Legendary Utah ‘Mormon Meteor’ racer inducted into Motorsports Hall of Fame of America

Mar 14, 2023, 3:41 PM

SALT LAKE CITY — At the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America at the famed Daytona Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida, a new name imprinted on a plaque is now hanging on the wall.

A display put up just a week ago dedicated to that same person is encased in glass, celebrating the well-deserved hall of fame induction.

It’s a name many who visit the museum may never have heard of, considering he rose to fame a century ago. But to many Utahns, the name might ring a bell, and if it doesn’t, perhaps the vehicle he drove will: Ab Jenkins and the Mormon Meteor III.

And if none of that sounds familiar, Jim Williams will be the first to explain why it should. Ab, he said, was the man responsible for bringing fame to the Bonneville Salt Flats.

“The history of what went on on the salt flats with automobile racing was a big deal. It’s worldwide,” he said.

It wouldn’t be the global bucket list destination that it is today, he explained, if it weren’t for Ab Jenkins.

Williams is the curator for a different museum 2,300 miles away from the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America museum, taking care of perfectly preserved and restored cars dating back to the early 1900s.

The cars make up the fascinating collection in the private Price Museum of Speed in Salt Lake City. Williams is passionate as he explains why each vehicle is important, unique — and downright cool.

“This is history. This is automotive history here,” Williams said. “Every one of these cars has a story and made the world a better place for cars.”

He loves to tell people the story behind the beautifully restored bright orange and blue 1930s Duesenberg that sits in the middle of the room, all on its own.

The Mormon Meteor III may be 85 years old but looks like it was just built.

“It’s probably the most important car in Utah; it has a lot of Utah history,” Williams explained. “It set a lot of speed records that are still [in place] today.”

Williams unbuckled brown leather straps to lift one side of the hood, revealing an impressive, monstrous motor with 12 exhaust pipes artistically fanning out from the side in a wave-like form.

“It’s a Curtiss Conqueror airplane engine. It’s 1570 cubic inches. That’s big,” Williams said with a laugh.

But the engine isn’t what makes the machine so big. Ab Jenkins, the man who drove it, made that race car famous.

“To me, he was one of the super stars of the sport,” Williams said.

The Mormon Meteor III (KSL TV)

Born in 1883 in Spanish Fork, Ab originally worked as a builder, and as his grandson Ab Jenkins II explained, would time his travel between jobs.

Jenkins II explained how Ab would clock in at a Western Union, take off for his destination, then clock in at the next stop.

“He found a way to drive a car from this place to that place, and he wanted to just do it faster and faster and faster,” Jenkins II said. “And the recognition naturally came.”

Jenkins II, who is named after his grandfather, described how Ab made a name for himself, to the point that automobile manufacturer Studebaker hired Ab full-time.

It was only natural that the fast driver would become a racer.

In the 1920s, Ab’s fame would grow when he carried out long-distance stunts, like racing his Studebaker against a Union Pacific train from Salt Lake City to Wendover, and from New York City to San Francisco.

He won, of course, both times.

According to a photo of Ab standing next to his Studebaker, he completed the 3,471-mile cross-country trip in 86 hours and 20 minutes.

“He had a lot of endurance,” Jenkins II said. “It was amazing.”

Ab Jenkins stands in between two Studebakers (Courtesy: Boys of Bonneville documentary)

Ab’s favorite place to push the limits was at home at the Bonneville Salt Flats, racing against time instead of against others.

“The salt flats was something that he loved,” Jenkins II said. “And he felt in his own heart and mind that that was the place for people to come and race.”

Jenkins II said Ab promoted the Bonneville Salt Flats, recruiting racers from all over to come out and give it a try.

“He’s the one that talked all the European drivers into coming to salt,” Williams echoed.

Williams explained that at the time, Daytona Beach was the popular place to race, but the hot sand often destroyed tires and caused fatal crashes.

The salt was much cooler and didn’t destroy tires, Williams said, creating better, safer conditions to race in.

