Posts Tagged ‘Spirit of America’


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

“The receptionist at the Shell office looked a little surprised when I struggled through the door with the model case and flip charts. I told her my name was Breedlove and handed her my card. ‘I want to see Mr. Lawler, please,’ I said. With no appointment or anything, there I stood in all my splendor.

“She opened the door to his office and said, ‘Mr. Lawler, there’s a Mr. Breedlove to see you,’ and I heard this big, deep voice say, ‘Send him right in.’

“I trotted through the door with my ‘dog and pony show.’ He looked up in amazement and said, ‘you’re not Victor Breedlove.’ I later learned that Mr. Lawler had a Shell dealer named Victor Breedlove, whom he had been expecting.

“I took a deep breath and blurted out in one sentence, I think, No, sir, Mr. Lawler, I’m Craig Breedlove and I’m here to talk to you about a project that, I think, will not only benefit myself but Shell Oil Company as well, and I’m sure it will interest you because I am going to bring the world’s land speed record back to the United States after an absence of 34 years, and after many people have tried and failed, and I have the car that can do it.’

“He looked up in bewilderment, took off his glasses, and said, ‘You’ve got ten minutes.'” – Craig Breedlove’s autobiography, the Spirit of America


November 3, 2008

After the oil and broken hardware is finally mopped and broomed off the drag strip, another pair of fuel cars march down the asphalt at terminal velocity and begin shooting out pieces of burning titanium through the exhaust, a spectacle reminiscent of roman candles at a fireworks display on Independence Day. The heat generated from the explosions is quite palpable and makes one feel warm and even patriotic, in a fuzzy, non-jingoistic sense. Is this the Spirit of America? As referenced by the moniker Breedlove assigned to his speed machines that debuted on the Salt Flats in the summer of 1962? Whatever it is, it is more than apparent by the repeated extravagant and Teutonic displays of noise and fire that it is our God-given right as Americans to burn up precious metals in a public display of sensory overload and fiduciary carelessness.

“It’s amazing the stress these Top Fuel guys are subjecting these aluminum engines to,” I say to Roy, damning the dangling modifier, “… the same engines that Chrysler built for their street machines back in ‘63 or ‘64.”

Another Top Fuel car goes by on fire, burning off its parachutes.

“Too bad they melt after four or five seconds of use,” Roy laughs.

“We live in a time and place of entropy, where you can blow very expensive shit up and laugh about it – as long as you keep it between the guardrails…”


November 3, 2008

Washington, DC, October, 1997. The appetizer of nachos arrive, moments after the dispatching of the first round of margs. The salsa is white-people tepid. I am having dinner with the Curator of Technology from the Smithsonian, and we are discussing the intersection of Ernst Mach’s research in Vienna.

“Mach espoused ‘sensationalism,'” the Curator says, “the concept that sensory data – color, space, time, tone – comprise the limits of one’s world. Now, the question is: Why, when he was mainly interested in such considerations as this, was he also interested in the flow of air over moving objects at high speeds?”

“The faster you go,” I say, crisping a chip, “the fewer limits to your very existence. If color, space, time and tone are the limits of our experience, speed is a means to break through those limits.”

I lick a swath of salt off my glass. I tell him it is my understanding that Mach was studying the “bow wave” and the mysterious “bang” that happens when a bullet whistles past someone’s ear. His interest was the physiological effects of shell shock. Ergo, he ascertained that bullets were traveling at the speed of sound…

“The sound of the bullet is as damaging as the ripped flesh from the bullet,” I tell the Curator. “That is the damage of fear. I don’t know why Ernst Mach was interested in the flow of gasses over moving objects, but I do know he used a bullet.” I take a drink. “To me, the great irony is that the human-guided devices that either broke the sound barrier or gave-it-the-ol’-college-try, were bullet-shaped. The Bell X-1. The Spirit of America is shaped like an arrow. Art Arfons’ stuff is shaped like a shotgun shell.

“Whatever the example, the drivers became at one with the bullet. They became the bullet.”

We order another round of margs.


November 3, 2008

Nearby a couple of old time railbirds are smoking nails and have overheard Cuz’n Roy and I ruminating about the dueling topics of a) the absurdity of these race cars stressing a pushrod engine to 8000 rpm in four seconds; and b) the Spirit of America. One of the bleacher bums – the more portly of the two – is sporting a t-shirt with the caption, “This Ain’t A Beer Gut…This is a Fuel Tank for a Sex Machine.” He asks if we need tickets for the races for the rest of the weekend as he had extra. We tell him thanks but no thanks as we were just passing through, en route to see Breedlove attempt his supersonic record runs out at Black Rock, Nevada. We tell him that we would be on the road right now if the San Bernardino Freeway wasn’t so bollixed.

The skinnier guy chuckles, takes a pull off of his beer and relates how he and his partner knew Craig from the old days of car club gatherings on the Westside of LA, as well as when Craig himself was running dragsters out here all those years ago, back in the days before there were very many freeways, when the hot rodders congregated at hamburger stands like The 19 in Culver City (“… on the corner of Jefferson and Sepulveda,” the skinny guy said, “named after its 19 cent hamburgers”), the Clock Drive-in (“Sepulveda and Venice, across the street from the Shell Station”) or the Foster Freeze on Hawthorne Blvd. On a Saturday or Sunday afternoon they took surface streets to the sundry drag strips such as Saugus, Santa Ana, Riverside, Fontana Drag City or Pomona – that is, if they bothered to take it to the drag strips at all…

“One night at the Clock, Craig Breedlove was draggin’ it out in some guy’s 3-window deuce,” the skinnier old timer says. “Craig crashed out by the railroad tracks and just about broke his friggin’ neck…”

“He went through the roof…”

“…We thought he was dead until the guy who owned the deuce called the police and an ambulance.”

“… I can’t believe none of us went to jail.”

“After that, Craig took it to the strip,” the sex machine says. “Eventually, he ended up driving for John Peters and Nye Frank for awhile, in 1962. Two blown and injected small block Chevies. They called the car the Freight Train. The whole crew wore engineer’s hats.”

Both bleacher bums chuckle at the memory of the train engineer’s get-up.

“Craig didn’t drive the Freight Train very long,” the fat man says as he exhales on a butt and pitches his cup. “It probably wasn’t fast enough for him.”