“Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.” – Hassan i Sabbah
This is a paradox worthy of Ernst Mach himself. If “nothing is true” then “nothing is true” is not true also. And according to Einstein, the only thing that is not permitted is motion at a velocity greater than the speed of light. If motion is detected at a speed greater than warp speed, Einstein’s entire cosmology crumbles.
Which may or may not happen. But traveling faster than sound in an automobile was also deemed preposterous – even by Ron Ayers, who reversed his position only upon sketchpad meditation in his garden.
Thrust SSC entered the realm of the empirical. They went Mach 1 and became Ernst Mach’s post-mortem favorite sons.
This story bills itself as a history of the Land Speed Record. It isn’t, per se. It is about the pursuit of a moment of singularity. It is a chronicle of the search for a Teutonic dharma; i.e., a romantic yet irreducible accomplishment that would encapsulate what is cool, weird, noble and absurd about technological pursuits in general and the pursuit of massive amounts of horsepower, in specific.
The moment of singularity is the puncturing of the sound barrier by a motorcar, a feat I have come to understand as the ultimate romantic gesture (although “romanticism” is not equated with futility, in this instance) in the field of hot rodding.
With the Land Speed Record a mortal cost – in either lives lost or ruined – could almost be keyed in as a co-efficient to the equation which states that breaking the sound barrier in a car is equal to the eradication of cherished notions about physical limitations and human perseverance.
“It can’t be done,” is a refrain that echoes throughout the pursuit of any advance in maximum velocity. When it is done, the naysayers are not only humbled, they are rattled. Moments of triumph and defiance – such as traveling at the speed of sound in a car – are crushing to those who do not like their fundamental principles of living fucked with. They can’t process the inevitability of change as well as having the drawers dropped on heretofore cherished notions. Moments such as breaking the sound barrier, whether by air or by land, change how we see ourselves and by extension, it changes who we are.
If one were to endeavor to write a history of special and general relativity as it applied to cosmology, or on quantum mechanics and particle acceleration, string theory via number crunching on supercomputers, nanotechnology, one might find representation of any of these elements in research of the traveling at the speed of sound in a race car… All of these elements coalesced on a dry lake bed in the fall of 1997 when the sound barrier was, in fact, broken by an automobile.
If you talk to practitioners in any of those fields (cosmology, experimental physics, advanced mathematics, race car engineering), most specifically those who can both pride themselves on pushing the envelope as well as intellectualizing and articulating their pursuits, their rationale for taking their disciplines to such extreme boundaries – a topological space that befuddles the comprehension of the masses – is to “get closer to the mind of God,” or words to that effect.
I can’t help but think that when one is actually rubbing against the compressed molecules of air against a race car as it reaches a supersonic speed, that one gets really chummy with whatever one’s God may be. I never asked the driver of Thrust SSC what he felt when he reached that sublime moment of Transubstation, but when I saw a motorcar go Mach 1, I not only felt closer to a Supreme Manifestation of the Collective Consciousness, I felt sad – and according to Zen Buddhism, life is, in fact, sorrow…
Perhaps I was gripped by some other metaphysical and philosophical implications of the whole Mach 1/LSR trip. This wasn’t about ensuring stability of future supersonic commuter trains between LA and San Francisco.
This was about the pace of technology and how it took the speed of transport to triple from the Stone Age over a million years ago when ancient Man was first hunting in China (and if he was running from a pissed off mastadon, at a speed of say, less than 15 mph an hour, which translates to the coveted 4-minute mile achieved by Roger Bannister); sometime around the Bronze Age, Man figured out how to tame horses and use those as a form of transport and as a necessary device for jousting matches, all of which was maximum velocity until steam engines and electric motors were put to use in the 19th century.
The first LSR was going about the same speed as a jockey on a horse: 39 mph in an electric car. Less than one hundred years later the speeds were ten times that (John Cobb, Craig Breedlove); within another three years is another one and half times as great (Breedlove, Arfons, Gabelich, Noble); and slightly less than a century after Never Satisfied did its thing, Andy Green went Mach 1. Period. 763 mph. 25 times greater than the 30 mph speed of Gaston Chasseloup-Laubat in 1898.
