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The automobile that a wry fate has lately pressed upon Craig Breedlove, one far removed from the gleaming speed machines he favors, is a battered 1956 Buick that set him back $100 when he bought it a year ago. The Buick leaks gas fumes, it lurches at the slightest touch of the brakes and reverse is no more. "I wouldn't want to push it much more than 45, maybe 50 at the outside," Breedlove says. Worst of all, whenever he shuts off the ignition the car maddeningly goes on shaking, much as a chicken continues to twitch after its head has been cut off.
As might be expected, Breedlove has difficulty identifying with a clunker like that. Parking it on a recent afternoon at one of those sprawling California shopping centers, he got out and began skulking away, hoping that nobody would link him with the car, which was going through its usual convulsions. No such luck. "Hey, mister," a passerby called in a voice that carried across the busy parking lot. "You left your motor running." As he hurried on, a chagrined Breedlove made a mental note to borrow his girl friend Cheryl's car, a sensible late-model Volkswagen, the next time he had to go anywhere. "That Buick doesn't do much for a guy's morale, let me tell you," he said unhappily.
Nothing could give Breedlove's morale a bigger lift than the chance to streak at preposterous speeds again across the Bonneville Salt Flats, something he last did on Nov. 15, 1965, the day he navigated his jet-powered Spirit of America Sonic I through Bonneville's official clocks at 600.601 mph. It was the absolute land-speed record then, and it still is. Owing largely to a lack of competition, there has been little call for Breedlove's services since. That has left the once and, he would like to think, future king of flat-out speed in the singular position of reigning over a sport that has, in effect, ceased to exist.
As if the hardships of technological unemployment were not enough, Breedlove has had to endure an Iliadic succession of other business and personal misadventures. To fully appreciate his dilemma, one must reflect that he was once worth something like $250,000, that he took his leisure by the swimming pool of a beautiful home in the hilly Los Angeles suburb of Palos Verdes, that he received fan mail worshipfully addressed to THE FASTEST MAN ON WHEELS, U.S.A. But all that is ancient history, like two years ago. He now lives above his garage in the industrial flats of Torrance, down below those same Palos Verdes hills. He is deep in debt. The letters the postman brings today are rather more sparing in their adulation:
Dear Mr. Breedlove:
Buoyant and surprisingly equable in the face of adversity, the object of those greetings is a slightly built man of 33 with the elfin good looks and shaggy hair of a pop-rock star. Only his blue eyes, wearier and more deeply set than most, suggest the extent of his recent tribulations. "It's like little pieces of the ceiling keep falling on you," he says, but instead of standing around waiting for the rest of the ceiling to fall, he is now plotting the boldest and bravest of comebacks. If successful, it will make Breedlove, the ex-fireman who overnight became one of sport's glamour boys, seem even more of a Hollywood product than he already does (and which, as the son of a motion picture special-effects man and an ex-show girl, he literally is).
By his own scenario, Breedlove will build a rocket-powered car called Spirit of America Sonic II (his last car, he reckons, is obsolete) and, some time next year, drive it through the sound barrier, which at Bonneville would require a speed of about 740 mph. As the car accelerates through the measured mile in less than five seconds, there will be high suspense. Will it disintegrate under the sonic buffeting? Will it go airborne? Neither, mercifully. The run over, a smiling Craig Breedlove steps triumphantly out into the bright glare of publicity. A whirlwind of endorsements, personal appearances and business opportunities reap him a fistful of dollars.
But wait, there is a little more footage on the reel. In a kind of epilogue, Breedlove also breaks the speed record for wheel-driven cars. Though that mark is a relatively poky 409.277 mph, there are purists who regard only wheel-driven vehicles as true automobiles and dismiss jet and rocket machines as weird aberrations of the traditional land-speed calling. Breedlove sees himself breaking that record in nothing less than the costliest car ever built, the late Donald Campbell's controversial $4 million Bluebird. Oh, what a lovely flick.
The whole production figures to cost at least $350,000 of somebody else's money—$250,000 to build and campaign the rocket car, $100,000 to dust off and race Bluebird. In quest of a corporate angel to foot the bill, Breedlove has been dickering with companies in soft drinks, wristwatches, car rentals and publishing. So far there has been one note of progress. TRW, Inc., designer of the Apollo lunar-module descent rocket engine, has shown some interest in Breedlove—and has a liquid-fuel engine with 35,000 pounds of thrust that could make his supersonic car the most powerful ever to attack the land-speed record.
Coming up with a sponsor may be trickier. While the land-speed record can be a public-relations bonanza (Goodyear, a chief sponsor of both of the jet cars Breedlove has built and raced, gleefully counted up 10,000 magazine and newspaper plugs after his 600-mph run) few companies, especially in this period of tight money, have $350,000 lying about to throw into so risky a venture. In the specific case of Goodyear, there is the added consideration that Breedlove—and by extension, the company—already holds the record, which, it is felt, would make a new assault a redundancy. "Any time we want to publicize or talk about the land-speed record, we can do it already," says Bill Newkirk, a Goodyear public-relations man. "Why do we need a new record?"