Posts Tagged ‘Richard Noble’


November 3, 2008

“When I drove Thrust 2 to the record in 1983,” recalls Richard Noble of his 633 mph jet car ride that reclaimed the Land Speed Record for Great Britain, “frankly, as a team we were damned lucky to get away with it. The car was within 7 mph of takeoff and with the huge dynamic pressures involved it would have gone upwards at 40G.”

Noble and his Thrust 2 machine were encroaching on the physical barrier of supersonic travel – and its incumbent aerodynamic disturbances. That would be the last campaign for a record in the subsonic speed range. From here on out, it would be a thrust-unlimited duel to Mach 1 between Richard Noble’s Thrust SuperSonicCar (driven by Royal Air Force prodigy Andy Green) and Craig Breedlove’s sleek new Spirit of America streamliner. The target speed is now the Speed of Sound – a velocity whose consequences could be fatal as supersonic shock waves would almost certainly send the vehicle careening out of control at between 740 and 765 mph. No more pussyfooting.

Suffice it to say, when the price of glory is quite possibly death you gotta’ really want to go Mach 1. It has to be in your blood. It has to be innate. For, in the same way that the laws of quantum mechanics tell us that the cosmos exploded and are in fact expanding, and the essence of this expansion is the behavior of subatomic particles, well, this same molecular information is at the root of a land speed throttle monkey’s genetic code and drives its host harder and faster, ultimately creating speed demons infected with a primeval “sickness” of “Go! Fever,” a fever that is a twisted, atavistic permutation of manifest destiny and good ol’ honky imperialism. i.e., it is what makes people try to “discover” continents, climb Mount Everest in a blizzard, run four-minute miles, design spaceships, or travel at the Speed of Sound on land. I mean, if the universe is infinite, Mach 1 is not a physical barrier after all, it is just an illusory line, right?

It was no cosmic coincidence that the Mach 1 attempts would transpire in Black Rock, Nevada, an 80 mile chunk of parched alkali as expansive as the human imagination when it knows no boundaries. Breedlove and Green would attempt to travel at Mach 1 because that is what they were born to do – it is what we were all born to do, really.



November 3, 2008

April, 1996. Lincoln Square, Manhattan. Four city blocks have been cordoned off surrounding the ABC TV studios, in anticipation of a fiery display of raw thrust by the American Eagle 1 jet car, a deconstructed fighter plane of an automobile whose design goal is to reclaim the Land Speed Record of 633 mph, currently the domain of Richard Noble, a land speed record racer who also ranks as an Order of the British Empire, OBE. Television personalities Regis Philbin, Kathie Lee Gifford and their producers have signed off on the presentation of the AE-1. The racers figure a ring-of-fire dog-and-pony show on live television just might titillate some potential corporate benefactors enough to loosen its promotional purse strings. Conversely, if this stunt misfires, it could melt the plastic off of both Regis Philbin’s mug and Kathie Lee Gifford’s cleavage.

The AE-1’s cash crunch is very real… Before the team can set its sights on the Land Speed Record, it needs to find a Corporate Sugar Daddy willing to pony up 250 large – yes, one quarter of a million bones – for design changes and sundry expenses. Thus far, the car is six years and $300,000 in coming.

This is Take Two, as they say in the biz, as the day before Regis and Kathie Lee broadcast their show from the New York Auto Show and did a bit on the AE-1. In an improvised moment of inspiration and schtoink, as cameras rolled Regis Philbin climbed into the back of the cockpit of the jet car while AE-1 team members applied current to the engine. It failed to fire. On live national television. There was no jet fuel in the tanks…

The next day, however, outside of the studio, things will be different everybody says. The AE-1 is fueled up and will light sure as sunrise.

Communications, microphones and cameras are hard wired to a control room five flights up and ensconced behind glass. Coming out of commercial, down on Columbus Avenue a stage manager with an intermittently-functioning headset folds three fingers in succession and then points to the talent, who introduces the jet car’s Director of Operations. A red light glows on a handheld camera as the talent and the guest banter and make nice-nice for a few minutes with the Director of Operations explaining the team’s plight re a lack of finances hindering their ability to reclaim the Land Speed Record from the British operation that set it in 1983.

Then things get weird. In a reprise of yesterday’s coast-to-coast misfire, the jet engine won’t light. Again.

