The last time anyone paid any special note to the world of absolute speed it was 1970 and Gary Gabelich was going 622.407 miles an hour across Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats in a rocket car called The Blue Flame. "Gee, that's fast," they said. "I wonder if the price of steak is going up again next month?" If one mentioned the name Gabelich today, most folks, even those who regularly follow motor sports, would say "Gary...uhm who?"
"Gary (Rocket Man) Gabelich. You know, the world's fastest man. He took the land speed record away from Craig Breedlove. You do remember Craig Breedlove?"
"Oh yes. Uhh, Breedlove. I've seen him selling tires on television. Is that the one you mean?"
The sad fact of life for anyone who wants to break the world land speed record is that he will not get much attention for doing it unless he ends up on his head. That is what happened to Craig Breedlove recently after taking a run at the world's record for the standing-start quarter mile in his latest missile, a fierce creation commercially known as The English Leather Special. It is a lunar landing rocket bolted onto three wheels. It develops the thrust equivalent of approximately 15,000 horsepower. When it came to rest right side up on the salt after several barrel rolls, it was emitting noxious yellow clouds of nitrogen tetroxide (NO), the oxidizer that seconds before had caused a spontaneous chemical ignition when it came in contact with the unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine fuel. It did not smell even remotely like after-shave lotion.
December 17, 1973
But never mind the crash. The English Leather Special is a mere prototype, with only one-fifth the thrust of the car Breedlove hopes to build for another crack at the land speed record. And this time he will not be merely trying to better Gabelich's record by a few miles an hour. This time he will be shooting for 740 miles per hour, the speed of sound.
That fast? Why would anyone want to drive a car faster than the speed of sound? The point is well taken. Money would be an obvious answer, but none of the men who chase this dream have become wealthy through their land speed records. The money they might derive from breaking the sound barrier would be small change compared to a season's earnings for Jack Nicklaus or the fat contract offered Wilt Chamberlain. Fame? A land-speed-record attempt is a long and lonely business, impossible to stage in the Houston Astrodome or cover on live TV. It is a drama played out before several dozen spectators in a remote part of the Utah desert, and it is unlikely that those who succeed at it will get nearly as much publicity as anyone beating Bobby Riggs or even threatening to jump the Snake River Canyon on a motorcycle.
Listening to Gary Gabelich one gets the impression that asking why is what's really absurd. "Racing is really boss, man. If you like to go fast, that's all there is." The idea of the danger involved in traveling 750 miles an hour bubbles up and rolls away from his mind like droplets of water off a fresh coat of Simoniz. "Driving the car is a piece of cake," he says. "You could do it; almost anyone could. It's putting the whole project together that's tough, raising the $1 million we figure it will cost, and then converting it into a car and a team that we know can break the barrier." He speaks of his team so frequently that he begins to sound like the self-effacing player of the week in a postgame interview or the blushing astronauts giving all the credit for their being on the moon to the technicians of Houston. It is as if strapping his body in a supersonic rocket were no more a commitment and courageous act than trying out the air-conditioned fossil burners in Detroit's new fall line.
Gabelich is totally into whatever he is doing. He worked for North American Rockwell for 9½ years in various positions from mailboy to staff assistant to part-time test subject for the Apollo program—not flying the capsules, but testing their long-term liveability in a weightless condition, their tolerance to and performance under conditions of extreme yaw and, though they seldom speak of it on televised moon shots, the toilet facilities.
He began drag racing in his father's Pontiac in 1957, and during his tenure at North American Rockwell established a name for himself at strips in Southern California. His employers, fearing the investment of too much time and unique training in a research subject who, it seemed to them, was laying his life and the continuity of their research on the starting line every weekend, gave him the ultimatum: "Cease this foolhardy diversion or forfeit your job." There was never really any question about the response. The choice was made for him by his dedication to the world he loves and his desire to prevail in it.
Gabelich's new sound-barrier car, which is being built in Long Beach, will be 44 feet long, eight feet longer than the current Blue Flame record car, which was sponsored by The Natural Gas Industry. The tail fin will be cut down, the rear wheels set farther back and wider apart, and the underside of the body will be V-shaped. This latter touch is an engineer's dream: when supercar breaks the sound barrier on land, the shock waves will go off the car at a 45-degree angle downward, hit the ground and bounce away from the car instead of bouncing back up to blow the thing off the ground.
