YOU’RE NOT VICTOR BREEDLOVE (Los Angeles, 1961)

November 3, 2008 by

“The receptionist at the Shell office looked a little surprised when I struggled through the door with the model case and flip charts. I told her my name was Breedlove and handed her my card. ‘I want to see Mr. Lawler, please,’ I said. With no appointment or anything, there I stood in all my splendor.

“She opened the door to his office and said, ‘Mr. Lawler, there’s a Mr. Breedlove to see you,’ and I heard this big, deep voice say, ‘Send him right in.’

“I trotted through the door with my ‘dog and pony show.’ He looked up in amazement and said, ‘you’re not Victor Breedlove.’ I later learned that Mr. Lawler had a Shell dealer named Victor Breedlove, whom he had been expecting.

“I took a deep breath and blurted out in one sentence, I think, No, sir, Mr. Lawler, I’m Craig Breedlove and I’m here to talk to you about a project that, I think, will not only benefit myself but Shell Oil Company as well, and I’m sure it will interest you because I am going to bring the world’s land speed record back to the United States after an absence of 34 years, and after many people have tried and failed, and I have the car that can do it.’

“He looked up in bewilderment, took off his glasses, and said, ‘You’ve got ten minutes.'” – Craig Breedlove’s autobiography, the Spirit of America

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JORDAN

November 3, 2008 by

(Al Jafr Desert, 1996)

“If there is a divine purpose in Jafr, it is that God has placed it on earth as a warning of what hell is like.” Howard Kent, publicist for Lawrence of Arabia.

It hasn’t rained in five years.

If it weren’t so dry, this burnt orange topography would weep from the sheer weight of its own isolation. The desert is motion in suspension and a set of quarantined coordinates whose desolation is inversely proportional to the outrageous expanse of nothingness.

Periodically – and apropos of not much – the winds gust and the sands pan across the hereafter; this is the Universe’s small way of letting this uninhabitable Outback know it hasn’t been forgotten about entirely.

But a lack of cosmic movement is the cruelest gesture of all. The silence confirms this sentiment.

Wild camels stare down spontaneous dust storms. After the winds die down, the next interruption to the parched and tedious desolation is the motorized fluttering of Bedouins crossing the desert in battered white Japanese pickup trucks. The murmur and obliquely reverberant rhythm of the camels is barely audible under the gear grinding and fishtailing of Muslims in mini-pickups. The marauding rumbling fades as the camels slowly scatter and the desert dwellers disappear into the their own dust.

When the commotion settles, the only sound remaining is the lonely brooding of bleached phosphate rock and the sulking of stone in what is the universe’s driest and least efficient echo chamber.

A Russian Antonov cargo plane unloads its burden at a military air strip not so many miles away. The Antonov is the size of an interstellar mothership. Its 75 tons of freight is an absolute Noah’s Ark of arcane hardware and machinery: diesel 6-wheeled Supacats, a fire-fighting Jaguar XJR, a portable Airshelta hangar, microlight aeroplanes and Thrust SSC, a twin-engined jet car that weighs 10 tons.

It is an ant farm of forklifts and traffic control. It is a military operation where nobody dies. In this part of the world, nobody dying is a refreshing change.

Terra firma dissolves into a horizon of dust. It buttresses a heavy, two-toned sky nine times taller than the playa itself. The dusky blues and grays of the sky hint at how cruel and unforgiving this place really is… in the center of the sky, a billowing sun is burning orange. The grays and oranges of the sky and landscape co-exist as a sort of dialectic with the two-tones hammered into a third element. A synthesis.

Despite an integration of color, there is no syllogism here, nothing to be inferred or projected, no cubed or exponential meaning extrapolated from the two elements of harsh light.

It is. It just is. The synthesis is zero. The sum, product, and exponent of the synthesis is zero. It is an anti-syllogism. Which sounds like silence, of course.

