In 1983 Richard Noble turned 633 mph at Black Rock and reclaimed the LSR for Great Britain in his Thrust 2 jet car, taking it away from the late Gary Gabelich, who clocked a 2-way speed average of 622 mph in a hydrogen-peroxide powered rocket in 1970. Noble’s conquest struck a raw nerve in Craig Breedlove’s craw – and in his sense of patriotism. As Noble had tea and crumpets with the Queen, Breedlove immediately began drawing eyelid diagrams of a third-generation Spirit of America he felt was sleek enough to not only enable him to procure the LSR but also slip through the last great barrier: Mach 1.
But to sell his dream to America and to his sponsors, Craig needed an adversary like Ike needed Khrushchev. So he approached the then-LSR record holder, Noble, and confided in him his aspirations towards conquering the Sound Barrier. Noble took the bait. Immediately both men jettisoned their relatively prosaic lives – Breedlove was now a realtor, Noble was now marketing recreational aircraft – and focused all of their energies towards their new goal.
A funny thing happened en route to the epochal “Duel In the Desert ‘97” in the Great American Southwest, however…
You see, both Breedlove and Noble had ambition but were lacking three other elements critical to his success: 1)Venture capital; 2) A crew; 3) A design for a vehicle that would somehow subvert the laws of physics and aerodynamics as applied to the turbulence inherent in supersonic travel – forces which would most likely launch and/or shred the vehicle and its driver. For in a steed traveling at that speed some of the pressure and shock waves which would envelop the vehicle would have no way to diffuse themselves as they hit the floor and then reverberated UNDER the vehicle, acting like a 750 mph catapult. As Noble himself described it, “At Mach 1, you’re either on the ground or you’re ten miles in the air at a force of 40 g’s.” Blimey.
So, yeah, Noble sets off to meet the esteemed Ken Norris, co-designer of Donald Campbell’s revolutionary Bluebird CN7 LSR machine, to explain his plight, i.e. that he had the “want to’s” real bad but no design team nor plan. And in a crucial and profound stroke of luck, Norris’ earlier appointment, Ron Ayers (a retired guided missile designer from the Brit military-industrial complex who is as renowned in his field as Noble and Norris are in theirs), is caught in crosstown traffic and arrives at Norris’ digs the same moment as Noble.
Before the chance encounter with Noble, Ayers had no desire to design a Mach 1 motorcar (and very little interest in motorsports in general). “My immediate reaction was to distance myself from the project,” is how the elderly, erudite, avuncular aerodynamicist recalls the moment that Noble pitched him the project. “To drive at supersonic speeds would clearly be extremely dangerous, and indeed, it could well be impossible. I pointed out to Richard that even keeping the car on the ground would be extraordinarily difficult.” But Noble knew fresh meat when he saw it, and commenced dog-and-pony-showing his way into Ayers’ id and sense of purpose. Suffice it to say, Ayers became the Thrust SuperSonic Car’s first conscript – and its prime architect.
Indeed, the next day Ayers went to his garden, got out a pad and pencil and began free associating… “How can we keep a motorcar stable as it passes from the transonic to supersonic speeds…” Ayers continued to sketch and Thrust began to take shape. “… it will need two jet engines, not for thrust but for weight, drag and downforce… they will have to live on either side of the cockpit…” His approach to cannonballing through the turbulence of Mach 1 was an aerodynamic application tantamount to the bigger hammer method. “… we will not finesse this per se, but punch through the sonic barrier… the center of gravity must be forward, but no so fore that it actually burrows into the desert floor and resurfaces in Eurasia…” “Everything that isn’t lift is downforce…” The only logical shape this beast could assume was the bastard, mutant spawn of the Batmobile and Lockheed’s SR-71 Blackbird spyplane – i.e., the gnarliest, baddest contraption to attack the jet stream since the Cold War ended. It was gorgeous.
And for all its designed inefficiency, it was practical. Richard Noble concurred emphatically with Ayers’ take on attacking Mach 1. “The key thing in this is stability,” he told me out on the playa. “Anybody can stick a jet engine on a chassis and light the fuse. Ron and I sketched out something and we thought, ‘My God, this is really rather good. This could work very well. Right: twins engines, aluminum wheels’ and then Ken (Norris) says, ‘There is no room for steering’ – and it started to build from there.”
(You can imagine the conversation amongst SSC’s design team: “Yeah, Ron it’s bitchin’ – but where do we put the torsion bars?” In an epiphany, SSC Chief Mechanical Designer Glynne Bowsher – one of a succession of aerospace hitters hornswoggled by Noble and intrigued by the notion of breaking the sound barrier on land – concludes that in order to shoehorn a steering system between the framerails, SSC must turn by the two in-line rear wheels. Talk about form follows function…)
Thrust SSC was housed in a spare hangar in Farnborough, UK, the locale of the what, in essence, is the British Skunk Works (in other words, the hangars for her Royal Majesty’s stealth and supersonic aerospace programs). Suffice it to say, the bulk of the SSC engineers who became intoxicated with Noble’s dream already knew where Farnborough’s commissary was well before Noble approached them for help…
As the design came to life at Farnborough Airfield, Noble canvassed the breadth of the Jolly ‘Ol, banging on boardroom doors for financial support and hosting seminars at campuses and air shows in order to recruit a pit crew. Interestingly, his stirring pitches appealed to the hoi polloi more so than the suits in the corridors of power. The hoi polloi formed the Mach 1 club – “give us a few quid, drop what you’re doing and come with us to America to break the sound barrier” – and was another indispensable element to the Thrust SSC’s eventual success.
And finally, another crucial element was in place. That is, Noble’s choice for a shoe: A softspoken-yet-buff, dashing, Royal Air Force pilot named Andy Green whose physique, psyche, and demeanor were ideal for the project. Indeed, Andy Green could have been culled straight outta’ Central Casting. The team was in place.
And after some Computational Fluid Dynamics and rocket-sled testing “confirmed” (at least in the virtual sense) Ayers’ theories on supersonic travel, the vehicle was completed. But before the conquering of Mach 1 in America was to commence, the team trudged off to an RAF air base in the Al Jafr desert in Jordan during November of ’96 for some shakedown runs, with the blessing of ol’ King Hussein. Testing the synergy of all systems on this technological marvel commenced: Computerized suspension, telemetry, satellite uplinks, communications, aluminum wheels, rear wheel steer, twin Spey 202 turbofan engines, support vehicles, etc.
(The active suspension was perhaps the most crucial piece of software and hardware. Calculations by some of SSC’s engineers warned that if the vehicle’s angle of attack relative to the earth’s surface varied by even one quarter of a degree, driver Andy Green would have been launched upwards of 1000 feet… a potential altitude that would have dwarfed Paula “Miss STP” Murphy’s mimicking of a moon shot in 1972.)
All that was left was empiricism.
All systems seemed to be speaking to each other, but a full dress rehearsal for the upcoming mission in the Black Rock desert would have to wait for then came the prerequisite trial, error, and anguish that, if you study your motorsports history, seems to accompany all LSR efforts. In a Middle Eastern desert that is dryer than microwaved kitty litter, it rained. And rained. And flooded.
Indeed, as Ron Ayers related in retrospect: “According to the weather statistics, November should have the ideal combination of moderate temperature, low wind, low precipitation, and few dust storms.” It was, in fact, quite the antithesis. The Thrust SSCer’s arrival at this arid Middle Eastern desert was akin to fording a river: At the air base where Thrust was stationed the flooding was moving so fast that it appeared to be pushing stones ahead of it. Finally, Glynne Bowsher pointed out that the stones were actually floating camel droppings…