When gearheads think of land-speed records, Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats come to mind. Situated 111 miles outside of Salt Lake City and near the Utah-Nevada border, speed freaks flock to the motorsport Mecca for the annual Bonneville Motorcycle Speed Trials.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case in 2022, as organizers canceled the gathering due to flooding. Scheduled for August 28 through September 1, 2022, the Speed Trials was set to host both the FIM Land Speed World Records and AMA Land Speed Grand Championship. Regional weather had other ideas, though.

After assessing the Salt Flats on August 12, 2022, organizers reported that 4-10 inches of water covered the length of the track. The conditions forced officials to call off the 2022 edition, but the Bonneville Motorcycle Speed Trials may be in further jeopardy in the coming years.

Salt Crust Levels - 1960 vs. 2016

Researchers report that the Bonneville salt crust has thinned by nearly 30 percent over the past 60 years. As a result, the once 13-mile track has shrunk to just 8 miles. The issue is rooted in a rapidly-depleting nearby aquifer. When groundwater dilutes the aquifer's mineral-rich brine, the evaporated crust offers less salt year over year.

Bonneville Salt Flats Track - 1987
Bonneville Salt Flats Track - 2016

A sufficient salt layer not only provides a consistent racing surface but also moderates tire temperatures at high speeds. Several researchers and racing advocates point to nearby potash (potassium-based salt) mining operations for drawing too much brine from the aquifer. However, authorities haven’t taken swift (enough) action for some critics.

“In the world I came from, you study something, you figure out what changes you need to make, you make the changes and then you go back and study it again to see if your changes had an effect on it,” claimed racer and Salt Flats Racing Association leader Dennis Sullivan. “It’s ludicrous to just keep studying it until you do something.”

For others, like Utah Geological Survey geologist Jeremiah Bernau, the answer isn’t so clear-cut. As a counterpoint, Bernau cited a 2016 study that found that areas where races were staged were most susceptible to salt thinning, as heavy use impacts how water flows into the crust.

“Every use is going to have some sort of impact upon it. It’s just trying to rank those, understand how much that impact is and what we can do to mitigate or understand it,” Bernau explained.

Should Bernau’s ongoing studies prove the need, the federal government could return additional salt to the flats in order to stabilize the ecosystem. If those measures prove beneficial, racing advocates could push for more federal funding to help save the Bonneville Salt Flats along with the yearly Speed Trials.

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