No web page can do full justice to this enormous and fascinating subject,
so all I shall attempt to do is give a flavour of it through some of my
favourite cars, their builders and drivers. A full list of all the official
Records is at the end of this article. Check out the book list at the bottom
for more information. Peter Renn..
From 39.4 to 104.52mph. The Pioneers.
The principal drawback of the electric cars was as ever, the batteries which were not rechargeable. Petrol and steam cars quickly eclipsed them in popularity and by 1902 both the Hon. C.S. Rolls and William K Vanderbilt Jr. arrived at Acheres, both with petrol engines to challenge for the record. Rolls managed 63.10mph and Vanderbilt exactly matched Jenatzy's record of 65.79. Leon Serpollet, a steam expert did better however, achieving a speed of 75.06mph with a flash-boilered 'Oeuf de Paques' (Easter Egg) machine. Vanderbilt and fellow millionaire Henri de Rothschild, together with baron Pierre de Caters all made fresh attempts, the baron finally succeeding with 76.08mph on his Mors; the first LSR holder to be powered by a petrol engine.
Mors and Gobron-Brillié cars then traded records through 1902 and 1903 raising the record to 84.73mph. Significantly this last speed was reached by C.S. Rolls at the Duke of Nottinghamshire's Clipstone estate. The attempt was monitored by officials from the Automobile Club of Great Britain but rejected by the Automobile Club de France as they had not approved the course or timing. The French authorities' attitude would infuriate many later contenders too, but it did at least set a precedent, showing that to be a true world record a time had to be set under controlled conditions and the A.C.F, having instigated the whole LSR idea were best qualified to officiate.
One person who decided the French authorities could be cheerfully ignored was Henry Ford. With an eye to to publicity for the forthcoming 1904 New York Auto Show he took an enormous 16.7 litre engined chassis with no bodywork and a couple of seats to a frozen lake in Michigan. He set a speed of 91.37mph but as the timing was done by the American Automobile Association, the A.C.F. refused to ratify it.
William Vanderbilt then reappeared with a Mercedes '90' racing car, choosing to run not on the treacherous ice which apart from being a nightmare for traction was nowhere near as smooth as Ford had expected, but on the beach at Daytona. This legendary site was used extensively for LSR Attempts for the next thirty years as it features 15 miles of uninterrupted flat running. Not actually sand but crushed clam shells, the surface becomes rock hard at low tide. It has been used for all classes of record breaking since the first Florida Speed Week in 1903. The Mercedes went through the timing at 92.30 only 15 days after Ford's run but again, the A.C.F. refused to acknowledge the record. Two months later Louis Rigolly's Gobron-Brillié made 94.78mph, which being timed by the French authorities was of course 'Official'.
Two months later, baron de Caters chipped a little more off the record, setting 97.25mph. It was obvious that the magic 100mph was imminent and he was quickly drawn into a contest with hillclimber Paul Baras and his 100hp Darracq and of course, Rigolly. In the event it was Rigolly whose more powerful Gobron stopped the clocks at 103.55mph. Four months later, Darracq, with a carefully planned record breaking team of cars went to the Nieuport road outside Ostend and Baras raised the speed to 104.52mph.
The Record Splits.
The 100mph milestone was significant but it had more obvious appeal in non-metric Britain and the USA. Napier sent an L48 racing car to Florida. The huge dark green car shaved 0.2 sec off the Darracq's time to set an unofficial new record of 104.65mph. This was one of the shortest-lived 'records' of all as less than an hour later a twin-engined Mercedes driven by its creator, Herbert Bowden went through the flying mile at 109.75mph. However, officialdom ruled that the Mercedes was overweight and disqualified it. In any case neither car was recognised by the A.C.F. A properly internationally recognised body was desperately needed as three nations all could claim the record was theirs. Victor Héméry settled the matter by running his Darracq a 109.65mph in December 1905.
Meanwhile Francis and Freeland Stanley, makers of successful steam cars decided to prove that internal combustion could still be beaten. Their boat shaped car (the bodywork having indeed been made by a boatbuilders) was light, streamlined and very quick. It was easily fastest at the 1906 Daytona Speed Week, clocking 121.57mph. Although Louis Chevrolet subsequently went faster through the flying mile, the Stanley with Fred Marriott at the controls quickly beat him with 127.57mph. Inexplicably, the A.C.F. rejected the mile figure but accepted the kilometre record as 121.57mph. America had an 'official' record at last but the Stanleys sight were set higher. The 1907 version of the car had a new 1300psi boiler and was initially known as Wogglebug but was swiftly renamed Rocket. ( I know which name I prefer..)
