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A Speed King Without A Kingdom

April 27, 1970
April 27, 1970

Table of Contents
April 27, 1970

Yesterday
Playoffs
Derby
People
Baseball
Wrestling
Nature
Speed King
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

A Speed King Without A Kingdom

Craig Breedlove is the undisputed champion of a sport that has all but ceased to exist: pursuit of the absolute land-speed record. Down on his luck but far from despair, he is knocking on doors to raise the price of one more spectacular assault—beyond the sound barrier

The automobile that a wry fate has lately pressed upon Craig Breedlove, one far removed from the gleaming speed machines he favors, is a battered 1956 Buick that set him back $100 when he bought it a year ago. The Buick leaks gas fumes, it lurches at the slightest touch of the brakes and reverse is no more. "I wouldn't want to push it much more than 45, maybe 50 at the outside," Breedlove says. Worst of all, whenever he shuts off the ignition the car maddeningly goes on shaking, much as a chicken continues to twitch after its head has been cut off.

This is an article from the April 27, 1970 issue Original Layout

As might be expected, Breedlove has difficulty identifying with a clunker like that. Parking it on a recent afternoon at one of those sprawling California shopping centers, he got out and began skulking away, hoping that nobody would link him with the car, which was going through its usual convulsions. No such luck. "Hey, mister," a passerby called in a voice that carried across the busy parking lot. "You left your motor running." As he hurried on, a chagrined Breedlove made a mental note to borrow his girl friend Cheryl's car, a sensible late-model Volkswagen, the next time he had to go anywhere. "That Buick doesn't do much for a guy's morale, let me tell you," he said unhappily.

Nothing could give Breedlove's morale a bigger lift than the chance to streak at preposterous speeds again across the Bonneville Salt Flats, something he last did on Nov. 15, 1965, the day he navigated his jet-powered Spirit of America Sonic I through Bonneville's official clocks at 600.601 mph. It was the absolute land-speed record then, and it still is. Owing largely to a lack of competition, there has been little call for Breedlove's services since. That has left the once and, he would like to think, future king of flat-out speed in the singular position of reigning over a sport that has, in effect, ceased to exist.

As if the hardships of technological unemployment were not enough, Breedlove has had to endure an Iliadic succession of other business and personal misadventures. To fully appreciate his dilemma, one must reflect that he was once worth something like $250,000, that he took his leisure by the swimming pool of a beautiful home in the hilly Los Angeles suburb of Palos Verdes, that he received fan mail worshipfully addressed to THE FASTEST MAN ON WHEELS, U.S.A. But all that is ancient history, like two years ago. He now lives above his garage in the industrial flats of Torrance, down below those same Palos Verdes hills. He is deep in debt. The letters the postman brings today are rather more sparing in their adulation:

Dear Mr. Breedlove:
So you're the famous automobile racer who likes to drive so fast? Well, let's see how fast you can drive over here to pay this bill....

Buoyant and surprisingly equable in the face of adversity, the object of those greetings is a slightly built man of 33 with the elfin good looks and shaggy hair of a pop-rock star. Only his blue eyes, wearier and more deeply set than most, suggest the extent of his recent tribulations. "It's like little pieces of the ceiling keep falling on you," he says, but instead of standing around waiting for the rest of the ceiling to fall, he is now plotting the boldest and bravest of comebacks. If successful, it will make Breedlove, the ex-fireman who overnight became one of sport's glamour boys, seem even more of a Hollywood product than he already does (and which, as the son of a motion picture special-effects man and an ex-show girl, he literally is).

By his own scenario, Breedlove will build a rocket-powered car called Spirit of America Sonic II (his last car, he reckons, is obsolete) and, some time next year, drive it through the sound barrier, which at Bonneville would require a speed of about 740 mph. As the car accelerates through the measured mile in less than five seconds, there will be high suspense. Will it disintegrate under the sonic buffeting? Will it go airborne? Neither, mercifully. The run over, a smiling Craig Breedlove steps triumphantly out into the bright glare of publicity. A whirlwind of endorsements, personal appearances and business opportunities reap him a fistful of dollars.

