Ab Jenkins

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Ab Jenkins
Duesenberg SJ Mormon Meteor.jpg
The Mormon Meteor, at the 2007
Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance
Born David Abbott Jenkins
January 25, 1883
Spanish Fork, Utah
Died August 9, 1956 (aged 73)
Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Cause of death Heart Attack
Resting place Wasatch Lawn Memorial Park,
Salt Lake City, Utah
Nationality American
Employer self-employed building contractor turned professional auto racer
Known for set numerous World land speed records, 15 of which remain current, mayor of Salt Lake City, Utah 1940-1944. when he died, at age 73, in 1956, he had established more world's automobile records than any man in history.
Home town Salt Lake City
Spouse(s) Evelyn Thorstenberg Jenkins
Children Marvin Edward Jenkins, Edna (Anderson), Ruth (Player)

David Abbott "Ab" Jenkins (January 25, 1883 – August 9, 1956) was the 24th mayor of Salt Lake City, Utah from 1940 to 1944 and was a professional race car driver. Jenkins' interest in motorsports began with racing motorcycles on dirt tracks and cross country. He then became interested in land speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats. He was instrumental in establishing Bonneville as a location for such events, and in attracting overseas drivers such as George Eyston and Sir Malcolm Campbell to compete there.

He drove the Duesenberg "Mormon Meteor" [1] to a 24-hour average land speed record of 135 miles per hour (217 km/h) in 1935. In 1940 Jenkins set the 24-hour record of a 161.180 mph (259.394 km/h) average that lasted for 50 years (until 1990).[2]

He died on a visit to Milwaukee, Wisconsin.[3]

Safety record[edit]

Often called "The World's Safest Speedster," Jenkins was the father of salt racing. In 50 years of driving, he amassed nearly 3 million miles without an accident, which included 42 coast-to-coast trips across the continental US. Two of them were speed runs, however, after 1931, he confined his efforts strictly to the track.

Early Days and Records[edit]

Born in 1883, Jenkins, a Utah building contractor, got his start driving a Studebaker in 1925 when he raced a Union Pacific train from Salt Lake City to Wendover beating the smoke-belcher by five minutes. Next, in 1926, starting from New York City, he drove a Studebaker touring sedan to San Francisco in 86 hours, 20 minutes again besting the train by 14 hours. Records were set in Pierce-Arrows as well as a 68 mph salt flats run on an Allis-Chalmers farm tractor that he remarked was "like riding a frightened bison" before building a series of purpose-built salt flats cars.

In 1925, Jenkins was hired by Pierce-Arrow to soup up their newly introduced V12 engine which produced a disappointing level of performance. He managed to coax 175 hp out of the engine, driving a Pierce-Arrow along the Utah salt flats at over 100 mph in a 24-hour journey along a 10-mile course. The total amount of miles achieved during the run was 2,710. The following year, he set out to break that record by driving 25 hours and 30 minutes at around 117 mph and making a total of 3000 miles.

As the 1930s began and speed records were being broken regularly, the Bonneville Salt Flats was found to be preferable to the sands of Daytona Beach or the Monthlhery, France track. By 1935, the course was attracting international attention and in July of that year, Jenkins provided accommodations to British driver John Cobb and even relinquished his spot on the flats to him. Cobb succeeded in breaking Jenkins's records during the run.

In late 1935, Jenkins drove a new supercharged Duesenberg Model J which allowed him to retake his title from John Cobb, but the land speed record in that race fell to another British competitor, Malcolm Campbell, who drove the aircraft-engine-powered Blue Bird V to a record two-way average speed of 301.130 mph.

Realizing that he needed even more power to stay on top, Jenkins equipped his car with a Curtiss Conqueror aircraft engine. The Salt Lake City newspaper Deseret News ran a contest to give the vehicle a name, which ended up being dubbed the "Mormon Meteor". Due to extensive modifications needed to accommodate the Curtiss engine, it quickly became the Mormon Meteor II and Jenkins broke land speed endurance records with it during 1936-37.

In 1938, he debuted the Mormon Meteor III, setting even more records. The most notable was in 1940 when Jenkins managed 3,868 miles in 24 hours at an average speed of 161 mph, a record that stayed unchallenged until 2005.

