Hurtling an American muscle car across the Bonneville Salt Flats was a dream for the Top Gear star but brought back memories
I make no secret of the fact that I love American muscle cars. This is a significant confession and makes me deeply unpopular with pretty much everyone in the world. Car nuts hate American muscle cars because they’re poorly made and inefficient. Car haters hate them because they are the pinnacles of automotive excess, dripping oil and testosterone. They are showy, brassy, crass, poorly engineered, overrated and, if you are of a particular mindset, namely mine, irresistibly gorgeous.
I tell you this to prepare your imagination for trying to picture my response when it was mooted in the Top Gear office that the three of us — me, James and Jeremy — travel to America, pick up the three latest and greatest incarnations of the all-American muscle car and drive them across a couple of states, ending up with high-speed runs at the legendary Bonneville Salt Flats where people have been racing muscle cars from the precise second that muscle cars arrived on this earth. To say, then, that I was enthusiastic doesn’t quite cover it.
“So we take the new Dodge Challenger, a V8 Cadillac CTS-V and a Corvette ZR1 across Nevada, back to the home of drag racing and run them at full speed on the salt flats. Nice.” I tried to keep the tremor out of my voice as I asked the researcher for clarification of this latest wheeze. “Yup. And seeing as you’re the big muscle car fan, you get the Challenger.”
I tried to digest the fact that another childhood dream appeared to have
leapt up off the page and tapped me on the shoulder. The Bonneville Salt Flats, huge expanses of glaring whiteness spreading starkly across the desert floor of Utah like spilt milk on the moon, had called to me from the pages of, it seemed, every well-thumbed childhood encyclopedia of exciting stuff that boys need to know about that I had opened by torchlight under the covers. They have been the site of hundreds of world records set and broken since 1914 (300mph by Malcolm Campbell in 1935, then 400mph, 500mph and 630.39mph, the last record, in 1970). And the Dodge Challenger, which appeared in the 1970s film Vanishing Point starring Barry Newman, is about the most famous muscle car of all. It is a name so charged with all that makes up a muscle car that I could hardly say it aloud without it coming out all breathy. And I would be taking the latest incarnation of this legend to the Bonneville Salt Flats. As my job.
Of course, many people have died racing cars on the Salt Flats over the past century. And Vanishing Point ends with Barry Newman stuffing his Challenger into a digger bucket and being killed in a huge fireball. These thoughts, though, were not among those now churning hotly around my head as I wandered off to the coffee machine and reached for my phone to call my wife, Mindy.
Some weeks and a very great deal of daydreaming later, the Salt Flats appeared on the distant horizon like a patch of spilt milk, spreading and growing until my whole field of vision was filled by the dazzling white expanse.
The Challenger’s big V8 hauled the horizon in with a dreadful, unstoppable monotony, roaring its defiance to the broad blue skies. Comfortable now in the car’s workaday, blue-collar interior after hundreds of miles spent staring ahead and holding the wheel with an arm propped on the door, I smiled slowly and dreamt of speed as the last miles ticked by.
Eventually I stepped out of my Challenger and set foot on the starched surface of the salt flats for the first time. It may simply be a function of the sunlight bouncing up off the salt that acts as a giant reflector to throw thick slabs of white light on to angles and planes not normally highlighted that creates an unworldly scene of electric vitality. But it is a sight possessed of an unworldly, magical quality. I stood by the still-warm flanks of the Challenger, resting a hand on the hot bonnet, and surveyed the milling ranks of drivers and support crews variously tending to their steeds.
The place works to a unique rhythm; a pace born of the process of collecting thoughts and dreams and preparing the machine for the wait at the start line, the agonising seconds before the signal is sent to hit the throttle and test the work of the team and their dreams in a headlong, crazy charge across the white plain before bursting across the finish line. Metal workers, welders, construction workers, accountants, dotcom millionaires, film stars and playboys have gathered on this salt, stripped of their status and everyday rank by the overalls, sun hats and upsurging sunlight from the salt on which they hope to make their longed-for dash for glory.
Then my time came. I waited on the line. My car growled and shook. I felt it strain and coil itself and I felt the line waiting for me. Ahead lay the sparkling salt flats that had hosted glories, shattered dreams and caused death.
And I was, I don’t mind admitting now, scared. Suddenly I saw my own crash unfolding again before me, I saw the tyre burst, I felt the car shift and roll to the right. I felt the cold steel of the parachute-release lever in my right hand and I knew again the sudden disappointment of its failure to stop me rolling. And dying. And I died again in my mind and knew again the moment of certainty when all that can come is the end.
But the magic of the flats had infiltrated me. I sat now on the verge of something huge and terrifying but made clear by the starkness of the parched salt itself. The lights changed. I hit the throttle.
Driving fast on salt is somewhere between driving on ice and sand. I felt the wheels drift and claw their way through the top layer of powder, pushing aside shallow, fat tracks in the salt. The engine bellowed and roared, happy to be freed from the line and we charged for the end of the strip.
I passed the lights. I let the car slow at its own pace, leaving the brakes alone, and drove slowly around the marked path towards the hut with the blue door and controlled my breathing as I approached. I don’t remember the time I set. I don’t remember what time I was hoping for. None of this went into the film we made. It was private, and I feel better for sharing it.
© Richard Hammond 2009
Extracted from Or Is That Just Me?, published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson at £18.99. Copies can be purchased for £16.14, including postage, from Sunday Times BooksFirst on 0845 271 2135
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Ghosts of Richard Hammond’s near fatal crash11 10 2009