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 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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