Saturday, July 07, 2012

Movie review of "The Boys of Bonneville". in a word, Phenomenal. Here's why -

 This is Ab Jenkins. He was born and raised in Utah, made a living as a building contactor and carpenter. Til one day, he decides to go to Reno... there was no road, trails maybe from stagecoaches, pioneers in ox drawn conestoga wagons, etc... but no road. He took his motorcycle, and went from Salt Lake City heading west, and came to the Bonneville salt... he open up the bike, and liked riding at 80 mph with nothing to worry about. It's a long time before you see anything when you're driving across the largest flat spot on land in the world... he liked the fast ride. A lot. He didn't mind the isolation I believe, because there wasn't another human for a looonnng way.

He started racing his motorcycle after that, and soon, like most young guys, tried to get some money by racing or riding endurance times and distances. He was setting distance and time records during 1923-25. He quickly was hired on by Studebaker after 1925 as their engineer and test driver, and set many records in their cars from 1923 to 1927, as these couple of photos show. He set or still holds? 8 records, and driving Studebakers, and some were only from some big city to Salt Lake City, but he also set two from New York to San Francisco,  one in each direction

The movie "Boys of Bonneville" does a better job of filling you in on his abilities as a driver with no peer, literally, and is a better bio-pic than most of the A&E Biographies that I've seen, and I do like them. Maybe it's because the movie shows more than Ab's life, but his accomplishments and family connection where his boys were with him at the salt for his racing. Maybe it's because I was interested in the racing, as much as the driver, I'm not sure. It's possible that because I knew nearly nothing about Ab, or his racing, that learning while being entertained, intrigued, and having my attention captured with the variety of vehicles, and those being described by racers and not a narrator with a script... it's that good of a movie.

 the movie takes you through his steps from motorcycles to Studebaker, from board tracks
and he was averaging 70mph over long times, 140 over short times, this would be around 1928
After board track racing stopped, he went hill climbing. Pikes Peak, Mt Baldy and others, setting 5 records between 1928 and 1931

After Studebaker, Ab was hired by Pierce Arrow to spotlight the abilities of their already impressive and reputable car. It was too late to save the manufacturer, the depression took away the customers with disposable income, the ones the competition didn't... when you compete with the best, Duesenburg, Packard, Bugatti, Voisin, Delage, etc you take your chances that they might get the edge.
 getting the fenders and running boards off

 race ready, Ab was given the car and 6 spare tires to work with. He set records. Hundreds of them. He set and held, more records of international racing . . . than any other man ever has. He beat the records of Bugatti, Voisin, and Delage with the Pierce Arrow in 1933. That is how good a Pierce Arrow was. Not a race car, a stock car.

 Above and below appear to be different years, different models. The below has an angled grill, and a cover for the passenger seat

And either one or both of Ab and Augie used Plomb tools. I love Plomb/ Plumb / Plvmb tools

Ab made the endurance records, by himself. Not as a teammate, like the Bugatti, Viosin, Delage drivers. 24 hour records. Between 112 and 127 mph for 24 hours, not on a paved track with lights keeping the race course well lit. In the dark of the Utah desert, with a couple kerosene lamps to show the edge of the 10 mile circle course

notice the plane for filming

All of that happened before racing on the salt at Bonneville was an annual event. Before the SCTA was conceived. Before anyone else had ever raced there, timed their cars, made a road to it, etc etc.

That he could set records is astounding. You ever hear of anyone from Utah doing anything? Ab set records at Bonneville that no one could compete with. No one, anywhere. Because, in my opinion, he was the most impressive endurance car driver I've ever heard of. He sat in a car and put up with engine noise, boredom, heat, cold, wind, sun, and everything I can't think of, for 24 hour runs. Many of them. Even a 48 hour run, which he still holds a record for.

So when he learned that the English people were trying to set records at Pendine Sands and Daytona, he mailed them that they should try the salt. He probably could have kept that pristine flat to himself for a long time, no one else was using it, but he opened it up to all comers who had a desire to achieve. That is pretty selfless.