On the wall of Gary's office there is a cartoon clipped from a newspaper and presented by his girl friend Linda. It shows Hazel, the maid, casing the family's preadolescent heir standing on a pair of water skis in the backyard plastic wading pool, holding onto a rope attached to the rear bumper of a car. "Have you thought this thing through?" Hazel asks. Gabelich has thought his project through, and his proposed new attempt at the sound barrier, like his previous record runs, is no mere display of mindless fortitude.
A year ago last spring at Orange County International Raceway, Gabelich did get into a car that had not been thoroughly thought through—and the result was a crash that almost ripped off his left forearm and broke his left leg so severely that more than a year later he still wore a cast. "We had rushed the project, and I had bad vibes about it," he says now. The car was a four-wheel-drive experimental "funny car" (a dragster with the facsimile body of a regular Detroit car), and it careened out of control at 180 miles an hour during a quarter-mile run. "Being in the hospital gave me time to think," Gabelich says, "and what I thought about mostly was getting back in shape to work on the sound-barrier project."
Gabelich wants to win at whatever he does. Thus, when he began racing motorcycles he raced under the improbable pseudonym of Orval Volotch. "As holder of the land speed record I'd be expected to win, but I really didn't know much about that kind of racing. So when I used another name it took all that pressure off and I could have fun." Still, he finished first among the "pie plates," the unrated amateurs, in his first desert run.
For Gary Gabelich everything is right now. He is almost totally without introspection and obsessed with doing well, whether water skiing, driving The Blue Flame at more than 600 miles an hour, talking to promoters and potential sponsors or making one of the endless public relations tours for the American Gas Association. "Sometimes I think I'd rather be somewhere else," he says, "but since I've got to be wherever I am, I figure I might as well make a good job of it. I want to be a winner."
A large part of the pleasure Gabelich takes in his work is directed at firing the enthusiasm of those around him. He frequently begins the day, particularly before a speed-record attempt, by playing Isaac Hayes music to his crew. "It gets everybody in a really good mood and sets up good vibes for what we've got to do," he says.
If Gary Gabelich is absorbed with his delight in the present, Craig Breedlove is the Hamlet of the world of speed—constantly weighing the value of what he is doing against the risks involved and his plans to someday give it up and indulge himself with all the places he wants to go to and do absolutely nothing. "I don't know if there is anything valuable that could come from breaking the sound barrier on land," he muses, "though I'm sure we'd learn something from it, and anything we learn helps." But he says the only immediate reasons he has for wanting to drive a car faster than the speed of sound are for the distinction of being the first to do it and, of course, to make money, money that will allow him to do nothing, anywhere he chooses.
Breedlove suffers the strange dichotomy of wanting the adulation that comes with his accomplishments and viewing the demands on his time and energy that follow such notoriety as a punishment for his having done precisely what he wanted to do. Each new record necessitates a long promotional tour that is written into his sponsorship contracts: talk-show appearances, local press conferences, lectures and cocktail parties, until the ultimate reward for breaking the land speed record emerges as a hangover and soggy hors d'oeuvres.
Nevertheless, the sound barrier is there. "Nobody knows what will happen when we exceed the speed of sound, and that's why we've got to find out," he says.
Breedlove got into the speed game as a drag racer. After establishing some pretty fast credentials he convinced a Los Angeles aircraft-components manufacturer in 1960 that he was serious about breaking the land speed record (then 394.20 mph), got $10,000 in sponsorship and set to work designing his car. Mickey Thompson's attempts in a wedge-shaped racer powered by four Pontiac V-8 engines had persuaded Breedlove that jet power was the way to go. He also was convinced that a car with a single nose wheel was the only design providing for a sufficiently small frontal area to bore through the wind resistance that—beyond a certain speed—neutralizes horsepower.
The FIA, the international body that oversees all official automotive speed records, refused Breedlove sanction for his new car on the basis of an old familiar theme: an automobile must be wheel-driven. This same refusal of sanction had earlier discouraged Donald Campbell, who also had believed in the utility of jet thrust.
But Breedlove then got a crafty idea—he asked for and received a sanction from the FIM, the organization that oversees all motorcycle world speed records. FIM was willing enough to grant that Breed-love's Spirit of America would qualify as a motorcycle. And since his aim was simply to cover a measured mile on land faster than any human being had gone before, it really did not seem to matter whether the vehicle in which he intended to accomplish it was called an automobile or a motorcycle. The rest of the story is in the record books: 407.45 miles an hour on Aug. 5, 1963, followed by 468.72 and 526.38 in 1964, and 555.127 and 600.601 in 1965.
