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I Drove My Aston Martin as Fast as I Could on the Bonneville Salt Flats

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author photo by Doug DeMuro September 2016

I recently took my Aston Martin to the Bonneville Salt Flats -- where you can drive as fast as you want -- and I experienced pure, unchecked euphoria. This feeling came after I reached my top speed, when I was slowing down, as it became clear that I was still alive.

For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, I'll give you a little more information. First, you might be wondering, what exactly are the Bonneville Salt Flats? Here's the answer: They are 40 square miles of completely flat land, entirely covered by a layer of salt crust, located in northwest Utah. They are vast, unique and alien. They look like nothing else in the world. They are truly, wonderfully, amazingly beautiful.

Naturally, upon finding this special, exotic, highly impressive place, human beings had one response: We must drive on it.

Aston Martin Bonneville Salt Flats

And so, the Bonneville Salt Flats have been the site of land-speed records for years. Decades. More than a century, in fact. The first Bonneville Salt Flats land-speed record attempt took place in 1914, and many groups still race on it today, every summer, in a wide variety of vehicles. While the more suitable Black Rock Desert has been the site of modern all-time land-speed record attempts, a Bonneville Salt Flats run held the all-time land-speed record -- over 630 miles per hour, in a jet-powered car called the Blue Flame -- until the early 1980s. And the Bonneville Salt Flats are the site of dozens of other land-speed records that still remain in place today.

So I decided to see what I could do in my Aston Martin.

And this brings you to your next question, which is, "How did you possibly get your Aston Martin to the Bonneville Salt Flats?" This is a good question, because I live in Philadelphia, my Aston Martin lives in Philadelphia, and the Bonneville Salt Flats are located in an area so desolate that the Bureau of Land Management FAQ about them literally states -- this is a direct quote, in a section about events and permits they have there -- "Travel on the Salt Flats is at your own risk."

But I'm on a long road trip with my Aston Martin, where I'm driving from the East Coast to the West Coast and back, and the Bonneville Salt Flats happened to be along my route.

You can probably see where I'm going with this.

And this surely brings you to your final question, which is, "ARE YOU INSANE?" You're probably thinking this because I decided to take a normal, street-legal vehicle -- my normal, street-legal vehicle, which had to get me to my fiancee's family vacation in California and then back home again, more than 6,000 miles in total -- to a surface filled with salt, for the purposes of driving it as fast as I could, in a place so desolate that people have actually died when they wandered onto the flats and couldn't find their way back to the highway.

And the answer is: Yes, I am insane, although there are two things that made my trip a little more reasonable. The first: When I reached the Bonneville Salt Flats, a speed event had just ended, so there were still a few people around, cleaning up things and loading their vehicles into trailers. There were also a few other amateurs around, attempting speed records of their own. There was a group of tourists checking out the flats in a 15-passenger Ford Transit. And, inexplicably, in the middle of the Bonneville Salt Flats, with nobody around for probably a quarter-mile, there was a family with an Infiniti QX56 having a picnic.

In other words, despite Bureau of Land Management warnings, I wasn't completely on my own. This made me feel a little safer.

The second reason I didn't feel quite so insane is that I've been to the Bonneville Salt Flats before, so I knew exactly what to expect. In 2013, I drove across the country and back in my Cadillac CTS-V Wagon, and I ambled onto the flats with my girlfriend. We hit 151 mph -- just before a huge rainstorm appeared, quickly rendering them undriveable. On this trip, my only goal was to beat that speed.

And so, sometime last week, late in the afternoon, my Aston Martin and I took world-famous Exit 4 off Interstate 80, which is home to precisely two things: the Bonneville Salt Flats access road and a cafe that is also a gas station. I used the bathroom there. And then I set off to the flats, put my foot down, and...

Not so fast. First, a few words about the flats for people who have always heard about them and wondered what they're like but don't plan on taking a vacation to a part of the country so rural that people will happily eat meals at a cafe that is also a gas station.

Aston Martin Bonneville Salt Flats

You might be wondering about the surface of the flats. Essentially, there are two surfaces. Although the flats are surprisingly thick and strong -- with a more cohesive and tighter surface than, say, a gravel road -- the vast majority of the flats is also choppy and crusty thanks to wind, storms and rain that soften up the salt, only to have it harden in a different position. The flats can also get tremendously soft in areas, which could cause you to get stuck. You wouldn't really want to drive over 100 mph on the choppy part of the salt because it's so uncomfortable and unpredictable.