No storms, no beach variations, no limits on round track courses, no spectators crowding the track... pretty much the ideal place to achieve high speeds, and Campbell was having a lot of problems trying to get to 300 mph in the Bluebird. Campbell broke 9 records (LSR = Land Speed Record) and Pendine and Daytona, but couldn't get his goal achieved. 300 mph

Campbell realized he was getting the best advice for a location, and when he came to Bonneville by Jenkins offer... it started the world to pay attention to world land speed racing at Bonneville, every year when the salt dries out. Campbell was the first man over 300mph, and Bonneville was the only place on land to achieve it.

Quite a switch from high speeds, Ab took an Allis Chlamers down the salt, and set a record mile on a tractor at 67mph for a mile. June 1935

In late 1935, he switched to a Duesenburg, the Mormon Meteor / Duesenburg Special to compete in the new higher records being set with airplane engined cars, like the Bluebird, and the Napier Railton (John Cobb)

the Duesenburg was a 1934 SJ, engines built by Augie Duesenburg and Ed Winfield. The best Indianapolis could make. This is the last Land Speed Record setting car that is made from car parts. Everything since is one off vehicles that come from no car manufacturer, share no parts with it resemblance to a streetable car

The unique project was headed by Augie Duesenberg, who had not been directly involved with the company since the Cord buy-out of 1926. Instead he worked on further developing the successful Duesenberg racing cars in his shop across the street from the factory where the Duesenberg Js were produced.

 Augie Duesenberg was supplied with an unnumbered short J chassis and engine J-557. Together with Ed Winfield, he reworked the supercharged engine, fitting hotter cams and a second Carburetor with a heavily revised manifold. The changes hiked the power of the straight eight to a commendable 400 bhp at 5000 rpm from the optimistic 320 bhp claimed for the stock unit.

Designer Herb Newport was asked to draw up a streamlined body for the 'Duesenberg SJ Special'. The most striking features of the slim two-seater design were the steeply sloped nose/radiator and the long tail. The wheels were equipped with removable fenders and separate fairings, which were used to smooth out the airflow. The body was completed with belly pans that protected the Duesenberg's mechanicals and also reduced drag.

 Jenkins started off the 1935 season, next out on the salt flats was Englishman John Cobb in his airplane engined Napier Railton, chasing the same records as his host Jenkins. He broke the 24-hour record with an average of nearly 135 mph. Two weeks later Jenkins was back and this time with his new Duesenberg SJ Special. Despite having an engine one-third the size of Cobb's massive racer, the bright yellow Duesenberg looked set to break the fresh records. There was a major set-back when one of the bearings failed after just 300 miles. Two new engines were prepared back in Indianapolis and sent to the salt. The second attempt was again cut short due to an engine failure. It was third time lucky for Jenkins and his relief driver Tony Gulotta as they raised the 24-hour record to 135.47 mph. They had stopped every 400 miles for fuel, tires and a quick check-up. (these 4 paragraphs lifted uneditted from )

above image from

 Above the Duesenburg Special with a Curtiss airplane motor... it was not well planned, far too heavy of an engine, all out of balance front to back, and side to side. Think about driving a car in a circle really fast, and the engine torque is trying to twist the car over to the outside of the curve. Dangerous.

So the below was a special construction, longer, designed to keep the front back balance true.. and a vertical stabilizer for the high speeds

 Augie Duesenburg is the shorter guy in dark clothes
 I noticed the race car hauler in back of this scene... and had to catch a shot of the cab. 1940 was the year... what a cool semi truck. I posted a better photo of it

The color images are from the movie, they found a color film of the 1940 Bonneville races. Wow

This isn't the end of the film, not the end of the story.... but as far as reviewing the movie, it's a good place to close.

The car was amazing, and with it he made or set every record from 10 miles 7,138 and 1 hour to 48 hours, and Ab loaned it to the state of Utah (about the only amazing car in Utah state history I can imagine) and they placed it in the capitol building for visitors to be impressed, amazed, and educated by. In 1940 Ab held 153 speed records, 26 with the Meteor III, and today, 13 still stand.

