Partner Schools
Print Archive
Peer Review


Partner News
Peer Reviewed
Poetry & Fiction


Cities + Places
Design History
Design Practice
Film + Video
Health + Safety
Politics + Policy
Public + Private

Design Observer

Job Board

Gallery: Martin Hogue

Land, Speed and Bonneville

Spirit of America, 1963. [Photograph: Cyril Posthumus, from Land Speed Record]

From its modest folk beginnings in the late 1890s (about 40 mph, on French courses) to the most recent attempts (over 760 mph, in the Black Rock Desert, NV, 1997), the chase for the land speed record has captured the public imagination. Unlike typical races, in which individuals compete against one another on a specific course, the land speed record has always remained a temporary condition — a performance often surpassed by the very same driver who had set the record earlier that same day. In this chase for time, the ultimate is an elusive (if not somewhat absurd) goal. Late 19th- and early 20th-century record-setting vehicles were simply the most sophisticated in the automotive field at the time — sporting competing technologies like electrical, steam-powered, or combustion engines, and piloted by the most technically competent drivers of the day; but by the mid 20th century such cars were proving insufficient, given the growing ambitions of a new generation of drivers and engineers. Beginning in the 1920s, new vehicles were being conceived specifically with the goal of breaking the land speed record, and quickly stopped looking like cars altogether. Borrowing from propulsion technologies developed in aviation and rocket design, and lacking steering ability and traditional brake systems, these high-performance vehicles often looked more like jet airplanes with their wings cropped off; and the land on which such powerful, hybrid vehicles would speed on rapidly became a rather conceptual proposition indeed.

With the desire for ever-greater speeds came the need for ever-better terrains to test these vehicles. It could be argued that underlying the quest for the land speed record is also a quest for a specific type of landscape — the vastest, flattest, longest, smoothest and most accessible terrain possible. This might suggest a generic notion of landscape; but starting in the 1930s, as land speeds approached 300 mph, the number of possible venues — natural or man-made — to race on would become fewer and fewer. With its perfectly flat elevation across distances so great that the curvature of the earth becomes visible to the naked eye, the salt flats of Bonneville in western Utah were one such remarkable venue, and in fact came to constitute a benchmark of sorts in speed racing, for more than three decades attracting the best drivers and their crews to compete there. Starting in 1935, when the British racecar driver Sir Malcolm Campbell set a record of 301 mph (in the Campbell-Railton Bluebird, with an internal combustion engine), and continuing until 1970, when the American Gary Gabelich set a record of 630 mph (in the rocket-powered Blue Flame), Bonneville saw the speed record being broken no less than 18 times.

The salt flats of Bonneville were essentially reinvented, from an inhospitable landscape much feared as early as the 1850s by westbound settlers crossing the American continent to California, into a racing site that was mapped and understood through ever-increasing measures of speed. I would argue that in this sense racing became a sort of idealization of the site and its resources, and that consequently the activities of racing and the events of record setting are in fact entirely connected to a greater sense of the landscape in both space and time. It was in recognizing the potential of the Bonneville flats as a natural surface to race on that a mutually beneficial relationship among technology and ambition and the landscape was forged — and with it a deep respect for the land. Through decades of racing on this site an exceptional record of human activity has been constructed.

Don Vesco, aboard Turbinator, setting the (still unbeaten) wheel-driven land speed record of 458 mph on the flats in 2001. Vesco's top speed was clocked at 470 mph, but the official record is an average of the driver's speed through the flying mile — the time it takes to cross a one-mile segment located midway through the track — in both directions, which must occur within one hour. This timing method favors sustained rather than peak speeds, which may last only a few seconds. [Video credit: Rick Vesco]

Editors' Note

In 2006 Martin Hogue participated in the Center for Land Use Interpretation's Wendover Residence Program, and in 2009 A Site Constructed: The Bonneville Salt Flats and the Land Speed Record, 1935–1970, drawn from Hogue's research, was exhibited in Wendover.
Share This Story


Far North

The Interventionist’s Toolkit: Project, Map, Occupy

Building After Auschwitz

Fairy Tale Architecture: The House on Chicken Feet

Demedicalize Architecture

RSSSubscribe to Comment Feed

Comments (3)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT >>

Nice work putting this story together!
Steven Chavez
08.19.10 at 03:14

Nice and informative post, so bookmarked my browser for future visits.
half marathon training plan
08.26.10 at 04:10

I was glad to see this work come to light again. Having originally read this piece in landscape journal, I have a renewed appreciation for the arid, Utah / Nevada landscape. Excellent article, beautiful imagery, and a well-crafted and thoughtful narrative. The history of this place is really remarkable.

