STOVEPIPE VISION

by

The brevity of Craig’s tenure in Pomona back in those days had little to do with engineer’s caps. It had to do with vision. Ingenuity and a dream. It was to reclaim the Land Speed Record for America, something that hadn’t happened in over thirty years previous, since April 22, 1928 the date on which Ray Keech turned a two-way average speed of 207 mph at Daytona Beach in a jalopy with three Liberty v-12 airplane engines (and the year before he won the Indy 500).

From the 1930s on, the LSR had been the domain of British aristocrats and playboys who – as often as not – were knighted for their efforts by the King and the British Empire for achieving speeds of 300 mph and beyond.

The irony is that when Breedlove conceived of the Spirit of America, he had to turn his back on Detroit in order to bring his vision of American ingenuity home. To his way of thinking, nothing that had its origin on the drafting tables of the automotive sector would get the job done. He needed some serious propulsion in order to reach 400 mph way back then, and his design required the kind of power that only a military jet could provide… Sure, he once took a chopped and channeled ’34 flathead Ford and modified it for extreme speed, setting records out at the dry lake beds when he was, in his own words, a “punk kid.” But really, even as he dabbled on the drag strip and recorded speeds approaching 180 mph in Peters & Frank’s gasoline-powered Freight Train in ‘62, he was already otherwise occupied with leftover thermodynamic devices discarded by the military industrial complex, beginning in 1959 when he procured a “spare” J47 engine out of a fighter plane that had been destroyed in the Korean War. (Craig bought the engine (sans afterburner) from a technical school for $500, where it was being used as a study aid for technical design.)

But still, 400 mph or not, the swapping of a proper hot rod for a turbojet-powered “stovepipe” dubbed the Spirit of America was heresy. Anathema. Betrayal. He was a drag racing Iscariot. The more closed minded members of the hot rod community were aghast.

“I used to race Breedlove on the streets on the Westside of Los Angeles,” the teetering sex machine rattles as the center of gravity of his fuel tank warbles like jello, “but that was before he climbed into that wienie roaster and went out to the Salt.”

The California sun sets over the hills just beyond the adjacent Brackett Air Field as the last pair of fuelers whisk into the impending darkness, blowing by as if they are sailing on the tradewinds of Hell. There was an awkward silence as track workers clean up the last vestiges of metallic fragments littering the top end of the drag strip.

As Roy and I swill the remaining dregs of our plastic cups, the conversation briefly 180s back to illegal drag racing on the streets of Los Angeles; kids are still grindin’ the gears on city streets, I say, albeit in Japanese cars instead of souped-up ‘34 Fords. The conversation shifts. Cuz’n Roy and I continue to riff with the railbirds about our misadventure earlier on the freeway that afternoon. I say that one doesn’t have to worry about go-cat wild hot rod hoodlums barrelin’ down to the Foster Freeze on Hawthorne Blvd. anymore. Greater civic threats are entertainment lawyers and soccer moms on the freeways with DARE stickers pasted over the one that once read BABY ON BOARD.

Apropos of nothing and for whatever reason, car alarms were going off in the parking lot again as the skinnier bleacher bum tossed another butt and shook his head. “Los Angeles is a different place now,” he mutters.

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