'Rocket' was much faster than its predecessor but fell victim to a pair of gullies running across the beach. Marriott hit one of these at full speed, flipping the car 15 feet into the air and causing it to roll and somersault, shredding the bodywork, bursting the boiler and miraculously throwing its diver out alive. Fred suffered a broken breastbone, cracked ribs and cuts and bruises but recovered fully. His was the first serious accident in the history of the LSR. Others would not be so lucky.
By 1909 the Benz company, having had many road racing successes produced a record car based on one of their Grand Prix cars, albeit scaled up. The Blitzen Benz had a 21.5 litre engine, producing maximum power at 1600rpm and streamlined bodywork over its huge chassis. The car was taken to the newly opened Brooklands track in Surrey. 125.95mph was attained with Héméry at the wheel; a speed which was ratified by the Association International des Automobile Clubs Reconnus (A.I.A.C.R.) who succeeded the A.C.F. The Benz company were shrewd hands at publicity as they immediately shipped the 'Blitzen Benz' to their New York showrooms. From there the famous racing showman Barney Oldfield bought the car, promptly taking it to Daytona where he managed 131.275mph on the long, smooth beach. The A.I.A.C.R. however declined to recognise the record but Oldfield in typical style ignored them, styling himself as the "Holder of the World's Speed Record".
In 1910, the A.I.A.C.R. decreed that the record should be an average of two record runs, made in opposite directions along the same course to eliminate the effects of wind or gradient. This development was undeniably fairer, and was in part proposed by the Royal Automobile Club but it was ignored by the Americans, understandably irritated by the French refusal to accept their A.A.A. as an officially sanctioned timing organisation. Rather like boxing today, the absolute world champion was hard to define. The Blitzen Benz, this time in the hands of 'Wild Bob' Burman raised the (US) record to 141.37 while the French maintained the record holder was still Héméry, albeit in the same car.
In 1914 the British driver L.G. Hornsted arrived at Brooklands in another Benz with a 200hp engine. The big blue car ran in both directions, achieving speeds of 120.23 and 128.16mph. Under the new two-run rule his average speed of 124.10mph was decreed to be the new record, even though this was slower than Héméry's previously ratified Brooklands speed. Confusing to say the least but Benz were happy!
After WW1, Ralph de Palma raised the (American) bar to 149.875mph, only to be beaten by Tommy Milton's Duesenberg with 156.03mph. Although Hornsted's record was still the 'official' one the Americans were clearly faster and the British firm of Sunbeam decided it was time to enter the fray. The Wolverhampton aero engine company mounted one of their V12 'Manitou' engines in a streamlined chassis designed by Louis Coatalen and went to Brooklands in search or records. With typical respect for the rules, Sunbeam used officially approved timing equipment and had it sent sealed to the A.I.A.C.R. offices after the attempt. In 1922 Kenelm Lee Guinness drove along the Railway Straight at 130.35 and back at 137.15mph to set a new averaged record of 133.75mph.
The Bluebirds and the Golden Age.
In 1923 an ex Royal Flying Corps officer, Captain
Malcolm Campbell stepped up to the challenge. A successful racer at Brooklands,
Capt. Campbell persuaded Guinness to let him drive the 350hp Sunbeam on
Saltburn sands. He was timed unofficially at around 134mph, showing his ability
as a driver and the car's potential. Coatalen and Campbell eventually did a
deal and the Sunbeam changed hands. An early attempt on the record in Denmark
was thwarted by the French authorities' refusal to ratify the timing system
but this only made Campbell more determined.
The first was Rene Thomas, whose big V12 Delage appeared at Arpajon, a long, flat stretch of road in Northern France. On July 6 he set an average of 143.31mph; a new land Speed record. The next car to the start line was another monster. Ernest Eldridge's Fiat used a lengthened Grand Prix chassis with a 21.7 litre six(!) cylinder aero engine. Belching steam and spinning its rear wheels wildly the Fiat clocked 146.8mph for the mile. Thomas however protested against the Fiat; it had no reverse gear and was thus disqualified under the rules.
