June 7 – June 9, 2020.
“Oops”, thought Craig Breedlove. “The braking chutes won’t deploy. ‘Spirit’ and I are in for a rough stop.”
It was October 15, 1964, at Bonneville Salt Flats. Craig, driving the ‘Spirit of America’, had just iced the world land speed record on his second pass at 526 MPH. ‘Spirit of America’ was basically a narrow space-age car on three wheels powered by an engine from an F-86 Sabre fighter jet. The salt flats cover a lot of area, but not enough to allow coasting to a stop from that speed.
At the edge of the flats, he started skidding. He clipped off phone poles like they were matches. He was still doing 200 MPH when he hit a pond full of brine. He and ‘Spirit’ finally came to a stop. He climbed from the cockpit saying “And now for my next act I’m going to set myself on fire”.
Craig Breedlove’s feat wasn’t recognized by the Federation Internationale l’Automobile (FIA) because ‘Spirit’ had only three wheels. He did hold the record under the Federation Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM) — for almost two weeks. He still holds the Guinness Book of World Records title for the longest skid mark (five miles).
Breedlove wasn’t the only person to race here on the Bonneville Flats. Many speed records have been set over the years. But the most dramatic race occurred around 15K years ago when this was Bonneville Lake. The race ran continuously for two months. Any visiting spectators would have been quite impressed.
At the time Bonneville Lake was about the size that Lake Michigan is today, covering much of western Utah and stretching into Idaho. In Idaho, volcanic activity suddenly diverted the Bear River into the lake. The water level rose. Near Preston, Idaho the walls of Red Rock Pass caved in, and the race began.
For weeks waters washed out of the lake, and down the Snake and Columbia rivers to the Pacific Ocean. In total, 1200 cubic miles of water running as fast as 70 MPH poured out. Chunks of basalt lining the Snake River were ripped from the canyon walls. They tumbled along, leaving a trail of large rounded “melon” boulders which can be seen along the Snake River today.
Normally geologic processes seem slow to us. In this case, though, they moved at a record-setting pace.