When I was researching for our trip out to Bonneville Speed Week, there weren’t many resources to help with planning, and I’ve since learned that some of the information was outdated or incorrect. Therefore I wanted to try my hand at an updated guide for those wishing to attend Bonneville Speed Week as spectators!
What is Bonneville Speed Week?
Speed Week is an event that happens each August (pending weather and salt conditions–both the 2014 & 2015 competitions were cancelled!) at the Bonneville Salt Flats near Wendover, Utah.
The Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) organizes Speed Week every year, and they’re the officiating body for the land speed records set at Bonneville Speed Week. Some of the cars racing this year went over 400mph!
Basically, each year two (or three) courses are set up on the salt, and vehicles are timed as they race down the salt, trying to set new land speed records for their category of car/motorcycle. If you run a qualifying pass, then your car is taken to impound (so you can’t really make modifications to it), and then the next morning you run again. The average of the two times is taken, and if it’s higher than the previous record – congratulations! You just set a new land speed record!
In the picture below, you can see three main categories of cars that race at Speed Week – roadsters, lakesters, and streamliners! Of course there are other categories of cars (and even more of motorcycles) but these are the types that have historically been run at Speed Week.
Basically, if you’re at all into cars or racing, this is an event you won’t want to miss. Watching the passes for records is only a small part of it – meeting racers and other car fanatics is a big part of the fun too!
The cost of the event for spectators if $50 for the week or $20 per day (both per person). If you pay for a week, they’ll give you a button to let you back in for the rest of the week. Make sure you don’t lose it, although they didn’t seem super strict about monitoring whether you had a button or not as you drove in! The racing starts on Saturday around 10am and goes until 7pm, but every other day of the week (through Friday) it goes from 7am to 7pm.
The salt flats are basically in the middle of nowhere. Salt Lake City is a little less than a two hour drive away, and Las Vegas is about a five hour drive, so if you plan on flying, choosing one of those two cities is probably your best bet.
Taking a rental car to the salt flats is not exactly something the rental car companies encourage. It’s recommended that you don’t mention where you are going when renting a car (especially from Salt Lake City) or wear Speed Week shirts or anything else that might give it away. You’ll also want to be very careful to clean all of the salt off of and out of your car before returning it.
It’s a good idea to put down towels and maybe wrap the foot pedals in your car before you go to Speed Week to make clean up easier when you’re ready to leave the flats. In the photo above you can see a before and after to explain why this step is necessary! Be sure to get a good car wash too (the Wendover high school cross country team had power washers as you left the salt flats for $10, but we still had to go to a regular car wash as well) once you’re done driving on the salt. We found out that only one gas station (the Texaco) in Wendover/West Wendover had vacuums to clean out the interior of your car, so keep that in mind to hide all the evidence of the salt! [Edit: as of 2017 this is not a Texaco but the ‘West Wendover Sinclair gas station’… it’s located near Wendover Will].
As for transportation at the event itself, we mainly used our vehicle to get around the speedway or walked. Since it’s so hot out during the event, a better (faster) option than walking is bicycles. Of course, since we were flying we weren’t able to bring bikes, but if you’re driving maybe keep it in mind!
There are really only a few options for lodging while attending Bonneville Speed Week. West Wendover, which is right next to Wendover but on the Nevada side of the border, is the closest place to Salt Lake City where gambling is legal, so there are lots of casinos there where it’s possible to stay. There are also a few hotels/motels in Wendover as well. However, both the casinos and hotels increase their prices during Speed Week and are also booked well in advance of the event, so make sure you book early if you want to stay in a hotel!
The other main option is camping at what’s known as “The Bend”. This is just the salt flats around the bend in the road leading to the Speedway, where people set up tents and RV’s while they attend Speed Week. This is the option we took, although sleeping in our rental car wasn’t incredibly enjoyable. Next time we’ll invest in a tent! [Edit: We brought a tent in 2017 and it was indeed much more enjoyable than sleeping in the car.]
The only place to actually get food out on the salt is a food truck/trailer for the Enola Gay cafe. They have stuff like burgers, pulled pork or chicken sandwiches, etc., and it’s pretty good. Expect long lines though, and be prepared to pay cash! It’s also a good idea to have some snacks in your car out on the salt–otherwise you might end up driving into Wendover every time you get hungry!
There are several restaurants in Wendover/West Wendover, from Pizza Hut to McDonald’s to a Mexican place. As casinos everywhere do, the casinos in West Wendover have lots of restaurant options too. We had one buffet meal at a casino while we were there, which was a nice change of pace from sleeping in our car and being out on the salt!