But wait, there is a little more footage on the reel. In a kind of epilogue, Breedlove also breaks the speed record for wheel-driven cars. Though that mark is a relatively poky 409.277 mph, there are purists who regard only wheel-driven vehicles as true automobiles and dismiss jet and rocket machines as weird aberrations of the traditional land-speed calling. Breedlove sees himself breaking that record in nothing less than the costliest car ever built, the late Donald Campbell's controversial $4 million Bluebird. Oh, what a lovely flick.

The whole production figures to cost at least $350,000 of somebody else's money—$250,000 to build and campaign the rocket car, $100,000 to dust off and race Bluebird. In quest of a corporate angel to foot the bill, Breedlove has been dickering with companies in soft drinks, wristwatches, car rentals and publishing. So far there has been one note of progress. TRW, Inc., designer of the Apollo lunar-module descent rocket engine, has shown some interest in Breedlove—and has a liquid-fuel engine with 35,000 pounds of thrust that could make his supersonic car the most powerful ever to attack the land-speed record.

Coming up with a sponsor may be trickier. While the land-speed record can be a public-relations bonanza (Goodyear, a chief sponsor of both of the jet cars Breedlove has built and raced, gleefully counted up 10,000 magazine and newspaper plugs after his 600-mph run) few companies, especially in this period of tight money, have $350,000 lying about to throw into so risky a venture. In the specific case of Goodyear, there is the added consideration that Breedlove—and by extension, the company—already holds the record, which, it is felt, would make a new assault a redundancy. "Any time we want to publicize or talk about the land-speed record, we can do it already," says Bill Newkirk, a Goodyear public-relations man. "Why do we need a new record?"

Without question, Breedlove would stand a better chance of flushing out a sponsor if somebody else broke, or at least tried to break, his record. The last time anyone so much as made the effort was in late 1966, when Ohioan Art Arfons cracked up his jet-powered Green Monster and was lucky to get out alive. Such are the pains and perils of straightaway speed that Breedlove's mark not only has gone unbroken since then, it has gone uncontested as well.

Now there are signs that things may be healing up at last, and Breedlove welcomes them. "Without competition it's not much of a sport," he said at lunch one day not long ago in a seafood restaurant by the Pacific. "Competition is what you need to create public interest and excitement." The lunch crowd had melted into the afternoon, but Breedlove, at ease in a fawn turtleneck and brown bell-bottoms, had no job to hurry back to so he ordered another Coors beer. "Nothing could get me a sponsor quicker than if somebody broke my record. Everybody's welcome—as long as they leave the sound barrier to me."

Some of the current activity is taking place in the Soviet Union, where construction is under way on a 5,000-hp gasturbine car that the Russians are said to be pointing toward a 620-mph record next year. Though talk has always outstripped performance in Soviet auto racing (the Red speed record is a mere 250 mph), the very mention of a Russian bid had the ubiquitous Andy Granatelli revving up his mimeograph machine. If the Russians should do 620, Granatelli solemnly pledges, he will build a jet car "to bring the world record back to America."

Meanwhile there are a couple of new American land-speed vehicles already in the running. One is Art Arfons' latest Green Monster, a jet car that the Akron speed merchant financed largely out of his own pocket; he has prospered lately on the drag-racing circuit. But Arfons has run into sponsorship problems almost as frustrating as Breedlove's. One trouble is that Firestone, which underwrote Arfons' previous Bonneville campaigns and still employs him for promotional work, has withdrawn from the absolute land-speed business.

That puts Arfons in the position of having to seek not only another sponsor but also some other source of tires. In spurning his advances Firestone professes to have Arfons' best interests at heart. "It's not the cost," insists Bill McCreary the company's racing chief. "It's just that after Art's last experience on the flats [the 1966 accident] we aren't going to gamble on his life again."

