One day last month on the Alvord Desert, a barren clay flat beneath a big lonely mountain in southeast Oregon, Kitty O'Neil, a 28-year-old part-Irish, half-Cherokee lady from Corpus Christi, squirmed into the cockpit of a narrow rocket-powered three-wheeled vehicle called the Motivator. Although Kitty O'Neil stands only 5'3" and weighs 97 pounds, her entry into the machine was a minor victory in itself, because the cockpit of the Motivator is barely large enough to accommodate an expectant baboon. Once properly wedged in, lying semi-supine with her head barely higher than her feet, Kitty gave the foot throttle two quick taps, and the engine responded, first with a gurgle and then a flatulent snort, throwing out a cloud of vapor.
Thirty feet from the rumbling car, Bill Fredrick, the Californian who designed and built it, began a 10-second countdown. Because Kitty is totally deaf, an assistant, Stan Schwanz, relayed the count to her by hand signals. When Schwanz signaled "zero," Kitty said a short prayer, depressed the throttle and kept it down. During a sliver of a second the howling machine stood motionless, as if stuck in time. In the next instant it was gone, a shrinking blur lost in its own trailing noise.
For one second after she blasted off, the force of acceleration pushed Kitty's guts gently back against her lungs, but except for this minor discomfort, the ride was a smooth one. Within five seconds she was going 180 mph. In 15 seconds she was a mile down the course, doing 500. Five seconds later she was going 200 mph faster than any landbound woman had traveled before, reaching a speed of about 600 mph and clocking 514.120 through a one-kilometer speed trap.
The international rules for land-speed attempts require the driver to complete a second run in the opposite direction through the same timing trap within two hours. There was almost an hour to spare when Kitty streaked back through the same kilometer in 4.375 seconds (only 24 thousandths of a second slower than her first run) for a two-way average speed of 512.710 mph.
January 17, 1977
Way back in 1954, in the pre-dawn of the Space Age, Lieut. Colonel John Paul Stapp rode a rocket-powered sled on rails 632 mph to test the effects of rapid acceleration and deceleration. Stapp survived, although he almost lost both eyeballs in the abrupt process of slowing down. (The Air Force had also subjected a trained ape to similar rides. When offered a banana as inducement before one wild run, the ape hit its handler over the head with it.) Stapp's 632 mph is still the highest terminal speed reliably recorded on land, although at least one man has surely exceeded it. The official world mark for a two-way run is 630.388 mph, set Oct. 23, 1970 on Utah's Bonneville Salt Flat by Gary Gabelich, a Southern Californian who dropped out of the space program in favor of a drag racing career. In the middle of his final run, the needle of Gabelich's airspeed indicator edged past 650.
Today, when the gaudy antics of Evel Knievel and his imitators dominate the scene, the feats of men like Stapp and Gabelich have low cash value, and the heroes themselves are fast forgotten. On those counts, Kitty O'Neil is a worthy newcomer to the 600-mph club. She drove the Motivator to a new women's record without monetary reward or so much as a banana as an inducement. As a result of her record-breaking run, she will reap, at best, a modest bundle from various endorsements and promotions—probably enough to keep her laughing halfway to the bank.
If her fame becomes short-lived as that of Stapp and Gabelich, Kitty is not the sort to worry. She has been tempered in adversity since childhood, and she now prospers in obscurity. She was born deaf but, tutored by a persistent mother, she learned to lip-read and speak well enough to attend regular classes before she completed grade school. She was a promising three-meter and platform diver in the early '60s, despite being crippled by spinal meningitis, and in the years since, she has survived cancer thanks to two operations. Until she drove the Motivator, probably not one in 100,000 people would have known her by face or name, although as a stunt woman standing in for Lee Grant, Lisa Blount and other actresses, in the past year she has had more public exposure than Knievel.
Remember how a bad guy had Lana Wood hanging out a sixth-story window in an episode of Baretta? Remember how Pamela Bellewood and Lee Grant struggled to keep their heads above water in a sinking jetliner in Airport '77? Remember Lisa Blount being set on fire during a graveyard seance in the movie 9/30/55? Well, Kitty O'Neil was the lady actually being mauled, drowned and burned.
