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Craig Breedlove has been chasing speed records for almost as long as he can remember. In high school at Venice, Calif. he put together his own hot rod and set seven speed records, one of which still stands. His goal even then was to go faster on land than any other human. Married at 17, he was divorced at 22, the father of three children. He speaks of that period of his life with a mixture of remorse and concern. "My wife didn't understand what this was inside me to do these things. Everybody wants to do something. People who haven't any drive never get anything done." His second marriage was to a girl who did understand this thing inside him. She was Lee, a car hop at a local drive-in, who had two children by a previous marriage and, like her new husband, a penchant for fast motorcycles. "She can ride it with the front wheel right off the road," Breedlove boasted last week.
The Breedloves' small house on Sepulveda Boulevard in West Los Angeles was soon crowded on weekends with five children, two dachshunds and numerous mechanically minded friends who managed to pick their way through a front yard crowded with afterburners, machines, tools, spare parts, a Fruehauf Trailer and the few weeds hardy enough to grow in such a jungle. Sometimes working—he was a fireman and local mechanic—sometimes on unemployment compensation, Breedlove always was able to scrape together just enough money to keep his project going.
Conversion at Sepulveda
The Breedloves learned to live with two air duct molds 10 feet long and weighing 1,000 pounds lying on the living room floor. Breedlove jacked up the rear wall of his garage, moved it back 21 feet and extended the roof to cover it. The garage now measures 41 feet by 20 feet and makes the attached five-room house look like an appendage. Friends with the same enthusiasm as Breedlove's came to help. Rod Shapel, an automotive designer and project engineer at Task Corp., drew up the first blueprints. Art Russell, a model builder for Revell, carved a model out of pine to be used in wind-tunnel tests. Walt Sheehan, a Lockheed designer, concocted the air ducts that lead from the nose to the rear section and feed air to the jet engine. The original engine itself came from Ed Perkins, a Los Angeles machine shop owner (and a bishop in the Mormon church).
Breedlove tried many times to interest major companies in the Spirit, but until last year he had no success. Then Shell, rarely active in competitive U.S. motor circles, indicated it would be interested if Breedlove could get a tire company to go along. After extended delays, Goodyear agreed to design and build 48-inch tires, machine the wheels and make the brakes, parts that are so interrelated they cannot be made separately. "It was like they took the world off my back," Breedlove said.
Breedlove had estimated that Spirit would cost $30,000 before it was ready for Bonneville. "That seemed like all the money in the world. At the rate we had been going we thought we could build three cars for the price. But I spent the $30,000, and I hadn't even got out of the garage."
The first engine developed problems, so Shell bought two more—General Electric J47 jets similar to those used in F-86D fighter planes. The first forging of the rear axle was out of tolerance and the cost for that jumped from $300 to $3,000. While the neighbors watched in alarm, the car grew to look like an ICBM at Cape Canaveral. It became 35 feet long and 11 feet wide, and its weight reached three tons. The cost grew, too—the total was about $250,000. "It was handmade," says Breedlove, "but I mean made with hand tools, a little file and a screwdriver. The car is the equivalent of a prototype fighter plane that would take an aircraft company a million dollars, 20,000 men and all their machinery to build."
Breedlove has been persuaded that he can gain nothing by bettering his mark now. He will run next year, but if his mark should be surpassed this summer, he can go back to the Flats within 48 hours. One challenger, Dr. Nathan Ostich of Los Angeles, has a chance. He will be at Bonneville with his jet-powered Flying Caduceus for the fourth time, beginning on September 22. Last year the Canadian-born physician had worked up to 331 mph before spinning out and narrowly escaping death on his 13th run.
Breedlove is not particularly concerned about competition. He believes the Spirit of America has untapped speed in her. "We didn't even have the filter screen off the engine intake," he said last week. "The tires (which have tested at 624 mph) were still cool." The engine ran at 95% of efficiency, but with an afterburner it could run considerably above the critical drag number of the car, 550 mph, beyond which the car resists acceleration.
Something less, however, will content Breedlove. "It's easy to talk speed," he says. "Say, 600 mph. It's easy to add another 100 mph to that. But you're talking about going too fast. Who knows what will happen when a car goes through the sound barrier? In a plane the shock waves dissipate. In a car they fly off and hit the ground. They may bounce back and damage the car. They certainly won't do the track any good. Six hundred is pretty fast. It's not practical." But 500 or a bit more might be. Craig Breedlove, a cool hot rodder, is ready, if necessary, to find out.