As Arfons ponders his next move, the car that stands the best chance of getting to Bonneville this year is The Blue Flame, a rocket-powered entry sponsored by the natural-gas industry. Like Arfons' jet racer and Breedlove's proposed rocket car, The Blue Flame is designed to break not only the absolute record but also the sound barrier. Construction has run a year behind schedule, and at least $100,000 more than the budget (originally $250,000), but the car is now virtually completed. It will be unveiled at a press conference in Houston next week, and the first subsonic tests are due this summer. The man behind the wheel when The Blue Flame finally blasts off will be Breedlove's friend and fellow Californian, Gary Gabelich, who races boats as well as cars; he holds an unofficial quarter-mile drag-boat record of 200.4 mph.

Before Gabelich was chosen, Breedlove was approached about driving The Blue Flame but could not agree to terms. One sticky point was money, another his insistence on maintaining firm control over the engineering. An automotive wizard whose formal education ended with high school, Breedlove is touchy about college-trained engineers, some of whom tend to look down their educated noses at hot rodders like himself.

"I know how to build a car for Bonneville, because I've done it before," he says in a rare flash of anger. "All that wind-tunnel data is fine, but it can sometimes produce errors, and the faster you go the faster those errors are multiplied. Since I'm the one who has to sit in the thing, I want a voice in how to build it. Who needs The Blue Flame? I'll put together my own deal like before."

A variety of upheavals in Breedlove's personal affairs has complicated matters considerably. He has suffered a string of financial setbacks, including the failure, at a loss of $78,000, of a tire dealership he held in Torrance. Even more costly were the floods that devastated Southern California early last year. Breedlove's garage was inundated, and $100,000 worth of automotive parts and machinery were ruined. Then there were the strains, emotional as well as financial, of Craig's three burned-out marriages, two of which failed days apart.

The first marriage, which gave Breedlove three children by the time he was 20, ended in divorce a decade ago. Two years ago he split with his second wife Lee, who was also his racing partner, having sat prettily behind the wheel of Spirit of America Sonic I to claim the women's speed record of 308.56. By virtue of that feat, Lee was cofeatured with Craig in a documentary on ABC-TV. "This is the story of a man and a woman..." the film began, but by the time it ran in mid-1968 (winning an Emmy nomination), the man and woman had already gone their separate ways.

Craig went to Las Vegas for the divorce, where he was "lonely and disoriented." The day it came through he married a blonde model he had met several weeks before. That marriage fell apart within two weeks after the newly-weds returned to Los Angeles. Looking back, Breedlove says sheepishly, "It's like the man said after he took off his clothes and jumped into the cactus: 'It seemed like a good idea at the time.' "

"Craig is too open and trusting," says Lynn Garrison, his business agent for the past six months, a high-powered promoter who talks aggressively of setting up charitable foundations and speed shops in Breedlove's name. In the meantime Craig has whittled away at his debts with income from property he has somehow managed to hang onto, from fees for personal appearances at auto shows and the like and from selling such possessions as a late-model Mustang and a pickup truck. One conveyance he has not disposed of, a curious indulgence for a man who drives a 1956 Buick, is the Cessna Cardinal he flies for rest and relaxation from the battles of daily life. It is an $18,000 plane on which he still owes $12,000 in payments.

If nothing else, Breedlove's recent troubles have acquainted him with the facts of real life, as opposed to the charmed one he formerly led. The first incarnation constitutes one of auto racing's favorite legends: the story of how Breedlove, a 22-year-old fireman in Costa Mesa, Calif., paid $500 for a surplus J-47 jet engine; how he built his first car, the three-wheeled Spirit of America, in his father's garage ("It's my hobby," he said breezily when neighbors complained of the noise); how he met Lee and, quitting the fire department to work full time on the racer, lived off her earnings as a carhop at a Los Angeles drive-in.

