Boys of Bonneville: Racing on a Ribbon of Salt
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“Boys of Bonneville: Racing on a Ribbon of Salt” is a terrific, great-looking and engaging documentary that actually changes before our eyes. First, it’s a story about a place — the Bonneville Salt Flats, where men went to break land speed records. Then it becomes the story of a man who was a pioneer in racing. Later, its focus shifts to that man’s son and finally, the film blurs into a story about a historic car.
I loved every section because the theme that binds them together is the legacy of speed. That was, in fact, part of the original title of this film — and a better one, I think — “Meteor Men: Legacy of Speed.”
But the title is the only thing I have to quibble about with this amazing documentary from director Curt Wallin, his first feature film credit as a director; he also served as producer and cinematographer.
The most informative thing about the doc is learning about Ab Jenkins, whose name may not be a household one but deserves to be known by anyone who considers themselves a racing fan. Ab set more world records than any other human in any kind of sport. Astonishingly, some of his endurance records still stand today — 70 years or more after he set them.
Ab was less a student of engineering and organized racing than a seat-of-the-pants hot-rodder who loved to climb in a car and drive a thousand miles or two without stopping. He more or less discovered the Salt Flats as a venue for setting speed records, encouraging others to come out there before there even were roads built.
The Flats are like alien topography, a vast expanse of blistering heat and white salt deposits. Here, Ab Jenkins and his crews scoured out a track 10 miles long and began building cars to go faster than any vehicle had gone before.
A gentleman driver, Ab Jenkins did not hog the attention for himself but invited famous international racers like Sir Malcolm Campbell to come to Utah to break his speed records. When they would, he’d build another car and break their records.
It’s interesting that Ab, a Mormon building contractor by trade, did not become famous as a racer until he was nearly 50 years old and continued racing until his death. Just a few months before he passed, Ab drove a brand-new Pontiac Bonneville for 24 hours straight at the Salt Flats.
The film also explores Ab’s construction of the Mormon Meteor III, his greatest racing machine. Narrow and sleek, with an enormous fin in the rear that makes it look like a cartoon shark, the Meteor had a legacy nearly as great as its owner’s.
For Indianapolis racing fans, there are plenty of tie-ins with Indy. Ab Jenkins was friends and partners with Augie Duisenberg, who had a shop in Indianapolis, and the Mormon Meteor III was first tested on the Indianapolis Speedway oval. Larry Miller, locally known as an avid car collector, appears briefly in the film.
The documentary also tracks the career of Ab’s son, Marvin Jenkins, who shows up in newsreel footage from the 1930s and ’40s as a lanky blond teenager constantly at his father’s elbow. We learn that Marvin was the test driver and mechanic who actually logged more hours behind the wheel of Mormon Meteor III than Ab did.
But Marvin did not crave the spotlight and was more interested in preserving his family’s racing heritage — specifically, the Meteor.
After being donated to the government of Salt Lake City, the legendary car was allowed to be vandalized and fall into disrepair. Using a loophole in the agreement, Marvin reclaimed the car, fixed it up and returned it — only to see the Meteor again not receive the protection it deserved. So one day he backed his trailer up to city hall without even telling anyone, rolled the Meteor away and kept it.
Eventually it was sold to John Price, a collector determined to see the Meteor shine again. Working with Marvin’s blessing and instruction, a group of high-skilled mechanics and machinists rebuild the racing car from the ground up. With an airplane engine from the 1920s and every part of the car body custom-built by hand, it was no easy task. But when the Mormon Meteor III roars to life again, with Marvin Jenkins there to witness the rebirth of his father’s legend, it’s a serious lump-in-the-throat moment.
“Boys of Bonneville” continually surprises us by not only telling us the story of a forgotten trailblazer but also the men (and car) that carried the torch on. What a thrill ride.