Flat engines, flat salt, flat out

On the Bonneville Salt Flats, classic Volkswagens and passionate owners chase speed with style

When you look at a Beetle, do you see a car that can hit 205 mph? How about a 1969 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia—can you imagine it topping 151 mph?

In the right hands, with the right builders, on a closed course, almost anything is possible. And every year a group of classic VW owners gather on the Bonneville Salt Flats—30,000 acres of glistening white salt stretching over the Utah-Nevada border— to earn a speed record or two.

Bonneville is a place so idyllic one can hardly believe it even exists. Hundreds of car buffs flock to Bonneville for the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association’s (USFRA) legendary World of Speed event, which hosts the “36 HP VW Challenge.”

Barry "Burly" Burlisle
Barry “Burly” Burlile

Barry “Burly” Burlile, an indefatigable motorsports and Volkswagen enthusiast who runs the Challenge calls it “amateur racing at its purest.” It’s an opportunity for devoted Volkswagen gearheads to show off their eclectic variety of highly modified Volkswagen vehicles—some of which have taken half a decade to build—and race on the salt.*

The salt is not forgiving, so all drivers must have at least some prior racing experience—even if the car maxes out at 57 mph, which was actually a record set by a 1960 Single Cab Transporter in the “SS36 Bus” class.

The rules are simple: First, your car must have either a Volkswagen engine or body. Second, the car’s modifications must pass USFRA’s tech and safety inspection. Third, go full throttle on either a one, three or five-mile course to achieve the land speed record in your Volkswagen’s class. Fourth, repeat step three to validate your speed.

Most cars fit in at least one of the roughly 30 different vehicle classifications. “If your car doesn’t fit in an existing category, we’ll see what’s different and make it its own category,” says Burlile.

Bonneville Salt Flats Running With The 36 HP Class

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Unlike a lot of motorsports, age doesn’t matter. “We’ve never turned anyone away who wanted to race. It’s the people that make this place so special,” says Burlile.

One of Burlile’s greatest memories at Bonneville is of his friend Jan Atkinson, a great-grandmother of seven, who learned to race at 73 years old, having never been in a racecar or even driven a manual transmission.

“Jan’s husband taught her how to drive a stick shift and she went out and set a record in a 1972 Super Beetle in a new class,” recalls Burlile. For the record, Atkinson went 119.75 mph in the Beetle.

When it’s over, the driver and car are either named the land speed record holder or they aren’t. There are no prizes, trophies or monetary rewards.

“The reward is the fulfillment of racing at Bonneville,” says Burlile. “We are helping many people fulfill a lifelong dream of racing on the salt.”