Kitty got to drive the Motivator because some years earlier she had made the right connections in Hollywood. In 1970, while racing motorcycles in cross-country events, she met and married a one-time bank vice-president, Duffy Hambleton, who, realizing he was a jock at heart, had quit banking to become a stunt man. After several years living on an orange ranch serving as a housewife and a mother to Duffy's two children by a previous marriage, Kitty decided she wanted to get back into some kind of action herself. Duffy spent two years teaching her the survival techniques of his profession, and last March she joined him in Stunts Unlimited, a cooperative association that includes many of the best daredevils.
Through her husband, Kitty met Bill Fredrick, who earns his living developing devices that stunt men use to make smash action scenes ever more smashing. When a movie or TV director wants a bit of eye-stopping action like, say, a cute blonde being thrown through the roof of a speeding sedan, he phones Fredrick. After putting data through a few electronic abacuses and computers and mentally digesting the output, Fredrick reports back that to blast a blonde of X weight Y feet into the air through a car roof that fractures under Z stress requires such-and-such an explosive charge. Describing his particular genius, Fredrick says simply, "If you want to go up in the air, I can show you how and tell you exactly where you will land." After attending a high school that saturated him with mathematics, Fredrick had one year of engineering at UCLA before quitting to support his family. For 10 years he prospered as owner of a chain of meat markets, then after going bankrupt trying to expand his empire, he decided to devote himself to his hobby—high-speed cars.
In the early '60s, when he still enjoyed solvency as a butcher baron, Fredrick pioneered thrust-drive in land machines. A creation of his called Valkyrie, driven by Gabelich, was one of the first jet cars to compete on drag strips. In that day the world record stood at 394.20 mph, and Valkyrie might have beaten it, but because of its jet thrust, the car was viewed with distrust and not allowed to try at Bonneville. Another Fredrick car, Courage of Australia, and its driver, John Paxson, were the first licensed for rocket-powered exhibition runs by the National Hot Rod Association.
Considering the occupations of Fredrick, its creator, and Kitty O'Neil, its driver, the achievement of the Motivator can literally be called a Hollywood production, but to dismiss it as a show-biz stunt is no more honest historically than to describe Columbus' first Atlantic crossing as a gimmick to promote Caribbean package tours. The record run of the Motivator was a proper venture into the unknown by two people who have been contending with relentless physical fact most of their lives.
Back in the days when land-speed records were set in ponderous cars powered by reciprocating engines, the problems were multifold but, in the main, well understood. The exorbitant forces required to move those brontosaurian machines of yore taxed pistons and rods and transmissions and tore rubber off tires in chunks. The Sunbeam Slug, in which, in 1927, Sir Henry Segrave was the first to exceed 200 mph, weighed 3¾ tons. The Bluebird, in which, in 1935, Sir Malcolm Campbell first surpassed 300 mph, weighed almost five tons. Even the two jet-powered Spirit of Americas, in which Craig Breedlove pushed the record past 400, then 500 and 600, weighed about four tons each. Without fuel, the Motivator weighs a scant ton and a half and has a frontal area of less than 10 square feet.
Whereas the piston engines of the past were in essence an orchestration of many exquisite parts moving at high speed in various directions, the most critical moving part in the power train of the Motivator is the throttle valve that allows pressurized liquid hydrogen peroxide to flow back through a catalytic pack and, by its rapid decomposition and expansion, propel the car. It is the sort of pure machine that most archconservationists would approve of, although penny pinchers might be appalled by the cost per mile. When the Motivator takes off for the horizon, the only wastes it expels are water vapor and oxygen, but in the process of returning these components to the atmosphere, it uses hydrogen peroxide the way Niagara Falls uses water. A 600-mph run consumes about 100 gallons—in cash terms, one quick five-mile trip costs about $1,000. The piston-powered monsters used to romp to records on less than $20 worth of gas.
