Posts Tagged ‘Cole Coonce’

INFINITY OVER ZERO (Meditations On Maximum Velocity) by Cole Coonce: PART ONE: HESITATION KILLS

November 3, 2008
Thrust SSC, Black Rock, Nevada, 1997 (photo by Cole Coonce)

Thrust SSC, Black Rock, Nevada, 1997 (photo by Cole Coonce)

“The Smarandache Hypothesis asserts that there is no speed barrier in the universe and one can construct speeds up to the infinite.” — AUTHOR UNKNOWN

HESITATION KILLS (West Los Angeles, 1996)

November 3, 2008

“Hesitation kills,” Cuz’n Roy said, and laughed.

It’s a Friday afternoon in Los Angeles; we are weaving through stop-and-go traffic on the San Bernardino Freeway and at that moment I negotiate a ‘71 Grand Prix through carnage comprised of upscale Westsiders in Lexuses, various sport utility vehicles and mini-vans, all of which had been snagged in a collision with a freaked and crying gaggle of immigrants in a chipped, varicose blue 1982 Toyota Corolla.

I see the pileup continue to metastasize so I punch the throttle, aiming the massive 2-ton projectile of Detroit steel bang on into the center of the chaos, which now resembles the entrance to a dark star. The eyelids on all four barrels of the carburetor open like the mouth on a porn queen and begin guzzling gasoline faster than a desert dog. Sundry automobiles continue careening and fishtailing, orbiting away from the spinning Toyota and its initial point of commotion as if by centrifugal force, creating a hole the size of a small crater that is plenty big enough for us to pass through unscathed.

In our wake I see disturbed yuppies already on cell phones to their insurers, lawyers and Immigration, speed dialing before their vehicles had fully reached a dead stop. Airbags distend like bulbous pimples and car alarms cycle in a discordant and paranoid arpeggio. Stalled automobiles point in five directions, the petals of a broken flower. Pieces of steel, plastic and colored glass litter the interstate and I keep the hammer down, with twin puffs of burnt blackie carbon punctuating our exit from the scene of this massive pileup.

“Man, this is like a bad day at a stock car race. Shouldn’t we stop?” Cuz’n Roy half-chortles.

We both know the question is rhetorical. “What?” I reply. “And get caught up in that bureaucratic nightmare? Is that what Junior Johnson would’ve done at Daytona?”

We are en route to speed trials in the Black Rock desert, northeast of Reno. With that freakshow behind us, we can concentrate on the prodigious amount of ground we are to cover on this eve. Along the way, we will partially retrace the steps of one Craig Breedlove, a land speed racer who had built the first Spirit of America jet car in his dad’s backyard in Venice in 1961. In the 1960s, Breedlove became the first guy to officially go 400, then 500, and finally 600 mph. These speeds were verified by stiff suits from a French organization, whose job description is to sign off on such esoterica. Now Breedlove was out at Black Rock, trying to reclaim the Land Speed Record from some Brits, who had held the title for over a decade. It feels right and patriotic to travel the roads Craig had taken to Bonneville in 1963, when he first achieved international notoriety and fame, stunning the motorazzi and the world at large with the first official 400 mph clockings. His goal is now 700 mph and beyond, ultimately puncturing the sound barrier itself. Mach 1. The Speed of Sound. There is no time for dicking around with cops, lawyers and insurers.

“Punch through the turbulence,” Cuz’n Roy acknowledges. “It is the right course of action at the first sign of trouble. Otherwise you’ll spill your beer.”

Punching through the turbulence. It is a time honored approach to overcoming the pitch, roll and yaw of any journey with a potential for doom and immolation. Become at one with outrageous, incomprehensible velocity and use it as your guide. Once upon a time around 50 years ago, in pursuit of Mach 1, ace fighter pilot after ace fighter pilot lost control and stuffed sophisticated military airplanes into oblivion in the Mojave desert; conversely, Chuck Yeager commandeered a Bell X-1 rocket airplane and kicked in the joystick towards the first successful supersonic flight (which is to say, he lived) by this approach: when things get weird and jittery, yank on the go-faster for more thrust. Damn the demons of chaos and instability. If you don’t you are a footnote to history and mere allegory; if you do, you bask in glory…

“Hesitation kills,” I repeat to myself. In an age of the neurotic, the paranoid and the self-absorbed, now more than ever definitive action and decisiveness are the only methods towards glory. Cuz’n Roy and I are on our way to see a guy attempt to turn Mach 1. In a car.