Forty eight hours later, after non-stop efforts by Eldridge and his team the
Fiat was back at Arpajon, now fitted with reverse. Eldridge drove the thundering
red special to a new record of 146.01mph. The French authorities were delighted
at this display of sportsmanship and determination, despite the fact that the
record was now held by an Englishman in an Italian car.
While the new Bluebird was taking shape , another Sunbeam had been built. A 4 litre supercharged V12 design nearly half the weight of the old car, this much smaller contender ran on race tracks and hillclimbs as well as attempting the LSR. The driver was Major Henry Segrave, the first British driver to win a Grand Prix. Running at Southport Sands, the Sunbeam hit a gully and became airborne for almost fifty feet. Segrave was luckier than Marriott however landing on his wheels, and managed a new record of 152.33mph
Meanwhile, another Brooklands racer,
J.G. Parry Thomas decided to have a crack at the record. Thomas had acquired
the ex-count Zborowsky Higham Special and rebuilt it as an out and
out record car. Renamed Babs the car had an enormous American
Liberty aero engine and was a combination of primitive, antiquated design
and Thomas's engineering flair. Chain driven and prone to deafening misfiring,
Babs nevertheless managed 169.30 and then 171.02mph across the soggy Welsh
Parry Thomas was quick to respond. In March he was back with a sleeker, highly tuned Babs. Despite poor weather and the fact he was still recovering from 'flu he made a number of warm-up runs before getting in a good one at over 170. On the return run the car suddenly scythed a huge swerve on the sand before catching fire. For years the accepted version of events was that a driving chain broke, almost decapitating the driver, though more recently historians have favoured the explanation that the car overturned first, causing Thomas's horrific injuries. Either way one of the great pioneers was dead and it spelled the end for Pendine Sands as a record course.
The next to attack the record was Segrave, with a huge twin-engined monster. The 1000 horsepower Sunbeam used two 22.5 litre 'Matabele' aero engines and weighed well over 3 tons. Daytona Beach was the favoured course as it was long enough for the acceleration and braking required. Segrave diplomatically persuaded the A.A.A. to join the A.I.A.C.R., thus ensuring any record he set would be truly international. The Sunbeam's first proper run was dramatic to say the least. Caught by a cross-wind the car slewed off course, destroying several four inch thick marker poles. Having insouciant brakes to stop, Segrave deliberately steered into the sea to lose the last 50 or so mph. Despite savage swerves as he fought the car's acceleration on the return run, Segrave managed a cleaner run, averaging 203.792mph; a quantum leap by recent standards and the first over 200.
This huge increase meant
that Campbell had to redesign Bluebird again,
using a high boost version of the Lion Engine prepared for the Schneider
Trophy air race developing 875hp and a completely new wind-tunnel tested
body designed for it by Vickers. The Car was ready by the start of 1928.
Moving the course to Daytona had renewed American interest in the LSR and a number of projects were under way to try to end the British car's domination.. Two other star attractions lined up with Bluebird at the Daytona meet in 1928: The beautiful and fast Black Hawk Stutz driven by Frank Lockhart and Ray Keech's triple engined 81(!) litre Triplex. The Stutz was tiny compared with leviathans such as the Sunbeam, Bluebird and Triplex but light and very well engineered. On its first attempt the car accelerated rapidly up to around 200mph before suddenly swerving off course and turning over twice, landing right way up but in the water. Lockhart survived and after a brief spell in hospital was soon rebuilding his car.
While the Stutz was advanced and cleverly designed, the Triplex was not. Essentially a truck chassis carrying three 'Liberty' aero engines it had no transmission or clutch,the direct drive meaning that once push started it ran until the driver switched it off! It only had rear wheel brakes and a hastily cobbled up solution to the requirement for reverse gear; a whole third axle suspended off the back of the car which could be lowered to make the car run backwards. Despite mishaps such as being badly scalded by a burst hose and further burns from backfires, Keech wrestled the fearsome monster down the course at 207.552mph. A whisker faster than Campbell but enough to claim the record back for the USA.
Three days later, Frank Lockhart was back with a rebuilt Stutz. His first run on a badly ridged beach clocked 203.45mph but on his return, while travelling at an estimated 220 a rear tyre burst and the Stutz flipped, throwing its driver to his death.