The Blue Flame, in which Gabelich raised the record to 630.388 mph, was rocket-powered like the Motivator, but weighed more than twice as much and, more significant, had far greater frontal area. Compared to all the other record-breakers in the last 50 years, the Motivator is truly a lightweight, a mere needle thrusting toward the sonic barrier—and there's the rub. The heavier, slower machines of the past rarely took off into the air unless impelled by some failure that occurred while their wheels were still touching the ground. Nobody knows how land machines will behave as they approach the transonic zone, but becoming airborne is a considerable risk. Because the pressure of air drops as its speed increases, Craig Breedlove designed a velocity tunnel under its fore section to help hold down his second jet car, Spirit of America, Sonic I. But when he got above 550 mph, the air stream in the tunnel was approaching sonic velocity and generated a reverse lifting effect. When Gabelich reached peak speed in the Blue Flame, only 350 pounds of the car's total weight of 6,500 were on the front wheels. The air spinning off the tires chopped small holes in the hard Bonneville salt.
Before Kitty O'Neil traveled more than a few cautious miles in the Motivator, Paxson, the rocket-car veteran, made four test runs in it at El Mirage Dry Lake in California, and one at Bonneville. On the Bonneville try, Paxson attained a speed of 360 mph, but before he had passed midpoint in the timing trap, the car veered dangerously off the course, missing a protruding pipe by four feet. On her only run at Bonneville, Kitty topped out at about 300 mph, but wandered all over the course.
After the Motivator was bench-tested and remeasured, Fredrick concluded that its habit of wandering was not an inherent fault but had been caused by the slick and badly degraded course at Bonneville. As a result, the record attempt was shifted to the Alvord Desert, a dry lake bed that was once restricted as an emergency landing strip by the Air Force.
In the past 70 years there has rarely been a land-speed car that performed as flawlessly as the Motivator did at Alvord. On Dec. 3, Kitty O'Neil made one short orientation run, peaking out at a little more than 300 mph. The next day she averaged better than 300 on three runs through the kilometer trap. On the third day she twice exceeded 400, and on the fourth she pushed the record beyond 500. For her fastest run, she was still using just 60% of the car's power, and suffered only about 1.5 Gs during acceleration—modest punishment, indeed. From zero to 600 mph and back down to zero, she never deviated from the center line of the course by more than three feet. The only flaw in the car's predicted performance was hardly expected and from a safety standpoint might be considered a blessing: as the Motivator sped down the track expending more than 50 pounds of fuel every second, it became nose-heavy as it got lighter instead of trying to fly, to the point where its all-metal front wheel was making a half-inch rut in the clay. There is no doubt that by dialing in more power—giving herself a harder kick in the rump, as it were—Kitty could have gone still faster, past Gabelich's record and possibly across the sonic barrier.
Why didn't she press on? She could not because of the strange assortment of kibitzers who got in her way. The Motivator was ready to run by the last week in October. In the closing days of their presidential campaign, neither Gerald Ford nor Jimmy Carter saw fit to comment on the Motivator's prospects, but a great many lesser folk butted into the act, waving the banners of various causes and shooting from the hip like partisans in an oldtime Mexican uprising.
Whereas Democratic Governor Robert Straub of Oregon favored the record attempt, Republican Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon opposed it, fearing that such motorized antics might harm "unique natural life." (According to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the area, the Alvord Desert has no life of any kind.) Several Oregon newspapers editorialized against the attempt. A very small band of nature lovers, known as the Oregon High Desert Study Group, objected to the record attempt, citing among other concerns that spectators might harm the vegetation fringing the 11-by-5½-mile desert, and that the noise might affect wildlife on higher ground more than two miles from where the car ran. (When Kitty made her record run, there were 50 people on hand, counting crewmen, press and officials. As for noise, every year, thunder accompanying cloud bursts gives the distant high ground a harder pounding than the Motivator ever could with its 20-second bursts, and so do the Air Force F-111's that sweep over the clay flat at 2,000 to 5,000 feet three or four times a month in VFR training.)
Although their fears verged on the frivolous, the Oregon High Desert Studiers were joined in their protest by the Pacific Northwest Chapter of the Sierra Club. At one point, a lawyer representing the two groups said his clients had no objection to the running, but the Oregon High Desert Studiers subsequently reneged and, represented by another lawyer, filed an objection with the Land Appeals Board in Washington. By the time this double-dealing was cleared up, the best weeks of November were gone and the first snow was overdue.