YOU DID MOST THINGS RIGHT

November 3, 2008

From the ridge, Cuz’n Roy and I watch what is the fastest U-turn in history. Breedlove catches a crosswind at 675 mph as his Spirit of America streamliner “Wrong Way” Corrigans itself, assuming the attitude of a rather elliptical traffic circle. Breedlove bicycles – and nearly destroys – his cherished, cherry jet car while traveling at a speed of over three football fields a second (!). While up on two of five wheels, the machine begins making a hard right towards some nearby hot springs and foothills, buzzing and nearly t-boning a motorhome parked not too far from the photoelectric timing traps, missing it by less than a “Hail Mary!” pass into the end zone.

“It looks like the Tazmanian Devil out there,” Cuz’n Roy says as Breedlove attempts to correct the precarious trajectory of his race car.

A retired couple stand on the roof of the motorhome with binoculars out and watch the streamliner kicking up dust lickety-split, the smoke of cherry-colored coals from a portable barbecue wafting past their eyes and nostrils, the acrid haze adding to the disorientation they experienced when they notice that the Spirit of America – and by extension – themselves are in serious trouble.

“Christ, Martha, look at this,” the snowbird mouths to his mate. “He’s got ‘er on two wheels and he’s heading right toward…”

He never gets the rest of the sentence out as Breedlove boogies by the startled occupants of the motorhome like a transonic rodeo rider, as Craig hangs on by a proverbial leather strap… Miraculously, nobody is hurt as the race car somehow avoids contact with the motorhome. After a banzai blast across miles of gypsum dust, Craig gets the chutes out and calms ‘er down, but the streamliner is bongoed like a skateboarder’s knee, sustaining structural damage to a right wheel fairing and the chassis.

“Hesitation kills,” Cuz’n Roy said, and laughed.

That afternoon the mood at the post-record attempt press conference is dusty and grim. I stick a micro-cassette recorder in Craig Breedlove’s gypsum-caked kisser and ask him to summarize his approach for recapturing the LSR and for going Mach 1 vis-à-vis an aerodynamic approach that seems to hasten instability at transonic speeds, Breedlove is uncharacteristically terse: “We don’t want a lot of downforce because it creates drag,” he says.

“But could your low weight, low drag, and low downforce approach, a combination rather vulnerable to powerful crosswinds, a phenomenon that is rampant in the desert outback of Nevada, is that the right way to go?”

“Anytime you walk away from a 675 mph crash, you have to say, ‘Well, you did most of the things right,'” Breedlove maintains.

“So what happened exactly?”

“In my mind, I had no thought that there was any crosswind condition whatsoever,” he says. “We had called down for wind condition earlier and it was at 1.5. The timing wasn’t ready and we already had the engine fired but they said, ‘Shut down,’ so I was all ready to go. I actually sat in the car for forty minutes waiting for the timing to get back on. We re-fired the engine and had a compressor shake, so we had to shut down and check for that – then re-lit again. In the meantime, the weather conditions had changed: It had gone from a nice, bright sunny morning to big, dark clouds and I was having trouble even seeing the course.”

I hear what Breedlove is saying, but my mind ramps up into extrapolation mode as he continues to describe that moment when a bad case of “Go! Fever” short-circuits logic… the story is as follows: with the permit to run dwindling and bad weather encroaching, Craig knew his window for making history was finite… When the SOA crew fired the J79, it developed a fluid leak and was shut down. As the crew tightened some fittings with their wrenches, a cloud cover blew in over the playa, obscuring Breedlove’s vision. He continued to wait, and kept his game face on still strapped into the cockpit. Finally, the clouds lifted and Craig could see the 13-mile black stripe, his empirical guidance system down the course… Four hours after the original time of departure, all systems were go and Craig requested another wind profile…

“There were some decisions made because of the weather closing in that were just not prudent decisions; I kind of caught up in the ‘I’ve-got-one-chance-to-do-it’ mode,” he rationalizes. “When I called Chuck just before leaving the starting line, I asked was the course clear because we had a problem with policing the course, when Charlie came on and said the wind was at one-five, I thought, ‘One-five, okay… one-point-five.'”

