Posts Tagged ‘Bonneville Salt Flats’

THE FLYING CADUCEUS

November 3, 2008

As track workers mop up the space age detritus from the last failed attempt down the drag strip, Roy goes to take a piss and I hang on the fence thinking about guys other than Breedlove who did second-hand shopping from military boneyards: Dr. Nathan Ostich, who showed up at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1960 in a contraption he tagged the Flying Caduceus, a needle-nosed machine shaped like a tightwad’s pencil and sporting a J47 jet engine as a propulsion system; Walt Arfons followed suit with his Green Monster, a jet car that looked like an armadillo run over by tractor tires and used a Westinghouse J46 engine out of a Navy fighter for power. Then there were more: Romeo Palamides’ Infinity; Gary Gabelich in Bill Fredrick’s Valkyrie; Art Arfons and HIS Green Monster. For a brief instant in the early 1960s, there was a small battalion of gallant, courageous men out at Bonneville who had strapped such devices onto rolling frames of steel, albeit with mixed (and sometimes tragic) results…

FELLOW TRAVELERS

November 3, 2008

May 31, 1959, Riverside Raceway: The Russians dominate the heavens with Sputnik, a satellite designed to determine the density of the upper atmosphere and return data about the ionosphere via a pair of radio transmitters.

It’s Memorial Day weekend – when the US of A honors its war dead – and Eisenhower/martini-shaker America is having enough problems coming to terms with the Russkie’s satellites that continue to buzz the stratosphere whereupon an Ozzie & Harriet-type couple is motoring down the surface streets near Disneyland and they encounter what looks like a spaceship strapped-down on the back of a flat, open trailer, being towed by a 1956 Chevrolet station wagon.

In the front seats of the Chevy are a couple of beat looking young men, “Jazzy Jim” Nelson and “Jocko” Johnson. In the back is a lone black man, pit man Eddie Flournoy.

As the couple pass the spaceship-time machine looking thingie, they do a double take. The Harriet-type drops her jaw. The Ozzie-type scratches his crewcut. As disturbed as they are about the Communist threat of interstellar superiority, they are unsure if these are the guys they want on “our side.”

After Jocko and Jazzy unload their streamlined dragster off of the trailer, the world stops in its rotation: On this day, the Jocko’s Porting Service entry, a rear engine dragster blanketed in aluminum lovingly hand-formed by Jocko, sets a 1/4 elapsed time record, as driver “Jazzy Jim” stops the clocks in 8.35 seconds. To Jocko, it is an empirical display of the equation wot says: horsepower less drag equals an ungawdly acceleration. His stealthy car slithers through the slipstream and into the history books.

In a direct contrast, at an Air Force base in Kansas, Glen Leasher in the Sullivan, Martin and Leasher AA/Fuel “rail” claims a 1/4 mile speed record of 185 mph the day before…

Dragster were called “rails” or “railjobs” for a reason: They were either sedans stripped of all body work or were purpose built chassis that were nothing but tubing. Jocko’s Porting Service was different: The damn thing looked like it was from another planet, but was influenced by various land speed record setters such as the Bluebirds of Malcolm Campbell, George Eyston’s Thunderbolt and the Railton Special of John Cobb, which, at the time of Jocko and Jazzy blasting into the record books, held the Land Speed Record at 394 mph for over a decade.

(To avoid confusion, it helps to remember that the Land Speed Record is the average speed between two timers set exactly one mile apart. This is after a running start of as much as six miles. It is the average speed of two timed runs, back-to-back within an hour, run in opposite directions. Conversely, drag racing records are measured by timing lights triggered 66 feet before the finish line and 66 aft, for a total distance of 132 feet, which is 1/10th of the distance of the race course (a 1/4 mile equaling 1320 feet.)

Because the drag strip runs are more of a sprint and less of a marathon, the use of nitromethane – a highly destructive fuel – was used by drag racers such as Jocko Johnson, whose specialty was “porting” the cylinder heads’ combustion chambers for burning nitro, a rather delicate science as the porter had to re-engineer the heads on an engine designed for a passenger car that would normally burn gasoline. Johnson had “porting” down to a science, but he was the first drag racer to also factor in the science of aerodynamics, which had previously been the domain of the Land Speed Record guys and aerospace.

Although the LSR crowd had tapped into decreasing both wind resistance and drag, they did not utilize exotic fuels in the rather prodigious amounts that the dragster guys did, who had no fear of “tipping the can” with the “yellow stuff” or “liquid horsepower.”

The LSR competitors made horsepower another way: with gobs of cubic inch displacement, via engines that had come out of fighter planes. To see these giant, beastly machines blubber down the Salt Flats of Bonneville with massive puffs of black smoke billowing out of the exhaust was a truly unique spectacle.

