THE GREAT RACE A DUEL IN THE DESERT IS HITTING HIGH GEAR AS THE U.S.'S CRAIG BREEDLOVE AND BRITAIN'S RICHARD NOBLE BATTLE TO SET LAND SPEED RECORDS

September 28, 1997

The faster the cars go, the longer it takes to set a speed
record. It's a rule. Also, the faster the cars go, the more
expensive it gets. This is why the current land speed record has
stood for 14 years; nobody could bear to spend the time and
money to build a single-purpose vehicle that, operated correctly
(fat chance), did nothing more than create a rooster tail of
alkali dust and disappear beyond the curvature of the earth in a
heartbeat.

It used to be that mechanics with a vague sense of aerodynamics
and access to surplus jet engines could put something together
that could get up to 600 mph, no problem. They could do it in
their backyards. Sponsors were always glad to help out. And it
was exciting. A man once clipped a telephone pole on the
Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah and sailed off course into a salt
brine pond, thereby becoming the first person to attempt a land
speed record and nearly drown. Back in the 1960s there were so
many duels in the desert that traffic conditions resembled rush
hour on your favorite interchange (with fewer lane switches).
Craig Breedlove (the driver who ended up in the water) and Art
Arfons were the Mantle and Maris of the speed set, exchanging
the World's Fastest Man title six times, always getting their
sponsor's name in the news. It was quite a heyday.

But, as we've said, the faster they went, the more expensive it
got. Because the acclaim didn't seem to increase
proportionately, it has been a long time since anybody has
bothered with the record. After Breedlove, the suave Californian
with the surfer's good looks, got the record to 600.6 mph in
1965, almost everybody lost interest. It was five years before
the record was broken, by another American, Gary Gabelich, who
went 622.4 mph, and 13 more years before Richard Noble of Great
Britain hit the standing mark of 633.5 mph. A world (which had
mysteriously and overnight lost the need for muscle cars) yawned.

Still, the human need to go ever faster doesn't obey economic
restraints. There's always some romantic who believes in the
pursuit at any cost. So it is that, after all this time, there
is another duel, this time on the Black Rock Desert in Nevada.
Side by side on a vast playa north of Reno, rival rooster tails
rise from the floor of a dry lake bed. Just like the old days,
except the cars are faster, more expensive and less reliable,
and might, for all their speed, take forever to get to that
14-year-old record.

Hard-core speed enthusiasts park on a ridge above the playa,
unfold their lawn chairs and look down on the desert floor,
examining it for activity. They see two compounds of metal huts
ringed by all kinds of vehicles and even planes. The spectators
will watch for hours, until some pencil point of a vehicle gets
towed out onto the playa and a guy in a white suit walks up to
it, pets a dog, gets into the cockpit and achieves ignition.
There's nothing like being shot in 35 seconds from a standstill
to breakneck speed--600-plus, baby!--before the billowing of
chutes and a six-mile slowdown. But it's so damn...problematic.
There are winds, rain, a million things that can go wrong with a
car that has a sticker price of $3 million. Plus there are the
day-to-day expenses for crews, chuck wagon and support vehicles.

This isn't for everybody; in fact, it's for two guys who have
been here before. It's Breedlove again, with a sleek spike of a
car called the Spirit of America (the same moniker all five of
his cars have borne) carrying his 60-year-old bones across the
dust at (he hopes, someday) 700 mph. And, on a parallel strip
less than a mile away, Noble, with his two-jet-engine car,
aiming for the speed of sound, which at this altitude is about
750 mph. They've been encamped in the desert since early
September, mostly eating dust, fixing problems. At one point
Breedlove found himself overdrawn at the bank by $17,000 and had
to pull out to raise some money.

"It's not for sissies," says Breedlove, who is actually in year
2 of his record chase. This season he has yet to get his car up
to 400 mph, a threshold he first crossed 34 years ago. The
difficulties of the campaign are so extreme that he rarely even
speaks of the obvious excitement of piloting a car at near Mach
1. The fact that, so far, the car seems to want to fly on test
runs is almost secondary to the possibility that the whole
enterprise could end with a whimper, not a sonic boom, if
Breedlove runs out of sponsorship money.

He's the more modest of the romantics out on the desert. All
Breedlove wants to do is wrest the record from Great Britain and
get up to at least 640 mph on a measured mile of the 13-mile
track (do it twice, actually, back and forth as the record
requires). He plainly has enough car for it. When he was
attempting this feat last autumn, on the same track, he got the
Spirit of America up to 675 mph before disaster struck and it
tipped over on its side, inscribing the kind of U-turn in the
sand that is best appreciated from aerial photographs.