It is a cacophony of confusion and futility, with the stage manager pointing his fingers and attempting to cue the AE-1’s pit crew to light ‘er off and start making some noise with the J79 jet engine. The promotional pitch immediately degenerates into utter slapstick worthy of Buster Keaton. As power is applied repeatedly, the turbine blades spin harmlessly… a massive asses-and-elbows thrash ensues with the AE-1 crew as Regis Philbin filibusters into the camera and a spokesman for the American Eagle tap dances around the reality that Middle (and Corporate) America is watching and-here-we-are-screwing-the-pooch.

The stage manager rolls his fingers, the camera’s red light goes dark, and unbeknownst to the AE-1 squad, bumper music rolls as credits burn across the screen horizontally. Finally, after their moment in the limelight has all but passed, the engine lights and rumbles and the small team of mechanics go through the various procedures designed to elicit oohs and ahhs and wows. The coast to coast audience doesn’t hear or see the spectacle. Obliviously, the turbines plead and wail at an amplitude that would kill cockroaches in a lab experiment and if the intimation of the 48,000 horsepower isn’t enough, the driver then purges the engine’s afterburners and a 70-foot orange flame bursts aft of the deconstructed post-industrial monstrosity. Windows shatter and eardrums are permanently cauliflowered.

It is for naught. This ersatz, shambolic Gotham Götterdämmerung is a fallen tree silent in an empty electronic forest. New York City cops survey the broken glass, key their radios and shrug their shoulders while chomping on donuts or knishes and sipping coffee.

Via videotape playback, the next morning Regis and Kathy Lee relive the moment on their show, the third consecutive day the AE-1 gets national exposure. Still the money never comes.


November 3, 2008


“Everything was going well and the record appeared to be in the bag, when, suddenly, at a speed of more than 200 m.p.h., the weakened rear tire blew out… the Black Hawk swerved to the left, skidded for several hundred feet, then jumped into the air in three great leaps. (Frank) Lockhart was not strapped in, and he was catapulted out of the car. The unconscious driver was dead when he reached Halifax County Hospital. The record set by Ray Keech still stood.” – Paul Clifton, THE FASTEST MEN ON EARTH.

By the end of the 20s the back-to-back-turnaround, two-way-average-within-an-hour system is established as the criteria for holding the record. The LSR wars crank up throughout the remainder of the 20th Century with Brits Henry Segrave, Sir Malcolm Campbell, George Eyston, Richard Noble and Andy Green as well as Yanks like Craig Breedlove, Art Arfons (Walt’s half-brother) and Gary Gabelich; on flat tableaus such as the beaches of Wales, Denmark, and Daytona and fossilized badlands such as Verneuk Pan, South Africa; Bonneville, Utah; Lake Gairdner, Australia and Black Rock, Nevada.

Art Arfons, a guy who crashed at 600 mph and lived, told me over the phone that “the real trailblazers were the ones at Daytona; Eyston and Cobb and them guys.” Art Arfons also had this to say about the rich, gallant British aristocrats who broached the 200 mph benchmark, “Those men really had to be something else.”

Arfons litanized the British Land Speed Heroes, the men who had dominated the Salt as America attempted to dig itself out of its economic Depression and as it slugged it out in World War II. American involvement in the Land Speed Record had ended before the Stock Market Crash of 1929… After that, the daredevils and speed maniacs seemed more content with drag racing than the massive and expensive undertaking of an ultimate Land Speed Record…

March 1927. It is a battle of the Bluebloods. Great Brit Henry Segrave punctures the 200 mph benchmark for automobiles, clocking 203 mph on the “treacherous sands” of Daytona Beach in his Sunbeam. His source of motivation was a pair of 12-cylinder Sunbeam Matabele aircraft engines. A year later Segrave’s mark is raised by Malcolm Campbell – a rigid, regal man with an angular mug and a buzzard’s beak of a nose who claims to be a pirate in a past life but looks more like the Human Fly with his bug-eyed goggles – who clocks 206 on a pass that nearly had Ol’ Malcolm singing “Nearer My God to Thee”; while blazing across the beach at 200 mph, Campbell’s Bluebird encounters a sand ridge which serves as a catapult and launches the hapless, passive car and driver 100 feet into the air. Cowabunga! Campbell lives and splits the beach scene in search of some Salt Flats – preferably in the colonies of the British Empire – that could safely accommodate his target speed of 250 mph.


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…


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.