• Popularized Bonneville as land speed record venue
• Set more speed records than anyone
• Set 24-hour speed record in 1936 that stood ‘til 2005
• Set 21 speed records while mayor of Salt Lake City
• Many in his 1930s aircraft-engine “Mormon Meteors”
• Gained fame racing Union Pacific trains (1925, ’26)
It was said David Abbott Jenkins set more speed records than any man. Born in Spanish Fork, UT, Jenkins is considered the father of racing on the Bonneville Salt Flats. He got his start in 1925 racing a Union Pacific train from Salt Lake City to Wendover, and from NYC to San Francisco the following year. His Studebaker won both contests. He also began setting a series of mainly endurance records on the salt, making it racers’ preferred location over Daytona Beach and Montlhery. In the ‘30s, he ran a series of popular aircraft-engined “Mormon Meteors.” In 1936, Jenkins singlehandedly drove MM III 3,254 miles in 24 hours at 153 mph to set a record unbeaten until 2005… by an eight-man team. When WWII curtailed racing, Jenkins became Salt Lake City mayor and set 21 more speed records while in office. Just before his death, Jenkins set multiple records for Pontiac. The following year, the automaker introduced the Bonneville in his honor. Inducted into the Dry Lakes Racing Hall of Fame in 1996.
By Louise Noeth
David Abbot “Ab” Jenkins (1883-1956) was unquestionably the father of salt racing. His dogged determination put Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats on the international racing map and is primarily responsible for bringing dozens of speed seekers to the salt, including Sir Malcolm Campbell in 1935, and allowing hot rodders access in 1949. Relying on an infallible driving sense propelled by iron nerve, he set hundreds of speed records from one hour to 24 topped by a punishing, 48-hour endurance mark.
Jenkins’ 33 years of competition driving (1923-1956) etched records in cross- country road racing, hill-climbing, board track running and banked speedways. He wheeled Studebakers, Pierce-Arrows, Duesenbergs, Cords, Auburn Speedsters, Novis, Pontiacs and more — most of which he personally prepared mechanically. As you read this know that 13 of the FIA World Records Jenkins set in 1940 remain intact, including older hill-climbing and transcontinental records.
Considering his limited resources, Jenkins logged remarkable achievements. For decades his physique mirrored a first-string football tackle, yet he distinguished himself with personable honesty and unlimited guts as a deeply religious man who put his faith in God, and by God, he went far.
Born January 25, 1883, in Spanish Fork, Utah, Jenkins was oxymoronically called “The World’s Safest Speedster,” not because he set more world records than any other driver but because he drove 2,000,000 miles on public roads without an accident. His watchwords were simple: “Safety First.”
Velodrome bicycle contests gave way to motorcycling, and in 1914 he made his first salt flats run at 80 mph on his Excelsior. With Studebakers, he raced a steam train from Salt Lake City to Wendover in 1925, followed by a New York to San Francisco marathon in 86 hours and 25 minutes. Jenkins bested both iron horses.
He began his Bonneville endurance runs in 1932 driving a Pierce-Arrow 24 hours solo, averaging 112 mph. His series of “Mormon Meteors,” using auto and aircraft engines, began in 1935. That same year he thundered to a 68 mph record atop an Allis-Chalmers tractor. Jenkins remarked, “It was like riding a frightened bison.”
In 1937, driving the new Gordon Buehrig-designed Cord 812 at Indianapolis, Jenkins’ 763 laps won him the coveted Stevens Cup. He held that record until 1953!
After being elected Mayor of Salt Lake City in 1940, this “sage of the salt” set 21 more records during his four-year term in office. The highlight? His solo Meteor III record of 3,868 miles in 24 hours averaging 161 mph. An eight-man Corvette team finally eclipsed the mark in 1990.
Together with 36-year-old son Marvin, 73-year-old Jenkins set every American Unlimited and Class C Stock Car record (30 in total) driving a 1956 Pontiac. To honor their feat, the automaker introduced the Bonneville the following year, one of the few production automobiles to “earn,” not be given, its name.
His circle of friends was a testament to his absorbing congenial nature, including Harvey Firestone, Augie Duesenberg, John Cobb, Capt. George Eyston, Leo Goossen, Frank Kurtis, Bud Winfield and Sir Malcolm Campbell.
Swashbuckling Ab Jenkins was the first person to catch “salt fever.” Luckily, he passed the “need for speed” onto succeeding generations. When he died in 1956, the Bonneville Salt Flats lost the best friend it ever had.
“Landspeed” Louise Ann Noeth is a world record holder and jet car racer who has authored and photographed Bonneville Salt Flats history, and written hundreds of articles and columns translated into many languages covering automotive and motorsports topics. A licensed pilot, she also consults for film and television on extreme speed productions.
"Land Speed" Louise Noeth with Ab Jenkins III who accepted on his grandfather's behalf.