The movie goes into about 20 minutes of the rest of the story, and I don't like to spoil the surprise for movie watchers... it isn't a nice thing to do when I was given a copy to watch and review for you readers to learn what I think about it... the movie makers would prefer you buy or rent a copy, and I assure you it's worth the cost. I will tell you the car is still around, and the family stayed with it, and what happened is astonishing afer Ab raced it.

At age 73 Ab set records in a new Pontiac. Guess what GM did... they honored it with the name Bonneville. The first car to "earn" it's name I would guess... because Ab broke all the unlimited and C class stock car records with it

I also want to point out that Ab was serious about safety, and that has a lot to do with why he didn't race among other racers (very many of whom never lived long) and Ab though setting records for speed and endurance, and cross country public road driving reocrds... he never got a ticket, he never was in a crash/wreck/accident. He was like a hero to his countrymen, for his personality was pleasant, his achievements were incredible, and he was a car guy. . . and they elected him mayor or Salt Lake City, without him running for office, without him giving a speech, without him spending money on an election. That is a well liked guy.

He still raced while in office, and set 21 more records while mayor. No one will do something that cool as mayor again I think. People never get elected to office because they are great people anymore. Ab was likely the last good honest man to be elected in America. Ever since, it's been politicians, lawyers, campaigners.

Like I said in the title, phenomenal
images from the movie "Boys of Bonneville" as is most of the info, some is from

Following images are from
 Utah owned a woody... huh. Well, the Road Commisioner did. That is pretty cool

 getting something xrayed below

 in 1951 at a soap box derby these kids got the helpful hand of a legend, an icon, and an incredible guy. Imagine making a backyard rocket and Buzz Aldrin pointing out how to improve it's performance. That is the type of incredible I see happening there.

But though the movie is reviewed, and the public library archives are shared... this next bit is pretty cool... the Utah Museum of Fine Arts is having an exhibit with it!

from June through September 16th on the campus of he University of Utah, guest curator is Ken Gross. Car guy deluxe.

The local news did a terrific story full of cool info here: tells that the Jaguar XK-SS that was Steve McQueens, Ab's Mormon Meteor I and III (which holds more records THAN ANY OTHER CAR EVER), Chet Herberts Beast III, and 11 others like a Cobra Daytona Coupe, a Delahaye, a 37 Cord, and a 54 Ferrari

image from

Found on

Board track racing, a couple of facts, a couple of thoughts

1915-1931, possibly the peak of board track racing, due to the popularity, the number of race cars and race car drivers, the number of manufacturers making cars that were competitive,  cheap labor to build the tracks, cheap inexpensive lumber, and the number of board tracks to race at. The economic times were flush in the late 20's, things were good, the depression hadn't hit yet. 

Motorcycles were racing board tracks first, and in 1911 to 1924 were in heavy competition with big purses to the winners. The tracks were 3/4 to 2 miles, and were made of 2x4s... the speeds kept getting faster, the engine sizes smaller, and the number of riders and spectators dieing never stopped. The bikes had no brakes, the tracks had no safety rails, and the spectators had no caution. A good source of 1910-1926 cycle racing at

 These images are a good view of a closed track, in Atlantic City, a mile and a 1/2, and 4 Studebakers getting records set for endurance/time
  the above cars are going 70 mph. Not bad in your car, on a highway or interstate... now imagine that 70 mph in a 1930 car, with no power steering, skinny tires, on a surface that looks like the below. Dangerous
 the tracks weren't smooth, they weren't well maintained, and they weren't safe. This wasn't stopping anyone from using them, because no alternative existed... unless you count the beaches at Daytona and Ormand in Florida, Brighton in England

by 1931 there were 24 board tracks around America. Beverly Hills, Atlantic City, Uniontown PA and the Bronx were some, probably the big dollar ones
notice the size of the shadows next to that guys feet. It's a good comparison in size, and I think a couple inches of height irregulaity, or gap, would not be a bad guess

anoter shot of the rough conditions that the steering of those 1920's cars, and the 1920's tires had to deal with. Not good. They were driving 140 mph in the above event
 here are a couple shots of damage and the repair
 These images from the movie "The Boys of Bonneville"