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 In 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.