There was a time when Gary Gabelich seemed headed for the moon. He qualified for a program involving astronaut training and worked hard at it. He ran six miles every other day, and he frequently fell out of the sky with a movie camera, photographing the actions of parachutes opening. He lived in earthbound space capsules for days at a time under simulated high-altitude conditions. He grew wiry, with 155 pounds of lean muscle over his 6-foot frame. But he dropped out of the program when it became clear that he would not be permitted to pilot the spaceship up there and back. If Gary does not get to drive a thing, he doesn't want to go.
That was in 1968. In the months that followed, Gabelich sort of careened around. He kept on sky diving. He played tennis, baseball, handball, raced gokarts, went surfing and water skiing. Mostly, he turned to motor sports. He raced cars, motorcycles, fuel and jet dragsters, even drag boats. By 1968 he was the American Power Boat Association fuel-hydro champ. Then, last September, he hit 200.44 mph in a drag boat, fastest such run ever recorded. All of which, in the inexorable manner of such things, finally brought him, at 30 years of age, to the Bonneville Salt Flats and this monster jet car called Blue Flame.
Racing cars is one thing. But driving a vehicle faster than anybody in the world is the ultimate, the nub of it all, the final stinging glory of speed. By the time Gabelich got to the rocket car on the desert, the world land-speed record was a tidy 600.601 mph, a mark set in 1965 by Craig Breedlove.
Gabelich has changed since his pre-astronaut days, in the subtle ways that would better prepare him for his run across the salt. No more conservative clothes, no NASA haircut. He is a lot more hip, with deliberately shaggy hair that tumbles almost to his shoulders. More Captain America than Captain Carpenter. His talk now is studded with phrases calculated to indicate he is very with-it, and he is apt to refer to something as being "plenty boss," which really means it is a bit of all right. Upon checking in at the tiny border town of Wendover on Sept. 14, the Gabelich crew put a lot of champagne on ice. They would drink it when he broke the world speed record. A plenty boss gesture. And then they learned that it is not that easy: it was to be 39 days before they got to taste the wine.
First, there was that fearsome super-car that dominated everything around it on the desert—38.2 feet from nose to tail, 8.8 feet to the top of its tailfin, 7.8 feet wide. It weighed 6,500 pounds. The rear tires were 35 inches high, about as tall as, say, Mario Andretti. "It is, basically, a long piece of pipe," said Gabelich. "It is built to run horizontally, man, not vertically."
Laid over it all was a snappy silver and blue paint job, and fitted inside the pipe was a 770-pound rocket engine tuned to 16,000 pounds of thrust—which figures out to 58,000 horsepower. The Blue Flame, Gabelich found, could accelerate from zero to 650 mph in 20 seconds. The cockpit was basic: the steering system and throttle, cameras, a recorder and radio setup over which Gabelich would talk to his crew. Not hip conversation.
"I would flick on all the switches and shout 'here we go!' " he says. "Then I would slam it right to the wood and count off my speed: 250...300...350...400. Man, it's really far out."
Before selecting Gabelich to drive the Blue Flame, a great many experts had a hand in the project. Prime sponsor was the Natural Gas Industry, which is a combine of 52 companies in gas and related fields—the sort of staid, vest-wearing outfits hardly ever associated with such madcap adventure. Still, it seemed a dramatic way to demonstrate what they feel is the safety and versatility of natural gas as a pure form of pollution-free power. The liquefied natural gas-hydrogen peroxide concept for the engine came from an astronautish-sounding Milwaukee outfit called Reaction Dynamics Inc. Goodyear, which has a long association with land-speed attempts, developed the tires over a year of research, rolled them out to Bonneville and pronounced them capable of speeds up to 700 mph and tested in excess of 800, if Gabelich cared to go that fast.
Not at first. The Utah flats are tricky: a vast bed of crystalline with mountains on one side, more mountains on the other, a 10-mile black guideline painted straight across—and unpredictable weather in between. The salt tends to be uneven in texture; the winds blow capriciously—headwinds, crosswinds, the works. And anything over the gentle push of a 6-mph breeze can scratch a run. Gabelich did not get in his first attempt until Sept. 19. Then, in 19 more attacks, he got the monster up over 600 mph seven times, and twice just barely missed the two-way record.
According to the worldwide rules that govern such things, a land-speed mark is recognized only after two runs through the flying kilometer and measured mile clocks. Both runs must be made within one hour and, for all their early speed down the black line, the crew approached the record slowly. Finally came the morning of Friday, Oct. 23 when, as Gabelich puts it, "They got it all together."