Posts Tagged ‘Craig Breedlove’

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.

NO MORE PUSSYFOOTING

November 3, 2008

“When I drove Thrust 2 to the record in 1983,” recalls Richard Noble of his 633 mph jet car ride that reclaimed the Land Speed Record for Great Britain, “frankly, as a team we were damned lucky to get away with it. The car was within 7 mph of takeoff and with the huge dynamic pressures involved it would have gone upwards at 40G.”

Noble and his Thrust 2 machine were encroaching on the physical barrier of supersonic travel – and its incumbent aerodynamic disturbances. That would be the last campaign for a record in the subsonic speed range. From here on out, it would be a thrust-unlimited duel to Mach 1 between Richard Noble’s Thrust SuperSonicCar (driven by Royal Air Force prodigy Andy Green) and Craig Breedlove’s sleek new Spirit of America streamliner. The target speed is now the Speed of Sound – a velocity whose consequences could be fatal as supersonic shock waves would almost certainly send the vehicle careening out of control at between 740 and 765 mph. No more pussyfooting.

Suffice it to say, when the price of glory is quite possibly death you gotta’ really want to go Mach 1. It has to be in your blood. It has to be innate. For, in the same way that the laws of quantum mechanics tell us that the cosmos exploded and are in fact expanding, and the essence of this expansion is the behavior of subatomic particles, well, this same molecular information is at the root of a land speed throttle monkey’s genetic code and drives its host harder and faster, ultimately creating speed demons infected with a primeval “sickness” of “Go! Fever,” a fever that is a twisted, atavistic permutation of manifest destiny and good ol’ honky imperialism. i.e., it is what makes people try to “discover” continents, climb Mount Everest in a blizzard, run four-minute miles, design spaceships, or travel at the Speed of Sound on land. I mean, if the universe is infinite, Mach 1 is not a physical barrier after all, it is just an illusory line, right?

It was no cosmic coincidence that the Mach 1 attempts would transpire in Black Rock, Nevada, an 80 mile chunk of parched alkali as expansive as the human imagination when it knows no boundaries. Breedlove and Green would attempt to travel at Mach 1 because that is what they were born to do – it is what we were all born to do, really.

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

November 3, 2008

“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

THE ROAD TO BURNING MAN (Black Rock, 1996)

November 3, 2008

“For my next act, I will set myself a-fire,”Craig Breedlove, moments after nearly drowning in a brine pond in Bonneville while becoming the first man to travel 500 mph.

Picture this: a transmigration towards the center of being, the Pauite Spirit Land where, according to Injun’ tradition, white and red brothers had been separated at creation, Black Rock, Nevada.

Picture this: a Blind Hippie and three compatriots on the road to the Burning Man festival there, a sort of free-form techno-pagan celebration with colors and music and a giant, sky-scraping wooden effigy of a stick man set on fire as a sort of act of atonement for the sins of post-industrial America.

If the culture is to seek penance, the Black Rock desert is as good a place as any. Injun’ Conflict and conflagration, war games, amateur rocket launches and sundry manifestations of tweaked machismo have been perpetrated on this very chunk of longitude and latitude. Atonement is a nice gesture, but it’s really to ease the soul of those still breathing, as those who have vanished and vanquished have been incorporated into a landscape whose scale and magnitude renders such gestures superfluous and futile.

Still they come: in vans, cars and caravans.

Roving bands of naked percussionists – Marching Drug and Bong Corps, if you will – jammin’ on high and so blissfully oblivious to their own arrhythmia that it eventually becomes a rhythm, snake through various camps of pierced performance artists and tattooed torture artists, Fuller-ites with portable Geodesic domes (!), etc., etc.

The Burning Man. It resembles a star-shaped power line stand that supports the high tension lines cutting across the Mojave between LA and Vegas. The resurrection of a skeletal Trojan Human with nothing hidden, its structure as blank as the desert that houses it, its message empty excepting whatever meaning any one of the gatherers wants to foist upon it. And with that done, the whole thing will be set on fire, of course. These projections, like the edifice itself, which will be consumed by fire at the culmination of the festival. Woodstock meets the World’s Fair, whose finale is Jimi Hendrix electronically vomiting out the “Star Spangled Banner” while the Hindenburg immolates. Or something.

The festival is held on the Black Rock dry lake bed, a location with serious overtones of ancient civilizations of Pauite Indians and genocide, and WW II war games.

This dry lake bed is a flat ball of string with the triumphs and transgressions of Western Man and the Noble Savage he supplanted all intertwined. The spiritual, the cosmic and Western Man’s “fucked male energy” are all there… it is the only logical place to set the Man on fire and attempt to purge the sins of Modern Life and some how get right with nature.

Beyond its status as a pagan festival, Burning Man is a gesture. It is a metaphor. A reactionary statement about life at the ass end of the 20th century, whereupon technology has taken a strange turn.

