Book Review by Richard Parks, Photographic Consultant Roger Rohrdanz
The Salt of the Earth – Ab Jenkins’ Own Story of Speed, by Ab Jenkins and Wendell J. Ashton, is a small paperback book that has seen at least 3 printings. For land speed racers and fans, this book is very special and has taken on a special meaning. The book measures 5 ¼ inches in width by 7 ¾ inches in height, with 130 pages on high quality glossy paper. There are 70 black and white photographs, but none in color, since the book precedes color photography. The photographs are old and somewhat dull and grainy. This doesn’t take away from the value of the book because of its historicity and originality. There are three letters, three charts, one map and one drawing of Jenkins’ famous Mormon Meteor. The book has a Prologue, Foreword by W. D. Rishel, Preface, 13 chapters and a first class Index with over five pages. The Index is better than any that I’ve ever seen. Rishel first saw the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1896 and is a legendary figure. He wrote the Foreword in 1939, long before many land speed racers were even born. The Salt of the Earth – Ab Jenkins’ Own Story of Speed is not only a classic in the way that the Bible is revered among Jews and Christians, but it has a story to tell that is fascinating. Or at least it is to those who love land speed racing. The book is self-published by the late author and by his son, Marvin Jenkins of St George, Utah through the Dixie College Foundation. Their address is 225 South 700 East, St George, Utah. Or contact Autobooks/Aerobooks at 1-818-845-0707.
The Salt of the Earth – Ab Jenkins’ Own Story of Speed tells the story of pioneers in the taming of the West and the taming of speed. Those that grew up and knew Ab Jenkins and those that made the Salt Flats famous, marveled at their accomplishments. These men were accepted as human, with frailties and talents, driven by a need to tame speed. Today, we look back and can barely comprehend what those pioneers went through, because it seems so impossible a task for any man to accomplish. The Bonneville Salt Flats was known for some time. Pioneer scouts had seen the broad expanse of salt a decade or more prior to the trek of the ill-fated Donner Party in 1846. The salt caused delays to the wagon train, which helped to put them behind schedule and thus face destruction in the snows of the Sierra Nevadas that marked them for infamy. Trails were blazed to the north and to the south of the barren wastes. Rishel set out to cross the desert in 1896 to chart a course across the salt pans for an intercontinental bicycle race. Rishel returned to the lakebed in 1907, this time in a Pierce Arrow. Teddy Tetzlaff discovered for himself the unique qualities that the salt desert provided in his speed runs of 1914. Rishel and Tetzlaff set the example that inspired Ab Jenkins to take his need for speed to the salt. Jenkins was of Welsh descent, barrel-chested, square-jawed, powerful and optimistic. He became a tireless promoter of the salt flats and of his native Utah and the pioneers who settled there.
The Salt of the Earth – Ab Jenkins’ Own Story of Speed relates Ab Jenkins life that was centered on the Bonneville Salt Flats. He did far more than set long distance records and speed runs. The book isn’t big enough to tell his entire story, but it’s a start and it will enthrall you. I’ve seen the Mormon Meteor, or what is called car #3. The car is huge and powerful, a roadster grown up on steroids. But there is nothing ugly about this car. Its engineering and design proved to be very aerodynamic and the records that Jenkins set over 70 years ago are still standing. But perhaps it is the man himself that is unique. Racecars can be designed and built today that will break old records, but can we also design and build men to equal what Ab did? On oval courses at the salt flats, Ab would set records of one, three, six, twelve and twenty-four hours at a time. He set records for 50 all the way up to 5000 Kilometers and from 50 to 3000 miles, all in one effort. While endurance racing has been around for ages, LeMans and Sebring come to mind, they are team efforts. Ab was the team. Occasionally a driver such as Babe Stapp would take over for an hour, but Ab would usually drive the distance. I’ve talked to big time endurance drivers and they tell me that there was no one like Ab Jenkins. Danny Oakes, the famous Midget racer, told me how he used to hire out as a car company driver in endurance runs. The big cars would usually break down long before the tests were over and the drivers would alternate after only a few hours. Ab drove 24 hours or more, straight through, and the Mormon Meteors hardly ever gave him any trouble.
Had Jenkins preferred to bask in the glory all by himself, there was no one to stop him. But he was a man driven by a cause and that was to shout to the world about what a great place Utah and the Bonneville Salt Flats were. He wanted the world to know, especially the Europeans who were always looking for a better place to run their unlimited land speed cars. Jenkins was elected the mayor of Salt Lake City, Utah and used his position to promote the state of Utah as a place to visit. His efforts paid off when Brits such as Sir Malcolm Campbell, Captain George E. T. Eyston and John Cobb came to the salt flats and set their records. He was even prouder when the racers went back to Europe and told everyone what a special place the salt flats were. A group of Southern California land speed racers from the dry lakes came to see him in 1948 to request the right to hold their racing events on the salt flats. He encouraged them and in 1949 they conducted the very first Speed Week land speed race under the sanction of the SCTA (Southern California Timing Association)/BNI. The Bonneville Salt Flats are now home to two organizations, the SCTA and the USFRA (Utah Salt Flats Racing Association) and a total of 4 events are held there annually. The salt flats are also used for individual time trials and for movies and ads. Utah and the Bonneville Salt Flats have grown up and no one would be prouder than Ab Jenkins and his son Marvin.
Gone Racin’ is at RNPARKS2@JUNO.COM