In his zeal to go 700 mph Craig inserted a decimal point in the wind profile… He interpreted the transmission as “1.5” not “15” mph. The profile of Breedlove’s latest speed machine could withstand a crosswind of one-point-five mph. But a gust of 15 miles an hour blew his precious rig around like a corrugated styrofoam cup tossed out of a passenger-side window. “The omission of the decimal point didn’t click,” Craig concludes. “I didn’t know that I had the sidewind. I was confused. I wouldn’t have run had I known what the wind was.

“The other problem, of course, was that the car was much faster than we had anticipated. (I was) trying to watch where my mile-marker was, trying to look at a digital speedometer the size of a postage stamp and back off the afterburners while trying to figure how long I need to stay out of the engine and when I could go back in.”

When the car tipped up on its side and went into a skid, “I had dirt in the windshield, and I really couldn’t see what was happening… I thought I’d probably had it, that this was going to be it.”

I click off the recorder, shake my head and thank Craig for his time.


One observer – a desert rat who watched the entire spectacle through a telescope and was eavesdropping on the interview – says to me after I shut down off the micro-cassette that, “Craig’s lucky he wasn’t smashed into quantum foam” and then drifted off into the eye of an oncoming sand storm.

Meanwhile: Richard Noble, Andy Green and SSC were frantically evacuating the flooded desert in Jordan, as a monsoon nearly wiped out their entire operation.

The next available permit for speed trials in the Black Rock Desert would be in September, 1997.

Cuz’n Roy and I drove back to Los Angeles.

INFINITY OVER ZERO by Cole Coonce: PART TWO: PICK YOUR PART

November 3, 2008
Bob's Pawn Shop (photo by Cole Coonce)

Bob's Pawn Shop (photo by Cole Coonce)

THE DEVIL AND THE L.A. TIMES (1996)

November 3, 2008

On the last day of August in 1996, Top Fuel dragster driver Blaine Johnson was killed while setting Low Elapsed Time at the National Hot Rod Association’s U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, Indiana. The very next morning, innocently enough, I began eating my Cheerios and reading an account in the L.A. Times Sports pages on Johnson’s demise. I was trying to come to grips with his death and glean some meaning in his passing, and I scoured the newspaper for details that I may have missed from a televised account on Channel 5 the night before.

(At one time I was an avid consumer of newsprint, but I had pretty much given up on the L.A. Times and its increasingly dismal attempt at credibility at reporting much of anything, which has continued to nosedive into timid, insipid infotainment. But I felt handcuffed at this point: I needed news about Blaine’s final ride in a fuel dragster he campaigned with brother, Alan, and there was only one credible source… So I walked down to the “_9¢ Store“ (one of the numbers actually fell off the store’s marquee) at the corner mini-mall, plucked down $1.62 for a Sunday Times and got on with my breakfast.)

The newspaper had less to say than what I already knew: the motor exploded in the timing traps, taking out a rear wing that helped stabilize the dragster traveling at a speed well above 300 mph. The right rear slick was also punctured, further hampering Johnson’s ability to keep his maximum velocity missile under control. Until it impacted the guardrail Johnson was driving it like a champion, givin’ ‘er rudder and literally and figuratively drivin’ the wheels off. By punching out in such triumphant fashion, his tragic death was a poetic statement, with an poignancy worthy of Shakespeare.

That the engine came apart like a cheap watch was a wry, unexpected occurrence. Indeed, in an age when deep pockets rule and voracious parts consumption is standard operating procedure in drag racing, it was quite refreshing to witness the way the relatively bucks-down Alan and Blaine Johnson campaigned a Top Fuel car: theirs was a very tight and clean crusade — which is to say, maximum performance underscored by a lack of part failures. Had Blaine not been killed, the taking of the NHRA Points Title was a given for this team — on a budget that was chump change in comparison to most of the hitters in Top Fuel, teams for whom grenading an engine at the end of each pass down the 1/4 mile drag strip was basically part of the tune-up…

Unfortunately, there will be no asterisk next to the name of 1996’s eventual Top Fuel Champion in the record books – y’know, “such-and-such won their first Top Fuel title after the provisional Points Leader was killed in action at Indianapolis.” Nor should there be — but in my heart Blaine Johnson was the last Top Fuel Champion. His accomplishments resonate because his team – mostly a down home family operation – slayed the competition with intellect, perseverance, and ingenuity.