A renegade truck out of Iraq breaks the quiet. It scurries across the desert like a cockroach on a bleached snooker table. The trucker’s freight is contraband of one sort or another… it could be guns, black tar heroin or black market petrol. More than likely tobacco is the payload. Whatever the substance, it makes no never mind to the Sun as it continues its cynical sentry. Black globs of diesel exhaust puff and then dissipate, swallowed by a swollen sky.

It gets quiet again.

Off in the perimeter white smoke and dust complement a subsonic thrum breaking the silence while slowly changing pitch. The noise source is the jet car.

Eventually, flames pulse and belch out of a pair of Spey 202 jet engines. The engines are mounted on either side of the fuselage giving the race car the appearance of a spaceship on wheels. The vapors that buoy the flame are eye-watering. It doesn’t sting, so much as it sours. The fearsome and leviathan silver engine burns a cheap fuel with a smell like cooked cough syrup. The jet spools up and up and up, reaching a whine that would shatter the wall of Jericho. The higher the pitch, the higher the decibels and the sicker the smell.

A group of mechanics and engineers crowds around the spaceship with wheels and performs a series of synchronized leak tests on the jet engines. The vehicle is 54 feet long, tips the scales at 10 tons, and has a surface composed of steel, carbon fibre and titanium. The men and women are sharply attired – matching khaki trousers, a variety of team polo shirts (red, yellow, gray, black), blue coveralls, tan colored boots, identical post-industrial sunglasses and green and red bomber jackets – and are a calm contrast to the chaotic pressurized air that billows out of the beastly, demonic jet engines’ exhaust opening. In all the futzing, occasionally one of the engineers checks the time on a wristwatch with a SSC Machmeter as the face. The needles on the timepiece point to Mach 1, which represents high noon, natch.

They purge the afterburners on either of the jet engines. PPPHHHWWWWUUUUHHHHHH … (beat) … PPPHHHWWWWUUUUHHHHHH goes one… 22,500 fucking lbs. of thrust at each belch of either afterburner … PPPHHHWWWWUUUUHHHHHH … (beat) … PPPHHHWWWWUUUUHHHHHH goes the other… 110,000 fucking horsepower total… “This is one horny machine,” one crew member mutters… On the horizon, a fleet of Land Rovers retro-fitted with machine guns zooms toward the makeshift but immaculate compound in a flying wedge formation. The automobiles attract minimal dust, as the swirling pool of disturbed air puts the Rovers in a high pressure cocoon. It is like the winds know that inside one of these vehicles are some very important Muslims and the dust parts accordingly. Flags mounted to the skin of the automobiles buffet in the turbulence. The closer the cars come, the more frenzied the disturbance. The vortex summons Biblical stories, lost cities and civilizations, and Lawrence of Arabia. T.E. Lawrence was the last romantic vestige of British Imperialism here, but the caustic purging of Spey 202s conjures up the Empire’s latest and perhaps final attempt at National pride. Thrust SSC. The Supersonic Car.

It is utterly atavistic.

The jet exhaust and the choreographed human commotion, the dust of the caravan and its flagellation of flags swirl into a single entity.

Before the military Muslims depart, the senior officer offers to cordon off the British Operation with the Land Rovers… and to shoot anybody who might get in the way.

THE END OF THE CENTURY (1898)

November 3, 2008 by

In 1898, the first official Land Speed Record was established by Gaston Chasseloup-Laubat, some French guy going a little over 30 miles per hour in an electric car named, loosely translated, Never Satisfied; to be blunt anything under 200 mph is of only marginal interest to me and will be acknowledged here in a pell mell, cursory fashion. With that being said, here’s what I know about what happened at the end of the 19th century, when this whole Land Speed Record affair began:

In 1902, France’s Leon Serpollet leapfrogged over Count Gaston in a steam-engined La Balleine (“The Whale”) at 75 mph. Later, the US made its presence felt via Henry Ford. In a successful attempt to crank up the profile of the fledgling Ford Motor Company, Ford slid his black Arrow across a frozen lake outside of Detroit at 91 mph in 1904. It was an absolute white knuckler of a ride and Ford admitted that even the memory of this adventure filled his heart and soul with terror. He was later succeeded by Louis Emile Rigolly, a Frenchman who clocked a speed of 103.55 mph and therefore broke the 100-mph barrier.

