BURN BABY BURN

by

In the interim, after Breedlove set the world on fire and after he threatened to set himself on fire, civil unrest almost beat him to the punch.

While cloistered in the claustrophobic confines of his South Central LA shop on Compton Boulevard, the Watts Riots begin and spread like a virus. The flames lick at the door and Breedlove’s shop help (Tom Hanna, Quinn Epperly, Nye Frank and others) arm themselves on the roof on his industrial building.

The city is on fire and it is the Spirit of America against the world. Among the angry and the downtrodden, the Spirit of America is a fraudulent symbol. To an underclass struggling to find its place in society, 600 mph is a bourgeois construct, another manifestation of Honky Imperialism.

The guns and the molotov cocktails are drawn. The Great Society versus the tendrils of the military-industrial complex. Perhaps, in calmer moments, Breedlove and his endeavors can be viewed as a symbol of self-help and stick-to-it-iveness. Of the Aristotelian decree that “All men by nature desire to know.” But to those in streets, this whole jet car was a variation on the Thoreau didacticism of “we do not ride on the railroads, it rides on us.” To those in the streets, the Spirit of America was a jive turkey mutha’. Burn, baby, burn.

“This was ‘65. I was involved in the building of the car. When we were building the car, the Watts Riots went on. I was there when they started. The heart of the Watts Riots was about four blocks away from where we were. We were trapped. We couldn’t leave the building. I can tell you that we were frightened enough… our concern was that someone was going to torch the building. Here was this car – we’ve committed to Goodyear and Shell and we’ve got to deliver. This is how stupid we were: We had guns. We were in there with whatever kind of guns anybody could come up with. We were defending the fort with molotov cocktails rolling in under our feet. We had National Guard trucks rolling back and forth down the street and so on…” – Tom Hanna, Aluminum Fabricator and Spirit of America crewmember.

The Spirit of America wins the standoff in the ghetto that summer.

That fall – on November 2 – in his new four-wheeled, pop bottle-shaped J79-motivated Sonic I streamliner, Breedlove whooshes to 555 mph. Five days later, Arfons loses a tire while upping the ante to 576 mph. Art is nearly asphyxiated from smoke enveloping the cockpit as fiberglass shattered and the vehicle careened haphazardly across the Salt Flats.

November 15, 1965: Breedlove records an average of 600 mph; He is the first human being to officially go 400, 500, and now 600 mph. Two days later, in an attempt to push the envelope even further into the stratosphere, Arfons’s white knuckle symphony turns completely discordant. He goes into orbit at over 600 mph, after losing a front wheel. Art gets the ‘chutes out as the other wheels let go. This is the dénouement. The transonic match of Russian Roulette is over. Breedlove held onto the record. Arfons lives.

“I shared a room with Walt Sheehan, Breedlove’s engineer from Lockheed. He would bring the paper reels out of the recorder – the car had a recorder that was connected to strain gauges, the same thing they would use as if it were an airplane test project. In those days what you would do is develop those reels just like it was a photographic negative. So we had to beat it back to the motel room, take our showers and convert the bathroom into a dark room and use the bathtub to develop the print out for that day’s run. And from that, extrapolate what needed to done to take the next higher step.” – Tom Hanna.

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