My First Trip To Bonneville

Guest Column • by Hunter Bender  |  As long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with mechanics, moving parts, engines, speed, cars, motorcycles, you name it. The idea that people create machines involving thousands of moving parts to move people and things around our world is mind blowing to me. Then there is racing. The never ending desire to go faster. I’ve had countless cars, motors, etc over the years and they “always need to be faster….” This is the spirit of Bonneville. This is what drives thousands of people every year to feed their desire for speed.

“Are you Keith Black?” Hunter Bender on The Salt.

I had always told myself that this was an experience I needed to do in my life, but it never really worked out. Kids, work, other commitments… you know the deal. So when the backyard conversation turned to Bonneville, my wife said “you need to go… you and Dean should go.” Without hesitation, I believe I answered, “I’m in,” a few seconds later. This is how the 2017 Bonneville trip began.

We decided that we would take my newly acquired truck, so that we had something cool to cruise around in once we got there. This truck has some pretty cool history that I wanted to share with some of the true race fans that I knew would be there. It is a 1959 Ford Ranchero. That in itself is a pretty rare car. But there is more. This truck is the push truck, formerly owned by Keith Black of the legendary Keith Black Racing Engines. The ’59 has seen its fair share of action. It was the push truck for the famous Greer Black Prudhomme front engined dragster of the early 1960’s. And the answer is yes… it’s the real car. Its all over the internet and spent a little time in the NHRA museum. 

I acquired the car only a few weeks prior to Bonneville and we were in a panic trying to get everything done before the trip. Tune up, lowering, working out some bugs, and the final piece… the door logos. The Ranchero had to have the original door logos painted before we left. Of course you have one chance to get this right, so you need the right man for the job. After a short meeting with Bruce Gossett, I knew there was no one else better for the job. A couple weeks later the logos were complete, I couldn’t be happier with the result. The countdown begins.

And the answer is yes… it’s the real car. Its all over the internet and spent a little time in the NHRA museum.

The packing was done. The Ranchero was ready. I had everything squared away at work and home. It was finally time. I met my son for his first day of high school, wished him good luck, and hauled ass home. It was time to leave. Dean rolled up with the truck and trailer and we loaded up. This is the part where I probably lose some people right? Did he say trailer? Yes I did. It’s 1300 mile round trip, the Ranchero has a healthy big block FE motor with three 2’s on top of it… now you get it. 

Welcome back! We were on the road, to meet up with Mike in Reno. He was driving the “El Cheapo” roadster. If you are reading this, you know the car. A few hours later we found Mike at a hole-in-the-wall breakfast place nestled nicely with all the strip clubs. Perfect! We ate, had a Bloody Mary, hit the western store next door, and got on the road. Next stop was Winnemucca, Nevada. 

We pulled into Winnemucca about 3:00. Mike had booked our room. Of course it was at the Model T Casino. This was quite the interesting place. Most everyone was cross eyed and had a mullet. Its definitely an unusual place. We decided to venture to the bar in the casino, we had a couple hours to kill. This turned out to be an amazing idea! We met the bartender named, well that’s not important. She informed us that she just quit her general manager job at Arby’s to take the bar tending position.  You can imagine where this conversation went. It just kept getting better. The three of us left all wondering if he or she was a man or a woman, but confident he or she could make a mean beef and cheddar. I have my ideas.

The Alviso Roadsters BBQ was the reason we stopped in Winnemucca. I had no idea what to expect, but knew I was in for a good time. Boy was I correct. Walking into Jerry’s shop was mind boggling. I cant even begin to explain the amount of memorabilia on the walls and around the property. I easily spent three hours walking around and I’m sure I missed some stuff. It was a great time! Good food, good people, good times. The best part was definitely the invitation to come back next year.

8 am, we were on the road again. Four more hours to go. As in any road trip there was non stop shit talking mixed with quiet, mixed with real talk, jokes etc. You have to do something for six hours driving through Nevada right? Next stop… Elko. Elko is an awesome town. The old signs, neons, old buildings… I could go on and on. Of course the three of us managed to find another western store, and a tiki bar. We had a couple beers there and were back on the road to Wendover. 

All of a sudden over the mountains it appeared out of no where, there it was, The Salt.

We found an auxiliary cord at a gas station so we had music this time. Time was inching by today, we just wanted to get there. All of a sudden over the mountains it appeared out of no where, there it was, The Salt. The place people travel from all parts of the world to go fast, us included. There we were, only a few miles out. The anticipation was killing me at this point. I had to get out there. 

