The land speed record is the ultimate answer to that age-old question: How fast will she go?
It sounds so simple, when the essence of speed is distilled to just those five words.
But they disguise so much of the risk, commitment and romance of any endeavour that they sell it short. It is not simply a matter of building a vehicle with the greatest possible power output, then strapping in a driver with sufficient valour to keep his right foot flat to the floor all the way, in each direction and within an hour, through a measured kilometre or a mile.
World land speed record attempts are not just about intensive scientific research and clinical development, though these days such crucial elements have long surpassed the hot rodding mentality of the Sixties. Instead, they are a complex amalgam of engineering skill and human courage, passion and endeavour.
Driving at maximum velocity on Pendine Sands, Daytona Beach, the Bonneville Salt Flats, Lake Eyre, the Black Rock Desert or perhaps, in the not-too-distant future, Hakskeen Pan in South Africa, is one of the world’s loneliest pursuits.
Yet, paradoxically, it also requires a massive team effort born of brains, camaraderie, mutual respect and reliance, and a central belief in and dedication to the same dream.
And it is not just the driver who requires courage. The late Ken Norris, who with brother Lew created Donald Campbell’s famed Bluebird car and boat, once revealed the awful burden that the designer must also carry.
“When we first considered doing the boat I knew we had to accept responsibility, and the challenge from the design standpoint. You first had to convince yourself that you are capable because you have this man’s life in your hands. You’ve got to say, ‘Can I do it?’ And that is always a pretty difficult question.”
These human and technological elements, together with the underlying and endless battle with an often-unhelpful Mother Nature, are all part of the mystique of record breaking.
Art Arfons, one of the giants of the sport, fought a remarkable game of high-speed Russian Roulette with fellow American Craig Breedlove at Bonneville in the Sixties as their new breed of jetcars kicked the record from 400 mph to 600.
Neither had any illusions about the dangers of their calling. One day they met in nearby Wendover, when Breedlove said to Arfons: “I guess we’ll each just go on breaking the record every time the other one does, until one of us gets hurt?” To which Arfons replied: “Yeah, I guess so.”
Arfons’ final attempt to beat Breedlove went horribly wrong in November 1966 when the right front wheel bearing of his Green Monster (above) seized, pitching the car into a sickening series of rolls at 610 mph that scattered it over four and a half miles.
Incredibly, Arfons survived with only salt burns. He even went back for one last try 20 years later.
“I never sleep the night before I drive,” he confessed. “You think about everything that might happen. But I worry most about the other man inside me and what he’ll do when he gets into the car, because I know that at that point fear and caution leave him.
“It’s the other me, climbing into that car; they tell me I’m white as a ghost. Then the motor starts and it’s a Jekyll and Hyde thing. The power becomes music to me and I’m in another world. Only after that does the fear crawl in again, like fog, telling me what a fool the other man has been.
“When I’m at Bonneville I can’t wait to get away. But once I’m away, I can’t wait to get back. Bonneville is like a woman you keep quarrelling with but can’t stay away from.”
Even Breedlove, the cool daredevil who survived a crash into a brine lake in 1964 and the world’s fastest U-turn at 675 mph 32 years later, said: “If you aren’t a little bit afraid of this, you aren’t playing with a full deck.”
Since 1983 the record has belonged to the British, first with Richard Noble’s Thrust2, later with Andy Green in Noble’s Thrust SSC, in which the Royal Air Force squadron leader became the only man in history to go supersonic at ground level in October 1997.
“Even if Craig Breedlove took all of his friends to the top of the land speed Everest and had a massive dinner party,” Green said, “when he gets there he’ll still find the Union flag flying because we were there first.”
But when one peak is scaled, there is always another. 750 mph was once the barrier. Now Noble, Green and the Bloodhound SSC team face an even greater challenge: 1000 mph.
Cold science and courage… The pursuit of another dream…
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