Bonneville Salt Flats | The Battle of the Century

By Chet Billings, Photography by Unknown

From the October 1938 Issue of Motorcyclist magazine

(The accompanying article departs from the usual editorial policy of reporting only motorcycle activities. It appears in this issue first because it is an outstanding accomplishment in speed and second because motorcycle record trials were held on the Bonneville Salt Flats within three days of the time the automobile records were established. In this description of the course is much which helps explain what trials on the salt are like. It is hoped our readers will the more enjoy stories of our own records in Utah as a result of reading about John Cobb and Captain Eyston.


“The battle of the century,” is a phrase taken from the lips of expert observers who were “on the salt” during the recent sporting struggle between John R. Cobb and Captain George E.T. Eyston.

Although these observers were specialists, each watching, recording and studying various phases of mechanical and physical performance, they could not but thrill to the fact that before their eyes was being waged a battle for supremacy in automobile speed which it is unlikely they or anyone else will ever witness again.

History was indeed in the making at Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, when two speed men were present at the same time, each destined to set a world’s record in the brackets around 350 miles per hour, and when old records should tumble to the extent of as much as 32 miles per hour.

Early in the second week of August Captain Eyston made his first trial run, and turned 280 m.p.h. This was to test his equipment after its trip overseas and to determine certain factors preliminary to his record trials. On about the 15th of the same month John Cobb made a trial run with his newly designed Railton and turned 300 m.p.h. He likewise was preparing for the record trials.

These speeds, tremendous in themselves as compared to the capabilities of ordinary cars or even racing cars, were turned almost casually as the two Englishmen girded their loins for what was to follow.

The same week Captain Eyston turned slightly over 300 m.p.h. and that seemed to end the preparations. Word was sent to the American Automobile Association that all was set for the timing equipment and the real trials.

Timing, as is well known, was done by means of the photoelectric eye. The equipment, like the machines it was to time was highly specialized. It had to record the passing of an object at the rate of approximately 520 feet per second which is about 2/3 the speed of a bullet from an army automatic pistol. A time delay relay was employed so as to enable the machine to hold down the type which was to record the time on a ribbon of paper.

Since the actual trials were to be worldwide news, radio moved in. KNEF set up a tent which housed a complete and very efficient low wave broadcasting unit. KBID and KRIC were then set up one at each end of the 13-mile course. These stations broadcasted news from their respective ends of the course to KNEF and that station broadcasted to KSL in Salt Lake City where in turn it was sent out over the air for the country to hear. And while this system tended to serve the nation and the world, it also tended to serve those who were officiating at the trials. By the simple means of turning on car sets, it was possible for people at one end of the course to hear and even to communicate with those at the opposite end. The KNEF announcer was so located that he commanded a view of the measured mile which was in the center of the course and thus the whole thirteen miles was policed by radio.

Black lines, about 12 inches wide had been carefully traced along the outer limits of the course. These were put down by state highway equipment much as pavement lines are marked, but an asphalt like mixture was used that impregnated itself into the salt.

By Chet Billings
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