Looking forward to future posts ; I have also bookmarked this site to find other great pieces.

Congrats, MH !
Anson Main
10.08.10 at 12:42

Don't have an account? Create an account. Forgot your password? Click here.



Donate to Places: Your Support Makes Our Work Possible


A gallery created by Martin Hogue, documenting the Bonneville Salt Flats and its history of land speed racing.
View Slideshow >>


Martin Hogue is the William Munsey Kennedy Jr. Fellow in Landscape Architecture at the State University of New York, Syracuse.
More Bio >>


MORE ON American West

From the American West to West Berlin
On Places, Nicole Huber and Ralph Stern explore the "border crossings" of Wim Wenders — the director's cinematic journeys from Paris, Texas to the West Berlin of The Wings of Desire.

800 Miles: Photographing the Trans-Alaska Pipeline
On Places, a portfolio of photographs by Peter Bo Rappmund, who has documented nearly every mile of the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

Heavy Metal
On Places, photographer Dennis DeHart traces the Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes through one of the world's largest and most contaminated historic mining districts.

Look Only at the Movement
On Places, a documentary project by Jamie Kruse and Elizabeth Ellsworth of Smudge Studio, focusing on the materiality of nuclear waste transport.

Walking the Darkness Home
On Places, Adelheid Fischer recounts a journey to the Grand Canyon — to a dangerous and redemptive place that by turns epitomizes and defies the expectations (and clichés) of the famous landscape.

Resurveying the West
On Places, a slideshow of images of the American West by the New York-based photographer Victoria Sambunaris and the 19th-century pioneer William Henry Jackson, curated by Aaron Rothman.

Camino del Diablo
On Places, photographer Mark Klett journeys along the Camino del Diablo in the Sonoran Desert, much of which is now a bombing range, and finds a landscape of forbidding danger and compelling beauty.

Nowhere and Everywhere: The Landscape of the Colorado Delta
On Places, planner Armando Carbonell explores, in aerial photographs, the fragile yet resilient landscapes of the Colorado River Delta.

Above Lake Las Vegas
On Places, aerial photographs of the bankrupt luxury communities of Lake Las Vegas, by Michael Light.

We Are in a Western Town
On Places, Aaron Rothman explores the enduring power of the photographs of Robert Adams, and what they reveal about the paradoxical landscape of the American West.

Drylands: Water and the West
On Places, an essay and slideshow by Peter Arnold and Hadley Arnold of the Arid Lands Institute, on what they call "the largest and least understood environmental challenge of the 21st century."

If There Be Such Space
On Places, a slideshow drawn from a collaborative exhibition by two photographers who share an interest in the perception and representation of natural landscapes.

Thirsty City
On Places, Austin Troy assesses the massive infrastructure required to bring water to the arid American West — and the huge amount of energy that makes it possible to take a shower in Los Angeles.

The Hills Are Alive
On Places, Michael Branch reflects on how deeply photography and film shape our landscape aesthetics (and how much he detests the Alpine-worshipping The Sound of Music).

Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World's Least Sustainable City
On Places, Andrew Ross analyzes the contradictory political and economic forces that once made Phoenix the fastest-growing city in the U.S. — and today a prime casualty of the crash.

Water in the West
On Places, a slideshow from the collaborative photography project Water in the West, with an introduction by Mark Klett.

The Half-Life of History
On Places, writer William Fox and photographer Mark Klett document the semi-ruin of the WW II military airfield at Wendover, Utah, where the U.S. Air Force trained for the bombing of Hiroshima.

Views Across Time
On Places, an interview with photographer Mark Klett and a slideshow from his ongoing rephotography project, with views across time of the American West.

The Edge of Light: Wendover
On Places, photographs by Brian Rosa and Adam Ryder document the nighttime mysteries of Wendover, where military history, land-speed racing and the casino industry make for unexpected juxtapositions.

Soundscapes: Burning Man
On Places, a selection of soundscapes — ranging from dust storms to diesel generators — recorded by architect Nick Sowers at the latest Burning Man.

Burning Man and the Metropolis
On Places, Nate Berg looks at Burning Man, and how a beach party in San Francisco mushroomed into a week-long temporary city of 50,000 out in the Nevada desert.

Las Vegas
Writer and critic William L. Fox reviews Las Vegas, by Nicole Huber and Ralph Stern, probing the improbable success of the gambling-entertainment world-city constructed in the midst of the Mojave.

Urbanizing the Mojave
America's greatest boomtown has gone bust. Architects Nicole Huber and Ralph Stern explore the cultural and environmental consequences of the rapid expansion of Las Vegas into the Mojave Desert, tracing a troubled history of mining, militarization, tourism, and water politics.