Posts Tagged ‘Los Angeles’

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.



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 2, 2008

The phone call comes from Shell Oil’s media power center in West Los Angeles. It is the day after Labor Day, 1997. The voice on the other end, an oil company’s flak who apparently had drawn Craig Breedlove as his assignment, is clueing me in as to how, beginning tomorrow and after a year long hiatus following the 675 mph mishap, the speed trials are back on for the Spirit of America at the parched alkali of Black Rock, Nevada. It is official, the first proper supersonic Land Speed Record attempts are a green light. I am to get credentialed tomorrow at a hotel in Reno, NV, whereupon Craig Breedlove will rendezvous with the press and lead a caravan out to the desert like some latter-day man-machine Mohammed. At the press conference he will explain the modifications and improvements administered to a land speed machine that had become unstable and crashed at transonic speeds.

In the days following Breedlove’s 1996 near-calamitous daredevil act – near the speed clocks, Breedlove got out of the groove and began bicycling his sleek J79 jet engine-powered manned missile like a circus act, the 5-wheeled vehicle riding on the front tire and one rear wheel rolling and yawing off course until it made an abrupt right hand turn and was aimed at some Snowbird-types in an RV (by the grace of the All-Knowing, by a whisker had Breedlove missed torpedoing these senior citizen motorheads who had hoped to witness history, not aware that unwittingly they had almost become new members of the Good Sam’s Club in the Sky) – the more dubious members of the motorsports press had surmised that Breedlove’s speed was closer to 475 mph.

“Performance incentive clauses” was the phrase bandied about by these cynics, in reference to the reality that Craig would need beaucoup greenbacks from his sponsors to repair his exotic race car. The only confirmation of the actual speed of the vehicle as it became unstable came from the Spirit of America itself. (Breedlove showed data from the run which corroborated his speed, apparently.)

Whether the streamliner was traveling at 475 mph or 675 mph was rather moot; the Spirit of America had failed to reach its objective of reclaiming the Land Speed Record from the clutches of the British in general and Richard Noble, Order of the British Empire in specific. The recent improvements to the race car’s contour promised to render ‘er even sleeker than last year’s model, a design which already resembled an arrow from the quill of the Pauites.

There were also conflicting reports about whether Craig intends to crack the sound barrier or if his intent is to get the car up to trans- and sub-sonic speeds, and then remove himself out of the hot seat, install a remote controlled drone system and then go supersonic.

In other words, there was a chance that when the Spirit of America went Mach 1, it may not have a driver.

To get the skinny, the publicist tells me, I have to be at the Reno press conference by noon tomorrow. The flak kindly asks me to be sure to include references to Shell Oil in the article on Breedlove I was to pen for HOT ROD Magazine. I assume he means in relation to its continued patronage of Breedlove’s increasingly-streamlined fuselage, a relation that dated back to 1962, and not its recent alleged complicity in the political assassination of Ken Saro Wiwa and genocide in Nigeria, when some of the locals were less than happy with what they considered exploitation… Ultimately, notions of tyranny and subterfuge in the Third World are now dormant in my mind. The important thing is that the Grunions are Go! The Land Speed Record is about to be raised…

The hour is late… I have just enough time for loading a camera bag with lenses and a half dozen plastic canisters of Ilford, cramming some clothing and toiletries into a shoulder bag, brewing up a thermos of Cafe Bustello, jumping in the Batmobile so’s to make time to the Burbank Airport, throw a credit card down on an airline counter and catch a plane to Reno.

Because of the haste and my appearance, I would fit the profile of a terrorist: unshaven, jittery, amped on caffeine, paying with a credit card and demanding to be put on an airplane that was just about to taxi… but that routine would be repeated often during the next six weeks or so and was part and parcel of chasing the Land Speed Record, I would find out that Richard Noble’s adage about “Going fast is slow business,” is not accurate: it is slow business with a co-efficient of chasing airplanes.

My journey would only take a few hours. In Newtonian terms, the Land Speed bunch had taken an eternity to arrive at this moment; in four-dimensional respects, an infinity.