During WWII, the US government ordered a halt to racing activities and Jenkins decided to run for mayor of Salt Lake City, winning handily despite spending no time or money campaigning.

After the war, Jenkins resumed racing. On July 20, 1951, his car skidded on a puddle of water and struck a row of course markers at a speed of nearly 200 mph. The radiator was punctured by the accident and Jenkins had to halt his overheating vehicle. He had stopped three minutes short of breaking a new one-hour speed record and at the age of 68, he decided it was time to retire.

Considering his limited resources, Jenkins enjoyed remarkable achievements, something on the order of Will Rogers with a motorized persona. He was a deeply religious man, who put his faith in God, and by God, he went far, especially driving his “Mormon Meteor” speed machines. Harvey Firestone was an avid admirer. Jenkins became pals with New York Metropolitan Opera Singer Richard Bonelli when they were working as mechanics before Bonelli discovered he could sing. Bonelli attended many of Jenkins record runs and often instigated a song fest with spectators joining the famous baritone as Ab whizzed past. Jenkins racing fame coupled with his congenial, outgoing nature got him elected Mayor of Salt Lake in 1940 without ever giving a speech, or spending a nickel on a campaign. He served until 1944 setting 21 speed records while in office. His one-man 24-hour record averaging 161MPH, stood for 50 years, beaten in 1990 by an eight driver team. Jenkins's exhausting, 48-hour record is still on the books together with 15 other FIA records from 1940.

After some full day runs, he would hop out clean-shaven, having used a safety razor after the last gas stop while circling the track at over 125 mph with no windshield.

In 1956, Pontiac executives petitioned Jenkins to make a comeback. In one of his final interviews that June, he reported that his health was good and he felt up to it. Jenkins and his son Marvin to drive its stock-model Series 860 Pontiac around the famous 10-mile salt circle track. The pair recorded an average speed of 118.375 mph shattering all existing American unlimited and Class C stock-car racing records in the process.

Ab drove almost two-thirds of the 2,841 miles himself gulping down milk and orange juice handed to him by his wife or daughter during his 30-second fueling pit stops. He did not smoke or drink alcohol. Father-and-son dominated the record book claiming a total of 28 records.

Ab's Passing[edit]

A 1957 Pontiac Bonneville, the rarest of all Pontiacs--in honour of Ab and Marv

In August of that same year, Ab went to drive a Pontiac pace car at the Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. Returning to his hotel from a baseball game with Pontiac executives George Bourke and Robert Emerick on August 9, Jenkins noticed a billboard with a farm tractor on it and started telling the men about his 1935 wild ride when he suddenly grabbed his chest and died of a heart attack.

The next year, General Motors introduced the 1957 Pontiac “Bonneville” in honor of Ab and Marv’s achievements making it the first, and perhaps the only car to ever “earn” its name and not simply be “given” its name by an automaker.

Of the 630 limited production run, each dealer got only one, making it the rarest of all Pontiacs ever produced. The new Bonneville was the fastest of the division – zero to sixty in 8.1 seconds thanks to the new fuel injected V8 that cranked out 300HP plus. All convertibles, all automatics, the car delivered loaded with options for $5,782 – approaching double that of the Star Chief Custom Convertible ($3,105) with which it shared the 124-inch-wheelbase chassis.

A Man of Merit[edit]

A natural born superb mechanic, Jenkins lived his entire life with unwavering honesty and enviable common sense that generated numerous successful promotions for sponsors because he was held in such high esteem by the general public. Certainly, the first person to catch "salt fever”, Jenkins passed on the speed affliction to succeeding generations and racing continues to this day out on Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats.


  1. ^ "1935 Mormon Meteor Duesenberg SJ Speedster". Sports Car Market. November 2004. 
  2. ^ Ab Jenkins: Son Of The Salt
  3. ^ Oregonian, August 11, 1956, Page 15.

Further reading[edit]

  • Ab Jenkins & Wendell J. Ashton. The Salt of the Earth - Ab Jenkins' Own Story of Speed. ASIN B00088Z88S. 
  • Louise Ann Noeth. Bonneville Salt Flats. ISBN 978-0760306055. 

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
John M. Wallace
Mayor of Salt Lake City
Succeeded by
Earl J. Glade