Posts Tagged ‘Thrust SSC’


November 3, 2008

(Al Jafr Desert, 1996)

“If there is a divine purpose in Jafr, it is that God has placed it on earth as a warning of what hell is like.” Howard Kent, publicist for Lawrence of Arabia.

It hasn’t rained in five years.

If it weren’t so dry, this burnt orange topography would weep from the sheer weight of its own isolation. The desert is motion in suspension and a set of quarantined coordinates whose desolation is inversely proportional to the outrageous expanse of nothingness.

Periodically – and apropos of not much – the winds gust and the sands pan across the hereafter; this is the Universe’s small way of letting this uninhabitable Outback know it hasn’t been forgotten about entirely.

But a lack of cosmic movement is the cruelest gesture of all. The silence confirms this sentiment.

Wild camels stare down spontaneous dust storms. After the winds die down, the next interruption to the parched and tedious desolation is the motorized fluttering of Bedouins crossing the desert in battered white Japanese pickup trucks. The murmur and obliquely reverberant rhythm of the camels is barely audible under the gear grinding and fishtailing of Muslims in mini-pickups. The marauding rumbling fades as the camels slowly scatter and the desert dwellers disappear into the their own dust.

When the commotion settles, the only sound remaining is the lonely brooding of bleached phosphate rock and the sulking of stone in what is the universe’s driest and least efficient echo chamber.

A Russian Antonov cargo plane unloads its burden at a military air strip not so many miles away. The Antonov is the size of an interstellar mothership. Its 75 tons of freight is an absolute Noah’s Ark of arcane hardware and machinery: diesel 6-wheeled Supacats, a fire-fighting Jaguar XJR, a portable Airshelta hangar, microlight aeroplanes and Thrust SSC, a twin-engined jet car that weighs 10 tons.

It is an ant farm of forklifts and traffic control. It is a military operation where nobody dies. In this part of the world, nobody dying is a refreshing change.

Terra firma dissolves into a horizon of dust. It buttresses a heavy, two-toned sky nine times taller than the playa itself. The dusky blues and grays of the sky hint at how cruel and unforgiving this place really is… in the center of the sky, a billowing sun is burning orange. The grays and oranges of the sky and landscape co-exist as a sort of dialectic with the two-tones hammered into a third element. A synthesis.

Despite an integration of color, there is no syllogism here, nothing to be inferred or projected, no cubed or exponential meaning extrapolated from the two elements of harsh light.

It is. It just is. The synthesis is zero. The sum, product, and exponent of the synthesis is zero. It is an anti-syllogism. Which sounds like silence, of course.

A renegade truck out of Iraq breaks the quiet. It scurries across the desert like a cockroach on a bleached snooker table. The trucker’s freight is contraband of one sort or another… it could be guns, black tar heroin or black market petrol. More than likely tobacco is the payload. Whatever the substance, it makes no never mind to the Sun as it continues its cynical sentry. Black globs of diesel exhaust puff and then dissipate, swallowed by a swollen sky.

It gets quiet again.

Off in the perimeter white smoke and dust complement a subsonic thrum breaking the silence while slowly changing pitch. The noise source is the jet car.

Eventually, flames pulse and belch out of a pair of Spey 202 jet engines. The engines are mounted on either side of the fuselage giving the race car the appearance of a spaceship on wheels. The vapors that buoy the flame are eye-watering. It doesn’t sting, so much as it sours. The fearsome and leviathan silver engine burns a cheap fuel with a smell like cooked cough syrup. The jet spools up and up and up, reaching a whine that would shatter the wall of Jericho. The higher the pitch, the higher the decibels and the sicker the smell.

A group of mechanics and engineers crowds around the spaceship with wheels and performs a series of synchronized leak tests on the jet engines. The vehicle is 54 feet long, tips the scales at 10 tons, and has a surface composed of steel, carbon fibre and titanium. The men and women are sharply attired – matching khaki trousers, a variety of team polo shirts (red, yellow, gray, black), blue coveralls, tan colored boots, identical post-industrial sunglasses and green and red bomber jackets – and are a calm contrast to the chaotic pressurized air that billows out of the beastly, demonic jet engines’ exhaust opening. In all the futzing, occasionally one of the engineers checks the time on a wristwatch with a SSC Machmeter as the face. The needles on the timepiece point to Mach 1, which represents high noon, natch.

They purge the afterburners on either of the jet engines. PPPHHHWWWWUUUUHHHHHH … (beat) … PPPHHHWWWWUUUUHHHHHH goes one… 22,500 fucking lbs. of thrust at each belch of either afterburner … PPPHHHWWWWUUUUHHHHHH … (beat) … PPPHHHWWWWUUUUHHHHHH goes the other… 110,000 fucking horsepower total… “This is one horny machine,” one crew member mutters… On the horizon, a fleet of Land Rovers retro-fitted with machine guns zooms toward the makeshift but immaculate compound in a flying wedge formation. The automobiles attract minimal dust, as the swirling pool of disturbed air puts the Rovers in a high pressure cocoon. It is like the winds know that inside one of these vehicles are some very important Muslims and the dust parts accordingly. Flags mounted to the skin of the automobiles buffet in the turbulence. The closer the cars come, the more frenzied the disturbance. The vortex summons Biblical stories, lost cities and civilizations, and Lawrence of Arabia. T.E. Lawrence was the last romantic vestige of British Imperialism here, but the caustic purging of Spey 202s conjures up the Empire’s latest and perhaps final attempt at National pride. Thrust SSC. The Supersonic Car.

