Extreme High Speed

on the MUROC playa

Bill Mattick, Photoman

Text and photographs are copyright by Bill Mattick

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the Place......

Near Lancaster California...a playa...a great dry lake bed in the high desert called MUROC. I think I am beginning to understand what the American photographer Richard Misrach finds here....his motive may be different than mine but we can agree that the place is like no other...

I am here to photograph the MUROC meet, an event that pays homage to dry lake racing of the past. The Southern California Timing Association that sponsors this event also holds meets at El Mirage Dry lake and the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah ... Bonneville ... the place where Breedlove drives his 700 mph rocket car. The Association was formed by clubs that raced at MUROC before the second world war. The purpose of the event is the same as it was 50 years ago .... SPEED ... EXTREME SPEED!!

This place...this high desert is an extraordinary place....it is harsh, it is stark and it is dramatic. As I approach MUROC from the southwest I stop occasionally to photograph what is there ... an abandoned trailer that once served as a real estate office, tattered signs offering land for sale where there seems to be nothing but dry cracked sandy hard bed covered with scrub brush and joshuas, an intersection marked with directions to some unknown point out in the desert called EDEN ... nowhere ... a hand made sign proclaiming JESUS as though HE might personally make an appearance and save us from the place....up over the Cahon Pass....towns like Pinon Hills, Liano, Pear Blossom, Little Rock and on into Palmdale. From Palmdale I can see north...signs of the Air Force Base come into view, a few fighter planes dart at the horizon. After a few minutes I am lost in the back streets having become more interested in the town of Palmdale than I am in getting to my final destination. I am suddenly aware that what I am seeing just above the horizon is something brand new....awesome....unnerving. A huge black creature fills the sky to the northwest, it's prominent black wings in a perfect vertical ... my first stealth bomber...hope it's my last unless I can make a good picture.

Sitting in my hotel room the first night, the evening news tells of a story involving a truck shipment of weapons lost in the desert on it's way to Camp Pendleton. The suspicion is that it has been high jacked possibly by terrorists of the Oklahoma Bombing variety. This god forsaken place, this L.A county, methamphetamine lab infested country side ... a scenario like the one on the evening news could only happen here or somewhere like here.

The MUROC people come here not for the view, not out of deep curiosity or misbelief, not to make photographs. They come to race the clock...to push their machines to a high limit....to run out onto the playa for a mile and a half as fast as man and machine can go together. They are probably from all walks of life but they appear to me to be adventurers linked to a uniquely American fascination with the motor car. They come to this desert place equipped to race; with their machines, there shelter and a certain pride in what they are about to do. I talked with a guy who drag raced his car on the streets of Long Beach in the 50's....he is here to go again on MUROC'S cracked, swollen floor. Two old Studebaker owners invite me to sit with them and their car as they reminisce about other races at El Mirage, Rosemond, Harper and Bonneville. Then there was a small framed, gentle man with an easy sense of humor. He waited alone with his 49 Ford convertible coup, dusty from the detritus of the playa but distinct and perfectly restored. He romanced his wife in the car forty-eight years ago. He may have been at MUROC at the founding when people like Eldon Snapp, Tony Campanna, Merl Finkenbinder and Wally Parks sought to test themselves and their machines.

They are all sturdy, energetic, immensely focused people. For them this is not a hobby, it is an obsession. Because to be here requires a kind of everlasting, insatiable commitment. Here, motor car racing becomes Art.

The men and woman of MUROC take on the desert easily, they conform to it's extremes...for it is only here that they can open up the great power of the machines they have meticulously and tirelessly sculpted to perfection. Machines that will allow them to transcend their plodding, awkward human gate and for several moments soar like finely honed mechanical thoroughbreds ....adrenalized...vaporous.

I was led to this place in part by a writer from WIRED Magazine. He told me that these folks were "great...very accepting." He was right....in the middle of a grossly inhospitable environment, their generous spirit is welcome.

All the Best -- BILL M.

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