Posts Tagged ‘Mach 1’

THE BLUE FLAME AND THE DATING GAME

November 3, 2008

You’re saying that The Gas Company people were in Oklahoma City in ‘68 when you guys set the drag strip record?

PETE FARNSWORTH: Right, and we signed a letter of intent with the natural gas company contingent upon the fact that we could get tires from Goodyear that were capable of very high speeds.

The Blue Flame was designed to go 1000 miles an hour structurally and aerodynamically, we thought. You know, that’s speculation…

You start getting into and beyond transonic and supersonic regions and all kinds of…

PETE: Well, we wind tunnel tested the model, at Ohio State University’s wind tunnel. (We did) subsonic, transonic, supersonic (tests). And uh, so anyway we signed this letter of intent. Suba was going to be the driver. He was a super personable guy, very knowledgeable, smart as a whip, this guy was General Manager of the repair department of the biggest Buick dealership in Evanston, Illinois when he was 19 years old. Really sharp.

But anyway, two weeks after he set the 1/4 mile ET record, he jumped into a friend of his top fuel car at Rockford Dragway, to try to figure out why they had a handling problem. They couldn’t straighten it out and he got out on the edge of the drag strip and they had a 55 gallon barrel marking the end of 1/4 mile – marking the edge of the track and he clipped that with the front wheel and then totaled it.

That’s asinine.

PETE: Asinine of him to run the car that way. He didn’t know, it was only a couple of days or weeks or so after that that we got the okay about the land speed record driving and he never knew about, I mean he knew about it, he was part of the idea but the fact that we had actually gotten it.

That is so brutal. So now, so now the search is on for somebody to shoe the car and you’re thinking target speed, 850 to 1000 miles an hour.

LEAH: And the gas industry at that time, when Chuck died they wanted to pick out a driver, someone who would do TV interviews and be Mr. Gas America, it had to be someone dynamic that was going to be in favor of, they really did cooperate in the search for someone else.

Okay, so Reaction Dynamics was kind of an umbrella corporation that would exempt you guys from liability if something weird happened with a car and also maybe tax reasons too…

PETE: Tax reasons too. But um…

So the search is on for a driver, how did that go?

PETE: Well, we Dick Keller and I, both knew (Top Fuel racer) Don Garlits real well. You couldn’t ask for someone who was more knowledgeable or observant of things that was going on with a car, so he was the first choice – he was the only choice at that time, we never even thought about anybody else and Don agreed to drive it, so months went by and we got further along with the design and we were going to have a press conference with the Gas Industry in Los Angeles for the announcement – the driver and the project – and just before that happened Don called us up and said he had to back out of the deal. He said he had sponsor pressures or something, that they didn’t want him to risk his life driving this car and he was making pretty good money at that time with his various sponsorship deals and as I remember it that was mostly why he had backed out if it.

So all of a sudden here we had the press conference scheduled and nobody to drive so we quick made up a list of people who we thought might be acceptable and Danny Ongais who raced for Mickey Thompson at that time was the first one that we thought of, he was pretty versatile and a nice guy. Art Malone was on the list and Craig Breedlove and we made up a list of ten, Gabelich who we had met because he flew out from Los Angeles, he wanted to run the X-1 rocket car, after we weren’t going to run it anymore.

After we interviewed him we realized he had done an awful lot as well and he explained he worked at North American Aviation as a test astronaut and had done high altitude sky diving with the power capsule, done all sorts of stunt stuff, you know diving off Hoover Dam. He was a genuine…

… Was diving off Hoover dam was that part of his duties with North American?

PETE: No, no that was strictly a…

He had a weekend off?

(laughter)

PETE: He was an adventurer. In fact he drove the Beach City Chevrolet funny car, (note: which burned to the ground.)

He drove the Valkyrie (jet dragster).

PETE: The Valkyrie. He had run the Moon Eyes Invader, I believe at that time, the Allison-powered car that belonged to that guy who could port headwork, Jocko’s Porting Service…

Jocko Johnson – yeah.

PETE: Yeah, he drove that car out on the Salt Flats. So he had this tremendous background of experience behind him and that tying in with the Space thing, he was (Mercury Seven astronaut) Wally Schirra’s exact size and he did a lot of space checkout for Wally Schirra.

It was explained to me by somebody basically that if Gabelich survived it then it was okay for the astronauts to try it. (laughter)

PETE: Well, that may have been.

I mean, you can’t have one of the Mercury Seven getting killed before lift off…

PETE: Gabelich was a very personable fellow. Good with people, likable and uh, not a bad looking guy either. He was on the Dating Game TV show, the kind that gets the girl and he did get the girl.

LEAH: He was his own product.

