You're Going to Kill Someone by Ripping a Donut on the Bonneville Salt Flats

When you mess with the high-speed lake beds, people can die.

Skyler Pittman and Cameron Ramage

For over a hundred years, the endless flats of Bonneville and El Mirage have drawn warriors who shake their fists at the laws of aerodynamics and chart a course for straight-line glory. It's there that land-speed records are broken—and where the careless actions of a few can put people in mortal danger. A recent case of fools doing donuts on a pristine stretch of the Bonneville Salt Flats race track spotlighted by Hagerty illustrates the dangerous butterfly effect at work.

It's Speed Week in Utah, and if the weather holds up, we'll see racers striving for the 500 mph mark. Normally the runs are completed in succession on a point-to-point straight line course, ensuring everyone's tire tracks run in the same direction to decrease the likelihood of surface imperfections causing a skid at high speeds. Imagine hitting a pothole on the highway at 70 mph. It's violent, unsettling, and potentially damaging to your vehicle. Now imagine running into a hardened rut at 427 mph. You can see why no one is amused.

Astoundingly flat and smooth, the salt pan sees winter rains that flood the land and wipe away the blemishes and tracks left by last season's racers to recast that perfect surface. But nature can only do so much, and when the millennia-old lake bed gets ripped up by a set of meaty mud-terrain tires, the damage can be irreversible. So it's understandable that a picture of two men ripping up the back half of the Bonneville track in a lifted Ford Crown Victoria earlier this year would draw a lot of criticism—less so that it would wind up promoted on Facebook in July by none other than tire company BFGoodrich.

Though the company itself has been a historic supporter of Bonneville teams, the agency that runs its social media accounts was apparently unaware that the picture was the equivalent of someone jackhammering out the bricks at Indy. The oblivious caption preserved by Hagerty is particularly bad. Members of the land speed community immediately piled on until BFGoodrich took the post down and posted an apology; it also made a $5,000 donation to Save the Salt, the advocacy group confirmed in a statement.

Jonathon Klein

That's a relatively happy ending, but also a scary look at ignorance in action. In the case of the donut-doers, even if they somehow missed the myriad signs at Bonneville warning against such behavior, there was still that moment when they looked at an undisturbed surface, skipped over wondering anything at all about it, and got right to work destroying it. There's nothing wrong with not knowing everything—unless the prevailing attitude is what we don't know doesn't matter. The irony of a major supporter of Bonneville speed records "accidentally" promoting an image of the land being desecrated is too rich for words.

Speaking from experience, the idea of coming across a gouge at anything over 100 mph is a ghastly thought. I’ve been going to El Mirage for a number of years, done my fair share of speed runs. I’ve never encountered the type of rut the Crown Vic dug into Bonneville, but at speed on a natural surface, you feel unsettled over even the shallowest of impressions. Anything more adds unnecessary danger to an already dangerous pursuit, which in turn puts racers, machines, iconic events like Speed Week, and the incredible, singular subculture of land speed record chasing at risk. 

Which brings up my last point: These lake beds are finite resources. We tend to treat the smooth salt like everlasting gobstoppers from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, confident that they’ll outlast us given their Pleistocene origins. But salt pans are fragile ecosystems and are increasingly threatened by everything from mineral mining for our electric cars to climate change, and both sites have seen events canceled due to unpredictable rains. Careless acts only make things worse.

There's no positive note here, no sugar-coating the reality. The world isn’t an open playground meant for your own enjoyment at the expense of others. Actions have consequences, occasionally dire ones. Something like ripping a donut on a dry lake bed—or simply driving where you're not supposed to, when you're not supposed to—could be the first link in a chain of events that eventually kills someone.

El Mirage and Bonneville deserve to exist. They deserve to remain intact for future generations. Even when autonomy is being marketed to the public, there are still those that want to push boundaries, push physics, and push themselves and their machines to what’s technically possible. So don’t be an idiot. Don’t endanger their lives. 

Got a tip, want to talk? Contact the author at Jonathon@thedrive.com or on Twitter @jonathon_klein.