"Nobody really had any reason to have confidence in me. I was just a high school graduate who'd majored in machine shop and who liked to build and race dragsters," he says now.
The first thing one notices about Breedlove are his eyes. They seem to protrude slightly with a veiled oracular quality as if they were meant to simultaneously engage attention and camouflage what is going on behind them. His brown hair curls down almost to his shoulders, and if it were not for the finely drawn lips, he might be mistaken for Mick Jagger.
On the return run of a record attempt in 1964, while engaged in a mano a mono with Art Arfons for the land speed record, Breedlove lost both his drag chute and his emergency chute. At 600 miles an hour he found his brakes were useless. By the time he had slowed to a comparatively controllable 300 mph he was approaching the end of the 10-mile speed strip where the Salt Flats are bordered by telephone poles, a highway and brine-filled ditches. Attempts to spin the car only resulted in clipping off two telephone poles. Breedlove ejected his canopy just as the car vaulted a salt mound and buried its nose in a ditch full of saline ooze. After swimming to the surface he greeted his would-be rescuers with a Barnumesque, "Now for my next act I'll set myself on fire."
But this display of bravado belies a deep concern with the risks involved in his trade. A driver has to work up his courage or, more accurately, his concentration, before each run. Concentration translates into courage. When a driver is on the line ready to make a run, the exigency of the moment enforces a total concentration, which in turn forces out of the mind any energy for speculation about the possible consequences of something going wrong. "It's between races and before races that I think about it," Breedlove says. And he uses this time between races to do something about the hazards; he creates insurance on his drawing board.
One feature of Breedlove's new land-speed-record car will be a driver capsule in the nose, which in an emergency would break away from the rocket behind it and be hurled aloft. Then, in theory, the cockpit would float back to earth beneath a parachute, like a space capsule returning from the moon. "It's one way to escape being pushed around by that 8,000 pounds of rocket behind me. Of course, it would be insane to use it at 700 miles per hour, but at 300 or 350 it could make a lot of difference," says Breedlove. He has not forgotten his plunge into the brine. His clearest statement about the risk involved is a brief one: "I don't like it."
While Breedlove lacks Gary Gabelich's wild-eyed enthusiasm and promotional ability, he compensates by being one of the brightest and most innovative rocket engineers in private practice. Time and again he has found design loopholes in the technical specifications set forth by the various bodies that sanction drag and land speed attempts, and has taken advantage of them.
The terrifying sound made by Breed-love's new rocket dragster is documented in a photograph on the wall of his office, a picture of his English Leather Special blasting away from the line. If you look closely in the lower right-hand corner of the photograph you can see the official flagman in his black-and-white striped shirt, cowering on the ground with a towel over his head. This is not characteristic of flagmen, who are for the most part frustrated matadors who like to demonstrate their courage by standing firm and letting cars pass within inches of their bodies.
On one occasion Breedlove stood aside and watched his rocket engine fired up on a test bed. "It was so terrifying," he gasped, "that I'm sure that if I wasn't in front of it where I can't really hear the noise I'd never be able to drive it down the strip." He shares with a number of drivers the feeling that it is far less frightening to drive a racing car than to watch and hear one being driven.
But Breedlove realizes he may have to face listening to the rocket blasts as a bystander before too long. "I'm 36 now, and I'm sure I don't want to be doing this when I'm 50. There are too many other things. My son is 16 and building a dragster. I want to help him all I can. After the sound barrier, I'm going to hang it up. I guess I'd rather be remembered as a designer than a driver."
Art Arfons has held and lost the world land speed record three times, and is, at 47, the forgotten man of the Salt Flats. He exudes the unpretentious toughness of the aging cowboy who has been thrown and is dusting himself off and tucking in his shirt to try again. Arfons has his eye on the sound barrier, but his approach to it is somewhat different and perhaps more sensible from that of either Gabelich or Breedlove.
"Breaking the sound barrier is not going to be the piece of cake those other guys think it is. I'd like to run right at 700, right on the edge of it. That would be a record that would stand a long time." When he goes for the sound barrier, at least for the first time, Arfons intends to be a spectator: he plans to operate his jet car by remote control. "Nobody knows what is going to happen when you run over your own shock wave," he says. "I'll be willing to sacrifice the car to find out, but I'm not going to be in it." He holds his 8-year-old daughter on his lap as he talks. "I think about writing a letter or a poem to her, something she could read in 20 years and know how I felt about her, but I'd like to be around to tell her myself."
