A Quest for Speed: Athol Graham and His Home-Built Racer

by JOSIAH JOHNSON

Every late summer, as winter and spring runoff evaporates from the salt beds of the Great Salt Lake Desert, a site is revealed. (Hogue, 38) A site with great history, both of peril and excitement. A place so flat you can see the curvature of the earth with the naked eye. (Hogue, 32) And a place where highest speeds are most attainable.

The vast and desolate Bonneville Salt Flats are located on the western edge of Utah’s Great Salt Lake Basin. According to the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees it, the area occupies 30,000 acres; that is 12 miles long, five miles wide and over 46 square miles in total. The Salt Flats are primarily made up of leftover minerals from what was once ancient Lake Bonneville. (Bonneville Salt Flats Brochure)

In his Utah History Encyclopedia entry, Kevin Hallaran credits Jedediah Smith as being “the first white man to cross the salt flats.” He did so in 1827 on the way back from an expedition to California. In 1833, fellow trapper Joseph Reddeford Walker explored and mapped the Great Salt Lake area, naming the salt flats after his employer, Benjamin Bonneville. Hallaran also notes that the early history of the Bonneville Salt Flats even includes the demise of the 1846 Donner-Reed Party who, after getting stuck in the mud on the Flats, later perished in the Sierra-Nevada mountains.

Perhaps a more well-known association, however, is that of its racing history. The Bonneville Salt Flats were first promoted as a racing venue by William Randolph Hearst with little success, until, in 1925, Ab Jenkins raced a train across the Flats in his Studebaker and won. (Hallaran) In a piece for Landscape Journal, Martin Hogue explains that as automobile racing grew in popularity (and speeds), Bonneville became a racing mecca for its various racing qualities. In the 1920s, cars started to be designed with the land speed record in mind, and between the years 1935 and 1970, the land speed record was broken at Bonneville no less than 18 times. (Hogue, 32-33)

On August 24, 1939, The New York Times reported that British racer John Cobb had set a new land speed record at 368.85 mph. Cobb would return to Bonneville multiple times, and in 1947 he raised the record to 394 mph. That record would stand for over a decade and, as can be seen through many Salt Lake Tribune articles, was on the minds of all participants leading up to the 1960 racing season.

One of those racers with his eye fixed on the land speed record was 35-year-old Salt Lake City “garageman” Athol Graham. According to a Salt Lake Tribune article published November 28, 1959, Graham had been planning his land speed record attempt for 12 years. His home-built racer was made from an old B29 belly tank and powered by a 12-cyllinder Allison aircraft engine capable of 3000 horsepower. After a horrible first attempt in 1958, Graham rebuilt the car completely. (Hawley, 25) In early 1959, it reached 280 mph before experiencing mechanical problems. For his attempts in November of the same year, Graham requested no spectators.

GrahamsCityofSaltLake

Athol Graham’s home-built racer, the “City of Salt Lake,” on the Bonneville Salt Flats of western Utah. Used by permission, Utah State Historical Society.

Athol Graham’s quest for speed and obsession over the record had roots that ran deep. As a boy, his interest in racing was piqued after watching British racers on the Flats, according to a Salt Lake Tribune article published August 1, 1960. “I’d get goose pimples reading about them and I always imagined myself out there driving one of those beautiful cars across the salt,” Graham once said. (Hawley, 24)

On November 30, 1959, Tom Korologos of the Salt Lake Tribune reported that Graham’s “City of Salt Lake” missed the speed mark despite averaging 307 mph over two runs. Mechanical trials were once again a factor. In a statement for the paper, Graham said, “I’ve still got confidence that I can break the record but it looks as though we’re finished for this year.”

Dates for the 1960 season were announced in the Salt Lake Tribune on January 16, 1960. Graham was originally scheduled for the second block of attempts from August first through the fourth, and, after his run a few months before, Graham was listed as the fastest driver behind Mikey Thompson. In July 1960, the Tribune reported that fellow Salt Laker Marv Jenkins had surrendered his time slot, meaning that Graham and his rear-wheel-racer would have the first shot at the record in 1960.

In his book, Speed Duel, author Samuel Hawley highlights the giant expectations for the summer of 1960. High-profile racers, namely Thompson and Donald Campbell, would be returning to the Flats, and newcomer Nathan Ostich would be racing a jet-propelled car for the first time. (23) Bill Dredge of The New York Times referred to Athol Graham as the “Cinderella boy of the salt beds” and said of him, “He has no other pretentions than an ability to ramble down the salt bed faster than anyone believed he could.”

