David “Ab” Jenkins was born in 1883, his parents bring Welsh immigrants who had settled in Spanish Fork, Utah. They would later relocate to Salt Lake City, and from there young Ab would build a career in home construction and become a local contractor. Informed by his Mormon faith, Jenkins abstained from coffee, cigarettes, and alcohol, which no doubt augmented his lifelong athletic build and strength. Also, working in the hot desert sun as a carpenter no doubt helped!
Like many in this era, young Ab was a bicycle enthusiast and also owned an Excelsior motorcycle which he used to explore the 30,000 acre Bonneville Salt Flats, a salt desert that lay about 120 miles west of Salt Lake City near Wendover and Salduro.
Jenkins’ fate would become closely tied to the Salt Flats in his later years, on which he campaigned his famous speedsters known as The Mormon Meteor (I, II, and III) but first he would build out his reputation driving in promotional endurance events for various automobile companies that were out to prove just how trouble-free their cars were.
In the late 1920s Studebaker, Hudson, Stutz, and Auburn were all competing for stock car speed and endurance honors. Jenkins had raced motorcycles successfully and attracted the attention of a local Studebaker dealer who was looking to promote the brand. On August 9, 1923 Jenkins would pilot a Studebaker and set a speed-endurance record from Salt Lake City to the mountain town of Fish Lake, a feat that he would repeat in 1926 with a run from Los Angeles to Salt lake City. These types of events were all the rage in the early part of the century, and they paid, so of course Jenkins engaged in more of them.
In the same year, Jenkins established a coast-to-coast record from New York to San Francisco of 86 hours and 20 minutes in a Studebaker Sheriff, which brought him recognition in newspapers and on radio variety shows. This was the same year that his arch-rival, Erwin ‘Cannon Ball’ Baker, drove a loaded two-ton truck along the same route for a (truck) record of 137 hours and 30 minutes!
Although Jenkins was involved in board track racing in the 1920s and endurance events for Studebaker up through 1931, it was his high-speed record-making on the Bonneville Salt Flats that would establish Jenkins’ national fame. In addition to this, Jenkins’ persistent promotion of the flats would eventually put Bonneville on the map as the go-to place for land speed records.
The Back Story of Bonneville
Prior to Bonneville’s rise, Ormond Beach in Daytona, Florida had been the primary place to go for land speed record attempts in the United States. Others had foreseen the usefulness of a large, flat, open area for going fast that was not shifting sand bounded by a restless ocean. In 1896, motoring pioneer W.D. Rishel had scouted the salt flats as he surveyed a course for a coast-to-coast bicycle race. Rishel would later try his hand at speeding on the salt, and it was Rishel who was the first promoter of the flats west of Salt Lake City for land speed racing.
In 1914, Rishel convinced Ernie Moross, promoter for Indy 500 driver “Terrible Teddy” Tetzlaff, to attempt a high speed run on the salt. Tetzlaff had been given his nickname for his extreme racing style, with which he would either win or crash. Tetzlaff raced the Indy 500 from 1911-1914, placing as high as second in 1912, and then spent the next two forays at indy establishing the other part of his reputation!
Tetzlaff came to Utah with a thoroughbred in 1914: a four-cylinder, 21.5-liter, 200 hp racecar known as the “Blitzen Benz.” This monster had been developed from the 1909 Karl Benz Grand Prix car, and it already had a storied racing provenance before Bonneville. The Blitzen Benz had established a flying kilometer speed record at Brooklands in England of 202.648 km/hr and a flying half-mile of 128.785 mph on November 8, 1909.
Traditionally, Ormond Beach in Florida was the place to go in that era for high-speed records: Barney Oldfield had set a new land speed record there of over 131 mph on March 10, 1910. The Benz returned on April 23, 1911, with Indy 500 pilot Bob Burman at the wheel. The Blitzen Benz then set two new official world speed records, as observed by the AAA Contest Board, of 226.7 km/hr for the flying kilometer and 141.732 mph for the flying mile.
Moross then brought the car and its newest driver to the great salt flats at Salduro to realize even greater speed on its huge expanse of salt. Like many of his kind at this time in the early 20th century, Tetzlaff was all about adventure, and the untested salt flats seemed to be ideal for serious high-speed runs. Although Tetzlaff’s actual speed attempt in 1914 was not sanctioned by the AAA, he flew through the traps at 142.8 mph, thus setting a new unofficial world land speed record.
Jenkins Conquers the Salt
Jenkins had already established Studebaker as a reliable and sturdy car through several records that he had achieved. When Studebaker purchased Pierce-Arrow in 1928, Jenkins was tasked to improve the Pierce image as he had done with Studebaker.
Pierce had been experiencing trouble getting their new V-12 engine to perform better than their current inline-eight. Invited to their Buffalo plant, Ab was able to tinker and tune the engine with its designer, Karl Wise, and together they increased its output to 175 hp. This gave Jenkins an idea: use the Pierce for an endurance run on the salt flats to both promote the new V-12 and Bonneville at the same time.
In 1932, Jenkins arrived at Bonneville with a loaned Pierce V-12 Roadster and six extra tires. Despite an AAA Contest Board suspension, Jenkins had decided to make the record run. His results would be considered unofficial, but Jenkins and a group of friends defiantly set up a circular course of 10 miles circumference, marked it with a black painted stripe, and staked it at 100-foot intervals. A maintenance wagon served as the timing booth and shelter.
They stripped the Pierce-Arrow of fenders and windshield. Pitting every 200 miles for gas and tires, Jenkins soldiered on for 24 hours and exceeded even his own predictions, traveling 2710 miles for an average speed of 112.960 mph. This was fuel enough for his supporters to sponsor another run the following year.
In 1933 his suspension was lifted and Jenkins returned to Bonneville for an internationally-sanctioned speed run. High winds and rain threatened the attempt, but Jenkins sped on to break 14 international speed and endurance records in his Pierce roadster and set a 24-hour mark of 117.77 mph.
Anticipating that the finish line would be a Kodak moment for car and driver, Jenkins had packed a razor and a tube of shaving cream in his cockpit. He scraped the stubble off of his face while racing at over 125 mph, emerging clean-shaven for the cameras at the end of his record run!
But wait – there’s more!
Next post we will continue the saga of Ab Jenkins on the salt after he signs on with Auburn to race their speedster at Bonneville, then continues with Duesenberg and a special speedster designed just for him. Post-WWII, Jenkins completes his career in an endurance land speed pairing with his son, Marvin, racing a 1950s Pontiac coupe.