It is utterly atavistic.

The jet exhaust and the choreographed human commotion, the dust of the caravan and its flagellation of flags swirl into a single entity.

Before the military Muslims depart, the senior officer offers to cordon off the British Operation with the Land Rovers… and to shoot anybody who might get in the way.



November 3, 2008

(Jordan, 1996)

“Come Friday and anybody with any sense was in full Lawrence of Arabia mode with goggles, scarves and Arab headgear much in evidence, and it was needed, since a sandstorm was now in full flight and showed no sign up giving up, even for the benefit of a handful of Brits far from home who just wanted to run a jet car. Briefly, the sun came out at the Southern end of the track and hopes rose momentarily only to fall again. The Jordanian Air Force guys from the base had done a sterling job with watering trucks and graders to fill and flatten the Bedouin track even more, but this is an open desert and apart from a short time either side of a run, nothing can be done to stop (bandits) if they want to cross…

“… time was slipping away as the weather got worse and worse. The pressure was still on since the car had to be ready for any break in conditions, but it was destined not to be. Just when the mods were complete and SSC sat there ready to do its stuff once more, the heavens really opened. Thunderstorms of truly biblical proportions swept the area causing major floods and widespread damage. Thanks to the policy of keeping people on the desert at all times, the advancing tide was spotted early and the site evacuated in the nick of time. Even so, a couple of vehicles only just made it, having to be towed out as the desert turned to porridge before disappearing under water.

“With no chance of conditions improving until early 1997, there was no option but to pack up, return to the UK and plan for 1997. So, part one of the attack on the Sound Barrier was over. Plan as you may, there are some things you can’t control and the weather is one of them. These were the worst conditions since 1991 and you’d have thought that the Middle East was the one place on Earth safest from such conditions. But then again, this is record breaking and record breaking always attracts bad weather.”Robin Richardson, Thrust SSC Team Member.


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


Pick Your Part

Pick Your Part


November 2, 2008

The press conference isn’t scheduled until noon. I sleep kinda’ late, saunter downstairs in the casino for a leisurely breakfast and grabbed a copy of the Reno Gazette.

I drop my fork.

The bottom left quadrant of the front page has a small feature about the arrival of the Brits and their Thrust SSC jet car that notates – in so many words – that after seven years of research and development as well as “dancing-as-fast-as-I-can” cajoling of corporations, the joust is finally on: A quintessential California hot rodder (Breedlove and Spirit of America) arm wrestling a permutation of the British military industrial complex (Noble and Thrust SSC).

And although the match is on, there are still many obstacles in the path of both teams, not the least of which is negative cash flow. To facilitate the arrival of the Brits from Farnborough into Reno Int’l Airport – keep in mind it required 250,00 gallons of jet fuel to top off an Antonov AN-124 Russian cargo plane (the only vehicle in existence with enough trunk space to transport the Thrust’s 80-ton portable skunk works) – Noble appealed for alms via the London Daily Telegraph and the internet. The vox populi responded with a vengeance, mailing checks and forking over credit card numbers in a frenzy worthy of St. Vitus. Thrust SSC gets its jet fuel all of which is documented in the Reno Gazette I continue to peruse while hailing a cab outside the casino. (Ultimately, 20 percent of the funding for the Thrust effort came from Noble shaking the virtual bushes of cyberspace and the print world. Amazing.)

So I grab a cab, a two-toned yellow and black beater that pings and knocks, and is driven by a guy who has the look of a fallen factory worker from Oakland who has decided to culminate his working days here, shuttling tourists who can’t quite raise the capital to gamble in Vegas to various casinos and cathouses just beyond the city limits. He asks me if I want to go to the Mustang Ranch and I tell him no so then he asks where I am going and I tell him I’m in a hurry to get to the Peppermill Casino for a press conference that will announce an attempt to capture the Land Speed Record.

“The press conference for the Land Speed Record is at the hotel you just left,” he says.

“No, that’s the venue for Craig Breedlove and the Spirit of America’s announcement,” I tell him.

“You mean there are two guys trying to get the Record?” he asks.

“Oh yeah,” I say, “there is a British team that arrived last night in a massive cargo plane big enough to transport their crew and their race car.”

“You mean that’ s why that Russian plane is parked at the airport?”

To a paranoid survivalist like this cab driver, whose sense of history ended with the Fall of Saigon, the Brits represent the unholy union of NATO, the United Nations and the Beatles. As we pull into the parking lot, the SSC rests on an open trailer, raked at a 45 degree angle, pointed towards the sky. Milling about is a local Betacam crew with a blond news correspondent, flanked by a camera operator and a soundman umbilically tangled in their cables. This is the only electronic media I can see, although a couple of reporters are scribbling notes while chatting up the British team, who are resplendent in a sort of Royal Air Force green. The cab driver gives me his card for a ride back to my hotel once the SSC conference is done and I pay the fare. All the while though, the cabbie keeps a distracted eye fixed on the dual jet engined monstrosity resting placidly like a black widow in a tennis shoe.

To my cab driver, this wicked land speed streamliner may as well have been a black helicopter.