The whole gag was form over function. A bio-mechanoidal convergence. The least functioning the sculpture the better. Technology is inextricably intertwined with our lives, nay, our very central nervous system(s). Thematically, Burning Man is a commentary on technology gone awry, a re-enactment of 2001, when the mainframe computer on the space station in 2001 went haywire and makes a cognitive decision to lock the pod bay doors in an attempt to deprive the astronauts of their oxygen. The astronauts were in a battle of wits with the computer and the computer was kickin’ some serious Homo Sapien ass. So anyway, Burning Man is/was a contrived attempt to dis-empower technology, to relegate it to its proper status as a tool and not the command center.

Technology is an extension of humanity, and takes the Venn Diagram one step further, it is an extension of nature. Burning Man was a contrived and somewhat precious attempt to detune technology to the basics: punch cards, strobe lights and pulse jet go-karts…

All of which is sheer spectacle and an exercise in entropy and pointlessness.

The festival ends with thousands of post-modern hippies, punk rockers and other bohemian-types wiped out on the dry lake bed. They were drugged out, drunked out, fucked out. The Man is cinders, caught in the ethereal, basso profundo winds that blow across a desert bed that one sci-fi writer referred to as “the afterlife.”

There was nothing left to burn.

The only thing left was to “pack it out.” Dutifully, the Blind Hippie begins to help clean up the trash. The next year he returns. And stays.

VESUVIUS (Pomona, 1996)

November 3, 2008

En route to Black Rock, and with the motorized class struggle in our rear view mirrors, we continue to fight our way through the crosstown traffic on the San Bernardino Freeway, arguably the most constipated thoroughfare in Los Angeles. As we pass through East LA, traffic is really beginning to tighten up and the radio man says that just beyond Pomona the freeway was an absolute parking lot. Cuz’n Roy and I take a slight detour. We go drag racing.

Top Fuel cars are running out at the drag strip in Pomona that same day, which is pretty tough for us to blow off: aye, getting dosed by nitro-powered projectiles reaching a terminal velocity of 300 mph in 4 seconds, the ground shaking like Vesuvius, buckets of raw, liquid explosives seeding the ionosphere like the Devil’s cornfield. It sure beat sitting in traffic, watching the temperature gauge needle weld itself to the red line. Once the sun set in Pomona traffic would thin to a tolerable density and we could ball the jack into San Berdoo and Barstow and continue to retrace Breedlove’s steps at night, as least as far as Tonopah, Nevada, out by the missile silos and the proving grounds of Area 51. All things considered, an afternoon at the drag races seemed like the perfect overture for a trip to the desert…

The detour makes sense on many levels, not the least of which being that Breedlove himself had raced on this very chunk of asphalt back in early 1962, shoeing a railjob propelled by two small block Chevies with pump gas for its fuel. It was a deconstructed machine known as the Freight Train, and as part of the race team’s schtick, they often wore railroad engineer’s caps in the Winner Circle. Breedlove drove the car only for a couple of weekends as a prelude to his initial Land Speed Record attempts, and well before the choo-choo hats became part of the wardrobe…

Indeed, throughout the 60s and early 70s, Breedlove used the drag strip as a test bench for various aerodynamic theories and propulsion systems, but whenever the fastest man in the world returned to the 1/4 mile asphalt, one got the feeling he was really slumming and passing time until all systems were “go” for another crack at the Land Speed Record out on the Salt Flats.

Cuz’n Roy and I park the ‘71 Grand Prix at a taco stand that stood behind the drag strip’s timing tower, hoof it a couple of blocks into the pit entrance gate, then grab some track steaks and a couple of beers and cop a squat on some aluminum seats near the finish line. Top Fuel cars come roaring by our perch in pairs at speeds of 300 mph or so (“WHHHHAAAAAAHHHHHHUUUUUUHHHHHNNTT!”) and as often as not – due to finicky track conditions and an envelope of smog that was starving these rapacious dragsters for oxygen – blow up overamped engines and propel shrapnel into altitudes of absurd elevations (“PPPOOOFFF!”). The dragsters pound the pavement with such ferocity that car alarms are triggered in the parking lot after nearly every pass. The explosions are a great spectacle, but the car alarms bum our high.

“When does that fucking noise stop?” I blurt. “Is that constant squeaking, squealing and honking the soundtrack to our entire existence nowadays?” It is the noise of fear, dread and neurosis, and it had invaded the otherwise peaceful confines of an afternoon at the drag races. It was one thing to hear the sounds after an accident on the freeway, but quite another to have it interfere with our enjoyment of gratuitous explosions at the drag strip. I take a hit off of my paper cup and tried to block the shrill sounds from the parking lot out of my consciousness.

Another fuel dragster blazes by on fire, the crew chief having miscalculated the fuel mixture and atmospheric boost levels, the infernal roar drowning out any superfluous noise from the parking lot. As flak rains from the heavens I tell Roy I feel like Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now, dodging fragments of molten metal while trying to maintain a cogent discourse. In this instance, rather than debating Duvall’s take on whether or not the Red Chinese used surfboards in Vietnam, the conversation is about the strange turn the land speed record took once Breedlove shunned the traditional internal combustion engine used by both passenger cars and Top Fuel dragsters in favor of jet propulsion that was, in essence, liberated from the trash bins of the military industrial complex.