Posts Tagged ‘land speed record’


November 3, 2008

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.



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.


November 3, 2008

The brevity of Craig’s tenure in Pomona back in those days had little to do with engineer’s caps. It had to do with vision. Ingenuity and a dream. It was to reclaim the Land Speed Record for America, something that hadn’t happened in over thirty years previous, since April 22, 1928 the date on which Ray Keech turned a two-way average speed of 207 mph at Daytona Beach in a jalopy with three Liberty v-12 airplane engines (and the year before he won the Indy 500).

From the 1930s on, the LSR had been the domain of British aristocrats and playboys who – as often as not – were knighted for their efforts by the King and the British Empire for achieving speeds of 300 mph and beyond.

The irony is that when Breedlove conceived of the Spirit of America, he had to turn his back on Detroit in order to bring his vision of American ingenuity home. To his way of thinking, nothing that had its origin on the drafting tables of the automotive sector would get the job done. He needed some serious propulsion in order to reach 400 mph way back then, and his design required the kind of power that only a military jet could provide… Sure, he once took a chopped and channeled ’34 flathead Ford and modified it for extreme speed, setting records out at the dry lake beds when he was, in his own words, a “punk kid.” But really, even as he dabbled on the drag strip and recorded speeds approaching 180 mph in Peters & Frank’s gasoline-powered Freight Train in ‘62, he was already otherwise occupied with leftover thermodynamic devices discarded by the military industrial complex, beginning in 1959 when he procured a “spare” J47 engine out of a fighter plane that had been destroyed in the Korean War. (Craig bought the engine (sans afterburner) from a technical school for $500, where it was being used as a study aid for technical design.)

But still, 400 mph or not, the swapping of a proper hot rod for a turbojet-powered “stovepipe” dubbed the Spirit of America was heresy. Anathema. Betrayal. He was a drag racing Iscariot. The more closed minded members of the hot rod community were aghast.

“I used to race Breedlove on the streets on the Westside of Los Angeles,” the teetering sex machine rattles as the center of gravity of his fuel tank warbles like jello, “but that was before he climbed into that wienie roaster and went out to the Salt.”

The California sun sets over the hills just beyond the adjacent Brackett Air Field as the last pair of fuelers whisk into the impending darkness, blowing by as if they are sailing on the tradewinds of Hell. There was an awkward silence as track workers clean up the last vestiges of metallic fragments littering the top end of the drag strip.

As Roy and I swill the remaining dregs of our plastic cups, the conversation briefly 180s back to illegal drag racing on the streets of Los Angeles; kids are still grindin’ the gears on city streets, I say, albeit in Japanese cars instead of souped-up ‘34 Fords. The conversation shifts. Cuz’n Roy and I continue to riff with the railbirds about our misadventure earlier on the freeway that afternoon. I say that one doesn’t have to worry about go-cat wild hot rod hoodlums barrelin’ down to the Foster Freeze on Hawthorne Blvd. anymore. Greater civic threats are entertainment lawyers and soccer moms on the freeways with DARE stickers pasted over the one that once read BABY ON BOARD.

Apropos of nothing and for whatever reason, car alarms were going off in the parking lot again as the skinnier bleacher bum tossed another butt and shook his head. “Los Angeles is a different place now,” he mutters.


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.


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

Bob's Pawn Shop (photo by Cole Coonce)