However, those buffets can get expensive, so our favorite place to eat was actually the Prospector Cafe, which is located at the Red Garter Hotel and Casino. Believe it or not, we actually ate there when we drove through Wendover the year before! They have super cheap breakfast deals (a $4 breakfast served all day, and an $8 brunch buffet in the morning/early afternoon) that are filling and quite good. If you’re on somewhat of a budget while at Speed Week, this is the best value we found!
What’s going on?
The event can be a lot to take in, but luckily there are some resources that can help! There’s a radio broadcast that announces details about the runs on both the short and long tracks as they run. That station is 89.7 FM [Edit: in 2017 the station was 88.3 FM… it changes every year, so ask at the gate when you get your pass what the station is this year!], and tuning in while in your car is a really great way to know who’s running if you’re watching from along the track and not at the start line. Buying a program and/or record book from the SCTA is also a good way to learn more about the event–the program will show brief profiles of the vehicles racing that year, and the record book shows the current world records for different car and motorcycle categories. Plus, the money spent when you buy one or both of these from the SCTA goes to supporting the organization! Finally, if you missed any runs that day (or want to see who will be going for record return runs the next morning) you can see the daily results posted on the SCTA website each evening. All of these things can help you have a better-informed experience at Speed Week!
Battling the Elements
– The sun is bright, and the salt, reflecting back the sun, is brighter than you would expect! You will need plenty of sunscreen at Bonneville Speed Week (be sure to apply on your chin and the bottom of your nose too!), and hats with broad brims and sunglasses are NOT optional. You’re there to see the cars, so you don’t want to spend the whole time squinting! You can buy hats of all kinds and sunglasses at the flats, but you’ll pay less if you buy them before you come!
– Before we went we bought $7 lawn chairs at Wal Mart, which turned out to be a great investment! Standing around on the salt (in the heat!) is tiring, so it was nice to be able to pull up a chair to watch the action. Since we were flying back, we just left them by the dumpsters with a “free” sign on them 🙂
– It gets really hot out there, so we liked having the rental car for air-conditioned car breaks when the heat got to be too much. We could park where we could watch one of the courses and cool off, then listen to what was happening on the radio. It was a win-win!
– You should pretty much do what you would do if going to the desert – wear light-colored, breathable clothing, the hats that were mentioned, and be sure to drink lots of water!
Main Things to Do // Suggested Daily Itinerary:
Whether you just have one day at Speed Week or more than that, this is the itinerary we would suggest for your day. It gets you at the most interesting parts of Speed Week at the best times (in our humble opinions).
Other things to do near Wendover:
Since the racing ends fairly early, you may find yourself with some extra time to kill in the area. There isn’t much to do that’s as exciting as Speed Week itself, but there are a few things:
– Gambling – as I mentioned, West Wendover has tons of casinos!
– Out east of Wendover on Interstate 80 you can see the Tree of Life sculpture, which has a rather interesting backstory!
– There’s an abandoned air force base and an Air Force Museum near Wendover. The base was important in WWII, as it was the training site for the B-29 unit that carried out the atomic bombings in Japan.
– There’s a Nightly Car Show at the Nugget that really shouldn’t be missed. It’s biggest on Saturday night, but people bring their cool old hot rods and such out every night. If you’re at all interested in car culture (and considering the event you’re attending, you probably are!) then you should definitely stop by!
– We went to the movie theatre in Wendover for something to do (it was nice to escape our car for a while), but it was fairly run-down and so is not highly recommended by us. However, if you’ve run out of things to do, it’s not a terrible option!
– There’s a road near “the Bend” that goes up into the mountains nearby. Ryan and I had a nice scenic drive up there around sunset. The road is gravel and a bit rough though, so be careful, especially if you’re in a rental car!
– The unique landscape of the salt flats is great for photography! You can take interesting perspective shots of the salt, sunrise and sunset photos, and I even tried a bit of astrophotography. If you brought a camera, why not try some new things during down time at Speed Week!
Q&A – If you post a question in the comments I’ll do my best to answer it here!
Where do you buy spectator passes? Do children need a pass?
Spectator passes are sold at the end of the paved road–they’ll catch you before you go out to the salt. As far as I know they only take cash, so be ready with $20 for your daily fee or $50 for the full week, per person. I did check this year and they said that kids under 12 are free!
Are there people to direct you where to camp at the Bend or do you just pick a spot?
It’s pretty much a free for all–you just find a good spot to drive off the pavement, pick your spot on the salt/mud, and set up camp. We tent-camped this year and did leave our tent up the whole time we were there without any issue.