But now he was dead. Blaine died as a hero, and he set Low E.T. of the meet on the pass that killed him. His efforts were noble, and his performance that day showcased his virtue — ironically, as he died. And news of Johnson’s death was front page fodder for the L.A. Times Sports Section, which was appropriate. The Times’ coverage of Blaine’s final moments at the US Nationals was certainly takable enough. It was treated with dignity and respect and even if it was a little skimpy on details, what particulars were proffered were more or less correct – a rarity amongst the straight press when it came to covering matters of horsepower.

In this same issue of the newspaper, packaged among the coupons for designer yogurt, twinkies on a stick and other such rot, was a glossy magazine that smelled.

I mean it stunk. Literally. The L.A. Times Magazine was loaded with perfume ads that actually admitted a syrupy odor slightly reminiscent of angel food, anesthesia and kerosene.

The cover story that was even more offensive than the perfume coating and was equally difficult for the reader to endure. The title said it all: “The World’s Fastest Car? If You Can’t Buy it Why Should You Care?” I feared a smug, supercilious account of the impending Land Speed Record wars between Craig Breedlove, Richard Noble, and the American Eagle-1 by some journalist with a byline that read “Bill Sharpsteen.”

“… Zipping over a desert track, no matter how fast, has lost much of its heroic aura. When (Craig) Breedlove first strapped a jet engine to three wheels in 1961 and two years later broke the speed record at 407 mph on Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats, it was a wonderful novelty in both daring and backyard engineering.

“Now, it almost seems quaint. Flame-belching cars built to boast one man’s – ah – engineering prowess over another’s aren’t that impressive anymore; they’re just loud. A car equipped with a surplus jet engine seems crude compared to the infinitely swift, silent power of a Pentium computer chip. These days, the competition for a land speed record looks more like Neanderthal breast-beating than a celebration of ingenuity. ‘Setting the land speed record is not going to save the world,’ Breedlove concedes. ‘It’s just a contest to go out and have the world’s fastest car.’

“But then, pursuing land speed records has always been a fringe activity at best… The drivers made the record books, but they rarely gained lasting fame. ‘How many people even know what the [current] record is?’ asks Road & Track senior editor Joe Rusz. ‘I don’t, and I’m in the business.’

“That’s not to say we couldn’t be interested, but it would take a fundamental shift in the Zeitgeist. We’ve had our share of space shuttles and stealth fighters, not to mention an unrelenting bombardment of statistical trivia — from box office grosses to record high temperatures — in the daily media. Too, speed itself has become such a part of life that it would be nice if someone instead came up with a way to slow things down. The fastest car? What’s the rush?” — Bill Sharpsteen, CAR CULTURE: THE FASTEST CAR IN THE WORLD, IF YOU CAN’T BUY IT, WHY SHOULD YOU CARE?, Los Angeles Times Magazine, September 1, 1996

I absorbed Fag Sharpsteen’s story on the imminent assaults on the Land Speed Record (the first LSR attempts in thirteen years), and I wiped my fingers. There was a real stench to this guy’s work. I felt sick. Yet again, purveyors of unbridled thrust and horsepower such as Craig Breedlove were being treated as quaint freaks by some glib journalist. The writer was unable to grok the raw desire that propels visionaries such as Breedlove. The desire to reach Mach 1 on land is bold and outrageous; the related technology is the embodiment of grace and elegance.

The writer also failed to grasp that in such speed-demon endeavors things can go horribly wrong: At Mach 1, shock waves almost certainly send the vehicle careening out of control at around 740 mph. The very possibility of failure makes these efforts interesting and provocative. People die. Frank Lockhart. John Cobb. Athol Graham. Glen Leasher. Donald Campbell.

Now Blaine Johnson was dead on the drag strip, Craig Breedlove could be next on a dry lake bed and Bill Sharpsteen was a buffoon… His prose stunk like his magazine. I found his account to be emblematic of why I had already 86’d the L.A. Times out of my life. I had enough, so I fired off an e-mail to the L.A. Times Magazine.