Campbell, his patriotism and ego stung by the narrow success of Triplex, had already resolved to regain the title when it was announced that his old rival Segrave was building a new car. Once again he redesigned Bluebird with a new body and made an attempt on the record at Verneuk Pan, a dry lake bed in South Africa. Daytona was a long way from England and Campbell recognised that he had been lucky not to go the way of Thomas and Lockhart when he almost lost control on the less than perfect beach track. Before he could make a serious attempt however, Segrave stole his thunder again.
While Campbell's cars were built to a high standard by professional engineers,
Segrave's new car took this professionalism to new heights. The Golden
Arrow was designed by ex-Sunbeam man J.S. Irving and built at the K.L.G. works in
Putney Vale. Beautifully streamlined with minimal frontal area and with supplementary
ice cooling as used on the Stutz. The car was astonishingly
efficient, completing only a couple of quick test runs before
making its two record runs seemingly effortlessly. This incredible car can
lay claim to being the most effective LSR car built, having run for a total
of roughly 24 miles in its entire lifetime. The new record
After a series of setbacks, Campbell gave up on Veneuk Pan and returned home
to give Bluebird her biggest redesign yet. The car was reduced to
its bare chassis and under the auspices of Reid Railton at Thompson and Taylor
of Brooklands a new 1450 bhp Napier engine, K.L.G. gearbox and offset propshaft.
The body was again redesigned much lower with a large stabilising fin at the
In 1932, with Bluebird's bodywork and transmission mildly modified, Campbell returned to Daytona and got his 250. A new record of 253.97mph was set relatively easily but he could see it was the end of the road for the Napier engine. In 1933 it was replaced by a 36.5 litre Rolls Royce R type unit giving 2300 hp. With this and some more modifications to the bodywork Campbell raised his own record to a huge 272.46mph. Despite the lack of challengers to his record, Sir Malcolm wouldn't rest on his laurels and determined to be the first to 300mph. Yet another version of Bluebird was prepared with an all enclosing body, twin rear wheels and vacuum operated air brakes. The car achieved a new LSR of 276.816mph but it was clear Daytona was now becoming too short at 10 miles to give enough room for these high speeds and the soft surface caused wheelspin problems.
Various record cars including the pre-war Blitzen Benz
and John Cobb's Napier Railton had used the dry lake Bonneville
as a surface. This enormous area of salt flats was chosen as the venue
for the assault on the 'Three Hundred'. In September 1935 a course
was laid out on the salt and the Bluebird set out early in the morning
of September 3rd .Oil covered the windscreen as he entered the measured
mile and a front tyre burst towards the end of the run but Campbell held
the car and stopped safely albeit with three tyres shredded to the canvas
and one on fire. He had been timed at over 300 through the flying mile but had
come close to disaster. As the car was prepared for the return run, Campbell's
son Donald tried to talk to him but quickly realised that it was the wrong thing
to do, as the obsessive record breaker was quite expecting to die on the second
run. Again the tyres were shredded and the car went into a lurid slide at the
end of the course but stopped safely. The average for the two runs was 301.129mph.
Finally the indefatigable Campbell was satisfied, at least with the LSR. He turned
his attention then to the water speed record, still making and planning speed
records until his death at 63 in 1948.
The End of the Wheel Driven Cars?
Sir Malcolm Campbell had firmly established record breaking in the public imagination. By the time Bluebird had achieved 300mph in 1935 the major players were all household names in England. Another record breaker was Captain George Eyston. He collected long-distance and class records in a multitude of cars. He made an attempt on the LSR in 1935 in Speed of The Wind, a Rolls-Royce Kestrel engined car which was successful in long distance events but not fast enough for the outright record. He quickly conceived the Thunderbolt record car, a 73 litre, twin Rolls-Royce engined monster with a body by French aerodynamics expert Jean Andreau. The seven ton device was built in just six weeks and had eight wheels, four of them steering. Running at Bonneville in 1937, Eyston raised the target to 312.00mph.
Now it was the turn of a quiet,
modest Surrey fur broker named John Cobb, whose exploits in the 23 litre
Napier-Railton at Brooklands and Bonneville were well known. Cobb joined forces
with Bluebird designer Reid Railton and commissioned Brooklands firm
Thomson and Taylor to build a suitable car. Cobb held the highest regard for
Railton's design genius, and this together with his own almost shy modesty
led to the naming of his new LSR car simply as the Railton.