Because the Bonneville Salt Flats aren’t populated, Williams said crews would set up tent cities out on the salt. They had to bring in everything to support the races — often re-designing and rebuilding vehicles out there on the fly.

In the 1930s, Ab began racing in a stock Duesenberg that got the name Mormon Meteor, after Williams said the Deseret News ran a contest and three people submitted that same name.

The three contest winners split the prize of $25 three ways, which Williams pointed out was a good chunk of change back in 1934.

Jenkins II said his grandfather was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Ab’s faith drove him in the way he lived his life. He described how his grandfather refused to advertise for liquor or tobacco companies because he didn’t want to influence young people in that way.

Ab Jenkins taking off in the Mormon Meteor III on the Bonneville Salt Flats (Courtesy: Boys of Bonneville documentary)

The Mormon Meteor I would morph into Mormon Meteor II with the addition of a Curtiss Conqueror airplane engine.

Ultimately, Ab would end up in the orange and blue Mormon Meteor III, also with that airplane engine, specifically built just for him.

He would go on to set — then break — record after record. Many of those records, Williams indicated, haven’t been broken since.

“He would sit behind the wheel… on some occasions for 24 hours,” Jenkins II said.

At one point, Ab drove the Mormon Meteor III more than 3,200 miles continuously, except for pit stops, at a speed Williams remembered as being upwards of around 171 mph on average — setting the 24-hour speed record that Williams said would take 50 years and an entire team of Corvettes on a different track to finally break.

Jenkins II said his grandfather still raced and broke nearly two dozen records while serving a term as Salt Lake City’s mayor.

Ab continued racing and setting records right up until his death in 1956, at 73 years old.

The Mormon Meteor III sat on display at the Utah Capitol for years, painted in cream and white, that Williams explained was due to a sponsorship from a motor oil company.

The Mormon Meteor III on display at the Utah Capitol (Courtesy: Paul Christensen)

But over time, Williams and Jenkins II explained that graffiti and vandalism led to the car’s deterioration.

Ab’s son and Jenkins II’s dad, Marv Jenkins — who also became a racer, fought to take ownership of the Mormon Meteor III from the state so he could lovingly restore it.

“My dad adored him,” Jenkins said. “In fact, my dad, for the last approximately 25 years of his life, was immersed in the car, in restoration.”

Williams remembers watching Marv and a team rebuild the motor, with a great attention to detail in bringing the race car back to its original glory.

Last week, Jenkins II and two of his three siblings flew to Florida to attend two days of events for the 2023 Motorsports Hall of Fame of America induction.

Ab was one of several people in the hall of fame class of 2023.

“I said, it’s about time,” Williams said with a smile.

Ab Jenkins Motorsports Hall of Fame of America plaque (Courtesy: Ab Jenkins II)

“It was very exciting,” Jenkins II said. “We are always excited about our grandfather and the history and so on. Dad obviously worked for years to make sure that that history was not lost.”

“Landspeed” Louise Noeth, well-known and respected in the racing community, introduced Ab’s story at the induction ceremony. She went through his history, listed his records, and explained the impact he had on racing.

“This man has shattered more land speed and endurance records than any other driver ever anywhere,” Noeth said, to applause.

Jenkins II also got up and spoke, accepting a trophy on his late grandfather’s behalf.

He wasn’t sure how many people in the audience had heard of Ab Jenkins, but they certainly got a chance to understand his story that night.

“He wanted his actions and his accomplishments to speak for him, and I think that’s really what happened in Daytona,” Jenkins II said. “His actions, his achievements spoke for him. And I think he was very pleased and proud of that.”

Now, nearly a century later, a Utah legacy is living on.

“He was a Superman,” Williams said. “He was someone to look up to — a superhero.”

A statue of Ab Jenkins sits in front of the Mormon Meteor III at the Price Museum of Speed, as Ab Jenkins II stands behind the race car (KSL TV)

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Legendary Utah ‘Mormon Meteor’ racer inducted into Motorsports Hall of Fame of America