PETE: Later on he became the subject on the Dating Game and the girls vied for him. So he’s already in with the TV stuff and all that stuff. We personally went to Breedlove and figured he had the experience out there. He didn’t want anything to do with it because he didn’t build it and I’m the same way…

That’s just the confirmation I’m looking for because Craig told me that you guys went to him and somebody else said that he was not even in the loop.

PETE: Oh no, (after Garlits) he’s the first one we went to.

Excellent. So was his Goodyear sponsorship a conflict of interest?

PETE: Well, the way he explained it that he didn’t design and build the car, he didn’t want to drive it. And we had no idea what he would want in the way of money cause he had already been running you know, he had held the record at that time, why should he break his own record, you know there was all sorts of reasons.

But that was part of Shell Oil and Goodyear’s thing, too, you know “you’re the first to go 400, 500, 600 mph; you haven’t reaped the benefits of the 400, 500, 600 yet.” He explained to me it would be prudent for him, because he wanted to go Mach 1, his car was called Sonic One at the time and – it would be beneficial for him to have an adversary who took the record away – and then…

LEAH: He could get the sponsorship to come back with his own glory instead of ours…

PETE: So anyway he basically turned it down. Next we went to Mickey Thompson to talk to (funny car driver) Danny Ongais and uh, Mickey wouldn’t even let us talk to Danny.

“My guy.”

PETE: That’s right, he never contacted me, you know, that’s it – so we never did talk to Danny and so here we are, we’re out there in Los Angeles, no driver, so we called Gabelich. Gabelich was just tickled pink. He loved to do it. Didn’t take him long to accept and so we presented that to the Gas Industry and they met him. They decided yeah, this guy can handle the job as far as the p.r. end of it, from there we had our press conference and we all went back to work and Gary was our driver.

I remember the Purple Gang Top Fueler that he drove with the big purple plumes and kind of the feathers coming out of the crash helmet.

(laughter)

PETE: Say if you don’t mind I’m going take a couple of more pieces…

(TAPE ROLLS OUT)

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MISHAP AT BLACK ROCK! (1996)

November 3, 2008

The morning is superficially calm. A palpable tension tightens amongst the spectators and the engineering types milling about the barren floor of the dry lake bed. Once or twice the Spirit of America’s jet engine spools up and purge its afterburners and then shuts down. There is an aura of confusion around the streamliner as it sits in its staging area for hours, all the while with Craig Breedlove suited up and strapped into the womb-like cockpit of his homemade missile. Desert winds begin to kick up dust and storm clouds blew in and cast a pall on the entire landscape. The mood seems to darken with the weather, which acts as a tangent to the reality that the Spirit of America’s permit from the government expires in a couple of days…

MISHAP AT BLACK ROCK! Breedlove’s Record Attempt is Off! (Nitronic Research Wire Service)

Black Rock, NV. October 28, 1996 – While attempting to break Richard Noble’s Land Speed Record of 633.468 mph, Craig Breedlove’s Spirit of America jet car crashed and was severely damaged. The attempt took place two days before his Bureau of Land Management permit to use the Black Rock desert expired.

On the first leg of the required back-to-back runs, Craig was well on his way to breaking the record, which is based upon two timed one-mile averages, when at a speed of an estimated 675 mph a burst of wind lifted the back of the car and pushed it up onto one side. Major damage was inflicted on the rear axle and rear frame of the car. Craig was unhurt, but obviously disappointed to be so close to the LSR after many years of research and development with his GE J79 powered vehicle.

The car will be brought back to the team’s compound in Rio Vista, CA to assess the damage and make repairs, but it appears unlikely that another attempt at the Land Speed Record could be made until early next Spring, permits allowing.

Breedlove is in the throes of a duel with Richard Noble, OBE, who is campaigning a LSR vehicle piloted by Royal Air Force “Top Gun” Andy Green, to be the first to eclipse the Speed of Sound on land. Currently, Noble and Green and their Thrust SSC twin Rolls Royce Spey jet-powered machine are testing in the Jordan desert in preparation for their impending Mach 1 effort at Black Rock.

Breedlove’s ill-fated record run was his first attempt at reclaiming the LSR from Richard Noble, the first goal en route to ultimately breaking the Sound Barrier. Breedlove uses a single J79 – capable of 45,000 horsepower – mounted on the fuselage, directly behind the driver, an engineering approach in stark contrast to Noble’s system of using twin 202 Spey turbofans, each capable of 50,000 hp, mounted on either side of the cockpit in what, in essence, is a 10-ton, rear wheel-steer Batmobile.