We are traveling 25 times faster today than we were 100 years ago. We are Glen Leasher rushing headlong into Infinity. And I cannot sort out if we are rushing towards an Age of Enlightenment as we explore the cosmos at speeds nearing that of Light or if we are hastening our own obsolescence.
(In ’97. when news of Breedlove packing it in finally hit me, I was having a beer with Cuz’n Roy. “The failure is ours,” he said. Perhaps.)
We are speed. We are mass. We are energy. But at what point are we E=MC2 and at what point are we intelligent beings?
This LSR gig is about life, contrary to the mortal rate that has ridden shotgun with this whole trip. On a more prosaic and less cosmic level, when that twin-engined jet-powered streamliner known as the Thrust SSC went Mach 1, I knew that a statement had been made. As a gesture, the moment was antithetical to the banality and the drudgery that contaminates our daily lives… It seemed to undermine the notion that We as a society live in an age of limits… Life as we know it is a bottleneck and we spend more time bargaining with the Devil to loosen his grip than we do talking to whatever any of us perceive God to be. Raw, unmitigated speed has always been the release from the trappings of this asphyxiation of the mundane and has always been a metaphor for freedom.
My sorrow at that moment of singularity was manifold: a) like the man said, the era of the back yard mechanic was over. Never again, could scrappy individuals in the mold of Breedlove and the Arfonses build a spaceship-looking motorcar and set a Land Speed Record with it; b) I knew the moment was fleeting; c) I also knew that there would not be another gesture to be made in hot rodding, the general arena that I have endeavored to study: that of making a motorcar go faster than what is prudent or even sane. The natural extension of this is to take it to a place where there are no limits and no rules – the ultimate libertarian Big Go!.
(I’m sure there are a litany of logical arguments for all of the restrictions that all of us face in our day-to-day existence, most saliently how rules and regulations “save” and “protect” us, but what I’m saying is that there is nothing to “save” at this point; it is too late, as romanticism is dead, cooked, toasted, fossilized. The very notion of “limits” is antithetical to hot rodding’s mantra of “run whatcha’ brung and hope you brung enough.”
Mach 1. The ramifications are vast: If Einstein hinged his entire body of work on the premise that all subatomic events transpire at the speed of light (the crux of Relativity is that this constant barrier is absolute and NOT relative), what happens when an automobile crushes a similar physical limit – the speed of sound, whose number fluctuates with altitude, temperature and barometric pressure, but whose crushing and malevolent force remains a constant upon any vehicle that passes through its threshold?
On a philosophical level, I came away from the LSR with this knowledge: Limits exist only to be eradicated and mocked.
Like I said, the ultimate barrier or restriction is the speed of light. Einstein postulated that no action can transpire at a velocity greater than 182,262 miles per second. If that were so, his entire cosmological handshake of spacetime, gravity would come apart like a cheap watch.
The last bastion of unlimited performance – and again, to most folks the notion of “unlimited performance” is what made hot rodding interesting in the first place – is the pursuit of the Land Speed Record. It is the last scene where there are damn near no rules, where freedom of expression is limited only to one’s imagination, where barriers exist only in the mind. It is where there still dwells the strange, powerful energy which envelopes the id and psyche of its subjects with the same grip as the physiological phenomenon known to fighter pilots and astronauts as “Go! Fever.” It is where everything is permitted… and like I say, when everything is permitted, it really disturbs those who feel that some things are not permitted… it is a classic struggle, is it not?
Tags: andy green, Art Arfons, Craig Breedlove, cuz'n roy, Einstein, Ernst Mach, Gary Gabelich, Gaston Chasseloup-Laubat, Hassan i Sabbah, john cobb, land speed record, Mach 1, Richard Noble, Walt Arfons