(In the 30s, the Germans had burned nitro with an automotive, streamlined vehicle, albeit with tragic results: Berndt Rosemeyer, a national hero of the Third Reich, was killed while racing on the autobahn at a speed of 280-something mph in the Auto Union GP, whose design pre-saged that of the Top Fuel dragster (supercharged engine, with nitromethane as a fuel) by a quarter of a century . The Auto Union GP was ultimately co-opted by the Third Reich, much to the consternation of Ferdinand Porsche, the car’s designer, who ultimately shuttered the project, as a political gesture as much as anything else… )

But the salient point among all of the digressions is the reality that Jocko Johnson had created a package that had the best of both worlds: a streamlined dragster that had plenty of downforce without much drag (the opposite of thrust) and aided by a powerful badass hemi, huffing on nitro.

Streamlining rarely paid off on the drag strip. The weight penalty of the added body work negated the benefits of slipping through the air stream.

The Jocko’s Porting Service ‘liner is history’s exception.


JOHN COBB’S NITRO (STUFF WAS STILL GOOD)

November 3, 2008

“1965 at Bonneville, I made friends with the Mobil Oil guy, and mentioned we needed some nitro. He said, ‘I have some.’ There was a corrugated tin shed in back of the Texaco station that he had a key to, he gave me the key and said ‘help yourself to what you want.’ I had Bob Knapp’s Chevy pickup and when I opened the door, there was about 60 drums of fuel in the shed left over from John Cobb’s land speed run. I thought about all of the racers that parked next to the shed over the years and never knew what was in it. Seeing as how he said to help ourselves and I was by myself, I found a stack of pallets, I put one down and rolled a barrel onto it, then up onto two and so on up to the bed of the truck. I got two drums of nitro and one alcohol, before I could no longer move… Stuff was still good from 1948.”Chassis builder, drag racer and land speed racer, Kent Fuller.

D-Day becomes V-Day, and more attempts at cracking 400 mph transpire. John Cobb resurrects his unique 4-wheel Railton ‘liner (now coined the Railton Mobil Special), a sleek manta ray of a streamliner with independent suspension and a Napier-Lion 12-cylinder aero-engine mounted in each curve of the S-shaped chassis. At Bonneville on September 16, 1947, John Cobb lays down a scoriating two-run average of 394 mph. Asked to describe the runs, one of which tripped the timers at 403 mph, Cobb exercises the British gift for understatement when he says, “Everything happens quite quickly.” Yes, things do happen very quickly at those speeds. Empirical proof? Cobb is killed attempting the water speed record at Loch Ness in 1952. He never cracks the 400 mph barrier; his record remained unplucked like a grape on a vine until…

AFTERBURNERS AU GO GO (1962)

November 3, 2008

The assault on the 400 mph barrier cranks into high gear via the intrusion of some wily Americans who sully what theretofore had been the sanctified sandbox of European aristocracy. After the shootout between Eyston and Cobb concludes, the Yanks begin kicking up dust storms on the Salt Flats in contraptions so stripped down, coarse, and primitive that the Brits kinda’ viewed them as uncouth tinderbox folk art.

Perhaps most emblematic of this mindset is Akron, Ohio scrap yard scavenger Art Arfons, a drag racer who terrorized the strips with Allison aircraft engines until the National Hot Rod Association pulls the rug on both his ingenuity and his aircraft engines, and tried to relegate Arfons to a circus act. In retaliation, Arfons doesn’t get mad, he just turns up the boost on a mighty mastadon of mutant machinery that he has christened Cyclops, and aims his crosshairs on the Salt Flats, leaving the drag strips in the rear view mirror of his memory. “I had an Allison (aircraft engine) for ten years and I couldn’t get to 200 in the 1/4 mile,” Arfons recalls about the ’60s. “I wanted more horsepower.” It is difficult to ascertain what was the bigger monster at this point: the race car or Arfons himself.


“I had three children by my twenty-first birthday,” remembers Breedlove, reflecting on the transformation of the LSR tableau from the domain of Euro high society to working class ‘Merican motorheads like himself. “I was financially strapped. Even if you could afford the Merlins (aircraft engines) or what have you, the costs of developing the transmissions and the gear trains and so on and so forth were really prohibitive. When I saw the jet engine, I went, ‘Oh boy – there’s no way we can go wrong with that.’ In ‘61 we located a J47 engine at Airmotive Surplus down on Alameda Street in L.A,” he continues. “They had a whole batch of ‘em coming in that were Korean War vintage. The engines were being scrapped out for $500. I had a sponsor, Ed Perkins, who had an aircraft fastener company. I talked Ed out of 500 bucks and that became the first engine for the Spirit of America.

But the prodigious-yet-cost effective horsepower that aerospace technology provides to the salt flat racers did not come without a price: And in 1962 drag racer-cum-jet setter Glen Leasher pays it – in full. While driving the J47 powered Infinity at maximum velocity, the jet car veers off course. Glen corrects at full burner and the stress and torque loads the suspension, precipitating a possible wheel or axle failure; the motor explodes and scatters its remains – as well as Leasher’s – across the measured mile of Bonneville potash.