Graham was the obvious underdog. His home-built racer cost $2,500 but would be competing against Campbell’s Bluebird, a car with a $3 million price tag and support of 69 British companies, according to Marion Dunn, a sports writer for The Salt Lake Tribune. (July 10, 1960)

Buzz in local newspapers was especially focused around Graham, and numerous Salt Lake Tribune articles were published leading up to his record attempt in 1960. In addition to owning Canyon Motors, a Salt Lake City garage, Graham was a devout Mormon who served a mission to New Zealand. He also enlisted in the United States Army motor pool where he used his mechanic skills in WW II. (Hawley, 24) After returning from the war, he married his wife, Zeldine, and began building his racer. (“Whodunnit”)

As the first day of August approached, salt ripples on the Flats became a concern. Dave Mead, another sports writer for The Salt Lake Tribune, reported on July 27, 1960, that the “flats are not good enough for racing” and that “heat has severely buckled the course.” Just a day before, Graham had unveiled his newly improved racer with new Firestone tires and wheels (the source of previous failure), a stiffened body and frame, a rebuilt tail section and locked differential. According to Mead, Graham had three truckloads of spare parts with him, just in case.

It was becoming uncertain if the course would be fit to use, but “Graham himself ended that doubt,” reported the Tribune on July 28, 1960. After crews did their best to scrape and repair the two miles of ripples leading up to the measured mile-long course, Graham walked the stretch and said he would race.

The night before what he referred to as Graham’s “four-day date with destiny on the Bonneville Salt Flats,” Marion Dunn interviewed the Salt Lake City racer at his motel room in Wendover. “I feel that we’ll get the record,” Graham said, “but I certainly wish that all the people would say a prayer or two for me.” (“Graham Slates Record Assault”)

Graham planned to make his first pass at 9 a.m. on Monday, August 1, 1960, and told Dunn he would pack up and head home if his two-run average set a new record. (“Graham Plans Fast Halt”) According to the Tribune’s report on August 2, weather was once again a factor as gusty winds of 22 mph postponed the morning start.

Before the attempt, Graham told race spectators not to be alarmed if his bright red City of Salt Lake went into an early skid. (“300 mph Crash”) If Graham succeeded in reaching the coveted speed mark of 400 mph, he would be the first American to hold the land speed record since Ray Keech achieved it 32 years before, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. (August 1, 1960)

In the book Speed Duel, Samuel Hawley wrote of a final interaction that Graham had with his wife before setting off down the course in pursuit of his speed dream. Hawley described it as a private moment where the couple kissed and Athol said, “See you at the other end.” (Hawley, 30) It was later reported by The Salt Lake Tribune that Zeldine planned to make a run of her own for a 300-mph mark if the car ran well. (“300 mph Crash”)

Graham climbed into the cockpit of his race car around 11 a.m., got the engine running and, with a little help from his young assistant, Otto Anzjon, was closed in by the canopy. Soon, Graham was off, cruising across the salt, picking up speed as he went. (Hawley, 30) He made it nearly to the halfway mark before the measured mile before disaster struck. (“300 mph Crash”) An excerpt from the August 2 edition of The Salt Lake Tribune described the scene saying that “within seconds, his handmade racer skidded and flipped end-over-end at 300 miles an hour.” The New York Times reported that the accident took place at 11:02 a.m.

Borge Anderson, a photographer for the Tribune, and Marion Dunn were among the first to arrive at the scene of the crash, 600 yards from where spectators stood. (“Eyewitness Tells of Crash”) In his eyewitness account for The Salt Lake Tribune that ran on August 2, Dunn described the series of events beginning with seeing objects flying off the car. The City of Salt Lake then slid sideways, went airborne, landed on its top, bounced, landed on its top once more and slid to a stop, pinning Graham inside. When he arrived at the scene, Dunn believed Graham to be dead already.

Graham was removed from the mangled car and flown to a Salt Lake City area hospital. Just one hour after the crash, around 12:20 p.m. on August 1, 1960, Athol Graham died of extensive head, neck and chest injuries, according to the front-page story printed in The Salt Lake Tribune the following day. The local racer was survived by his 29-year-old wife and their four children. (“300 mph Crash”)

According to The Salt Lake Tribune, Athol Graham was the first driver to be killed on the Bonneville Salt Flats in a land speed record attempt. There is speculation, of course, but officials did not believe that the winds or the course had anything to do with the crash. (“300 mph Crash”) In the same Tribune article, Joe Petrall, an official observer representing the U.S. Auto Club, was quoted as saying, “It looked as if Graham was accelerating very fast and the rear wheels were beginning to spin forward throwing the car sideways before it flipped end over end.” Many sources, including an article for Motorsports Magazine recounting the tragedy, claim there was no safety harness in the home-built race car.

Athol Graham’s fellow racers were disheartened by the event, and Mickey Thompson was himself one of the 25 men who helped remove Graham from the crashed vehicle. Dr. Nathan Ostich was quoted in The Salt Lake Tribune as saying he was “deeply shocked” by the fatal accident but would still race. (“Race Season to Continue”) In one of the many Salt Lake Tribune articles published on August 2, it was reported that W. R. Shadoff would take over Graham’s racing dates. (“New Record Try”)

Many tragic ironies came to light following Graham’s death. According to Hawley in Speed Duel, August 2, 1960, would have been Athol and Zeldine’s tenth wedding anniversary. Hawley also noted that, on his comparatively minuscule racing budget, Graham couldn’t afford the $150 to have a doctor on site at the record attempt that morning.