In light of his present dilemma, the most compelling part of the legend is the way Breedlove brashly approached Goodyear and Shell Oil in 1961 and talked them into backing his seemingly quixotic scheme. The land-speed record then stood at 394.196—it had been set by Britain's John Cobb way back in 1947—and Breedlove, shades of Andy Granatelli, vowed, "I'm going to bring it back to America."

The timing could hardly have been better. As suggested by the recent dearth of competition, business at Bonneville has been highly cyclical. In the early 1960s a pride of other drivers—including Donald Campbell, Walt and Art Arfons and Mickey Thompson—also emerged in pursuit of Cobb's record. More than any of the others, destiny's choice as the foil for Breedlove's feats was Campbell, the world's leading water-speed man and son of the legendary Sir Malcolm Campbell, who had been the fastest man on land and sea in the 1920s and 1930s.

Breedlove, the young upstart, fizzled in his first Bonneville run in 1962, then returned the next year to drive his three-wheeler at 407.45, easily eclipsing Cobb's mark. Meanwhile, Campbell, the wealthy sportsman for whom 60-odd British companies had built Bluebird as virtually a national crusade, was washed out by floodwaters in Australia. With British prestige supposedly at stake, there were black suggestions among his countrymen that Campbell, who had survived a wicked accident at Bonneville in 1960, had mislaid his nerve. When Breedlove stopped off in England during a world tour following his Bonneville assault, Campbell, having returned from Australia, threw a party at his country home in Surrey in the Californian's honor.

The gesture caught Breedlove by surprise. "I couldn't believe he would have a party for me after I'd broken the record," Craig says. "What was more amazing, he invited the press, even after the way they'd all been down on him and comparing him with me. And you know? In five minutes Campbell had the press falling all over him. He turned on the charm and started telling some of those great stories of his. And, hey, he was just as gracious as could be toward me. I was afraid he'd look down his nose, or resent me, but he was just as gracious as could be."

The next summer, returning to Australia, Campbell ran Bluebird at 403.1, which stood as the mark for wheel-driven cars only until Californian Bob Summers claimed the record in Goldenrod the following year. By that time the jet exploits of Breedlove and Art Arfons had reduced wheel-driven cars to minor league status. Already the first to reach 400 mph, Breedlove also became the first at 500, wrecking his three-wheeler in the process, and, as we have seen, the first and only man to break the 600-mph barrier in the four-wheel Sonic I.

As the speeds increased, so did the dangers and, inevitably, the pressures to go faster still. Those pressures may have expressed themselves subconsciously that day in 1964 when Breedlove destroyed his three-wheel jet. After Spirit flashed through the measured mile on its return trip of the two required for an official record, its safety chutes ripped off, the brakes melted away and Spirit knocked over a telephone pole before finally hurtling into a canal 18 feet deep. Drenched but virtually unscathed, Breedlove climbed out of the cockpit and giddily declared: "And now for my next act I'm going to set myself on fire."

In calmer moments Craig likens his line of work to "walking out on a limb to see how far you can go without breaking it and then retreating just in time." To cope with the fear he has felt, at one point he visited a psychiatrist.

"I didn't even know what a psychiatrist was," he says. "I thought he could give me a mental exercise, some little trick to perform to help me handle my fear. Instead, he started explaining what the ego was and told me I was competing with my father and that I had a hostility to women. We went on that way for three visits and this guy was having a field day with me. Finally I said, 'Hey, wonderful, but what about my fear?' He told me my fear was the only thing he found normal about me, and that he wouldn't disturb it. I stopped seeing him."

There were pressures at work on Donald Campbell, too. Following the debacle with Bluebird, Campbell announced plans to build a jet car capable of speeds up to 840 mph. After their first meeting in Surrey, he paid Breedlove several visits in Los Angeles, during which the two men endlessly discussed the perils of both supersonic speed and the fairer sex ("The only trouble with women is other women," Campbell declared while sipping Mai Tais at Trader Vic's). But support for Campbell's supersonic car never came, and it was partly to redeem himself that the Englishman went back to the water in an attempt to beat his own record.

