Bluebird nosed out onto the oil-blackened speed-record lane on the Bonneville Salt Flats one morning last week and urgently began to gather momentum. Passing the 1½-mile mark, the futuristic four-ton car drifted ever so slightly off line. Suddenly it catapulted 235 yards through the air, crashed thunderously on its right side, then bounced upright, but with the right wheels missing.
Rescue men sprinted to the wreckage of the world's most expensive automobile. They threw back the armored-glass cockpit cover and unstrapped the semiconscious driver.
"Are you all right, Donald?" one of them shouted.
The only reply from 39-year-old Donald Campbell, Britain's fastest man on water and aspirant to the same distinction on land (SI, Aug. 22), was an unintelligible mumble. Blood spewed from his ear. One eye rolled crazily.
September 25, 1960
But, bad as he looked, Campbell was able to walk from the ambulance which took him to a hospital at tiny Tooele, Utah. "Tell the boys to get the car in shape," he ordered Project Manager Peter Carr, "so we can have another go at it." Carr had bad news. "It's a complete washout," he was compelled to say.
More bad news came from Campbell's doctors, who discovered a hairline skull fracture. Neither man nor machine could possibly be fit before the end of Bonneville's 1960 season.
Thus ended Campbell's and Britain's dream—at least for this year—of exceeding the 13-year-old British-held record of 394.2 mph. The flats were now left open for America's husky super hot rodder, Mickey Thompson, who a week earlier had achieved a one-way record of 406 mph. Since it takes the average of two runs, going and coming back, for an absolute record, Thompson plans this week to climb into his Challenger and try to go more than 400 mph both ways.
Meanwhile, the flats buzzed with Bluebird post-mortems. Most witnesses supposed that Campbell had tried to overcorrect for an incipient skid, and Campbell himself hinted that this was true. At Bonneville speeds (one of Campbell's men said Bluebird was traveling at 365 mph) a small tug on the steering wheel can mean disaster. One such tug caused the death this summer of Athol Graham, an overeager mechanic, in his home-built City of Salt Lake (SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, Aug. 8). Another sent Thompson's Challenger into a series of sickening swoops over the flats last month. This was the Californian's closest brush with death in 10 years at Bonneville.
As the British headed home this week to rebuild Bluebird for another try at Bonneville next summer, they had at least one consolation: the next model will cost only a fraction of the $4.5 million spent (by 89 British firms) on the first one. That sum included the original design by Engineer Lewis Norris, the development of a hundred and one special components, and a hurry-up assembly operation. All told, 750,000 man-hours went into the car. The engine was not damaged and will be used again. Every Briton concerned is convinced that this was the car to smash the record. They all are ready to try again.
They cannot, however, escape the ever more apparent fact that today's land-record cars have outgrown the flats. The course is just 13 miles long—which means that a driver has only six miles in which to accelerate to the measured mile and another six miles in which to stop. When a man accelerates fast enough to pierce the 400-mph barrier within that cramped stretch of ground his tiniest errors are magnified enormously.
"I know the salt," Mickey Thompson says. "When you start to slip you've got to let the car have its way. Then slowly, gradually—your sixth sense tells you how—you bring it back. Do it too fast, as I did a couple of weeks ago, and you've turned sideways. You'll flip and roll, and then it's up to fate."
To break the record, Campbell will have to accelerate next year's Bluebird violently enough to invite another smashup.