The phone call comes from Shell Oil’s media power center in West Los Angeles. It is the day after Labor Day, 1997. The voice on the other end, an oil company’s flak who apparently had drawn Craig Breedlove as his assignment, is clueing me in as to how, beginning tomorrow and after a year long hiatus following the 675 mph mishap, the speed trials are back on for the Spirit of America at the parched alkali of Black Rock, Nevada. It is official, the first proper supersonic Land Speed Record attempts are a green light. I am to get credentialed tomorrow at a hotel in Reno, NV, whereupon Craig Breedlove will rendezvous with the press and lead a caravan out to the desert like some latter-day man-machine Mohammed. At the press conference he will explain the modifications and improvements administered to a land speed machine that had become unstable and crashed at transonic speeds.
In the days following Breedlove’s 1996 near-calamitous daredevil act – near the speed clocks, Breedlove got out of the groove and began bicycling his sleek J79 jet engine-powered manned missile like a circus act, the 5-wheeled vehicle riding on the front tire and one rear wheel rolling and yawing off course until it made an abrupt right hand turn and was aimed at some Snowbird-types in an RV (by the grace of the All-Knowing, by a whisker had Breedlove missed torpedoing these senior citizen motorheads who had hoped to witness history, not aware that unwittingly they had almost become new members of the Good Sam’s Club in the Sky) – the more dubious members of the motorsports press had surmised that Breedlove’s speed was closer to 475 mph.
“Performance incentive clauses” was the phrase bandied about by these cynics, in reference to the reality that Craig would need beaucoup greenbacks from his sponsors to repair his exotic race car. The only confirmation of the actual speed of the vehicle as it became unstable came from the Spirit of America itself. (Breedlove showed data from the run which corroborated his speed, apparently.)
Whether the streamliner was traveling at 475 mph or 675 mph was rather moot; the Spirit of America had failed to reach its objective of reclaiming the Land Speed Record from the clutches of the British in general and Richard Noble, Order of the British Empire in specific. The recent improvements to the race car’s contour promised to render ‘er even sleeker than last year’s model, a design which already resembled an arrow from the quill of the Pauites.
There were also conflicting reports about whether Craig intends to crack the sound barrier or if his intent is to get the car up to trans- and sub-sonic speeds, and then remove himself out of the hot seat, install a remote controlled drone system and then go supersonic.
In other words, there was a chance that when the Spirit of America went Mach 1, it may not have a driver.
To get the skinny, the publicist tells me, I have to be at the Reno press conference by noon tomorrow. The flak kindly asks me to be sure to include references to Shell Oil in the article on Breedlove I was to pen for HOT ROD Magazine. I assume he means in relation to its continued patronage of Breedlove’s increasingly-streamlined fuselage, a relation that dated back to 1962, and not its recent alleged complicity in the political assassination of Ken Saro Wiwa and genocide in Nigeria, when some of the locals were less than happy with what they considered exploitation… Ultimately, notions of tyranny and subterfuge in the Third World are now dormant in my mind. The important thing is that the Grunions are Go! The Land Speed Record is about to be raised…
The hour is late… I have just enough time for loading a camera bag with lenses and a half dozen plastic canisters of Ilford, cramming some clothing and toiletries into a shoulder bag, brewing up a thermos of Cafe Bustello, jumping in the Batmobile so’s to make time to the Burbank Airport, throw a credit card down on an airline counter and catch a plane to Reno.
Because of the haste and my appearance, I would fit the profile of a terrorist: unshaven, jittery, amped on caffeine, paying with a credit card and demanding to be put on an airplane that was just about to taxi… but that routine would be repeated often during the next six weeks or so and was part and parcel of chasing the Land Speed Record, I would find out that Richard Noble’s adage about “Going fast is slow business,” is not accurate: it is slow business with a co-efficient of chasing airplanes.
My journey would only take a few hours. In Newtonian terms, the Land Speed bunch had taken an eternity to arrive at this moment; in four-dimensional respects, an infinity.