Electric cars. Steam power. On some level, this turn of the century stuff is all just esoterica for the land speed fetishist. Besides Henry Ford, most folks can’t remember (or pronounce) any of these guys names, nor can anybody but the land speed fetishist recite the speeds those guys recorded.

What is worth filing in one’s gray matter is the following: It was around this moment when the discrepancy in what “officially” constituted a speed record began to take shape. In order to establish some semblance of credibility as per the timing systems and as to whether these attempts were aided with a tailwind, the Federation International de l’Automobile (FIA) intervened and attempted to establish order and protocol (within an hour, two runs in opposite directions, with the speed tabulated as an average of the two runs). To daredevil-hellcat Yanks such as Barney Oldfield and Ralph de Palma, guys who won early editions of the Indianapolis 500 as well as establishing ultimate speed records, this French bureaucracy and this two-run jazz was about as popular as UN helicopters in Montana; Oldfield and de Palma maintained that one banzai, balls out record run had as much validity as back-to-back runs sanctioned by some foo-foo timekeepers from across the pond.

History dictates otherwise.

LIVE WITH REGIS AND KATHIE LEE

November 3, 2008 by

April, 1996. Lincoln Square, Manhattan. Four city blocks have been cordoned off surrounding the ABC TV studios, in anticipation of a fiery display of raw thrust by the American Eagle 1 jet car, a deconstructed fighter plane of an automobile whose design goal is to reclaim the Land Speed Record of 633 mph, currently the domain of Richard Noble, a land speed record racer who also ranks as an Order of the British Empire, OBE. Television personalities Regis Philbin, Kathie Lee Gifford and their producers have signed off on the presentation of the AE-1. The racers figure a ring-of-fire dog-and-pony show on live television just might titillate some potential corporate benefactors enough to loosen its promotional purse strings. Conversely, if this stunt misfires, it could melt the plastic off of both Regis Philbin’s mug and Kathie Lee Gifford’s cleavage.

The AE-1’s cash crunch is very real… Before the team can set its sights on the Land Speed Record, it needs to find a Corporate Sugar Daddy willing to pony up 250 large – yes, one quarter of a million bones – for design changes and sundry expenses. Thus far, the car is six years and $300,000 in coming.

This is Take Two, as they say in the biz, as the day before Regis and Kathie Lee broadcast their show from the New York Auto Show and did a bit on the AE-1. In an improvised moment of inspiration and schtoink, as cameras rolled Regis Philbin climbed into the back of the cockpit of the jet car while AE-1 team members applied current to the engine. It failed to fire. On live national television. There was no jet fuel in the tanks…

The next day, however, outside of the studio, things will be different everybody says. The AE-1 is fueled up and will light sure as sunrise.

Communications, microphones and cameras are hard wired to a control room five flights up and ensconced behind glass. Coming out of commercial, down on Columbus Avenue a stage manager with an intermittently-functioning headset folds three fingers in succession and then points to the talent, who introduces the jet car’s Director of Operations. A red light glows on a handheld camera as the talent and the guest banter and make nice-nice for a few minutes with the Director of Operations explaining the team’s plight re a lack of finances hindering their ability to reclaim the Land Speed Record from the British operation that set it in 1983.

Then things get weird. In a reprise of yesterday’s coast-to-coast misfire, the jet engine won’t light. Again.

