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Boys of Bonneville: Racing on a Ribbon of Salt, movie review by Richard Parks

Boys of Bonneville: Racing on a Ribbon of Salt, movie review by Richard Parks
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Movie Review by Richard Parks, Photographic Consultant Roger Rohrdanz


Movie reviews come in all forms.  I write reviews the way I want to see them in order to decide whether I want to spend the time or money to see the movie.  Time is important to hot rodders.  Normally I receive or buy a disc and review the movie over and over again.  Sometimes there is a reviewer’s screening or Premieres that we can attend.  A review shouldn’t change whether we see the movie in a crowd or alone at home where we can play back the action.  I’ll know right from the beginning whether the movie has “legs” or is just taking up my time.  On the other hand there are movies that take time to grow on you; those that get better and better with age.  A movie is more than just a chance to relax; it is also a statement by the filmmaker about the subject and the times that we live in.  The producer and director are attempting to record the ‘truth’ of the film; for now and for all time. Boys of Bonneville is a new movie that attempts to show a little known and forgotten era in land speed and endurance racing.  The movie was commissioned and produced by John Price and depicts the life and times of Ab Jenkins and his son Marvin.  Price recently had the chance to buy the Mormon Meteor III endurance car from the Jenkins family and have it restored to its former racing glory.  The car is on display at his museum in Utah.

The Jenkins family is critical to the understanding of land speed and endurance racing.  Boys of Bonneville is a documentary film that attempts to tell their story.  In some 

respects it does exactly that and in some cases it misses some important points.  For years now I have been extolling the importance of Ab and Marvin Jenkins in land speed racing and American racing in general.  Authors like ‘LandSpeed’ Louise Ann Noeth and Gordon Eliot White have written about the importance of the Jenkins family and of course there are hundreds of enthusiastic endurance and land speed racers and fans who have never forgotten what Ab Jenkins means to us.  Simply put, Ab is responsible for Bonneville salt flat racing and the advancement of the sport beyond anything that the world could have conceived of in the 1930’s.  Land speed racing is an acquired taste; you simply love it and understand it or you don’t.  Among those who love land speed and endurance racing, Ab Jenkins is a mythic giant of a man.  But before we get to Ab and those who followed him, let’s set up the stage for this movie.  The Newport Beach Film Festival accepted the application for Boys of Bonneville and gave the producer a date; 6pm on Wednesday, May 4, 2011.  There were many film premieres over the week-long festival; some with limousines and beautifully gowned women and tux wearing men.  The City of Newport Beach takes their arts seriously.  But this was a hot rod documentary and we came dressed in jeans and T-shirts.

Though we aren’t an artsy crowd, we have as much love for display and pomp as anyone.  The men and women who showed up have won the right to wear the Red Hat, the most prestigious club anywhere in the world.  They are mechanics, businessmen, diplomats, pinstripers, artists, racers and professional men and women in nearly every field of endeavor.  More to the point, they are people who love speed and mechanical marvels.  Their minds spin at a furious rate as they absorb the knowledge all around them in motorsports.  They may hate fancy gowns and tuxes with frilled shirts, but they are not to be trifled with.  These men and women who came to view the movie with me represent the best and brightest minds anywhere and they are a very hardheaded crowd to please.  My son Michael Parks (Wally’s grandson) treated me to this event and chauffeured me there.  We found a line waiting for us that included a lot of old friends; Jim Miller, Parnelli Jones, Mike Jones (no relation to Parnelli), David and Barbara Parks, Charles Rollins, Ron Main and many more.  At the Premiere was John Price, the producer and a former United States Ambassador.  Accompanying him was Gerald Kent Hartley, the film’s Musician and Film Composer.  The crowd knew the story line probably better than the director did and they were there to praise him or boo him off the stage if he did not accord Ab Jenkins with the respect that we all hold for him.  He was either going to win us over or face a cruel response.

Boys of Bonneville is a documentary that seems so much more.  Slow at first to develop, it began to grow and encircle us in its mastery.  There were photographs and film that I had never seen before and a scene that shows what it was like to race like Ab Jenkins raced.  Ab Jenkins came from Welsh parents who came to Utah to live.  He was a devout Mormon who neither used alcohol or tobacco.  He was a man who was honest, straightforward and kind.  As far as I can tell, he never had an enemy or failed to make a friend.  He had several overwhelming loves; his family, his Mormon heritage, his love of speed, his enchantment by the beauty of the state of Utah and his ability to make friends with everyone that he came into contact with.  He was a man who earned a living by building things with his hands; a simple man who lived by the code of the west.  He never lied, cheated, or took advantage of another.  He was John Wayne before there was a John Wayne.  He was a common man of the west who became an American legend and hero and couldn’t understand why people placed him on a pedestal.  He did things that he would have considered normal things in life, but which no one else could truly duplicate.  He was Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart with that “Oh, Gosh,” attitude that charmed women, inspired men and drew legions of youth to follow in his footsteps.