The war precluded any more record attempts
(including the very interesting stillborn T80 Daimler Benz project
now resting in the Mercedes museum in Stuttgart) so it wasn't until 1947
that Cobb returned, His sights firmly set on 400mph in 1947.
For sixteen years, Cobb's record stood and, like the four minute mile, the four hundred miles per hour record seemed unattainable. Class records for cars of specific engine size or over longer distances were broken but despite the efforts of LSR legends such as Art Arfons, Mickey Thompson and Dr. Nathan Ostich no one managed to beat the Railton's record.
The Jet Age
The F.I.M. (Federation Internationale Motorcycliste) and the US authorities were happy to ratify the record however, but the F.I.A. rules meant that officially the record still belonged to Cobb. The Land Speed record thus became split into two classes, for wheel driven vehicles, and for those propelled by pure thrust. It was obvious however that Jet cars were the way to much higher speeds and a plentiful supply of surplus aero engines at least in the US meant that several new contenders were busy in their back yards. Two of these were the Arfons brothers, Walt and Art who after an unfortunate falling-out worked entirely independently of each other. Walt Arfons' creation Wingfoot Express was ready first. Driven by his engineer Tom Green, the Goodyear sponsored car managed 413.20 mph on October 2nd 1964.
This was the start of an incredible flurry of new records. Just three days later Art Arfons unveiled his contender, the Green Monster. Aptly named, the cartoonish device had a huge pointed probe extending from the intake and a plank-like aerofoil over the front wheels. Art used a 15,000 lb thrust J79 engine which he bought as scrap as the engine had swallowed something solid, mangling many of the hundreds of delicately balanced compressor blades. General Electric refused to supply any manuals as the engine was classified military hardware but Art, undaunted took out all the damaged blades, spaced the remaining ones out evenly and managed to get the engine running sweetly. Running relatively easily at 60% thrust he beat his brother's record and set a new speed of 434.02mph.
Breedlove and Spirit of America were not to take this lying down. Almost immediately on October 13 the improved tricycle/car took the record back, setting a relatively easy 468.72mph record. However, he knew more was possible and two days later he made another pair of runs, aiming to put the record firmly over 500. Having broken his own record and raising it to 526.28mph he left the measured mile to slow down and lost a drag parachute. The wheel brakes had no chance of stopping the car from above 150, let alone 500 and promptly vaporised. the Spirit veered off course, sliced through a telegraph pole and eventually landed in a brine lake, more than five miles from the planned stopping point. Breedlove swam ashore unscathed joking "..and for my next trick.. I'll set myself on fire!"
With Spirit of America obviously not going anywhere for a while, Art Arfons seized his chance. Winding the Green Monster's engine up higher and using the afterburner he went through the traps at 536.71mph. The astonishing month was over, with the LSR now more than 142mph higher with five new records. Almost immediately, the F.I.A, recognising the inevitable agreed to recognise records set by jet thrust vehicles. Art Arfons' record was thus truly internationally recognised. "This is the jet age, and I'm glad they are going to recognise it" he said. In fact most historians recognise all that October's records as Walt Arfons and Craig Breedlove's achievements are every bit as worthy.
At Bonneville the following autumn it was clear the major contenders
hadn't been idle. Walt Arfons was back with an all new Wingfoot
Express powered by JATO (jet-assisted take-off) rockets. The car
accelerated with astonishing speed but hadn't enough burn time to sustain
speed through the mile. Breedlove also had a new car, this time
with four wheels as the FIA still maintained their 'tricycle' rule. Spirit
of America-Sonic 1 clearly had sound barrier aspirations.
Beautifully built and once again sponsored by Goodyear, the new car survived
an early testing scare when Breedlove nearly repeated his brine lake splashdown
"trick". A few modifications later, the record was back in his hands with
an average of 555.483mph. Art Arfons had been busy in the off-season too
though. Five days after Breedlove's record he rolled the Green Monster out
onto the Bonneville salt and immediately grabbed his record back at 576.553mph.
However, like Breedlove the year before he still had to stop..