But then there are the racetracks. Yes, that's right: In a barren, open, empty, otherworldly landscape, there are ... racetracks. They've been smoothed out over the years by various groups that run events on the salt, to the point where they are neither choppy nor crusty. They're perfectly flat, perfectly straight and perfect for speed. If you want to drive seriously fast on the salt flats, you make your way over to the racetracks.

And what about access? Everyone I talk to assumes the Bonneville Salt Flats are tightly patrolled, that it costs some large amount of money to get on them, or that you can only drive on the flats during certain events. Not so. To get to the flats, you simply take the Bonneville Salt Flats access road until it ends and drive right on to the flats. The Bureau of Land Management's website is very clear that anyone can drive on the flats at any time, though it cautions you not to do so after a rainstorm, when the flats are very soft and you can easily get stuck.

And then, of course, there's the question of legality. Naturally, the Bureau of Land Management doesn't explicitly say that you can go as fast as you want on the Bonneville Salt Flats -- but it also openly states that free driving is allowed, issues permits to those attempting timed speed records and proudly discusses the entire history of high-speed racing on the flats. There is no speed limit on the flats, no enforcement and -- most importantly -- virtually no likelihood of a collision. The flats hold no trees, rocks, animals or abrupt hills or valleys. You can see other vehicles coming over a mile away.

Essentially, the Bonneville Salt Flats is probably the safest place in the world to drive fast.

Instead of legal deterrents, there are two other deterrents that keep most people from attempting amateur high-speed runs on the flats. One is, of course, its remoteness: The Bonneville Salt Flats are 2 hours west of Salt Lake City, which is a wonderful city but one that isn't exactly known as a worldwide hub for automobile enthusiasts. You get the sense that if this thing were 2 hours from New York City, it would've been shut down about 5 decades ago.

The other deterrent isn't quite as obvious, but it's far more effective: the sheer volume of salt. Salt is highly corrosive, and the vast majority of car enthusiasts would never want to subject their vehicle to so much salt, even considering the potential speed-related enjoyment involved. I spent just 40 minutes on the salt flats, and after I was finished, salt caked the car -- as you'll see in my video. Afterward, I immediately took the car through two touchless car washes, hit a third one the next day, thoroughly power-washed the undercarriage and gave the floor mats a soapy sponge bath. I also threw away the shoes I wore. There's that much salt.

With these deterrents in mind, I drove my Aston Martin down the access road, onto the flats, then over to the racetracks. I was ready to beat my 151-mph record from 3 years earlier.

Aston Martin Bonneville Salt Flats

Actually, I wasn't quite ready.

It doesn't matter how safe you know this is, how prepared your vehicle is or how you've mentally been readying yourself to do this: When you line up at the beginning of one of these racetracks -- where people have previously driven 630 mph -- you are simply a nervous wreck. You're going to drive all out, as fast as you can ... on a condiment. You have no idea what's going to happen.

But here's what did happen: I pushed my foot down, and the car slipped a little, but then it quickly got traction and started accelerating. Off it went, its speed climbing, climbing and climbing, well past 100 mph. It didn't feel anywhere near as stable as it does on pavement, but I wasn't concerned. After all, if it spun out there would be nothing around to hit.

Seconds elapsed, and more speed piled on. Above 130 mph, each additional speedometer tick came very, very slowly. Aston claims my car can do 179, but surely not at this elevation -- 4,219 feet, where there's probably an 8-percent horsepower loss due to altitude -- and maybe not on this surface or with this nervous driver. Eventually, I hit 140. The speed kept climbing. 151 was still a distant dream, and I was tremendously anxious. Here I was, driving as fast as I could in the middle of nowhere, behind the wheel of the car I use to get groceries. I've taken this car to Target. To McDonald's. To the drive-up ATM. And now, I'm looking out the windshield, and all I can see is salt -- tightly packed, smooth salt in every direction, coming at me at 140 mph. I pressed on.

And then, at 145, I saw the end of the racetrack, where the smooth salt stops and the choppy stuff returns. I backed off. There was absolutely no way I'd hit 151 in time. With a second run, with more liberal accelerator use, taking great care to use the wind to my benefit, with a longer lead up, I bet I could've hit the speed. But I was done. Once was enough, and I was elated that I had completed my run and lived to tell the tale.

I came, I saw, I drove, and now I had only two things in mind: getting off the salt and getting to a car wash. With maybe a quick stop for lunch at the cafe that is also a gas station.

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I Drove My Aston Martin as Fast as I Could on the Bonneville Salt Flats - Autotrader