It is a cacophony of confusion and futility, with the stage manager pointing his fingers and attempting to cue the AE-1’s pit crew to light ‘er off and start making some noise with the J79 jet engine. The promotional pitch immediately degenerates into utter slapstick worthy of Buster Keaton. As power is applied repeatedly, the turbine blades spin harmlessly… a massive asses-and-elbows thrash ensues with the AE-1 crew as Regis Philbin filibusters into the camera and a spokesman for the American Eagle tap dances around the reality that Middle (and Corporate) America is watching and-here-we-are-screwing-the-pooch.

The stage manager rolls his fingers, the camera’s red light goes dark, and unbeknownst to the AE-1 squad, bumper music rolls as credits burn across the screen horizontally. Finally, after their moment in the limelight has all but passed, the engine lights and rumbles and the small team of mechanics go through the various procedures designed to elicit oohs and ahhs and wows. The coast to coast audience doesn’t hear or see the spectacle. Obliviously, the turbines plead and wail at an amplitude that would kill cockroaches in a lab experiment and if the intimation of the 48,000 horsepower isn’t enough, the driver then purges the engine’s afterburners and a 70-foot orange flame bursts aft of the deconstructed post-industrial monstrosity. Windows shatter and eardrums are permanently cauliflowered.

It is for naught. This ersatz, shambolic Gotham Götterdämmerung is a fallen tree silent in an empty electronic forest. New York City cops survey the broken glass, key their radios and shrug their shoulders while chomping on donuts or knishes and sipping coffee.

Via videotape playback, the next morning Regis and Kathy Lee relive the moment on their show, the third consecutive day the AE-1 gets national exposure. Still the money never comes.

MIGRANT APES IN THE GASOLINE CRACK OF HISTORY

November 3, 2008 by

Rocket cars. Rocket dragsters. It was only a matter of time before the technology designed to put a man on the moon and vaporize entire cities was appropriated by the speed demons on wheels…

It’s simple: the common method for propulsion of the rocket dragsters utilized the following method: pressurized nitrogen forces the hydrogen peroxide onto a silver plate and the ensuing, instantaneous chemical reaction creates a tremendous cloud of hot stream that is force fed out of a nozzle, creating thrust.

Rockets summon, tickle and reanimate many primal notions dormant within the collective human consciousness… they tap into the memories of fire and they evoke the spirit of the transcendental, the exaltation and elevation of the human body and of the human spirit… “They wanted to escape from their misery and the stars were too far for them” – thus spoke Zarathustra and Friedrich Nietzsche about the very banality of existence… rockets are the stuff of Jules Verne books (From the Earth to the Moon) and Fritz Lang movies (Frau Im Mond), of Arthur C. Clark and Stanley Kubrick and 2001 whose symphonic score (Richard Strauss’ “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”) observed a human destiny far beyond the confines of Planet Earth; of the Ancient Chinese and tossed bamboo tubes filled with saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal as part of ceremonial fires and noisy explosions scaring away evil spirits. A full millennia subsequent, this is the stuff of the Sung Dynasty attaching tubes of powder to spears and using the projectiles to repel the invading Mongol hordes… “thunder that shakes the heavens” was the Chinese description of the dual elements of physical devastation and psychological terror… the Mongols appropriated the technology for use in their conquests of Baghdad and from there rocketry spread into Europe… as the Dark Ages gave way to the Renaissance, Sir Isaac Newton solved the theorem of equal and opposite reactions, which became his Third Law of Motion and a pithy explanation of how a rocket generates altitude and velocity… this is the stuff of unmanned rockets built from the blood of indentured Hebrews, subjugated into aiding the Third Reich as it bombed the shit out of London in its quest to establish a Master Race; of the Space Race and the rocket to the moon with spacemen in aluminum suits establishing beachheads on extra terra firma… this is the stuff of our id and a Jungian subconsciousness – of “migrant apes in the gasoline crack of history,” William Burroughs said – of apocryphal legend and honky imperialism and of dusty teenagers ratchet-strapping forgotten solid-fuel rockets onto the hoods of their rusted Chevy Impalas and smashing man and machine into the eternal oblivion of desert stone…