Sizzling on the salt flats

August 16, 2011

By Jim Urquhart

As soon as I got out of my car and stepped onto the salt I could feel the skin on the end of my nose begin to sizzle. Within five minutes I cracked open my first water bottle and was relatively uncomfortable. By the time 15 minutes had past I was already questioning why in the hell did I choose to go on this three day assignment.

When the bright sun began blinding me after it was reflected off the salt under my sunglasses into my eyes and I could feel it begin to burn under my chin I became thankful I didn’t pay homage to the Scottish half of my ancestry and wear a kilt. In fact, within an hour of arriving I met a young couple that decided to tell me while waiting in a line the day before I arrived they had their nether regions sunburned because they didn’t have on the right underwear under their shorts to protect them from the reflected sun.

I had heard of this happening so I planned ahead. I did not pack shorts… or a skirt.

So, that first hour pretty much set the stage for the next three days of work covering SpeedWeek on the Bonneville Salt Flats. I had heard about the event for years but had never ventured out the 120 miles into the Utah desert from my home to cover it. I guess I always knew better that it was best to stay away from the Salt Flats in 120 degree heat in the middle of August.

But there is a draw to coming out here. Where else can you witness a land so stark and flat that you can actually perceive the curvature of the earth? The flats have taken lives, even before men started to push machines to engineering limits. At one point the Donner Party thought it was going to be the flats that would take there lives, but it was a pass named in their honor that killed them in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

I was here to cover men and women pushing machines and themselves to limits in order chase dreams of pegged speedometers; there is something really exciting about that. You can shoot and casually talk to someone as they are getting their car ready, but in the back of my mind I was aware this could be one of their last conversations. Just two years ago a driver was killed as his car was destroyed while traveling at top speed.

I spent the first few hours overwhelmed with the heat and sheer vastness of the courses. But soon found veteran photographers that were willing to point me in the right direction. Without them I would have had no clue the history of the event and its people.

Many would alert me to when a car was about to run and if it may be a 400 MPH run or an exciting car. Also, they let know if the particular entrant wasn’t even expected to make it to a certain point on the track because of either the driver or the car not having the right stuff. Once in a rhythm I would shoot and edit into the evening and be up and on the track before dawn to look for features.

However, no matter how much I hydrated throughout the day I could feel myself begin to fade, get a headache or just feel sick by the middle of the day and would have to take a break in the shade that I or someone else brought. Truth is, I hate the hot summer heat and would rather cuddle up to a polar bear or penguin than go outside in it. When most people loose weight in the summer months because of activity I tend to gain weight because I just want to hide indoors. Come winter though, you can’t slow me down.
But I had to work through it. My job is not about me. It is about the stories I cover.

Photographer Jim Urquhart at the Bonneville SpeedWeek race. Courtesy of Jeff Erwin

Luckily the band of older photographers and journalists were willing to take me under their wing and let me hang with them at between the four and five mile marks of the tracks and educated me the best they could. Plus, just being able to hang at that portion of the track was a bit of a privilege. Many of the cars were at top speeds during that section and because of the heat and the curvature of the earth it was impossible to see the whole track from ground level.

A common theme I heard was people were addicted to the salt and kept coming out year after year by compulsion. At first I thought they were all crazy, but as my skin baked, and I constantly tasted the salt from my sweat hitting my lips or at times blinding me with a bit of melted sunscreen, I began to have a real appreciation of the salt flats.

I truly don’t know anywhere else in the world I can witness people putting there lives on the line in a land so truly stark and beautiful. The salt flats would rather kill you for your last drops of moisture, now your going to tempt fate by racing across in a machine that is built for speed and not necessarily constructed to keep you alive? Ok, I will bring a camera, not a skirt.

(View a large-format selection of photos on The Atlantic here)

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