Subject: The Fastest Car in the World
Date: Sun, 01 Sep 1996 12:35:36 +0000
From: Nitronic Research (colecoonce@nitronic.com)
To: latmag@latimes.com

Although generally appalled at the boosh-wah, latte-addled, hip, smug and ironic tone that infests the pages of your magazine, I did happen to notice a story on what is perhaps the most noble endeavor of the decade: Driving at the speed of sound on land. As an advocate of the pursuit of horsepower, I was torqued by the writers dismissive take, as well as the sub-headlines accompanying the story (“Yawn” and “If you can’t buy it, why should you care?”).

Oy vey — Your article on the Land Speed Record wars is emblematic of the blase, cynical hack work that passes for feature-article journalism today. Bill Sharpsteen’s assertion that “a car equipped with a surplus jet engine seems crude compared to the infinitely swift power of a Pentium computer chip” showcases how clueless the writer really is. The pursuit of Mach 1 by visionaries such as Craig Breedlove, Richard Noble, et.al is bold and outrageous — the shock waves will almost certainly send the vehicle careening out of control at between 740 and 765 mph — and should be applauded as such. Sending a mocha-sipping West L.A. “reporter” to cover a story of this magnitude is tantamount to asking a porno actress to explain how research on subatomic particles might reveal the essence of life. I.e., they just don’t get it.

The pursuit of Mach 1 on land is the embodiment of grace and elegance — not “Neanderthal breast-beating” like Sharpsteen mentions. And what the L.A. Times Magazine and its copy chimp missed in its glib post-modern attempt to dismiss the LSR efforts as Robert Bly with missile for a penis, is this: At the height of exalted elegance things can go horribly wrong. That’s what makes these LSR efforts interesting and provocative. There is a nobility in accomplishment, as well as in failure. What is Mr. Sharpsteen trying to accomplish?

Also what was missing from the LSR piece was this: Unlike the endeavors of NASA, JPL, Northrop (or even the National Endowment of the Arts), this attempt at technological triumph is financed privately — not a tax dollar in sight. Nada.

When Breedlove and Noble make their epochal record attempts at Black Rock, NV later this month, please Mr.Sharpsteen, stay here in Los Angeles with your laptop and report on something more your speed: Say, a Westside performance artist pouring chocolate syrup on her unmentionables (as a metaphor for the human condition, of course) and, ooh, what a travesty it is that her NEA grant was denied. (Just make your sure the valet didn’t nick your Lexus and don’t spill your mineral water, Bill… ) — Cole Coonce

I wasn’t the only person to fire off a poison letter in anger. Coincidentally, and unbeknownst to me, BZ had also read the L.A. Times Magazine that day and was equally torqued. The juxtaposition of the Blaine Johnson obit and Sharpsteen’s piss-take was enough to fire me up; BZ was inspired by something that I had printed out off of the internet and mailed to him, a fanciful fable about a kid in the desert who stumbled across some forgotten JATO missiles and a beater of a Chevy Impala…

[Collected on the Internet, 1996] The Arizona Highway Patrol was mystified when they came upon a pile of smoldering wreckage embedded in the side of a cliff rising above the road at the apex of a curve. The metal debris resembled the site of an airplane crash, but it turned out to be the vaporized remains of an automobile. The make of the vehicle was unidentifiable at the scene.

The folks in the lab finally figured out what it was, and pieced together the events that led up to its demise.

It seems that a former Air Force sergeant had somehow got hold of a JATO (Jet Assisted Take-Off) unit. JATO units are solid fuel rockets used to give heavy military transport airplanes an extra push for take-off from short airfields.

Dried desert lake beds are the location of choice for breaking the world ground vehicle speed record. The sergeant took the JATO unit into the Arizona desert and found a long, straight stretch of road. He attached the JATO unit to his car, jumped in, accelerated to a high speed, and fired off the rocket. The facts, as best as could be determined, are as follows:

The operator was driving a 1967 Chevy Impala. He ignited the JATO unit approximately 3.9 miles from the crash site. This was established by the location of a prominently scorched and melted strip of asphalt. The vehicle quickly reached a speed of between 250 and 300 mph and continued at that speed, under full power, for an additional 20-25 seconds. The soon-to-be pilot experienced G-forces usually reserved for dog-fighting F-14 jocks under full afterburners.