Noble, 51, is more ambitious. He has given up driving his car
and has instead installed an RAF pilot named Andy Green in the
cockpit, sandwiched between two Rolls-Royce Spey engines that
create 110,000 horsepower (twice that of Breedlove's power plant
and 1,000 times that of a Ford Escort, as Noble's team likes to
point out). Employing an RAF pilot makes great sense because,
although Noble also wants his car to remain land-based, it's
more of an aerial standard he's shooting for. He doesn't care
about breaking his own land speed record; Thrust SSC (for Super
Sonic Car), as his car is called, is about cracking the sound
barrier. He estimates his 10-ton beast has the potential of
reaching 850 mph.

No matter their ambitions or resources, though, both men have
been mocked by Mother Nature and Father Technology. That is to
say, they've had bad luck. Breedlove, who says he had to put $1
million of his own money into building his car before he could
persuade Shell Oil to come up with $2 million more, got a head
start on Noble this season, arriving in Gerlach, Nev., at the
edge of the playa, on Sept. 2. Three days later, after the crew
raced all day to prepare the car for a beauty shot (an attempt
that would be filmed by cosponsor AutoZone--a $500,000
donor--for a commercial), Breedlove cracked off a run of 227
mph. This was very encouraging to him, since the last time he'd
sat in the cockpit, a year ago, the Spirit of America had
careened into that U-turn while he sat coolly at the wheel until
he could right it. That mishap had been the end of that campaign
and cost about $500,000 for repairs (no deductible). So this was
better.

On Sept. 8, while making a run in the 300s (Breedlove's program
called for systematic increases toward 600 mph), his jet engine,
taken off a Navy F-4 Phantom II fighter, ingested some foreign
object after reaching 328. The engine blades were ruined.
Breedlove is not a man who wallows in disappointment. A guy who
has been married four times has a certain predisposition to
optimism. Anyway, he's famous for his brio. When rescuers
reached him the time he took out that telephone pole and landed
in the drink, the first thing he said was, "I think I broke my
car." So this wasn't going to bother him. He had another engine
at home, in Rio Vista, Calif. And off the team went to make the
repairs.

Before Breedlove's crew could get out of the desert, however,
the trailer transporting his car got stuck in some mud. A crew
member radioed over to the Black Rock Saloon, four miles away in
Gerlach. It was 11:45 p.m., but for some reason (these guys get
up at 4:30 in the morning for 7 a.m. runs) he found plenty of
folks from the Thrust team. In a grand display of sportsmanship,
six of the Thrusters returned to the playa, got out their
tractors and participated in a rescue.

It was a nice gesture because the Brits' effort had been a
halting one, too. On the sign outside the Black Rock Saloon, the
standings at that time read AMERICANS 328, BRITISH 147. (The
Brits protested that they had actually reached 148 before
battery problems caused an abort, but the saloon's scorekeeper
didn't have another 8.)

When Breedlove got home--and the garage where the Spirit of
America was built is actually his home; part of it has been
turned into a bachelor pad: big bed, big TV--he and his crew
slapped in the spare engine, no problem, and returned to the
desert. They had lost some ground though: On Sept.10, Noble's
car had reached 517 mph. Breedlove didn't take it personally; he
ordered his caterers to cook up a barbecue for the Thrust team
that night.

Two days later, Breedlove, who was battling a respiratory
infection on top of everything else, woke up to the news that
his bank account was overdrawn. "We checked the team out of the
motel to stop the hemorrhaging," he says, "and I spent all day
calling sponsors. It was not my best Friday."

However discouraged he was, Breedlove is about as good at
getting money as he is at going fast. After he'd left the
land-speed-record business in 1975, he got into selling Southern
California real estate, and it was that business plus a
partnership in two tennis centers that earned him the money he
needed to reenter the land-speed-record chase, his true love,
and establish his little empire in Rio Vista. There was never a
possibility of making any money at going fast--"This is an
amateur sport," he likes to say--but as long as there was money
coming in, he could pursue his dream.

Quick calls to Shell and AutoZone produced another $100,000, and
pleas for private help were met with smaller sums. It was just a
matter of days before the Spirit of America was headed back for
Gerlach. "The key," Breedlove says, "is persistence."