Before Spirit of America was ready to respond however, a new car was being readied on the start line. Long-time Bonneville hot-rodders Bill and Bob Summers had built a beautiful dart-like car to challenge for the wheel driven record. Using four of their beloved 600hp Chrysler 'Hemi' engines in line, the bodywork was as tight as possible, being barely wider or higher than that required to cover the engines. Using two gearboxes and four wheel drive, the Goldenrod had its share of problems getting all the components to work together but finally on 11th November Bob Summers beat Campbell's 'automobile' record at 409.277mph. I was lucky enough to meet Bill Summers at Goodwood in 2000and he told me his brother Bob needed both hands to change gear, letting go of the wheel at over 200mph while he did so!
On November 15th Spirit of America was ready. She made a thunderous pair of runs and at the end, her driver had a new LSR of 600.601mph. Craig Breedlove had been the first man on earth to go at 400, 500 and now 600mph. The 1965 season closed as the weather finally broke with all concerned heading back to their workshops with big plans...
Art Arfons beavered away at his Green Monster in the spring and summer of 1966, reappearing at Bonneville in November with improved suspension and an even larger front probe. On his first attempted record run however, a wheel bearing seized at over 600mph, sending the Monster into a Bluebird-type series of rolls and somersaults. Incredibly, Art survived, and like Campbell before him immediately began planning a new car, setting his sights on the sound barrier. While he was recovering from his injuries and building a new car others were already busy. Dick Keller and Ray Dausmann, experts in liquid-fuelled rockets worked on a plan to build a rocket powered dragster as a first step towards producing a Land Speed record contender. They formed Reaction Dynamics Inc. and built the X-1; an exquisitely built machine powered by a hydrogen peroxide rocket engine of their own design. The X-1 Rislone Rocket scorched its opposition in drag races, covering the quarter mile in 5.41 seconds, proving the potential of this type of propulsion and attracting sponsorship and expertise from the US natural gas industry. The resulting car, named the Blue Flame was a pencil shaped creation which looked like a three-wheeler but actually had four; the front pair being just 9 inches apart. Once again being built to the highest standards (the days of the backyard mechanic were effectively over despite Arfons genius) Technical problems and auto industry unrest meant that the car wasn't ready until 1970, the car to be driven by established drag racer Gary Gabelich. After a careful series of runs to iron out various troubles with gas seals, catalysts and fuelling, the Blue Flame finally set a new record of 622.407mph. The first rocket powered LSR.
As the 'seventies continued, the world economic climate and a loss of public interest in record breaking seemed to mean that no serious challenge would emerge. This was reckoning without one important force. Richard Noble, a patriotic British businessman who had caught the record breaking bug as a six year old boy when he saw john Cobb's Crusader jet boat at Loch Ness in 1952. By 1974 he started raising money for his own LSR attempt, buying an old Rolls-Royce Derwent engine and fitting it into a crude chassis named Thrust 1. The car came to an ignominious end on the runway at RAF Fairford when a seized wheel bearing sent it into a series of flips and rolls, reducing it to scrap. Thrust 1 only achieved 200mph but a seed had been sown and Noble tended it, taking a stand at the Earl's Court Motorfair to publicise Thrust 2 and search for sponsors. One person to respond to his press ad saying "650mph car designer wanted" was John Ackroyd. Ackroyd's background was in Hovercraft as well as working for companies such as Porsche and Messerschmitt and he started to design a jet car built around the Rolls-Royce Avon engine which Noble had charmed out of the RAF. The layout was broadly similar to the Green Monster with the driver sitting alongside the engine, symmetry dictated another pod on the opposite side, allowing the car to be a two-seater! Noble was not rich like Campbell and sponsorship was much harder to find than it had been for Breedlove and Arfons in the 'sixties so it took him and his dedicated team several years before they had everything in place for a serious record attempt in 1981. Without the years of jet car experience of the Americans, the learning curve was steep but they managed to set new British records at over 418mph before the rain intervened, stopping play for the rest of the season.