Breedlove’s mishap occurred after a promising day of testing the day before. He was able to hit 563 mph, but did have some trouble with the parachutes…

THE X-1, THE BLUE FLAME, REACTION DYNAMICS AND THE WORLD’S FASTEST FLOWER CHILD … A RAW TRANSCRIPT … OR … HOW I STOPPED WORRYING AND LEARNED TO LOVE THE BONE…

November 3, 2008

The X-1. The perfect nomenclature for a rocket-powered Land Speed racer. It’s moniker was appropriated from Chuck Yeager’s airplane, a piece of machinery that rode in the belly of a B-29 bomber until pod doors opened over the barren slate of the Mojave Desert, where every inch of air and space is a proving ground.

(Yeager proved that Mach 1 was not something to be feared, it was something to be penetrated. Breaking the sound barrier is an everyday occurrence for fighter planes nowadays and has even trickled down into the domain of consumer air travel in the form of the Concorde…)

In both instances, the “X” represented “experimental,” and was meant to be a precursor to the real deal: in the instance of the airplane, the X-1 was a means towards understanding and defeating the turbulence of supersonic buffeting. In the form of the rocket-powered dragster, it was an attempt at understanding exactly how much ooommmpphhh could be wrenched out of a rocket motor in a car.

The X-1 dragster (aka the Rislone Rocket) was merely a means to an end, the end being 1000 mph — well beyond Mach 1 — in a larger, more powerful vehicle: The Blue Flame.

Like Yeager, Gabelich was a hired gun, a fearless hot shot who climbed into an unfamiliar situation. (After the negotiations with another test pilot who demanded a nice chunk of change in exchange for powering through the unknown, Yeager got the rocket ride when he eschewed the need for a bump in his Army Air Corp’s pilot’s salary.) Gabelich was hired after Suba was killed in a Top Fuel dragster.

Gary Gabelich: Who was he? His reputation was that as the world’s fastest flower child. Was that accurate? This is the guy who whose parting words in a conversation were “Have a happy forever.” This is also the guy who, while driving the Sandoval Bros. Top Fuel dragster out at Fontana Drag City would greet the track photographers with “the Bone,” obscenely and mischievously sticking one finger in the air for the duration of the run…

What can you tell me about Gabelich, I mean you said he was personable and charismatic and fearless, but he was also, I mean, you guys are, you know, nice Midwestern people that uh…

PETE FARNSWORTH: The only time that we really spent a lot of time with him was at the Salt Flats. I mean he came to the Midwest here when we were fitting the car for controls, when we got everything in the right place, the window opening, you know, so that it was centered on where he was going to sit, and the depth of the seat and location of pedal controls, things like that so he could reach everything while he was strapped in. Other than that, he wasn’t out to the Midwest here very much and generally, he’d be out for a couple of days or so and we’d go and have dinner, but it was a whole bunch of people, a big happening.

LEAH: We heard that he was kind of wild in the California area when he was with his own element but that was not, he kind of segmented things, you know, he kept this group over here and this group over here and we weren’t in the group that was, you know partying with him or anything like that and so, you hear things.

PETE: When he came to the Salt Flats, he had his own contingent, you know, people that were right around him and we met a lot of them out there.

Or was there more, you know the hippie biker kind of contingent that he had with him?

PETE: I guess all of the above.

I mean without being a value judgment, it’s just that he was a different personality type.

LEAH: I would say from uh, as you said Midwest value type thing, that they were all the (clears throat) California crowd. They were from the other end of the country, you know, there’s the Midwest and there’s the California guys. No they weren’t really the hippie biker type, we had that around here, too, they were just, on a different stage, but it was…

PETE: … they were really good friends of Gary’s though, boy they’d do anything for him.

LEAH: He was very mindful of his image, because he wasn’t out there, he was the driver of the Blue Flame. That man was on from the time he got out of the car. When we went back to the motel, little kids would come up and talk to him and he’d pet their dog, he’d bend over to talk to the little old Grammas you know, get down to their level and talk to them.

PETE: Yeah, he was very good with people…

LEAH: … he could just sell everything, but…

PETE: When he got with his own group, then he did whatever they did, but we didn’t necessarily associate that much.

(stop tape)

After you guys set the LSR, Gabelich was hurt in a funny car crash not too long after that.

PETE: Yeah with the money he made driving the car, Natural Gas Industry paid him 50,000 bucks, plus they paid him for appearances too. He built the 4 wheel-drive funny car, they took it out and were testing it and he clipped the guard rail and crashed it and cut a foot off and a hand off and uh, pretty amazing that they put him back together —

Yeah there was a surgeon around that…

PETE: Yep, they threw him the car — and still in his firesuit and all the pieces — and went over there and there happened to be a neurosurgeon on duty who put him back together. As I understand he won the California State Handball, Racquetball championship after that — maybe it was for handicapped people or something, I don’t know — but just the same, you know it was pretty amazing. We had pretty much lost track of him by then.

