Many racing legends and innovations have been born on the 160 square mile barren patch known as the Bonneville Salt Flats. The 1950s in particular saw a revolution in the hot-rodding scene that became more aware of the importance of aerodynamics, weight and drag. There were many that still fiercely held on to pure, brute horsepower over anything else– but many moved forward and a new dawn of streamlined dragster designs utilizing plastic and fiberglass bodies were born that changed the face of American racing forever.
The pics are truly amazing. Great speed machines, as well as that classic 1950’s style– good grooming topped with denim, khakis, white tees, coveralls and awesome old-school racing graphics. There’s also some great video w/insightful commentary at the end– if you can survive the xylophone noodling in the background… Definitely born too late, I was. Photos by J R Eyerman.
Commonly called a “Lakester”– these open-wheeled, tank bodied dragsters were first raced on dry lake beds before the SCTA scene made the move to the Bonneville Salt Flats. This one’s sportin’ a rear-mounted engine.
The Bonneville Salt Flats speed meet, 1954.*
The Bonneville Salt Flats, 1954. Racing for bragging rights and a record, and not much more.
“The Outcast”– based on other old pics I’ve seen, this hot rod may have belonged to Ed “Isky” Iskederian– also known as “The Camfather.” Isky started racing at Bonneville back in 1950, and soon became a legend. After returning home from WWII, Isky resumed racing and started grinding cams in his garage, more of an art than a science in those days, and they became one of the top performance cams around. Oh yeah– pinstriping on this bad boy by Von Dutch..
Chet Herbert’s streamlined speed machine at Bonneville, 1954. Chet’s racing career was ended in 1948, when polio left him confined to a wheelchair. Without missing a beat, Chet focused his racing know-how towards engine performance and became a legendary and ground-breaking innovator– he developed the first roller camshafts, was among the first to use nitromethane fuel after reading about how the Germans used it to power torpedoes in World War II, and developed a header that blew smoke away from a dragster’s rear tires to improve traction.
Chet Herbert, a former racer himself, supervises from his wheelchair as they prepare to start his car at Bonneville– September, 1953.
Racing legend Mickey Thompson’s twin engine 200 mph dragster at Bonneville, 1954. In 1960, Thompson achieved international fame at the Bonneville Salt Flats when he became the first American to break the 400 mph barrier– hitting 406.60 mph surpassing John Cobb’s previous land speed record of 402 mph.
“Streamliners” like the one here were a Bonneville Salt Flats design innovation that pushed speeds ever higher– reaching 200 mph and beyond.
The largest streamliner to race at that time, powered by Le Blanc’s Speed Engineering, and judging by the word “plastic” on the side, most likely sports a plastic body — Bonneville Salt Flats, 1954.
Streamliner powered by Le Blanc’s Speed Engineering– Bonneville Salt Flats, 1954. The crew has winning on the brain– right down to the badass checkered-flag socks.
The Shadoff Spl. (Special) streamliner– the body was made of fiberglass over a plaster handmade mold. Owner, Mal Hooper himself built it with the help of Herb Francis. Mechanically, the Shadoff did not have any particularly advanced features, and its speed and reliability were mostly due to careful construction and an excellent aerodynamic design. The engine, a Chrysler Hemi sleeved and de-stroked to 301 cid to fit in the class produced about 325 HP. Without much trouble it grabbed the record at 248.26 mph, and even won the Hot Rod award for fastest speed of the meet for its return run at 252.80, which was somewhat odd, considering the car had to slow down when a front tire tread had come off in the measured mile.
Known as the Shadoff Special from the name of its main sponsor, a Pomona Chrysler-Plymouth dealer– it was the last of three streamliners with a body shape designed by Dean Batchelor, and the most successful. Between 1953, the year of its debut, and 1960, when it ran for the last time, it set 15 FIA International records and 3 SCTA records, driven by three different drivers. That was the most consistent harvest of International records ever made by a car built by American hot-rodders. Perhaps even more significant, this streamliner set new records in five of the six years it actually ran.
An old school hot rod trying to pick-up speed by sealing the driver inside the cabin, cutting down on wind resistance. –Bonneville Salt Flats, 1954.
Chrisman Bros. coupe chopped for a lower profile, higher speed. –Bonneville Salt Flats, 1954.
Sometimes two wheels are just flat-out better than four… –Bonneville Salt Flats, 1954.
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Someday I hope to head out to the flats to catch a race, or even better, drive in one. I found a link that lists the 2009 racing events out there.
These are some great pics for sure. And like you said, great reference for style. I am super excited to tast the salt this August as I head out to the flats for the first time. They say if you are a true die hard traditionalist then Speed week is one of the best “car shows” around!
Sweet! Great find, and my compliments on a well rounded totally cool blog!
some cool vintage Bonneville vintage illustrations —
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Herbert did some great work. But he didn’t invent roller cam followers. They had been around for decades by then, since at least the early 19teens. here’s some info: http://occhiolungo.wordpress.com/2010/03/21/patents-3-ohc/
Misunderstanding, friend. I said innovator, not inventor. Here’s some info-
“Harleys had roller lifters and I was impressed by that. I looked at the pros and cons and thought that a camshaft that could utilize these in a drag race car motor might produce a lot of power. I had this pal who was a hot rod circle track racer and he said to me, ‘Why don’t we build a circle car, you wrench and I drive?’ I said, ‘Okay, but I don’t want a flathead, everyone runs a flathead. I want an overhead valve engine, I want six carburetors, a 12-port head on a 6-cylinder Chevy, and I want to run what I’d call a roller cam.’”
— Chet Herbert
It was 1949 when the first roller cam was manufactured for the performance automotive engine, and it was Chet Herbert Cams who designed and ground it.
If you like this, see this: “The World’s Fastest Indian” — Great Movie
This fact-based drama stars Anthony Hopkins as quirky New Zealander Burt Munro, a 67-year-old grandfather who flies across Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats and blazes into the record books at 183.586 mph on his customized Indian Scout motorcycle. Set in 1967, the film is the second pairing of Hopkins and writer-director Roger Donaldson; the duo also collaborated on the seafaring epic The Bounty (1984).
I hope you make it out there if you have not already. Great blog. I gotta ask, where do all these photos come from and some are credited, some not. Is it all public domain? I ask, not because I am some kind of cop, but because my own compass doesn’t always know where to point on such issues.
BTW: no such thing as “born too late”
Great post JP. It’s amazing to see these engineering marvels of post war hot-rodding.
If you do not yet own them, pick up any of the books by Don Montgomery chronicling the early years of hot rods and land speed racing.
Also, next time you’re in SoCal, stop by the NHRA museum in Pomona and check out Mickey Thompson’s Challenger 1, Art Chrisman’s coupe and many other great cars in person.
The Salt (a.k.a the Great White Dyno) is an amazing place, and the racers that go there are no less amazing. Since “The Enemy” is the timing clocks, not the other racers, the comeraderie amongst Land Speed Racers is unique in today’s corporate-logo world of motorsports. They are willing to help out a racer in need – loaning parts, effort and expertise to their fellow racers without a second thought.
It costs a whole $10 to attend for a day as a spectator during Speed Week. You will leave the Salt plotting your return next year.
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A lot of Selvedgeyard articles I post up to all my friends, I can’t say why but this one I want to keep for myself.
Heaven must look something like this.