Ab Jenkins was born in the 1870’s and died in the 1950’s.  He’s from another time and place altogether different from what we know today.  We are happy if we can simply emulate a few of the things that Ab Jenkins took for granted.  Sometime before the First World War Ab fell in luck with the Bonneville Salt Flats.  He rode his motorcycle out there and it wasn’t easy.  There were no major roads and people avoided the salt flats in those days.  He ran on the railroad tracks; a bone jarring ride.  But once on the salt flats his mind expanded into the future and across time itself.  He realized the potential for speed trials and he would spend numerous hours in the decades to come to promote the salt flats and Utah to the outside world.  Ab is most famous for his series of cars that he used to set endurance records on an oval course.  Sometimes sponsored by companies and sometimes self sponsored, Ab Jenkins was truly an ironman when it came to endurance racing.  He set records from one kilometer and one mile up to 48 hours.  He had only two substitute drivers that I know of; Babe Stapp and his son Marvin, but he so rarely let them drive that they are mostly trivia questions rather than co-drivers.  He raced endurance races wherever he could and co-drove on teams that went over 400 hours in races.  Ab wanted to drive at Indy and he would have done well, but he was much older by the time he had developed a name for himself.

He was also one of the calmest and most controlled race car drivers who ever raced.  There is a scene in Boys of Bonneville where mirages and the shimmering light fades into darkness and only the lights of the car reflecting on the eerie salt flakes show the utter loneliness of driving 120 miles an hour for lap after lap on the ten mile oval course.  Where could the man rest, what about hunger, how could he avoid thirst in the desert, where could he pee?  Once strapped in the man had only one goal and one focus; to go as fast as he could for mile after mile, hour after hour until he reached those absurd records of 24 and 48 hours, alone in his thoughts.  What sheer madness; many of his records are unbroken to this day because we aren’t made of the sturdy cloth that those pioneers were made of.  Endurance records were made by teams of men in those days.  I spoke to Danny Oakes, a famous midget driver and he confirmed that to me.  Endurance records were good advertising and sold cars, but the companies weren’t out to make heroes of men, but of their automobiles, tires or parts.  Ab would finish the race and exit the car and seem as fresh as when he started and ready for another 48 hours.  He was a hero to an America in the doldrums of the great Depression of the 1930’s.  He showed us that we can prevail against all adversity.  He was elected the mayor of Salt Lake City without having to spend a single dime for his campaign.  He tirelessly worked to bring Cobb, Campbell and other European land speed teams to the salt flats.  Ab Jenkins changed the course of racing throughout the world.

Sadly, the filmmakers overlooked one of the most enduring legacies of Ab Jenkin’s life.  Boys of Bonneville adequately gave us a picture of whom and what Ab and Marvin Jenkins were as people.  The documentary gave us a real view of the difficulties faced in Ab’s racing career and of his successes and rare failures.  We saw how the restoration of the famous Mormon Meteor III car was accomplished and heard testimonials to the man from men like Sir Andy Green and Jay Leno.  Almost nothing was admitted from the story of a true American hero except that which the crowds of Bonneville racers had come to hear and cherish.  The story of how Ab Jenkins was instrumental in drawing to the salt flats a group out in California who in 1949 brought their jalopies and held a meet.  That meet has seen more records and the utilization of the Bonneville Salt Flats than any other group.  The SCTA (later the SCTA/BNI) group that raced there in 1949 is still racing there today.  They have logged more miles and set more records in that organization than all the land speed record attempts in the entire world since the automobile was invented.  This is the legacy that Ab Jenkins was most proud of; that his beloved Bonneville Salt Flats reached the level of success that he first envisioned back in the 1910’s.  But beyond that glaring omission, Boys of Bonneville reached a level of excellence that the crowd loved.  The reviewer was overwhelmed by the crowd of hot rodders and they roared their approval.  Far be it for me to overrule the group.  I loved the movie, wished that the 80 minutes had been closer to 100 and that the SCTA be recognized in Ab Jenkin’s life story.  I rate this documentary movie a seven out of eight spark plugs and urge you all to go see it.

Gone Racin’ is at [email protected]


Click below to watch the video ... Boys of Bonneville Movie Trailer from Price Museum of Speed on Vimeo