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 California 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.