INFINITY OVER ZERO (Meditations On Maximum Velocity) by Cole Coonce: PART ONE: HESITATION KILLS

November 3, 2008 by
Thrust SSC, Black Rock, Nevada, 1997 (photo by Cole Coonce)

Thrust SSC, Black Rock, Nevada, 1997 (photo by Cole Coonce)

“The Smarandache Hypothesis asserts that there is no speed barrier in the universe and one can construct speeds up to the infinite.” — AUTHOR UNKNOWN

HESITATION KILLS (West Los Angeles, 1996)

November 3, 2008 by

“Hesitation kills,” Cuz’n Roy said, and laughed.

It’s a Friday afternoon in Los Angeles; we are weaving through stop-and-go traffic on the San Bernardino Freeway and at that moment I negotiate a ‘71 Grand Prix through carnage comprised of upscale Westsiders in Lexuses, various sport utility vehicles and mini-vans, all of which had been snagged in a collision with a freaked and crying gaggle of immigrants in a chipped, varicose blue 1982 Toyota Corolla.

I see the pileup continue to metastasize so I punch the throttle, aiming the massive 2-ton projectile of Detroit steel bang on into the center of the chaos, which now resembles the entrance to a dark star. The eyelids on all four barrels of the carburetor open like the mouth on a porn queen and begin guzzling gasoline faster than a desert dog. Sundry automobiles continue careening and fishtailing, orbiting away from the spinning Toyota and its initial point of commotion as if by centrifugal force, creating a hole the size of a small crater that is plenty big enough for us to pass through unscathed.

In our wake I see disturbed yuppies already on cell phones to their insurers, lawyers and Immigration, speed dialing before their vehicles had fully reached a dead stop. Airbags distend like bulbous pimples and car alarms cycle in a discordant and paranoid arpeggio. Stalled automobiles point in five directions, the petals of a broken flower. Pieces of steel, plastic and colored glass litter the interstate and I keep the hammer down, with twin puffs of burnt blackie carbon punctuating our exit from the scene of this massive pileup.

“Man, this is like a bad day at a stock car race. Shouldn’t we stop?” Cuz’n Roy half-chortles.

We both know the question is rhetorical. “What?” I reply. “And get caught up in that bureaucratic nightmare? Is that what Junior Johnson would’ve done at Daytona?”

We are en route to speed trials in the Black Rock desert, northeast of Reno. With that freakshow behind us, we can concentrate on the prodigious amount of ground we are to cover on this eve. Along the way, we will partially retrace the steps of one Craig Breedlove, a land speed racer who had built the first Spirit of America jet car in his dad’s backyard in Venice in 1961. In the 1960s, Breedlove became the first guy to officially go 400, then 500, and finally 600 mph. These speeds were verified by stiff suits from a French organization, whose job description is to sign off on such esoterica. Now Breedlove was out at Black Rock, trying to reclaim the Land Speed Record from some Brits, who had held the title for over a decade. It feels right and patriotic to travel the roads Craig had taken to Bonneville in 1963, when he first achieved international notoriety and fame, stunning the motorazzi and the world at large with the first official 400 mph clockings. His goal is now 700 mph and beyond, ultimately puncturing the sound barrier itself. Mach 1. The Speed of Sound. There is no time for dicking around with cops, lawyers and insurers.

“Punch through the turbulence,” Cuz’n Roy acknowledges. “It is the right course of action at the first sign of trouble. Otherwise you’ll spill your beer.”

Punching through the turbulence. It is a time honored approach to overcoming the pitch, roll and yaw of any journey with a potential for doom and immolation. Become at one with outrageous, incomprehensible velocity and use it as your guide. Once upon a time around 50 years ago, in pursuit of Mach 1, ace fighter pilot after ace fighter pilot lost control and stuffed sophisticated military airplanes into oblivion in the Mojave desert; conversely, Chuck Yeager commandeered a Bell X-1 rocket airplane and kicked in the joystick towards the first successful supersonic flight (which is to say, he lived) by this approach: when things get weird and jittery, yank on the go-faster for more thrust. Damn the demons of chaos and instability. If you don’t you are a footnote to history and mere allegory; if you do, you bask in glory…

“Hesitation kills,” I repeat to myself. In an age of the neurotic, the paranoid and the self-absorbed, now more than ever definitive action and decisiveness are the only methods towards glory. Cuz’n Roy and I are on our way to see a guy attempt to turn Mach 1. In a car.

