’ve seen before.
Bonneville is otherworldly – even without the sound of lazy V8s bouncing off the nearby mountains, or the sight of torpedo-shaped specials approaching 500mph and leaving a wisp of salt floating in the heat haze – the Flats are simply a breathtaking place to be.
The sense of dedication and love for the sport is detected in every breath. You often hear people talking about camaraderie in racing, and Bonneville takes it to a new level.
And while we were there to absorb this unique sport and lifestyle, our story would revolve around Joe Moch and his quest to break 235mph in his 2001 ACAT Global Ferrari 550 Maranello.
Yes, Joe owns one of the few Ferraris in the world built for top speed and caked in salt. Its blue hue blended with Bonneville’s infinite horizon and garnered surprising attention in a field of home-built hot rods and high-dollar missiles.
Joe’s love for speed isn’t something new, though. He’s been obsessed all his life. “In 1965, I was walking past a Jaguar dealership and saw a gold on red XKE,” he reminisced. “I was a senior in high school at the time but would eventually buy one in '67.” After the E-Type, a love of fine Italian automobiles took hold.
Joe has owned 11 Tour de France Ferraris, which is more than any other private owner. His favorites included a '63 250 Spyder California and a '54 250 Europa GT, if you were wondering… “I’ve just always loved Ferraris,” he laughed.
It was fitting, then, that when Joe met Jim Busby, a former Bonneville record holder, the idea of breaking a speed record was embedded in his mind. Something he’d attempt in a Ferrari.
As you might imagine, the 550 Maranello was never built for top speed runs on salt. It was purposed as a comfortable GT with a massive 5.5-liter V12 up front, a luxurious interior and room in the trunk for a set of golf clubs.
Like many things, racing a Ferrari on the salt “Seemed like a great idea at the time!” And after racing virtually everything, from Formula 500 to vintage series, Joe figured a land speed record wasn’t impossible.
As CEO of ACAT Global (Advanced Clean Air Technologies), Joe is at the forefront of catalytic converters, producing the smallest and finest on the market. They get the same conversion efficiency as modern cats but at one-third the size, as well as a 30dB noise reduction without using a muffler. This isn’t obscure technology, either: Joe is confident we’ll see his cats on OEM vehicles and every emissions system before too long. “We’ve already passed GM’s durability tests,” he confided. And what better way to prove his product than setting a speed record?
The 550 was prepared for its first salt flat outing at SpeedWeek 2012. Jim Busby Racing, with help from Van Butler and Lee Kennedy from the Southern California Timing Association, built the car with Joe’s supervision. “You can’t imagine how much needs to be discarded from a modern Ferrari,” Joe recalled. “We filled so many five-gallon buckets just from scraping putty out of the trunk and driving compartment.”
During construction a $100,000 built motor was fitted, bored from 5.5 to 5.99-liters (the class limit), as well as a Ford 9" rear axle and crash-box transmission. The interior was stripped and caged before custom wheels and tires were fitted. It doesn’t actually have front brakes, relying on the rear factory units and two parachutes. Insane!
In 2012, Joe hit 216.33mph, which was 30mph faster than the factory speed record. “It’s such a desolate place,” Joe recalled. “There are no trees or anything. You’re just following a line in the salt and you see the mountains on the horizon that appear to be floating because of the heat vapor. It’s like being on another planet.”
As you may imagine, driving on salt is unlike anything else. “I had no idea what to expect on my first pass. I was in first gear, but the ratio was so high it would hit 107mph. I’m used to road-race cars so it was an odd feeling when the engine kept pulling and you haven’t shifted once. I kept wondering when the redline was coming. When would I grab another gear?” You can imagine his anxiety in the cabin, mixed with lots of adrenaline.
“The car moves around under you. The secret of being successful on the salt is not overcorrecting. The car starts to move to the side and it takes patience to bring it back over a fraction. At 200mph, any quick reaction could be the end. It requires such delicate corrections. But there’s a comfort you feel after getting it dialed in,” he remembered.
For his 2013 attempt, Peter recalled his second experience. “Perhaps one of the worst aspects of SpeedWeek is the waiting. Everybody stands around for much of the day, watching and relaxing, anticipating insane speed and praying for a trouble-free run. Finally, we were in a line of cars. There was sweat cascading down my face in the 127˚ heat. All you want is for your time to come but you’re waiting in that damn line, anticipating, wondering. It gets very claustrophobic,” he admitted.
We were waiting, camera in hand, for what seemed like an eternity for Joe to fire the 12-cylinder beast and get going. The team was aiming for 232-235mph this time around. “It was within our grasp and definitely within the capability of the car,” Joe said, “but it just wasn’t in the cards this year…”
Unfortunately, the oil pump had been moved to the trunk for better weight distribution. The motor required 800psi oil pressure, but was only seeing 400psi. So the ACAT Global Ferrari 550 Maranello cut short its SpeedWeek adventure at just 125mph, never even leaving first gear. “We pulled the plug, and for business reasons, we recently sold the car,” he said regretfully.
It’s hard to believe he’d do that after so much effort, but you can’t argue with business. Joe and the team will return to Bonneville this year with… a Dodge Viper – it doesn’t have the same ring to it, we but appreciate the guy’s conviction, and the fact he continues to show up to SpeedWeek with less conventional cars.
The Bonneville Salt Flats are a fascinating place. If you love cars and motorsport, or simply have an appreciation for our earth and its wonders, you absolutely must go. Bonneville should be on everybody’s bucket list but take a hat, lots of sunscreen, good sunglasses and water!