The 1982 car had several improvements, but in pre-Bonneville testing at RAF Greenham Common Noble missed his braking point and left the tarmac at 180mph. The resulting damage to the engine would have wiped out the team's budget but the RAF stepped in and rebuilt it for them, allowing Thrust 2 to arrive at Bonneville in September. Fellow record breaker Don Vesco generously volunteered use of his salt time but once again the weather turned bad and the salt was washed out. In an incredible feat of organisation, Noble's team found a new site and set up there only six days later. The Black Rock Desert in Nevada was less suitable for the hot rods who make up the majority of contenders at Bonneville's Speed Weeks but was ideal for the huge jet car. The speeds went up, peaking tantalisingly at 615mph but the project was out of time and money. They had to return in 1983 for one last shot; all the sponsors were prepared to stomach. After yet more problems and with the money running out again, Noble persuaded his seven major sponsors Castrol, Champion, GKN, Initial Services, Loctite, Plessey and Trimite to put up enough for one more week. The result was a pair of runs which just snatched the record back from Gabelich, setting 633.468mph "For Britain, and the Hell of it"Although they had only broken Gabelich's record by a small margin, no serious contenders seemed inspired to take Thrust 2's LSR crown, Eventually in the early 'nineties a number of projects were rumoured. Australian Rosco McGlashan was building a Thrust 2 lookalike called Aussie Invader II, There were stories that the McLaren F1 team were working on a LSR vehicle and that Craig Breedlove was planning a new Spirit of America. Noble had wanted to build another car for some time but really needed an opponent to spur him and potential sponsors on. Although a daunting prospect, all concerned realised that the last great prize was the speed of sound. Richard Noble had taught himself to drive Thrust 2 despite having no experience of racing or speed testing and acquitted himself brilliantly but he appreciated that controlling something with more than twice the power through the sound barrier was a job for an expert.
Flight Lieutenant Andy Green was selected from a field of applicants including pilots, race and rally drivers as the man with the 'right stuff'. His experience in flying supersonic fighters for the RAF and almost superhuman coolness under pressure made him the obvious choice. The Thrust SSC (Supersonic Car) project started with many of the original Thrust team, once again motivated by the desire to be the first to drive faster than sound.
The Aussie Invader and McLaren projects evaporated but Breedlove's new Spirit of America - Sonic Arrow was built. This astonishing vehicle, said to owe more to eye judgment than computer modelling was actually ready at the same time as Thrust SSC and both camps were on the Black Rock Desert together. Sadly Breedlove missed out on being the first to 700mph and he survived a huge scare when the Spirit suddenly veered nearly ninety degrees off course. Breedlove realised that his car needed some major modification and in a gentlemanly gesture in the true spirit of record breaking, he offered the Thrust team the use of all his facilities and stayed on with his damaged car to help and cheer them on. On 25th September 1997 Andy Green raised the record to 714.144mph beating Richard Noble's which had stood for almost 14 years. Noble, as team principal was delighted, but they weren't finished yet. On 7th October 1997 Thrust SSC made an early morning run and generated a sonic boom for the first time. The car had momentarily peaked at 750 mph. An official attempt on the record a few days later failed due to the car not being turned around within the statutory one hour allowed (they took 49 seconds too long). A week later, on 15th October, Andy Green made the two runs through the measured mile, each time generating a perfect shockwave in front of the car and a huge sonic boom. After a seemingly interminable wait the timekeepers announced a new Land Speed Record of 763.035mph or Mach 1.03. The Land Speed Record is now officially faster than the speed of sound.
The American 'land speed racers' often seem to resent the FIA as the official governing body for international record attempts, pointing out that organisations like the SCTA who run Bonneville Speed Week etc. have over 50 years of experience in timing record attempts and could do the job as well if not better than expensive European officials. The counter to this is however, that the F.I.A. is the world governing body of motorsport and only its sanction gives a record solid gold credibility. Historically serious contenders have realised that a truly international record is worthwhile. Don Vesco is one who recognises this and his insistence on having world officials present for his record runs has paid off. He is now unarguably the fastest wheel driven man on earth by a long, long way.
Note: If you are wondering about the Budweiser Rocket car of Stan Barrett which claimed to have broken the sound barrier in the 'seventies this is a highly controversial project! It is debatable, unlikely or downright impossible (depending on your point of view) whether this car reached anything like the speed of sound. The project team basically wrote their own rules and claimed a speed which no one outside the team could verify. It therefore holds no official record despite the claims made for it. For more on this visit http://roadsters.com/ or read Robin Richardson's article "The Great Pretender" at http://nitronic.com/research11/great.html - P.R.eel
Stop Press...December 16 2002. I'm very
sorry to report that Don Vesco has died, of cancer in San Diego aged 63.
One of the great names of record breaking and a Bonneville legend. He will
be greatly missed.