autos

'Like riding on the moon': Welcome to the fastest place in the world

Updated 26th November 2015
View gallery
14 Pictures
Alexandra Lier fastest cars 4
'Like riding on the moon': Welcome to the fastest place in the world
Written by Gareth Herincx, CNN
Nowhere on earth is more synonymous with the pursuit of speed than the legendary Bonneville Salt Flats of north-western Utah.
Less than two hours from Salt Lake City, the Bonneville Speedway is completely flat and hard. More records for absolute speed have been set here than any other place on the planet.
Bonneville is like being on the moon, it's really a whole different world.
Valerie Thompson

History of record breaking speeds

Sir Malcolm Campbell was the first person to set a World Land Speed Record in 1935, becoming the first man to drive at over 300mph. By 1970 the 600mph barrier had been shattered.
Hamburg-based photographer Alexandra Lier's latest project documents, over a period of 16 years, the speed events that take place during the "dry" months between August and October.
Every year, devoted gear heads and adrenaline junkies from around the world descend upon the flats to add their names to the record books with their hot rods, streamliners, roadsters, motorcycles and "belly tankers".
"For me it's a homage to Salt Lake racing which I'm really passionate about," explains Lier. "I love the people and I have a really big respect for what they do. My pictures show the community, the cars and the nature, and I hope people will get a feel for what it's like to be there. For instance, the landscape is different to anything you've ever seen -- it's like a totally different world."
"It looks like snow, but it's hot. If you walk on the salt it's crunchy, but sometimes it's dry and sometimes it's sticky."
Lier first visited Bonneville in 1999 for Speed Week and she's been back every year since in pursuit of the perfect picture: "It's the ideal place. There's the variety of vehicles, the nature, plus the people who are like family and they really appreciate my passion.
"I mostly camp there so that I can be with the competitors and fans. They have such interesting stories."
However, photographing the Salt Flats can be a challenge: "On the one hand it's easy because the landscape is so beautiful and the light is so good, but when the sun is low you get a lot of shadows. Every year I go, I learn more and more."

Racing against the elements

Seven-time motorcycle land speed record holder and drag racer Valerie Thompson started riding at Bonneville in 2006.
In 2014 she was awarded a lifetime membership of the prestigious Red Hat Club after a 208mph run on a BMW S 1000 RR.
"Bonneville is like being on the moon, it's really a whole different world. Still, calm, and round -- your eyes are only limited by distance," says Thompson.
"You experience great extremes within a single day, whether it's blazing heat, downpours that soak the salt into mush or frigid nights that take your breath away. It's a serene yet brutal place."
Valerie Thompson is a seven-time motorcycle land speed record holder
Valerie Thompson is a seven-time motorcycle land speed record holder Credit: bmw
But what's it like to ride a bike at such phenomenal speed on the Salt Flats?
"It all begins when approaching the starting line. You start to absorb everyone's anticipation and excitement.
"But unlike other forms of motorsport racing, Bonneville is unique. There are no competitors in the other lane. It's only me against the elements and the speed gods.
"As my speed climbs, I experience deeper levels of concentration where I blank out everything except the next 100 yards of salt ahead of my front tire. During one of my BMW S 1000 RR 200 mph runs, it's a crazy circus of emotions starring anxiety, unleashed excitement and pure adrenaline performing inside my helmet.
"I have to keep a close eye on the data dashboard and my body positioning throughout the run to achieve optimal aerodynamics. Maintaining control is always a challenge since there is little traction on the salt and crosswinds can vary greatly throughout runs that vary from one to five miles."

Big goals, little time

Thompson's goal is to exceed 300mph and Lier's is to take the perfect picture, but now the Bonneville Salt Flats themselves may well be in a race against time.
Numerous land speed records in various vehicle categories and classes have been set at Bonneville over years, but there is no a big question mark over its future because the Salt Flats are disappearing.
For the past two years, muddy conditions and a lack of salt have led to the cancellation of Speed Week, the biggest event of the season. The debate locally is whether it's the weather or nearby mining that's depleting the salt flats.
A century ago, the Salt Flats spanned nearly 100,000 acres. Today they cover less than a third of that. The race track used to be 13 miles in length -- now it is only seven miles.
Scroll through the gallery above to see more of Alexandra Lier's stunning photographs.
The World's Fastest Place: Bonneville Land Speed Racing is published by Kehrer Verlag. Photographs by Alexandra Lier, text by Kevin Robert Thomson