CLOUDS OF STAR FIRE (Bonneville, 1962)

by

“I remember
When I was a star
In the night
A moving, burning ember
Amid the bright Clouds of star fire
Going deathward To the womb”
—“Star,” Jack Parsons

September 10, 1962. It is a hot, gloomy Monday morning with a mercury sky. Everything is the color of a bleached and buried coin. Or a bullet left in the sun. During the past few days the Infinity team had been chipping away at various stress and leak tests, ensuring that the sleek machine that resembled nothing if not an avant-garde Russian MIG fighter plane was in superlative condition to claim the Land Speed Record. Many teams had espoused the notion that surpassing the 396 mph mark set in 1949 by Englishman John Cobb was a matter of patriotic pride, as for once the Americans would showcase their Yankee Ingenuity as well as its hearty guts and determination in a manner arguably not showcased since Henry Ford.

It had been such a bizarre trajectory to this moment, from “Dago” Palamides’ shop on the outskirts of the Oakland Airport to the boneyards of Tucson (Vic Elischer remembers the liberation of a J47-33 out of an F86D Fighter/Interceptor while Che Guevara scavenged for spare parts for a “Globemaster” cargo plane for use in the overthrow of the Batista government in Cuba — this is a year before the Bay of Pigs!) to Boeing Field in Seattle to the Bonneville Salt Flats…

The Untouchable had barnstormed up and down the West Coast with a coterie of drivers, first with Archie Liederbrand, next with Glen Leasher, who was fresh out of the cockpit of “Terrible Ted’s” Gotelli Speed Shop Special, Chrysler-powered fueler.

With Liederbrand driving, the Untouchable debuted in April, 1962 at Fontana and goes 209 mph, a track record. But this vehicle was really just a rolling test stand for the team. The real glory, prestige and payoff was at Bonneville, all they needed was another race car designed specifically for that task, as well as fresh bullet.

While fabricating the race car at Boeing Field in Seattle, Palamides and Leasher continued to match race the jet car and generate cash. Concurrently, airplane mechanics Loyd Osterberg and Jeri Sorm shaped and riveted the aluminum bodywork around the clock in attempt to have the car ready for Speed Week at Bonneville at the end of August.

One of the locals who grew up around Boeing Field tells me that Sorm is “a master tin man and aeronautics wizard. He grew up in Czechoslovakia before WW II and lived there during the war and when the Nazis held the country. When the Communists were in power, he escaped in the mid 50s — he flew out in a stolen plane.

“Jeri told me once, that anybody who had any complaints about this country should try living in a dictatorship, then under the Nazis – and then the Communists… he told me that ever since he came to this country he went out side every morning when he woke up and kissed the ground. He said we don’t appreciate what we’ve got.”

Sorm had no interest in race cars per se, but took on the project as an employee of Osterberg. Many nights one or the other would fall asleep in the fuselage of the unfinished vehicle only to be awakened by the other guy’s hammering or riveting.

Finally, Infinity is out on the Salt Flats. Breedlove is also there with his high-dollar operation, but cannot make anything work properly. Breedlove goes home.

Meanwhile Infinity, the intersection of hot rodding and aerospace, continues to ramp up its speeds during test runs. There is a disagreement about how much more r&d is needed, and unbeknownst to the other partners, Palamides and Leasher apparently conspire to make a record run on this morning.

As the car enters the measured mile, the left front wheel bearing seizes and locks, pulling the car off course. Then there is an explosion from an inlet/compressor stall in the jet engine, most likely the result of excessive yaw, at which point the car high sides. Then it rips into shrapnel, a torn metallic curtain… it is as if a piece of the sky folds into itself and then implodes like a dark star.

Glen Leasher was looking for Infinity. He found it — in an instant.

The biggest piece of his remains was his boot.

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