Why Search for a New Desert?
Desert selection has been taken as a relatively simple process in the past, with few exceptions. The legendary British record-breaker Sir Malcolm Campbell was the first person to set a World Land Speed Record at Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, in 1935, becoming the first man to drive at over 300 mph in the process. This enormous expanse of flat, hard white salt was perfect for record breaking and for almost 50 years after Campbell’s famous visit, it was the only place to do it. However, in 1982, Richard Noble arrived at Bonneville at the very end of the season to continue his battle on the salt with a metal-wheeled jet car, which did not seem particularly to like the very hard salt surface. Perhaps fortuitously, Richard and his team were rained off virtually as they arrived, forcing them to look for other locations in the US – and hence the Black Rock Desert’s record-breaking potential was discovered.
Unlike salt, the Black Rock Desert is an alkali playa surface. Put simply, it is a fine dry mud surface, very smooth and firm but nowhere near as iron-hard as the salt of Bonneville. The more compliant alkali playa surface proved to be far better suited to the solid metal wheels that Richard’s Thrust 2 employed. In 1983 Richard Noble returned to the Black Rock Desert and, driving Thrust 2, achieved a new World Land Speed Record of 633 mph. It was then a natural follow-on for Richard and his team to return to Black Rock in 1997 with the new car, Thrust SSC, which also took to the alkali playa surface extremely well. In its single visit to the Black Rock Desert, Thrust SSC set 2 new records, the latter of which was the first (and currently only) supersonic Land Speed Record at an average speed of 763 mph.
In light of this impressive record, surely BLOODHOUND will return to the Black Rock Desert? Sadly, no. A lack of rain over the last decade, together with increasingly heavy use for the playa surface (principly by the annual Burning Man festival) has left the Black Rock surface in poor condition. It is bumpy, crumbly, rutted and uneven for much of its 140+ square mile surface and is not currently a suitable surface on which to run a car like BLOODHOUND. Hence an alternative surface is required – and we need to find one, wherever in the world it may be.
In addition, BLOODHOUND is likely to require 2 or 3 seasons of runs to develop its potential up to 1000 mph. Having to wait for a once-a-year dry season at a single venue (or even in a single country) could slow the project down considerably. Hence we also want to find somewhere, maybe even alternative venues, in other parts of the world, which are available at different times of the year.
The first choice is between salt and alkali. Our major concern is that no team has ever run a solid-wheeled jet car successfully on a salt surface. That’s not to say that it can’t be done, it just hasn’t been done so far, so we are treating the problem with a degree a caution and would choose an alkali playa in preference. Question is, where can we find one?
The Desert Search Plan
The plan was to complete a search of the whole globe in 4 phases:
Phase 1 – Global search for perfectly flat areas, with no vegetation, in excess of 10 miles long.
This phase was carried out with the invaluable help of Dr Adrian Luckman of the School of Environment and Society at Swansea University. Adrian wrote a brilliant programme that would let us search the whole world for possible sites (link to Phase 1 page). Unfortunately, that produced several thousand possibilities, leaving us to spend a very long day with Google Maps identifying likely candidates. This yielded a list of 35 potential sites.
Phase 2 – Search for additional information on Phase 1 candidates.
Again thanks to the terrific support of Swansea and Adrian Luckman, we added Landsat imagery from the space shuttle together with basic weather data. This got us down to a list of 22 possibles.
Phase 3A – Additional requirements (access, security, local infrastructure, etc.) as listed above.
This reduced the list still further to 14 sites: 8 in the US, 1 in Turkey, 1 in South Africa and 4 in Australia. We also had another 2 in reserve, in India and Bolivia (both of which have access and security difficulties), if we don’t find enough sites in the top 14.
Phase 3B – Site visits
Once we’re down to the final list, this is really the only way to find what we are looking for.