Noble, meanwhile, was having his own problems, although none so
profound as Breedlove's. Green had gotten Thrust SSC up to 624
mph on Sept. 13 but then began experiencing trouble with the
car's computer. By Monday, the computer problems were solved,
and Green made the first half of his run at 618.6. He then hit
687.9 on his return--more than enough to break the record. But
because the second portion of the run came more than one hour
after the first, the outing went into the books as unofficial.

As for Breedlove, his computers were functioning just fine, and
he got in a run of 381 mph on Sept. 12, but the data downloaded
from the Spirit of America after each run showed that the rear
wheels were close to lifting off the ground as the car's speed
increased. It may have been nothing more than a bad indicator,
but Breedlove didn't want to take a chance. He rushed last
year's attempt because of fears that bad weather was coming, and
the results could have been fatal. "You have to go forward in an
orderly fashion," he says.

Originally, this showdown in the desert didn't appear to be much
of a duel at all. Breedlove figured to get the record first by
virtue of starting earlier, but Noble was favored to smash
Breedlove's new mark on his way to Mach 1. But Breedlove
remembers going to his original sponsor, Goodyear, in 1965 and
pleading for the resources to test the sound barrier. Somebody
will get there soon, he told them. But that barrier remains
intact more than 30 years later.

If any team can break Mach 1, it's Noble's. Thrust SSC is
sophisticated beyond Breedlove's pocketbook or even his
inclination. Noble has used countless computer simulations and
rocket model runs to provide the data for building a safe
supersonic car. It's a formidable effort. But funny things
happen on the way to 750 mph, and it might turn out that no man
has the patience or desire to withstand them just to hear a
sonic boom. (Or not hear it; the driver, running ahead of the
sound wave, might not be able to hear that he has gone
supersonic.)

Breedlove is sufficiently spooked by Mach 1 that he has no
intention of trying to cross that threshold in a manned car.
Given the unknowns, why shouldn't he be spooked? It's not a
matter of 1890s ignorance, when it was thought the air would be
sucked from a passenger's lungs as soon as his car traveled
faster than a horse. In the 1990s enough is known about shock
waves to cause genuine trepidation. In flight they radiate
equally in all directions. But on the ground a shock wave might
bounce off the desert floor. Breedlove wants to automate his
car, bring it up to the speed of sound and then, if it doesn't
cartwheel east to Salt Lake City, try driving at that speed.

Breedlove is more of a seat-of-the-pants guy anyway, producing
cars that are nothing more than a tinkerer's dream. "It's not
the car in Tim Allen's garage," he likes to point out. But the
design is mostly generated in his head. Breedlove is a poster
boy for backyard mechanics everywhere. He designs and drives by
experience, and right now breaking the sound barrier is beyond
his experience. "This is pioneering stuff," he says. "There is
no data for a run this fast this close to the ground. It's a
scientific wild-haired guess."

Noble might have used a little more science than Breedlove in
his wild-haired guess and, at the moment, seems on a faster
trajectory than his rival. But out on the Nevada desert, where
wind and flying debris can sabotage the most dedicated effort,
it doesn't pay to be too confident. Most anything can, and does,
happen. These speed records, after all, are achieved slowly, and
you have to pity the man who thinks he can rush into one.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY LOUISE NOETH Desert Storm Thrust SSC, one of two jet-powered cars now zooming across the Nevada flats, goes out for a test drive before attempting to break the sound barrier (page 60). [T of C] COLOR PHOTO: DAVID MADISON So far Noble's more sophisticated Thrust SSC (top) has outgunned Breedlove's Spirit of America (left) by almost 250 mph. [Car Thrust SSC being driven on desert flats] COLOR PHOTO: CARL YARBOROUGH [See caption above--car Spirit of America being driven on desert flats] COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Breedlove (above) is still going strong--and fast--at 60, but Green has more car under him as he goes for Mach 1. [Craig Breedlove beside present Spirit of America car] COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN [See caption above--Richard Noble atop Thrust SSC car] COLOR PHOTO: LANDSPEED PRODUCTIONS Breedlove was at the forefront of the land-speed-record chase in the 1960s when he nearly drowned. [Craig Breedlove and crew with Spirit of America car and Shell Oil Truck on desert flats]
B/W PHOTO: LANDSPEED PRODUCTIONS [See caption above--Craig Breedlove sitting on fin of Spirit of America car in lake] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BURGESS The first man to reach 400, 500 and 600 mph, Breedlove hashis sights set squarely on 700. [Craig Breedlove in cockpit of Spirit of America car]
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
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Double Bogey (+2)