“It doesn’t come easy,” Scott Goetz said after climbing out of his race car. We’re at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats, home of legendary exploits of speed. In his last run, Goetz managed “only” 203 mph before the car succumbed to electronic issues. Even that supercar-rivaling speed isn’t quite enough for the land-speed record Goetz and the team are chasing. And the car they’re chasing it in isn’t a purpose-built racer or fire-breathing muscle car. It’s a Volkswagen Jetta.
Goetz did eventually drive this humble economy car to a land-speed record. The car went 210.16 mph, beating the previous record of 208.472 mph in the G/BGC class. Making an ordinary economy car go 210 mph was never going to be easy, but improbable speed is what Bonneville is all about. Cars as slow as molasses in stock form are made to go fast. Fast cars are made to go faster. The seemingly impossible is achieved out on the salt. If you want to see engineers, mechanics, and drivers pushing the limits of vehicular performance, this is the place to go.
A history of speed
Bonneville first entered the speed-freak lexicon in 1914, when racers first began taking advantage of this massive expanse of flat land near the Utah-Nevada border to set speed records. The Bonneville scene blew up in 1949, when California hot-rodders began bringing their cars to the salt flats. Things escalated in the 1960s with drivers like Mickey Thompson and his multi-engine Challenger, and Craig Breedlove and the Arfons brothers, who eschewed gasoline engines for jets in order to achieve speeds of over 600 mph.
Today, racing on the salt flats is governed by the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) and Utah Salt Flats Racing Association (USFRA), which organized the September “World of Speed” meet where Volkswagen made its record attempt. The two groups share rule and record books.
The racer, a 2019 Jetta, serves as a preview of VW’s upcoming GLI performance model, with which it shares the same engine.
Despite establishing itself as a racing mecca, Bonneville has remained refreshingly free of corporate influence. Factory-backed efforts like VW’s are rare. Some teams have big budgets, but most don’t. Unlike most racing events, you don’t need a dozen wristbands to get close to the action. The only live coverage is a tinny AM radio broadcast. You know results are about to be announced because you can hear an ancient printer spitting out the slips in the background.
Why did Volkswagen choose Bonneville? Even if no one is around to see it firsthand, a speed record can make a great story. It’s much easier to digest the Volkswagen I.D. R electric car destroying the record at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, or VW sibling Porsche’s 919 Hybrid breaking the Nürburgring lap record, than keeping track of an entire season of Formula One, IndyCar, or NASCAR. It’s also much cheaper for automakers to do a one-off event than commit to a traditional racing series.
Building a 210-mph economy car
Bonneville also gives VW the flexibility to promote whatever car it wants. The automaker previously ran a Jetta Hybrid and a Beetle on the salt, and this year it was the redesigned 2019 Jetta’s turn. The Bonneville racer serves as a preview of the upcoming GLI performance model. Both the race car and the production GLI use VW’s ubiquitous 2.0-liter turbocharged EA888 four-cylinder, an engine shared with the GTI, Passat, Beetle, Tiguan, and Atlas, as well as the upcoming Arteon.
VW chose the G/BGC record pretty much because it was the best fit for the Jetta. The first letter refers to the engine displacement class, in this case anywhere between 1.524 and 2.015 liters. “BGC” stands for “blown gas coupe,” which in Bonneville-speak means a fixed-roof car running on gasoline with turbocharging or supercharging.
Tom Habrzyk of California-based THR Manufacturing turned the Jetta into a land-speed racer. Extensive body modifications aren’t allowed, but a front air dam was added and the exterior mirrors were subtracted to make the car slipperier.
Even in best-case scenarios, spinning is a very real possibility at the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Some bits of the interior are recognizable from the stock Jetta, but almost everything was removed to make way for a roll cage and other safety hardware. A massive intercooler – filled with ice from a nearby gas station before each run – to chill air going into the engine sits where the front passenger’s seat would normally be. The engine itself was extensively modified to produce around 600 horsepower.
The sheer number of classes meant Volkswagen could slot its Jetta in relatively easily. It also means car builders can let their imaginations run wild. We saw a Corvette and a Camaro making runs, but also a Geo Storm and Chevrolet Citation. One builder had chopped and stretched a Volkswagen Beetle beyond recognition in the name of aerodynamics. In place of the stock four-cylinder, he fitted a two-cylinder supercharged engine.
Cars (and motorcycles) don’t have to be based on production models, either. We saw a streamlined a “motorcycle” shaped like a long tube, which the rider lay prone in. A bullet-shaped car called the “Turbinator” went 483 mph using a helicopter turbine for power. One intrepid bicycle rider attempted to reach 170 mph pedaling in the slipstream behind a car.
Good salt and bad fuel
All drivers and riders face the challenge of driving on the salt. Scott Goetz, the Jetta’s driver, compared to it driving on frozen lakes in his native Minnesota.
When VW made its record attempt in late September 2018, he said the conditions were optimal. The salt (which, by the way, tastes just like the stuff in your kitchen) was hard and dry, helping to improve traction. But even in this best-case scenario, spinning is a very real possibility thanks to the thin tires the Jetta used, a sacrifice made in the name of increasing top speed.
Bonneville threw plenty of curveballs at the Volkswagen team. On its first-ever full-speed run, the Jetta clocked in at 207.651 mph – missing the record by less than 1 mph. With the track about to shut down for the day, the car was sent out again. This time it went slower – an issue with the fuel was leaving deposits on the spark plugs.
The same issue continued to bedevil the Jetta the next day. Goetz said the car felt great, but its engine was not happy. Habrzyk and the team’s mechanics briefly eyed a Passat and Beetle loaned by VW to this writer and another journalist, respectively. Both cars had the same EA888 engine as the race car, and the team thought they might be able to scavenge a sensor to replace one that was malfunctioning. That idea didn’t pan out, and soon high winds shut down racing for the day. While Goetz described a tailwind as “free horsepower,” the crosswinds whipped up that day threatened to blow cars off the track.
The team returned the next day but, due to scheduling issues, we did not. In a testament to Bonneville’s existence outside the stage-managed world of modern motorsports, VW’s record came without an audience. But land-speed record racing is about something more elemental than the considerations of automaker public-relations departments. It’s about seeing how fast a car will go, no matter what that car is.
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