The Black Rock Desert is a prehistoric dry alkali lake bed that lies like a 400-square-mile Formica countertop about two hours' drive north of Reno, Nev. If you love desert, it's the most beautiful place on Earth. If you don't, it's pure hell, a place where the sun hammers down as if the desert floor were the anvil of God.
Historians know it as the place where the California and Oregon trails diverge. Film noir buffs know it as the place where Spencer Tracy decked Ernest Borgnine in "Bad Day at Black Rock." More recently, Black Rock has become famous as home to the annual arty super-party known as Burning Man. It also claims a subtler fame: It's the place where men have traveled the fastest across the surface of the Earth.
For the past few years, Black Rock has been Craig Breedlove's home away from home. A dream brings Breedlove to Black Rock: to return the world land speed record from Britain to the United States and to be the first American to drive through the sound barrier. It's not a new project for Breedlove. In the 1960s he won celebrity as the fastest man on earth in his Spirit of America and Spirit of America: Sonic I jetmobiles. He was the first person to drive through the 400-, 500- and 600-mph marks. He set his last speed record -- 600.6 mph -- at Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, 34 years ago. Now, at age 62 and with a newly modified and rebuilt Spirit of America, he's fixing to head out to Black Rock and claim the title once again. The number to beat: 771 miles per hour.
Growing up in the 1950s in Mar Vista, in Southern California -- the nexus of America's car culture -- Breedlove got a bee in his bonnet that's been stinging him for nearly half a century: speed. At age 13, he began building his first car -- a little deuce coupe -- and he won his first drag race with it at 16. By 1958, at 21, he was clocking 236 mph in a supercharged Oldsmobile "streamliner" at Bonneville.
At the time, Englishman John Cobb held the world land speed record. In 1947, Cobb had piloted his internal combustion Railton Special to a two-way average of 394 mph. (Land speed rules dictate that for a record to be official, a car must make two runs within one hour, the average of the two being the record.)
Employing aerodynamics he'd learned making model airplanes and working at Douglas Aircraft, Breedlove set to work building a car that would challenge Cobb's record. In the autumn of 1962, his team wheeled Spirit of America onto the salt at Bonneville. It was gorgeous. At a time when American spacecraft looked more like they'd been built by high school science classes than by rocket scientists, Spirit of America looked like something out of "The Jetsons." It was powered not by conventional internal combustion, but by a surplus J-47 jet engine out of a U.S. Navy F-4 Phantom.
With 5,000 pounds of thrust, it wasn't just pretty, it was fast. On Oct. 5, 1963, clocking a two-way average of just over 407 mph, Breedlove brought the land speed record back to the United States for the first time in 32 years. He broke records with Spirit of America until October 1964, when, at more than 500 mph, his chute snapped off. The car overshot the track, smashed through some telephone poles, skipped across a saltwater pond and sank like a stone. Breedlove walked away wet, but unscathed, and with a record -- 526.28 mph. He's the only driver to nearly drown while setting a land speed record.
At a time when drag racing was the fastest-growing sport in the United States, Craig Breedlove was a hero. While his speed records won him the kudos of his racing brethren, his matinee-idol good looks assured him photo spreads in national magazines. People called him Captain America. The Beach Boys sang his praises on their "Little Deuce Coupe" album:
An airplane, an auto now famous worldwide,
Spirit of America, the name on the side.
The man who would drive her, Craig Breedlove by name,
A daring young man played a dangerous game ...
The hype machine went into overdrive as rival tire and oil companies vied to have their logos affixed to record-breaking cars. Breedlove was quickly challenged, and for the next two years traded records back and forth with rivals Tom Green and Art Arfons. But by the end of 1965, sponsors' interest waned as national attention turned to grander spectacles like the Apollo space program and to more down-to-earth matters such as the war in Vietnam. Breedlove's 1965 record of 600.6 mph held until October 1970, when Gary Gabelich drove the rocket-powered Blue Flame to 622.4 mph. But land speed racing's holy grail -- the sound barrier -- remained untouched.
Breedlove never gave up hope of grabbing the chalice. In the early '80s, he built a full-scale mock-up of a new, rocket-powered Spirit of America. But government regulations on rocket fuel chemicals effectively put the kibosh on the project.
Then, in 1983, a British sportsman named Richard Noble brought his jet-powered Thrust2 car out to Black Rock. On Oct. 4, Noble achieved a two-way average of 633.5 mph. Noble had upped the ante, but he'd left the sound barrier open while presenting the United States with a challenge -- one Breedlove hoped would rally sponsors around the flag, and to his cause.
"Frankly, though," he laughs, "I can't say the companies were all that receptive."
Still, Breedlove hung on. To make some money of his own, he went into real estate, where he finally earned enough that he could devote his energies to a new Spirit of America project full time. In 1989 he moved his workshop from Southern California to the small town of Rio Vista, east of the San Francisco Bay Area. He bought a pair of new J-79 jet engines and began designing the new car. He finally unveiled Spirit of America II a few years later. With its needle nose, sharklike fins and low-slung air scoops, the 44-foot-long, 45,000-horsepower car was by far the most beautiful land speed racer ever built.