NO MORE PUSSYFOOTING

November 3, 2008 by

“When I drove Thrust 2 to the record in 1983,” recalls Richard Noble of his 633 mph jet car ride that reclaimed the Land Speed Record for Great Britain, “frankly, as a team we were damned lucky to get away with it. The car was within 7 mph of takeoff and with the huge dynamic pressures involved it would have gone upwards at 40G.”

Noble and his Thrust 2 machine were encroaching on the physical barrier of supersonic travel – and its incumbent aerodynamic disturbances. That would be the last campaign for a record in the subsonic speed range. From here on out, it would be a thrust-unlimited duel to Mach 1 between Richard Noble’s Thrust SuperSonicCar (driven by Royal Air Force prodigy Andy Green) and Craig Breedlove’s sleek new Spirit of America streamliner. The target speed is now the Speed of Sound – a velocity whose consequences could be fatal as supersonic shock waves would almost certainly send the vehicle careening out of control at between 740 and 765 mph. No more pussyfooting.

Suffice it to say, when the price of glory is quite possibly death you gotta’ really want to go Mach 1. It has to be in your blood. It has to be innate. For, in the same way that the laws of quantum mechanics tell us that the cosmos exploded and are in fact expanding, and the essence of this expansion is the behavior of subatomic particles, well, this same molecular information is at the root of a land speed throttle monkey’s genetic code and drives its host harder and faster, ultimately creating speed demons infected with a primeval “sickness” of “Go! Fever,” a fever that is a twisted, atavistic permutation of manifest destiny and good ol’ honky imperialism. i.e., it is what makes people try to “discover” continents, climb Mount Everest in a blizzard, run four-minute miles, design spaceships, or travel at the Speed of Sound on land. I mean, if the universe is infinite, Mach 1 is not a physical barrier after all, it is just an illusory line, right?

It was no cosmic coincidence that the Mach 1 attempts would transpire in Black Rock, Nevada, an 80 mile chunk of parched alkali as expansive as the human imagination when it knows no boundaries. Breedlove and Green would attempt to travel at Mach 1 because that is what they were born to do – it is what we were all born to do, really.

JOCKO (North Hollywood, 1953)

November 3, 2008 by

The intersection of Lankershim and Riverside in North Hollywood. “Kustom Kar” builders the Barris Brothers – eventual manufacturers of the Batmobile, the Monkees’ GTO, the Green Hornet’s company vehicle, the Munster’s grocery-getter and other funky, offbeat vehicles that raced into America’s living room via the television’s cathode tubes – hire a young apprentice, Robert Johnson.

Johnson is an astute learner and forward thinker. The guys in the shop wonder about his hygiene though… Seeing him rub his crotch absent-mindedly, he is christened “Jocko.” And despite his nickname’s, uhh, sensitive origins, the moniker sticks like talcum powder.

THE TERRIFYING CRACK AND ECHO

November 3, 2008 by

Black Rock, Nevada, 1860. In the bleached and cracked playas and buttes of what was once Lake Lahontan, the Pauite Indians are under attack from Kit Carson and a buckskin battalion of pale faces. Carson and his troops are armed with 50 caliber round, lead balls that fire with a velocity at the muzzle of 1200 feet per second. The Pauite’s armament is mostly sticks and stones; they are terrified of the white man’s weaponry and the sounds whizzing by their heads. They fear the sound as much as they fear the imminent tearing of flesh.

Vienna, 1887. Logician and physicist Ernst Mach is attempting to isolate the psychoacoustical source and rationale for the psychological terror associated with gunfire. He tries to understand why soldiers engaged in battle with firearms are so emotionally volatile.

Mach endeavors to explain the how of what the Pauites already know: The sound of the air ripped asunder is an immediate reminder of one’s own mortality. At any given millisecond, something as precious as life can be snuffed. Shell shock. Faster than sound. Instantly. A crack and an echo.


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