Dean and I pulled into the Nugget in Wendover and unloaded the trailer as fast as humanly possible. I know, trailer again. This is where we hooked up with Saroyan, the fourth member of the party. He is the man behind the lens for RUST. We made our way to the front desk and checked in, went upstairs to drop off our stuff, and to come up with a game plan. It was time. Here we go!

I can’t even begin to explain the feelings that you have pulling up at the end of the paved road for the first time. All I could think about was the legendary people, records that have been set and broken, the who’s who of the car world that have been on the very spot that I am about to drive on. It’s absolutely breathtaking for a car guy. As we inched up the line I knew that all of my years being involved with cars was about to change. I had made it to The Salt. I was driving my truck at Bonneville. We were really here. This was really happening.

A bit of the car show at the Nugget. A number of fellows bring their cars out for the weekend but don't take them on the salt. The Nugget is the place show them off.

Mike, Saroyan, Dean, and I made our way to the SCTA press booth. This is where we received all of our press credentials and got to meet JoAnn (Ed note: The real queen of Bonneville and boss of who is in and who has to pay). Not only was I at Bonneville, but I had full access to wherever I wanted to go. Not bad for my first time right? We made our way through the line of race cars toward the starting line. Stopping to stare at all of the cars and chat with some of the teams. 

The starting line is something that I can’t describe. I was staring down a five mile course that seemed like it went to the end of the earth. I was standing there wondering what it would be like to go 200 miles-an-hour plus down the track. The Salt is an unreal place, like nowhere I have ever been before. It’s almost eerie… like the ghosts of racing’s past are right there, enjoying it all with you. You can feel the presence. 

…the ghosts of racing’s past are right there, enjoying it all with you.

The four of us made our way around the pits for a couple hours before we decided to head back to the hotel. After all we were staying at the Nugget, where the car show was. (Ed. note: During the opening weekend of Speed Week there is a big car show in the parking lot at the Nugget). The show goes on until about 1 am every night with a good crop of cars, definitely a good time! We did this for 4 days, I’m sorry liver!

The alarm clock went off at 4:30 am Sunday morning. It was time to shoot the Ranchero at sunrise. This is a magical time on the salt that you need to see for yourself to fully understand. At mile marker five, we selected the spot, positioned the truck, and began. Again, it’s like nothing I’ve seen before. The salt plus the sunrise plus a car… pure gold! The pictures tell the story. 

We wrapped up just in time to see George Poteet make a backup run of 428 miles per hour 300 yards away from us. I can’t even imagine what that is like. That’s hauling the mail! Dean and I separated from Mike and Saroyan to go check out some of action in the pits. This was totally different for me too. At the majority of the other places I have been to, the race teams won’t give you the time of day, not Bonneville. Everyone is friendly, you need something you’ve got it. That could be anything from a gauge, to a wrench, to a cold beer. It’s a different kind of crowd, it’s like family.

Fun and games as the Hop Up party starts to roll Sunday evening. Thanks to the folks at Hop Up for hosting a great event.

The Hop Up party is not to be missed. I guess its kind of the who’s who of the hot rod crowd, but no one thinks that way. It was on Sunday night. Drinks, cars, live music, hot dogs, sweat… all on the side of the road to the salt. Perfect place, if you ask me. 

Another place we discovered was Carmen’s Black And White Bar. This is a nice little spot right in the middle of the Wendover trailer park, perfect! It is owned and managed by an amazing woman named Carmen. She runs the trailer park as well. The place is filled floor to ceiling with race memorabilia. Most all of it is signed and addressed to her. As we sat there all I could think about was who’s been in here before. Who’s sat at this very seat that I’m sitting in. If you are at Bonneville and you don’t pay her a visit, you are missing out… I promise you!

In conclusion, I will say that this was one of the best trips that I have ever made. It was nothing fancy. There was no ocean, there was no great food, there was no luxury room. It was Bonneville. I got to put my stamp on this unreal place. This was the place of legends. This was the place where the incurable lust for speed began! This was the place where Burt Munro ran his Indian! Bonneville Speed Week has forever changed my early August calendar. I will always be back. The need for speed will never leave me. If you make the journey it will never leave you either. Until next time my friend… I’m talking to you, Bonneville.

Save The Salt.