SI Vault
Cool run for an old hot rodder
Hays Gorey
August 19, 1963
Craig Breedlove broke the world land-speed record without pushing his tricycle jet to its upper limits
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
August 19, 1963

Cool Run For An Old Hot Rodder

Craig Breedlove broke the world land-speed record without pushing his tricycle jet to its upper limits

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

The early morning air was still cool. Resting impressively on the vast Bonneville Salt Flats of western Utah was a missile-shaped, three-wheeled vehicle that looked like a fighter plane ready for takeoff, except that it had no wings. Near the machine, which soon was to cause international arguments as to what it really was—automobile, earthbound aircraft or motorcycle—stood Craig Breed-love, short and pleasantly youthful in a lightweight blue pullover, matching trousers and dark-blue sneakers. He was sipping ice water and trying, with only moderate success, to look casual. "Sure I'm nervous," he finally snapped at a questioner.

At 6:25 a.m., Breedlove stopped sipping the ice water ("That's all the breakfast I want now"), eyed the clear blue sky overhead and then spotted something wrong. Taking out his handkerchief, he climbed up to the cockpit of the Spirit of America, wiped a spot off the green-tinted plexiglass canopy, and stepped down. Carefully, he stuffed cotton in both ears, put on a helmet and wraparound goggles and climbed into the cockpit. Crewmen helped him fasten a yellow air mask, and Breedlove, looking like "a man from Mars in pajamas" (his own description) was ready.

In a raspy voice, L. T. (Ben) Torres, an official of the U.S. Auto Club, called out, "Zero [wind] at the south test, and she's all clear." This was the time and these were the words Breedlove had waited four years to hear. The Spirit of America inched forward, its jet engine shrieking. It gathered speed rapidly. Soon it was a speck, seemingly headed straight through the orange sun to the southeast. Then it disappeared.

Thirty-three minutes later the monster, twin parachutes billowing in its wake, came back. When it had rolled to a stop, Breedlove flipped back the canopy and hopped lightly to the ground. He had already heard that he had gone through the first measured mile—midway down the 9�-mile track—at 388.47 miles per hour. Fast, but not fast enough to break the world's land-speed record of 394.196 set by England's John Cobb in 1947.

Whether Breedlove had attained the goal he had so long sought, and toward which Shell Oil Company and Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, depended upon the speed of his return run. (In all such record attempts two runs in opposite directions are required, negating any possible wind advantage.)

Torres, pressing a set of earphones close to his head, was in touch with the timers' stand 4� miles away. Unsmiling, Breedlove stood silently in the middle of a small group of project officials, crewmen, reporters and photographers. His head was down, and he desultorily moved a foot around in the soft salt.

The wait and the silence were oppressive. "Craig," Breedlove was asked finally, "you said the other day you could tell how fast you were going in test runs by the way the mile markers flipped by. How did they flip on this last trip?"

"It felt like about 425," Breedlove answered.

The small circle gasped. Torres held a hand microphone up to his mouth. The timers' stand was reporting. "Repeat that," he demanded. Then: "Four twenty-eight point three seven? And the average? Four zero seven point four five!"

A new man

Continue Story
1 2 3