Listening to the radio in the kitchen of his Palos Verdes home one January evening in 1967, Craig Breedlove heard the news that Donald Campbell had been killed when his boat, also called Bluebird, crashed on England's Lake Coniston. Breedlove tried to imagine himself sitting in that boat, then numbly sent a cable of condolence to Campbell's widow, Tonia.

Last spring Breedlove was a guest on a morning TV show in Los Angeles. Another guest was Belgian-born Tonia Bern Campbell, a cabaret singer who had resumed her career after her husband's death. After the show Breedlove asked a question: "Hey, whatever happened to Bluebird?"

Told that the car was on display in a small museum in Suffolk, he shook his head sadly. "It's a sin for a magnificent machine like that to just sit around," he said.

At Tonia's suggestion, Breedlove scraped together the fare and off he flew last fall to England, where he negotiated with the trustees of Campbell's estate for permission to drive Bluebird. Visiting the museum, he climbed into the car with the eagerness of a schoolboy inspecting his first bicycle. Soon afterward the automobile was moved to a garage near London for shipment to the U.S.—as soon as Breedlove could come up with a sponsor. The British press reported that Bluebird would fly again, but there was no word on who the mystery driver might be.

Not one to shy from tampering with a car just because $4 million and the wisdom and energy of several dozen companies have gone into it, Breedlove believes that with modifications Bluebird is capable of 475 mph. One change he has in mind is to move the driver's cockpit farther to the rear, an alteration that struck him as essential when he sat in the car in the museum. "I couldn't believe how far forward Campbell had been sitting," he muses. "Up there you don't feel what's going on because the skating and fishtailing all take place in the rear. What surprises me is that Donald could have driven like that at any speed."

Breedlove unblushingly describes Campbell as "sort of a father to me," and it is a fascinating coincidence that the two shared the same birthday, March 23. As he awaits the revival of the sport in which they competed, Breedlove professes to have learned a valuable lesson from his friend's life—and death. "I don't intend to see how far I can push myself, the way Donald did," he said one afternoon as he leafed casually through a sheaf of rocket-car designs piled on a drawing board in his quarters above the garage. "All I want is to break the sound barrier. Then I'll retire. I'm going to get myself a dog and go run along the beach with him. I'll let somebody else break 1,000."

At another moment, to be sure, Breedlove hedged on that vow, saying: "Of course, I couldn't very well quit on the job. I mean, if I went 760, say, and somebody else turned around and went 820, well...." But on that particular day, thumbing through his designs, he was preoccupied above all with the more immediate question of how he would get his supersonic car off the drawing board and Bluebird out of that garage in England. In the next room, behind a desk where in better days a full-time secretary worked, Craig's girl Cheryl, a fetching Continental Air Lines stewardess and the owner of the trusty Volkswagen, quietly attended to some backed-up paperwork.

Turning at last from the drawing board, Breedlove brightened. "Sooner or later I'm sure I'll come up with a sponsor," he said. "I figure if I can risk my life, somebody else will come along and risk the money." He paused to reflect on what he had just said, then drew his features into an expression of mock pain. "Hey, that's what you call looking at the bright side of things," he said cheerfully.

PHOTOPHOTOGary Gabelich will drive car Craig rejected.PHOTOThe late Donald Campbell, shown here with Tonia and "Bluebird," was "like a father" to Breedlove. Craig hopes to race "Bluebird" himself.PHOTOBreedlove sits on wheel cover of 500-mph jet racer after plunge into a Bonneville canal.PHOTOIn 1965 Breedlove nosed this formidable missile post the 600-mph mark—and found himself unemployed for lack of rivals in the speed game.