In his article for Motorsports Magazine fittingly titled “Ghosts in the machine,” Peter Holthusen briefly discussed the fate of Graham’s racer, the City of Salt Lake. The year after the fatal crash and death of Graham, Otto Anzjon convinced Zeldine to let him rebuild and race Graham’s car. The 17-year-old mechanic got the car up to 254 mph before a tire blowout led to a crash during another record attempt. On October 12, 1963, Zeldine’s second husband, Harry Muhlbach, ran the rebuilt racer once more, only to result in yet another crash. After countless mechanical problems, rebuilds and three crashes, sponsors STP and Firestone withdrew all support of the project.

Graham’s City of Salt Lake would be rebuilt one last time, this time by Athol’s only son, Butch. In July 2010, KSL News reported on the unveiling of the 27-year-long restoration project. The car was put on display at Orthopedic Specialty Hospital in Murray for the 50th anniversary of Athol Graham’s fateful day. More than 100 people came to see it, according to the article by Alex Cabrero. (“Man Restores Race Car”)

Though the crash and death of Athol Graham in 1960 stained the site with tragedy, the legacy and spectacle of the Bonneville Salt Flats carries on as a world-famous site for racing. Many “speed freaks” have forgotten, or perhaps never even heard of Salt Lake City “garageman” Athol Graham, but his story speaks to the real consequences of speed-related sports and activities.

Despite the dangers, racers from around the world continue to push themselves to the fastest speeds, and some do so on the salt in westernmost Utah. Speed Week is still an annual event at the Bonneville Salt Flats, attracting racers and racing fans alike. As much as the geography itself, legendary racers like Athol Graham, John Cobb, Mickey Thompson and others have done their part to make the Bonneville Salt Flats a premier, world-renowned racing destination. As a result, men and women are still inspired to embark on their own quests for speed.

Josiah Johnson, a student of strategic communication at The University of Utah, graduated with his Bachelor of Science in May 2017. His interest in automotive culture has been increasingly inspired by his younger brother, Jeremiah, to whom this article is dedicated. Josiah has a passion for art, design and creative communication, and he hopes to travel the world observing it.

Sources

Alex Cabrero, “Man Restores Race Car in Father’s Honor,” KSL News Online, July 31, 2010, http://bit.ly/2oSKU4r

“Driver Killed in Bid for 400 M.P.H. on Salt Flats,” The New York Times, August 2, 1960, 36.

“New Record Try Looms Today,” The Salt Lake Tribune, August 2, 1960, 17.

“Race Season to Continue,” The Salt Lake Tribune, August 2, 1960, 17.

Marion Dunn, “Whodunnit,” The Salt Lake Tribune, August 2, 1960, 15.

“300 MPH Crash Kills S.L. Racer,” The Salt Lake Tribune, August 2, 1960, 1, 5.

Marion Dunn, “Eyewitness Tells of Crash,” The Salt Lake Tribune, August 2, 1960, 1.

Marion Dunn, “Graham Slates Record Assault,” The Salt Lake Tribune, August 1, 1960, 24.

Marion Dunn, “Graham Sets First Dash Across Flats,” The Salt Lake Tribune, July 31, 1960, D5.

Marion Dunn, “Graham Plans Fast Halt When, If, Record Falls,” The Salt Lake Tribune, July 29, 1960, D5.

“Graham Seeks Land Mark Monday,” The Salt Lake Tribune, July 28, 1960, 26.

Dave Mead, “Salt Ripples May Halt Graham Run,” The Salt Lake Tribune, July 27, 1960, 19.

Marion Dunn, “Drivers Set for Speed Shots,” The Salt Lake Tribune, July 10, 1960, B9.

Bill Dredge, “1960 Goal for Salt Flat Races,” The New York Times, April 17, 1960, A14.

“Race Dates Set for Flats in ’60,” The Salt Lake Tribune, January 16, 1960, 19.

Tom Korologos, “Auto Speed Mark Eludes Salt Laker,” The Salt Lake Tribune, November 30, 1959, 35.

“Salt Laker Maps Assault on Auto Speed Record,” The Salt Lake Tribune, November 28, 1959, 21.

Associated Press, “Cobb’s Red Lion Roars to World Land Speed Record on Utah Flats,” The New York Times, August 24, 1939, 30.

U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, Bonneville Salt Flats Brochure, https://on.doi.gov/2p11Hix

Hawley, Samuel. Speed Duel: The Inside Story of the Land Speed Record in the Sixties. Buffalo, New York: Firefly Books, 2010.

Hogue, Martin. “A Site Constructed: The Bonneville Salt Flats and the Land Speed Record, 1935-1970.” Landscape Journal 24, no. 1 (March 2005): 32-49.

Holthusen, Peter. “Ghosts in the machine,” Motorsports Magazine, April 2002: 68-72.

Hallaran, Kevin B. “Bonneville Salt Flats,” Utah History to Go, http://bit.ly/2lEMktJ

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