The Chevy remained on the straight highway for approximately 2.6 miles (15-20 seconds) before the driver applied the brakes, completely melting them, blowing the tires, and leaving thick rubber marks on the road surface. The vehicle then became airborne for an additional 1.3 miles, impacted the cliff face at a height of 125 feet, and left a blackened crater 3 feet deep in the rock.

Most of the driver’s remains were not recovered; however, small fragments of bone, teeth, and hair were extracted from the crater, and fingernail and bone shards were removed from a piece of debris believed to be a portion of the steering wheel.

BZ had been particularly smitten with the romanticism of this apocryphal incident, internet myth or no. Something about that story really rang true; its theme about bored kids using the obsolete detritus of the military industrial complex as a means for outrageous speed was a motif that could have been inserted into most of the Land Speed Record attempts since the days of Henry Ford and Barney Oldfield; Malcolm Campbell, George Eyston and John Cobb all used military technology, albeit in the form of piston-driven aircraft engines… Breedlove, Arfons, Gabelich and others had set the Land Speed Record with some parts and pieces from jets and rockets that the military had abandoned.

Yes, the tale of the impaled Impala was a post-industrial archetype of the Jungian persuasion, BZ reckoned… vintage Detroit steel coupled in some manner of technological miscegenation with abandoned instruments of destruction left rotting in the cracked and weathered landscape of the American desert.

The implications of the internet fable were manifold, and somehow in his letter to the Times BZ managed to wire in this tale as a sort of hyper-metaphor, replete with tangential references to particle physics as a mental construct; the megalomania of Nikola Tesla; William Blake; and the National Science Foundation.

So, while on his lunch break at a Denny’s, BZ scrawled a letter to Sharpsteen on a page out of a Big Chief tablet he kept handy and often used for spontaneous scribbling and the drawing of five-dimensional topographic knots and such. After his shift ended, he faxed it from a Kinko’s in Burbank to the L.A. Times. He told me a smear of Denny’s marmalade had stuck to the paper and the letter had to be run through their fax machine a couple of times before the transmission was consummated because the paper kept jamming. A small disturbance developed when the employee wanted him to pay for multiple faxes due to the repeated paper jams, but BZ insisted he only had to pay for completed faxes and not mere attempts.

A week later the L.A. Times Magazine ran his letter, on the same day they ran mine. I found this more than ironic as BZ and I often had picnics in the junkyard together, and here we were, the both of us occupying the Letters Page in the L.A. Times Mag

Regarding Bill Sharpsteen’s dismissal of Craig Breedlove’s attempt to break the sound barrier in a car, it is true that the technological genius of this country long ago abandoned such romanticism and sensibly applied itself to the commercial manufacture of smart bombs and Chrysler mini-vans.

Utility is Sharpsteen’s criterion: technology must be purified of “Neanderthal breast beating.” Similar arguments killed the super conducting Super Collider. It started to look more like megalomania than physics. It blurred aesthetics and technology — what does it mean to argue whether the universe is fundamentally symmetrical or asymmetrical? What VALUE is a seventy-mile tunnel built to smash infinitesimal objects that may or may not be objects at all, but figments of mental cognition?

Nikola Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower was mothballed when similar questions arose. The investors realized that the gargantuan bee-hive structure had everything to do with Goethe’s “Faust” and little to do with “wireless transmission of power.” Tesla left his radio patent for Marconi to steal, sold the Alternating Current patent for cash and got bored with dual resonating circuits in 1898: circuits which are the basis of Sharpsteen’s Pentium computer.

Faustian overreachers are less concerned with practical applications than excess of the sort that William Blake claimed led to the “palace of wisdom.” Their era ended with the rise of the military-industrial complex and the National Science Foundation. And so we are left with Breedlove and the kid who reportedly strapped a military rocket to his vintage Impala and smashed into an Arizona cliff at 300 mph.

Of such gestures Blake wrote “There is a moment in each day that Satan cannot find.” Breedlove’s moment will be lost upon those who find sense or profit in it. The value of his run is measured not by the corrupted yardstick of technological progress; It is measured to the degree to which the L.A. Times doesn’t get it. — Bradford Zukovic