However, when Noble got wind that Breedlove was planning a comeback, he set in motion a project of his own, called ThrustSSC (Super Sonic Car). To drive the car, Noble chose the dashing Royal Air Force fighter jock Andy Green, a choice that assured the project the tacit support of her majesty's government.
In the autumn of 1996, Breedlove's car was ready to run, and the team brought the new Spirit of America to Black Rock to try to break Noble's 1983 record. The project had been delayed when a group of environmental protesters attempted to block the team's permit to operate the car. By the time it was all sorted out, six weeks of the year's best weather had passed. On Oct. 28, Breedlove set out to attempt the record-breaking runs. Once the car was stationed on the desert and ready to roll, Breedlove radioed for a wind profile from up-range. The report came back: "one five." Breedlove took that to mean 1.5 knots, well within limits. At go time, Breedlove hit the loud pedal and the car roared off.
But several things had gone wrong. For starters, the distance to the timing area had been miscalculated. Breedlove realized that at his rate of acceleration he'd hit the timing area not at a brisk 640-mph cruise, but at more like 800 -- 160 mph faster than he'd planned for, and much, much faster than any car had ever attempted to go.
"I was really carrying the mail," says Breedlove dryly.
He had also misunderstood the wind report -- it was 15 knots, not 1.5, and gusting even higher up-range. He was busily trying to shut down the J-79's afterburner, when, at 675 mph, a wicked crosswind hit the car, jacking it up on its forward and side wheels. Imagine it: Jammed into Spirit of America's tiny cockpit, Breedlove is riding literally balls out, scrunched up in the very tip of the vehicle, his nuts snug against the steering column. At those speeds, the spindly roll cage that surrounds him is all but worthless. Two inches behind his head are the front wheels, weighing 170 pounds each, spinning at more than 7,500 revolutions per minute, their outer edges pulling 33,000 G's. At that speed, an ounce of dust build-up on the rim weighs as much as 1,700 pounds. As the car heeled over, the wheels acted like a giant, off-kilter gyroscope, forcing the car hopelessly off-course. Enveloped in a cloud of dust, Breedlove was hurtling blind.
"I thought, This is it," he remembers. "I've just bought the farm."
But Breedlove kept his cool and the car careened on, carving a giant arc into the desert floor, missing the crowded spectator area by a scant half-mile. It eventually came to rest, three or four miles off the course. Rattled but unhurt, Breedlove was able to walk away. Though he had blown the doors off Noble by 43 mph, it wasn't an official record, as Breedlove was unable to make a return run.
Had Breedlove indeed bought the farm that day, he would not have been the first to do so chasing the demon speed. The honor roll of land speed racing's glorious dead is long: Parry Thomas, Pendine Sands, Wales, 1927; Frank Lockhart, Daytona Beach, Fla., 1928; Lee Bible, Daytona, 1929; Athol Graham, Bonneville, 1960; Glen Leasher, Bonneville, 1962. And Craig Arfons, nephew of Breedlove rival Art Arfons, was killed trying to break the water speed record in 1989. You might think, after an incident like this, Breedlove would walk away permanently. Not likely. For one thing, he reserves quick decisions for the cockpit.
Craig T. Nelson, best known as the star of the TV comedy series "Coach" and a longtime friend and auto racing comrade of Breedlove's, recalls some advice Breedlove once gave him. Nelson was racing at Road Atlanta in 1995 and Breedlove was there to support his friend. During the race, Spice-Olds driver Jeremy Dale T-boned Fabrizio Barbazza's Ferrari at more than 100 mph. The impact tore the Ferrari in half, shattered Dale's legs and broke Barbazza's arm and leg. As Nelson puts it, "The ballet went bad." While Dale was being life-flighted off the raceway, Breedlove took Nelson aside. "Whatever you do," Breedlove said to him, "don't think about what happened for at least three days. Don't make any decisions based on what you've seen here."
"It was very important for me to hear that," says Nelson. "That kind of wisdom and experience can help you discern the proper path." He's currently working on a screenplay about Breedlove's life. He still races, on the Trans Am circuit.
People generally fall into two camps about land speed racing: those who get it instinctively and those who don't. For those who get it, it's like eating peanuts -- they can't get enough. It's what drives people to camp out at Godforsaken places like Black Rock and Bonneville for weeks at a time, hoping to get a glimpse of the record-breaking moment. They're often the same sort of people who get all weepy when they hear the words, "That's one small step for a man ..."
It's hard to appreciate land speed racing if you haven't seen it. But if
you've seen the pod race scene in "Star Wars: Episode I-- The Phantom
Menace," you at least have an inkling of what it looks like -- a tiny
vehicle tearing across the vastness of the desert at unimaginable
speeds. The striking similarity between George Lucas' pod races and land
speed racing is no coincidence. During the '60s, when Breedlove was
breaking records right and left, Lucas was working at Bonneville as an
assistant cameraman, filming him. Lucas was one of an informal clique of
land speed racing enthusiasts called the Salt Bears, which also included
writers Bill Neely and Bob Ottum (who together co-wrote the screenplay
for "Stroker Ace," starring Burt Reynolds), racing photographer Pete
Biro and fellow director Lear Levin.