Regardless of Leasher’s fate, however, the fuse of the paradigm shift has been lit. Taking bald exception to the stateside jet set, however, is the progeny of Sir Malcolm himself, Donald Campbell. Piloting an immaculate, brand new turbine-engined, axle-driven re-invention of his old man’s Bluebird streamliner, Campbell is caught in an awkward transition, as he sets a water speed record with a jet engine, yet rigorously maintains that any proper heir to the LSR throne would not be thrust driven like the abominations Breedlove and Arfons were disgracing the Salt Flats with; By 1960, Campbell sinks over three million dollars of other people’s British Pride to ensure that the stateside vulgarities never triumph. And this was just startup lucre; by 1963, after a spectacular 500 foot hurtle across Bonneville, the venture capital doubles. As Bluebird is humpty-dumptied back together, Campbell seeks a new venue for his mission. He takes aim in Lake Eyre, Australia.

Meanwhile, Breedlove petitions the FIA to sanction his impending incursion on the LSR but the FIA sniffs its nose and harrumphs at Breedlove’s request, noting that the Spirit of America a) is not wheel-driven; and b) only has three wheels, therefore it is a motorcycle, not an automobile. Craig shrugs his shoulders and shrewdly summons the FIA’s kid brother, the FIM (Federation Internationale de l’Motorcycle), seeking its approval and timing resources. The FIM is down with the SOA’s request, under this criteria: Breedlove’s cigar-shaped streamliner fits the description of their “Unlimited Sidecar” category (!), and they will happily sanction the record runs if Craig adds thirty kiloliters of ballast to one side of the vehicle, as to mimic a sidecar sans passenger (!!). Done. Spirit of America cranks out a two-way average of 407.45 in the summer of ’63 to reclaim the LSR. Breedlove is officially the first man to travel at over 400 mph on land – all accomplished in a “motorbike” with a virtual sidecar. Brilliant.

Amidst the controversy and hullabaloo over the SOA, Campbell continues to sojourn in his Bluebird, albeit with mixed results. His Australian expedition is hammered by monsoons, weather conditions that enable Breedlove to score the LSR uncontested back in the States. Indeed, the weather in Australia was so disheartening that Campbell’s benefactors begin to view this whole land speed record thing as a multi-million dollar boondoggle and yank their sponsorship. Finally, on Friday, July 17, 1964, Campbell goes 403.1 – twice – with a backup pass so brutal that it rips the wheel from out of his hands. Both Campbell and the FIA claim the de facto record runs went down in Australia, that this was the “real” LSR. Latter day pop psychologists would refer to this way of thinking as “denial,” for history remembers Breedlove’s run not as a bogosity on a tricycle, but as triumphant; it remembers Campbell’s run as valiant as Paul Bunyan, but unfortunately a day late and a few quid short. There indeed had been a changing of the guard in the 1960s at the Salt Flats, as it became not only the domain of new technologies with godawful gobs of horsepower, it also becomes distinctly American.

Equally important, Breedlove has trumped the FIA, who were now sucking hind teat as far as sanctioning prestige goes. With its ego bruised, the FIA swallows its pride and allows jet technology into its competition, opening the floodgates for folks like Arfons, “the junkyard genius of the jet set,” the man who set out to conquer the LSR in a post-modern mongrel contraption that featured a ’37 Ford truck axle, depression-era Packard steering and a top secret fighter plane engine. Breedlove, Arfons and their ilk were now legitimate.

How legit? Even as the FIA and the hot rod set thumb their noses at the exploits of a tricycle that strapped a military surplus jet just on axis of where the sidecar should go, the Beach Boys write and record an eponymously monikered B-side about such an endeavor. So… What is more relevant? The approval from pop stars that sold more records worldwide at that time than Beatles or the signing off from a French bureaucracy?

SPIRIT OF AMERICA

November 3, 2008

(Doo doo do duh) Spir-it of America,
(Ahh hah huuhhhh) Spir-it of America
(hah hunh huh hhu-unn-hnnn) Spir-it of America…

The Bonneville Salt Flat had seen some strange things
But the strangest thing yet was a jet without wings
Once there’s a jet it played in the stars
But now on the ground, is the king of all cars

(Ahh hah huuhhh) Spir-it of America, Spir-it of America
(ha hah huuhhhh) (Ahh hah huuhhhh) Spir-it of America,
(hah huh ha-ha-ha-unn-uhh) Spir-it of America

Half airplane, half auto, now famous worldwide
The ‘Spirit of America’ the name on the side
The man who would drive ‘er, Craig Breedlove by name
A daring young man played a dangerous game

(Ahh hah huuhhhh) Spir-it of America, Spir-it of America (hah hah hhuuhh) (Ahh hah huuhhhh) Spir-it of America,
(hah huh ha-ha-ha-unn-uhh) Spir-it of America

With a J47, a jet for his power
Craig Breedlove had averaged 407 per hour
For man and machine had given fair warn
They set a new record on that warm August morn

(Ahh hah huuhhhh) Spir-it of America,
(hah hah hhuuhhhh) Spir-it of America
(Ah hah huuh) Spir-it of America,
(ha hunh huh huh-unn-hnn) Spir-it of America

– The Beach Boys, 1963