“Thrust SSC, Thrust SSC… Hey Kids, you need to come to see Thrust SSC“ – Danny Jo, the Blind Hippie, singing to the Thrust SSC team members.
“I’m a loo-ser, and I’m half the man I appear to be…I’m a lo-o-o-o-ser…” – Flash, the bartender at the Gerlach saloon, serenading from the street to anyone who will listen, but pointing his guitar in the specific direction of Craig Breedlove’s ad hoc press center.
There is a heavy air of psychosis that envelops the playa, like an invisible asbestos cloud. Breedlove has fodded an engine. Foreign object damage. One unofficial report was that the fod was not a pebble on the desert floor, but a bolt absent-mindedly mislaid upon the fiberglass inlet of the jet engines, and sucked into the turbines when the engine was spooled up. Breedlove’s prize jet engine is junk. Like many things, the days of scoring a J79 cheap has passed, as has the day of the backyard mechanic shoehorning a massive jet onto a piece of pipe, strapping himself in, lighting the candle and making the newsreels. Sheer bravura was once synonymous with the Spirit of America, but like Roy and I discovered when we drove through that massive passenger car pile-up and crash in West Los Angeles, the Spirit of America is now a ghost – and it ain’t a friendly one.
“The day of the backyard mechanic is over…”
What has changed? Why is Breedlove lost? He seems confused. It had all been so straightforward before: design a car shaped like a dart or an arrow and make ‘er as light as possible, crank up the thrust, push the envelope and bask in the ensuing glory. Now he has augmented his approach with Dezso Molnar as his crew chief, a young pony-tailed post-modern boho from San Francisco, an artist whom some of his old gang of hot rodders labeled as “art damaged.” Dezso was a tenant at the “art explosion laboratories,” south of Market in San Francisco. Before his stint with Breedlove, he had been robotic/jet engine technician for the Survival Research Labs, a guerrilla art group notorious for blowing up sculptures under bridges and then running from the police.
(Molnar is no stranger to Black Rock. As early as 1995 at the first Burning Man Festival, he had attempted some performance art with a pulse-jet-powered go cart, which was carted out to the desert when strapped and mounted onto his roommate’s Ford LTD. According to festival organizers, out at Black Rock, Molnar attempted to “cross the 8th dimension” with his go-kart. Uh huh. His techno band, “Rocket Science,” also serenaded the post-industrial revelers…)
Go Karts and Techno Music. The old time land speed guys had no time for such pretense. This guy Dezso’s background was in blowing up sculptures in the warehouse district and calling it art. An acetylene torch was his paintbrush and various pieces of surplus steel were his canvas. Now he has an opportunity to get involved with slightly higher stakes – Craig Breedlove’s life – and the hot rodders in Craig’s clique put up with his selection of crew chief, but it reeked of desperation, like a Dorian Gray-ish attempt to tap into the energy of youth. Had Craig forgotten his roots? Or were his roots showing? Doesn’t Dezso have more business with the Burning Man than being the crew chief on the supersonic missile with one of America’s greatest heroes strapped inside? If so, the folks who had supported Breedlove throughout his career began to feel betrayed. Even the Gerlach locals and the Land Speed loyals had turned against the Spirit of America. The queue of desert rats, speed freaks and survivalists who lined the circumference of the playa also are troubled by the dubious performances of the Spirit of America. The American flags that dot the impromptu trailer park seem to droop impotently, even when the winds kick in. When the local bartender grabs a guitar and starts serenading Breedlove’s camp with “I’m A Loser,” the bleakest existential ballad out of the Beatles’ oeuvre, Craig has to know it was time to regroup.
Breedlove had fodded an engine.
So now what? Come midnight, Breedlove loads up his tractor-trailer with his wounded racer and turns the rig around, and heads home. More trouble. It is so dark on the playa the truck driver cannot find the tire tracks that lead to the highway. Instead, he is transfixed by the lights of Gerlach, which act as a siren’s song of sorts and summons the drivers into a muddy, terra-not-so-firma section of the lake bed, whereupon the rig promptly sinks to its axles…
The Thrust SSC team is called to the rescue, using Supacats to pull the truck out of the muck. The Brits more than magnanimously rescued the SOA, esprit de corps and all that British chivalry. It is like the Bridge on the River Kwai, when the British, interned as prisoners of war, built the bridge for the Japs … and just like the William Holden movie, the Brits are so together, a veritable Swiss watch of organization, while the SOA camp come across as the Japanese, a slow exercise in chaos and self-destruction. (The only thing that runs on time is Craig’s morning jogs with his personal trainer and his publicist.)
The SOA has degenerated into vaudeville and the butt of jokes.
Back at his shop in Rio Vista, the team performs an engine swap, installing a weaker J79, which Breedlove has kept in his inventory to scavenge for spare parts.
Yeah… it looks bleak for the SOA. But is this the darkness before the dawn?