Los Angeles freelance writer Bill Sharpsteen, on the other hand, is not
impressed. "A car equipped with a surplus jet engine seems crude
compared to the infinitely swift, silent power of a Pentium computer
chip," he wrote in the Los Angeles Times Magazine. "These days, the
competition for the land speed record looks more like Neanderthal breast
beating than a celebration of ingenuity."
Not so, argues Bill Withuhn, curator of transportation at the
Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History. "Passing the speed
of sound on land, in full contact with the ground, is a major
technological achievement," he says. The problem, explains Withuhn, is
the shock waves that build up around the car as it approaches the speed
of sound. In the air, these shock waves are predictable, but on the
ground they can bounce off the deck in ways that are all but impossible
to foresee. They can make a car shimmy and shake out of control, or even
take it airborne. "This is not a high-tech drag race. This is something
different. It's an exercise in real science."
Britain showed off its prowess in "real science" the year after
Breedlove's near miss. Both the Spirit of America and ThrustSSC teams
were out at Black Rock, with Breedlove again hoping to take the record
from the British and the Brits intending to defend their title. Troubles
plagued Team Spirit of America from the start. Early in the season, an
object -- possibly a loose bolt -- was sucked into the car's engine,
destroying it. The team rushed back to Rio Vista to haul out its spare
J-79, but the project never regained its lost momentum. Finally, on Oct.
15, 1997, Andy Green blew the lid off the sound barrier, driving the
hulking, twin-engine ThrustSSC to a jaw-dropping two-way average of 763.035
mph, or Mach 1.01. The sonic boom rattled windows as far away as
Gerlach, 13 miles to the south. (To make a new record official, Breedlove
will have to outpace Green by at least 1 percent, making 771 the magic
Breedlove was stoic. "Well," he told reporters, "they've certainly
raised the bar on us." Other members of his team didn't take it so well.
"We were devastated," says Cherie Danson, Spirit of America's PR
director. "This is not the way the script was supposed to end."
But after 34 years of trying, Breedlove isn't about to give up. Last
year, Shell Oil, Spirit of America's most tenacious sponsor (the car
actually runs on ordinary Shell premium gasoline), was too busy with its
merger with Texaco to bother with land speed racing. This year, however,
the company has once again kicked down enough to keep the
team in business. (Land speed racing is one of the last great amateur
endeavors. Drivers win no purse for breaking a record. Accordingly,
Breedlove takes no salary from his sponsors and has put about $1.5
million of his own money into the car.)
Still, funding remains Breedlove's greatest obstacle. It's a no bucks,
no Buck Rogers game. As land speed records increase incrementally,
funding requirements seem to increase geometrically. (Although the
numbers are trifles compared with the financial needs of an Indy or
NASCAR team.) A key attraction for potential sponsors may be that,
while Green will always be counted as the first to drive through
the sound barrier, Breedlove may well be the first American to go the
For that reason, the Smithsonian's Withuhn says he's "keenly
interested" in the Spirit of America effort. He has a hole he'd like to
fill in his collection of racing cars, in the land speed record
category, and to have a supersonic car would be an added bonus. "The
best effort around is Craig's -- no doubt about it," he says. "It's
really just a matter of funding."
Withuhn's interest in Spirit of America could act as an important
value-add to potential sponsors who'd like to see their logos splashed
across a car that might one day be displayed in the United States' most
prestigious history museum. Speaking for himself, Withuhn says he'd like
to see Breedlove's effort get more help from "spirited" corporate
sponsors and more recognition from the public. "It seems silly for us to
just give the record over to the British," he adds. "This needs to be an
American record. And I need to fill a niche in my collection."
Breedlove was hoping to bring Spirit of America back out to Black Rock in
September, but doctors have determined he'll have to undergo outpatient
surgery for a torn rotator cuff. (He fell while jogging "about four years
ago," and, like a typical race car driver, has all but ignored it.) He says
the delay doesn't bother him too much. He's been patient a long time, and
besides, "Spirit of America 2000" has a nice ring to it. Whether he takes
the record or not, he says he won't quit. He's already got a plan for a new
twin-engine spirit of America III, "all worked out in my head." He'd also
like to try his hand at the water speed record, currently held by
Australian Ken Warby (317 mph).
Breedlove has what Cole Coonce, a land speed racing enthusiast and
editor of Nitronic Research, calls "Go! Fever." The fever has driven
Breedlove to be the fastest man on earth for more than 40 years. When
asked what's behind it, Breedlove seems almost incredulous, like he
doesn't understand the question. The question also flusters his friend
Craig T. Nelson.
"Goin' fast," Nelson sputters. "When it comes to sitting in that car, there's only one thing in his mind -- goin' fast."