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Salt Fever Strikes Early

By on March 1, 2018

Only Remedy is one-Week Visit to Utah

Every year since 1990, Don Lemmons, former professional truck driver and owner of Interstate Wood Products in Kelso, Washington, has come down with a very mysterious attack of Salt Fever. Almost like clockwork, it seems to strike during August. Ever since being afflicted for the first time 28 years ago, Don has been fighting this dreaded disease without success. There’s no known cure, and only one intense treatment regimen over the course of seven days seems to produce the miracle recovery that places the disease in semi-remission for 51 weeks.

Record Performances:
1990 Best Performance Award
1992 Record 197.388 MPH
1992 Run 216.320 MPH
1995 Record 220.919 MPH
1996 Record 221.409 MPH
1997 Record 224.163 MPH
2001 Run 225.678 MPH
2006 Record 228.804 MPH


Welcome to the mythical world of Salt Fever, allegedly caused by the Bonneville Salt Flats (Utah), billed as the Fastest Race Course on Earth. To believe it, this speed extravaganza must be seen. Each August, 400 to 500 competitors with a variety of purpose-built marvels gather in the quest to set new world land speed records in several classes for almost any type of vehicle you can imagine, two or four wheels or sometimes more. The five-mile measured speed trials are part of a seven-mile, south-to-north course. It’s located off I-80 about 88 miles west of Salt Lake City (just east of the Nevada state line).

The spectacular scenery and unique racing conditions make Bonneville Speed Week a bucket-list must for any motorsports enthusiast.

The Bonneville Salt Flats are part of the western Great Salt Lake Desert, which was formed through the evaporation of the Pleistocene-era Lake Bonneville. The salt flats are actually the bed of that once massive lake, which rivaled the present size of Lake Michigan. The Pleistocene is the geological epoch, which lasted from about 2,588,000 to 11,700 years ago, spanning the world’s recent period of repeated glaciations.

Under the watchful eyes of the Southern California Timing Association, the official sanctioning body, each competitor runs the race course alone, competing only against the Timer’s Clocks. Since there is no side-by-side competition, vehicles are allowed into the Staging Lanes and come to the Starting Line in completely random order. When competitors feel they are ready to run, they simply tow or push their entries to the Staging Lanes and get in line. Walking the staging lanes makes for one of the great spectacles in motorsports. With as many as 200 Bonneville racers staging at the same time, it’s an amazing display of mechanical ingenuity, creativity and diversity.

Record Runs are the only exception to this first-come, first-served arrangement. All Bonneville records are the average of two runs. The first run in excess of the existing Record Speed is the Qualifying Run, which entitles a competitor to make a Record Run in the opposite direction. All qualifiers must check into the Impound area within one hour of the time stamped on their Qualifying Run time slips. Once impounded, crews are free to work on their vehicles in preparation for their Record Runs, which are held first thing the next morning. Those who break records are then subjected to technical inspections to assure rules compliance prior to official certification.



  • 1997 Freightliner Columbia
  • FLD Glider Kit Chassis
  • 268-in. wheelbase
  • MTU Series 2000 16V diesel
  • 2,178 cu. in.
  • Twin Garrett turbos
  • 3,000+ Horsepower
  • 4,500+ lb.-ft. of torque
  • Runs at 2,800 rpm, (max 3,200)
  • Allison HT 750 auto trans
  • Modified torque converter
  • 1.35:1 AxleTech rear ratio
  • Almost 20,000 lb. total
  • Michelin aircraft tires
  • Boeing 737 rears
  • F15 fighter jet fronts

Bettering Own Records

For Don Lemmons, the fever started in 1990 when he partnered with Ray Heitz of Longview Diesel, forming a joint venture to seek the world land speed record for a modified diesel truck. Shortly after implementing a better aero package by switching their program to the Freightliner Columbia cab, they set the current record of 228.804 mph in 2006. At the time, the Joint Venture truck was powered by a Detroit Diesel 16V92.

After Ray passed away a few years ago, Don chose to continue the Joint Venture Racing Team. The upgrade to the MTU engine was made for the 2016 event. Although showing early promise, the initial effort with the new package encountered mechanical issues. During the 2017 Speed Week, the first three runs topped 220 mph, and then transmission mechanical problems and blown tires temporarily sidelined the Joint Venture truck. One last run on the final day looked promising until the truck lost traction at about 100 mph. In spite of the resulting lost time to gather the truck up, a run of 227.060 came agonizingly close to the current record.

While disappointed, the 15 team members went home encouraged that the new engine was showing signs of achieving its potential. Since there are no off-season testing opportunities, each Speed Week includes some trial and error. Each of the five or six runs typically made during the week is very valuable. When current driver Mark Zweig, a Lockheed Martin flight-test engineer, first arrived, he asked that the 2,000 lbs. of lead placed behind the rear axle to improve traction be removed. It took only one very squirrely run to convince him that was a bad idea.

The spectacular scenery and unique racing conditions make Bonneville Speed Week a bucket-list must for any motorsports enthusiast. For spectators, few racing experiences rival breakfast at the Red Flame diner in the cool dawn air, while watching the morning’s Record Runs thunder past. Make plans to catch a case of Salt Fever on at least one day, August 11-17, 2018.

Workhorse to Thoroughbred

When you think about powering a race truck designed for top speed, the MTU Series 2000 16V is not the first engine that comes to mind. Typically reserved for severe-service, off-highway applications such as mining, power generation, oil and gas, and marine, the Series 2000 wasn’t quite purpose-fit in its standard configuration. That’s where Jeremy Haynes, Reman Program Manager for MTU in Novi, Michigan came in. Looking through available cores, Jeremy selected a Series 2000 core, which was previously used in mining, as the best configuration match to Don Lemmons’ racing application. The goal was to turn a proven workhorse into a speedy thoroughbred.

After putting waivers in place for using the engine outside the scope of its intended application, Jeremy collaborated with Robert Ball, Recovery Process Engineer for Detroit Reman East in Ohio, who specified parts and components required to complete the engine build-out. The reman engine was delivered to Washington via the local dealer, Pacific Power. Assembly proceeded under the watchful eye of Joint Venture head mechanic, Ben Goodman.

Key changes designed to ramp up performance included a reprogrammed ECM, injector refinements, a new inner cooler that utilizes ice to chill intake air, modified oil inlets/outlets, improved turbo boost and waste gates, adding a second plate to the torque converter, and several smaller improvements. Other preparations for Speed Week 2018 include aero drag reductions, use of nitrogen to inflate the tires, and a flattened tire profile to enlarge the ground-contact area.

The ongoing challenge is equipping the engine to produce maximum power by running it close to the ragged edge, without unduly risking catastrophic failures. The newer technology of the MTU Series 2000 provides a better power platform for achieving higher speeds. As configured for the 70th annual event, the Joint Venture truck is on track to top 230 mph and move much closer to its 235-mph projected potential.


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