In 1954 Arfons was a 27-year-old Akron livestock-feed dealer. One day he went out for a Sunday drive with his wife and 2-year-old son. He had never even heard of drag racing, but as he drove past an airstrip near Akron he noticed some activity and stopped for a closer look. Several weeks later he was back to have a go with his first dragster, a crude homemade frame with an Oldsmobile engine and a junk rear end that he had banged together in his backyard haybarn.
Arfons ran a disappointing quarter mile with a terminal speed of only 86 miles an hour and he decided that if he was going to be successful at his new game he was going to have to go big. Big for Art Arfons meant acquiring a surplus Allison aircraft engine and building what turned out to be one of the first rearengined racing cars, a monstrous engine on four anemic highway tires with the driver in a bucket well forward of the front wheels. Daubed with green tractor paint, it was highly unsophisticated compared to any dragster anybody had ever seen, but in 1955 it was fast enough at 145.16 miles an hour to make Arfons, in his first year of competition, the top quarter-miler in the world. It was tagged the Green Monster, a name that has subsequently become synonymous with any car Arfons drives.
The one ineluctable impression in talking to Arfons is that he has no time for nonsense. He is a working mechanic and would rather be in his Akron shop than anywhere else on earth. He spends a lot of time thinking about giving up driving, but he refuses to permit others to risk their lives in a car he has built.
He remembers all too vividly his own day of tragedy, a crash on a drag strip in Dallas two years ago in which a television reporter, riding as a passenger in the Green Monster, and two spectators were killed. The lines form more deeply around his eyes, and he winces when he talks about it; then he abruptly changes the subject to tractor tires.
The most recent Arfons creation is tractor powered—as are each of his dragsters and land-speed cars—by a military surplus jet engine. And lately he has found himself torn between the drag strip and the county fair, where he has become a tough competitor in the 7,000-pound tractor pull. "It's 90% show business, just like racing," Arfons says, and he points out the injector that squirts fuel into the tractor's enormous exhaust stack. "This jet runs just about as clean as anything you can imagine, but we shoot some fire out of the stack and the crowd loves it."
Arfons wants to build a Formula Vee racing car for his son. He also has ideas about transforming the heat generated in braking for a corner into additional power for the following straightaway. Then there is his plan for a subterranean tube that would carry passengers from New York to California faster than the speed of sound—a giant version of the old department-store tube that sucked your dollars upstairs and shot back the change.
In some ways Arfons is a jet-powered Rube Goldberg without either the time or money to fully indulge his mechanical fantasies. "I used to like driving the cars better than building them, but now it's the other way around," he says. "I've tried to quit racing a number of times, but it's my whole life. What else would I do?" Arfons has already broken several promises to his wife that he would not drive anymore.
One such promise was exacted in 1966 after a Bonneville land speed attempt at almost 600 mph. The car went out of control, cartwheeled 560 feet and slid a mile farther on the ground. The impact of its landing was so severe that one front wheel was found four miles away and the other bounced upward almost as high as the rotor blades of a helicopter hovering 200 feet above the Salt Flats. In all, Arfons has written off five racing cars and freely admits that the anticipation of a land speed attempt scares him silly.
"I don't sleep the night before a record try, and when the time comes to get in the car I feel like running away. But when the car gets moving, then everything is all right. Then it's the kind of feeling you get listening to really deep music, not this rock-and-roll stuff." Arfons has a superstition against talking about any run being his last. "I'm not a kid anymore, and I'm not as quick as I used to be. I don't want to do this too much longer, but I don't want to talk about quitting. I've known some guys who didn't make it through what they'd said was going to be their last run. It won't be that way with me. I'll just get out of the car, call it quits and walk away."
When Craig Breedlove or Gary Gabelich or Art Arfons finally gears up for the next try at the record, nobody knows what will happen. Beyond the 700 to 750 miles an hour that defines the sound barrier at the 4,200-foot elevation of the Bonneville Salt Flats, there will be a shock wave that will explode in all directions—and when it hits the ground it has got to come back up. Nobody knows how this will affect a vehicle traveling over it.
Sponsors tend to be skeptical about ventures that might go up in a cloud of rocket fuel, and they also have accountants who want to be shown a comparable return in publicity for the sizable investment risk involved in a shot at the sound barrier. Breedlove, Gabelich and Arfons all are currently without financing for their supersonic projects, though Gabelich claims he has a hot sponsorship prospect. But each of them is confident he will find the money and be the first to break the speed-of-sound mystery of those air molecules out there on the Salt Flats.