I sent out e-mail queries to those who worked with Gabelich. Many went unanswered, a mute testament to how much his chums still respect him and continue to honor his privacy. The best and most informative reply read as follows:

I think I understand why those who knew him (to probably even the slightest degree) are “tight-lipped” about GG… it’s because we loved him.

Like all of us, he had his “failings” if you will, or his “weaknesses”… but unlike most, he was so very open about “them” (as well as everything else), with an almost child-like naivete that you could NOT help but love him and accept him with open arms… he was just Gabelich!

You’d find his picture in TWO places in the dictionary… the first is where it says “charm”… he was the most “charming” person I’d ever met! And I’m talking SINCERE charm… that is why he was so special… because if anyone ever had the opportunity to be “stuck-up” it would have been Gary, as he was “movie-star, drop-dead handsome,” famous, daring, and with a fantastic personality, he had it all.. yet he was TOTALLY unassuming, generous, and loving to EVERYONE and NOT just when he was in the spotlight… but ALL the time… what you got was the real Gary, ALL the time. With one bright white smile he’d charm your socks, shoes, pants and shirt off!

The second place in the dictionary would be where it says “fearless”… I don’t know what it was… if he actually thought he was indestructible, if he just didn’t care… or just loved doing what he did… I don’t know, but he truly had NO FEAR!

I was at Orange County International Raceway with him when he crashed… I know what really happened… but… I’m afraid that all I can do is tease the shit out of you, in that I was one of the fortunate ones who knew him and witnessed GG “events”… usually along with others, but sometimes just me and him… or me and him and a “friend” at the shop at 2 AM… He was a super-magnet to beautiful women… but he didn’t seem to overly care about the chicks… I think his “daring” lifestyle (as he did more than drive race cars… like doing stunt work in Hollywood, and being a human “guinea pig” for the Air Force… etc.) was his REAL passion…

And with that, I will have to tell you that I too will have to join the tight-lipped club, in that I can only tell those things that I can tell (and that wouldn’t be much)… the rest I will not tell, to protect him, because I loved him.

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

BEAT THE DEVIL

November 3, 2008

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.” — William Blake.

Satan (the Debbil’, Lucifer, Beezelbub, Ol’ Scratch) lurks at Mach 1. Mach 1 is a dream. The pious will tell you that when you dream, you are vulnerable to possession. To dream is a Faustian bargain unto itself.

The Devil is a phantasm of 1000 faces, but one guise is very familiar to those who are pushing speed’s envelope. Satan is a manifestation of the human impulse to defy mortality — an impulse that as often as not hastens and confirms our own mortality, I might add… This demon appears in the vaporous guise of pressure waves that develop around a projectile approaching the Speed of Sound. During and after World War II fighter pilots and test pilots talked about such a demon, a wind-whipped specter that would sprout wings, howl like a banshee, climb around and wrap itself around the aileron of their aircraft as it explored the outer reaches of stability.

Assuming that apparition was real — and ultimately tamed when the aircraft blasted through the sound barrier — does the Devil disappear when he has been found and conquered? Does he seek refuge somewhere else? In the very pages of the LA Times Magazine perhaps? In the guise of a scrivener named Bill Sharpsteen? If so, this was a preemptive move by Beezelbub, as he sensed Breedlove and Richard Noble were onto something in their pursuit of Mach 1… The Devil is a slippery bastard, after all…

“There is a moment in each day that Satan cannot find.” The moment the Devil cannot find is that same moment when the doors of perception are cleansed, and the horizons are infinite. The Devil is beaten and vanquished. It is a moment of Infinity — a moment that lasts forever and disappears in an instant. In that moment those who are mad enough to dare can wrap the entire universe into a speck of a matter a million times smaller than the head of the proverbial pin upon which a thousand angels sing… it is the mother of all metaphysical payoffs… in a Nietzschean sense, the Moment of Infinity belongs to the Human Spirit at its most Exalted…

It is a rarefied and brave being who dares to Beat the Devil and peer into both the Human Heart and the Laws of mass and velocity that truly guide the cosmos…

The devil dwells in the unknown. To beat the Devil is to claim the unknown. The Devil is beaten in the moment of Discovery. The moment when discovery becomes empirical, when unknown co-ordinates are charted. When mankind stakes a flag in the turf of mystic phenomenon. Because the pursuit of Mach 1 is nothing if not a turf war of empiricism with the Devil.

The moment Satan cannot see is the moment he shows himself. And the Devil is the very thing the Human Spirit cannot see — until the moment he spreads his wings. Only then is he conquered.