Under a contract for which Duffy paid $20,000 to get her the ride, Kitty O'Neil was only supposed to drive the Motivator to a new women's record. By similar contract, for which Marvin Glass and Associates, a Chicago toy-development concern, paid $25,000, Hal Needham, a colleague of Kitty's in Stunts Unlimited, was slated to try for the men's record and, it was hoped, break the sonic barrier. As a stunt man, Needham has few peers, if any. Since he was a teen-ager, he has had a penchant for the improbable. When he was in the 82nd Airborne and moonlighting with a thrill show on weekends, he tried coming down under 28 one-foot-diameter pilot chutes that he had bundled up in a bed sheet. After plummeting like a crated piano for several seconds, he pulled his reserve. His most notable film stunt of recent date was a rocket-propelled flight 128 feet across a gorge in a pickup truck.
Marvin Glass and Associates had developed a toy line featuring Needham and had sold it to Gabriel Industries, a New York company best known for its toy subsidiaries, Gilbert and Kohner. Counting promotional expenses and whatnot, Glass spent more than $75,000 for Needham to drive the Motivator (which he has yet to do, even under tow at 60 mph).
While ostensibly serving as pilot of the Motivator, Needham was also busy directing and editing a movie that he had written. Playing a variety of parts in a single season may be the Hollywood style, but a land-speed attempt is simply not the kind of specialty act that fits well with any other. It demands a singular, almost masochistic devotion. In the long and frustrating history of record attempts, there is proof enough on that count. Sir Malcolm Campbell once groused around Daytona Beach for a full month waiting for the right turn of the weather and swing of the moon to get firm enough sand to squeeze a few more miles per hour from his machine. Gabelich spent five weeks at Bonneville in 1970, and 10 minutes after he had set the world record, rain came, closing the course down until late summer.
It was Needham's further misconception that he could hop in the car on short notice and blast off for the record—or die in the attempt. Such an attitude is perhaps acceptable in the movie business, where if one stunt man is killed while demolishing a sedan and a retake is needed, another man and sedan can be hired, but the Motivator is one of a kind. It cost over $350,000, and there are more than 30 sponsors who would be very mad if Needham totaled it in one slapdash try for a record.
Needham maintains that he was ready to go with the car on 24-hour notice, and never got such an alert. Fredrick maintains that because he was already out of money and a cold front was heading for Oregon, threatening to close out the course for the next seven months, there was no time to run Needham up through the gears. That being the case, Fredrick saw no choice but to go all the way with Kitty.
The day after Kitty set the women's record, the car was being prepared for her to break Gabelich's record when Fredrick got several phone calls from afar reminding him that he had a binding contract to let Needham try for the mark. So Kitty came out of the driver's seat and became a symbol of wronged womanhood across the land—not an ordinary run-of-the-mill wronged woman, mind you, but, as the press reported with some license, a deaf Indian lass, a housewife and mother of two. The Portland Oregonian, one of the papers that had opposed the record attempt, had earlier reported that Kitty was Hal Needham's wife, thereby making the contretemps look like a typical case of Hollywood hubby jealous because spouse was getting more ink. To make matters worse, in the midst of the turmoil, John Radewagen—a Chicago public-relations man paid to promote Needham and maintain a low profile for Marvin Glass and Associates—was falsely quoted as saying that it would be "degrading" for a woman to hold the record. As a consequence, Marvin Glass and Associates lost their low profile, and Needham got a number of phone calls accusing him of being a male chauvinist pig and worse. Two weeks later Gabriel Industries was saying they did not want any publicity on their line of Hal Needham toys. Thus it was that an enterprise of great pith and moment fast went to pot.
The day after Kitty was pulled from the driver's seat, a strong, cold wind swept the Alvord Desert, wiping out the Motivator's tracks and sending large balls of tumbleweed across the barren ground in a ghostly dance. By nightfall it was snowing.
The Bureau of Land Management experts who have had to contend with such things over the years maintain that in view of the opposition that is inevitable and all the time it will take for lawyers and lesser kibitzers to gnaw over the issues, it will be a year, maybe two, before the Motivator can get clearance to run again on the Alvord Desert. To salvage something from the debacle, Fredrick hopes this spring to run the Motivator, with Needham aboard, for the quarter-mile acceleration record on some small desert that can accommodate a modest run-out in one direction. To subject such a talented machine to this petty challenge is rather like casting Richard Burton to play the part of Yorick's skull in an off-Broadway production of Hamlet. But then, as they say in show biz, a little ink is better than none.