SI Vault
Fast, wet—and almost dead
Hays Gorey
October 26, 1964
In one momentous day, a cool Californian pushed his jet racer to a land-speed record of 526 mph and survived a stupendous crackup
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
October 26, 1964

Fast, Wet—and Almost Dead

In one momentous day, a cool Californian pushed his jet racer to a land-speed record of 526 mph and survived a stupendous crackup

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3

"I had a feeling yesterday," he said, "that I was going to get killed. I couldn't sleep last night. I was nervous today after the first run. But I really hit it on the return. I could have gone 600. Then I lost the steering, before I hit the mile. The Spirit drifted to the right. I came off the power to straighten it out, and then I opened it up again at the far end of the mile."

Attempting to stop, Breedlove pressed a cockpit button to release a small pilot chute, which in turn yanked out his eight-foot main chute. "I felt it come out and tear off the car. I hit the wheel brakes, and nothing happened.

"I heard myself saying, 'Let it slow down, slow down.' I wanted to throw Spirit into a spin, but without steering there was no way. I saw a telephone pole coming right at me. God must have moved it. [The rear axle toppled the pole, the wheel missing by inches.] I saw this big pile of mud, hit it, flew about 35 feet into the air and down into the water. I knew I was going to die then."

But, of course, he did not, and thinking it over he remarked laconically, "You've got to stay cool or you'll get killed in one of these things."

Ecstatic over Breedlove's feat and escape from death, Shell Oil and Goodyear Tire also emerged as big winners. They had backed Breedlove when he was a penniless hot rodder with lofty dreams and by now have some $500,000 invested in Spirit. Their publicity harvest has been rich.

Breedlove's own status has risen prodigiously. At 27, he has five children, a luxurious new home and a swimming pool in Palos Verdes, Calif. and a thriving hot-rod-parts business. Shell and Goodyear retain him as a consultant. Is that reason enough to quit the speed business? Perhaps. Previously Breedlove had referred to 500 mph as "first base." But after reaching that plateau he said he wanted to design a new car capable of sliding "home"—his language for 700 mph and more. He already is pondering the problem of breaking the sound barrier—which would be reached at approximately 720 mph at Bonneville—and how to cope with the shock wave that would ensue. "Maybe," he once said, "when someone goes that fast, I'll be standing on the sidelines just watching."

Maybe. Maybe not. The Arfons boys surely will be back. Donald Campbell of Britain, his turbine-powered Bluebird made obsolete by the jet-setters, has a jet car on the drawing board. But it will surprise no one if Breedlove, despite his brush with death, returns to the Flats next year or the year after, stretching out for "home."

Altogether it was a brisk week in motoring for persistent Americans. At Riverside, Calif., before 83,330 spectators—the largest crowd ever to attend a U.S. road race—the Indy leadfoot, Parnelli Jones, lost the use of his clutch and once caromed his Cooper-Ford off a slower car, yet won the Los Angeles Times Grand Prix and a purse of $14,450. It was his very first sports car race.

As SI Staff Writer Hugh Whall reported, Riverside underscored the recent massive swing to American power in big-time sports car racing and the rise of the track driver in this once-alien branch of the sport. Only one large-displacement car in the 40-car field had a foreign engine ( Ferrari); in the rest were Fords, Chevys, Chryslers and Oldsmobiles. Such international road-racing stars as Jimmy Clark, Bruce McLaren and Dan Gurney were present but unable to divert the crowd's fascinated attention from Jones, the 1963 500 winner, and A.J. Foyt, champion in 1961 and 1964.

Foyt appeared in a monster of a car nicely suited to his rugged physique. Called the Hussein I in salute to friendly relations between those two potentates, Texas Oilman John Mecom and King Hussein of Jordan, and built by John Mecom Jr., it possessed a gargantuan Chrylser hemi-head engine and tail pipes like seven-inch rifles. The exhaust blast from those pipes shook the ground and numbed the ears.

Continue Story
1 2 3