But Breedlove then got a crafty idea—he asked for and received a sanction from the FIM, the organization that oversees all motorcycle world speed records. FIM was willing enough to grant that Breed-love's Spirit of America
would qualify as a motorcycle. And since his aim was simply to cover a measured mile on land faster than any human being had gone before, it really did not seem to matter whether the vehicle in which he intended to accomplish it was called an automobile or a motorcycle. The rest of the story is in the record books: 407.45 miles an hour on Aug. 5, 1963, followed by 468.72 and 526.38 in 1964, and 555.127 and 600.601 in 1965.
"Nobody really had any reason to have confidence in me. I was just a high school graduate who'd majored in machine shop and who liked to build and race dragsters," he says now.
The first thing one notices about Breedlove are his eyes. They seem to protrude slightly with a veiled oracular quality as if they were meant to simultaneously engage attention and camouflage what is going on behind them. His brown hair curls down almost to his shoulders, and if it were not for the finely drawn lips, he might be mistaken for Mick Jagger.
On the return run of a record attempt in 1964, while engaged in a mano a mono with Art Arfons for the land speed record, Breedlove lost both his drag chute and his emergency chute. At 600 miles an hour he found his brakes were useless. By the time he had slowed to a comparatively controllable 300 mph he was approaching the end of the 10-mile speed strip where the Salt Flats are bordered by telephone poles, a highway and brine-filled ditches. Attempts to spin the car only resulted in clipping off two telephone poles. Breedlove ejected his canopy just as the car vaulted a salt mound and buried its nose in a ditch full of saline ooze. After swimming to the surface he greeted his would-be rescuers with a Barnumesque, "Now for my next act I'll set myself on fire."
But this display of bravado belies a deep concern with the risks involved in his trade. A driver has to work up his courage or, more accurately, his concentration, before each run. Concentration translates into courage. When a driver is on the line ready to make a run, the exigency of the moment enforces a total concentration, which in turn forces out of the mind any energy for speculation about the possible consequences of something going wrong. "It's between races and before races that I think about it," Breedlove says. And he uses this time between races to do something about the hazards; he creates insurance on his drawing board.
One feature of Breedlove's new land-speed-record car will be a driver capsule in the nose, which in an emergency would break away from the rocket behind it and be hurled aloft. Then, in theory, the cockpit would float back to earth beneath a parachute, like a space capsule returning from the moon. "It's one way to escape being pushed around by that 8,000 pounds of rocket behind me. Of course, it would be insane to use it at 700 miles per hour, but at 300 or 350 it could make a lot of difference," says Breedlove. He has not forgotten his plunge into the brine. His clearest statement about the risk involved is a brief one: "I don't like it."
While Breedlove lacks Gary Gabelich's wild-eyed enthusiasm and promotional ability, he compensates by being one of the brightest and most innovative rocket engineers in private practice. Time and again he has found design loopholes in the technical specifications set forth by the various bodies that sanction drag and land speed attempts, and has taken advantage of them.
The terrifying sound made by Breed-love's new rocket dragster is documented in a photograph on the wall of his office, a picture of his English Leather Special blasting away from the line. If you look closely in the lower right-hand corner of the photograph you can see the official flagman in his black-and-white striped shirt, cowering on the ground with a towel over his head. This is not characteristic of flagmen, who are for the most part frustrated matadors who like to demonstrate their courage by standing firm and letting cars pass within inches of their bodies.
On one occasion Breedlove stood aside and watched his rocket engine fired up on a test bed. "It was so terrifying," he gasped, "that I'm sure that if I wasn't in front of it where I can't really hear the noise I'd never be able to drive it down the strip." He shares with a number of drivers the feeling that it is far less frightening to drive a racing car than to watch and hear one being driven.
But Breedlove realizes he may have to face listening to the rocket blasts as a bystander before too long. "I'm 36 now, and I'm sure I don't want to be doing this when I'm 50. There are too many other things. My son is 16 and building a dragster. I want to help him all I can. After the sound barrier, I'm going to hang it up. I guess I'd rather be remembered as a designer than a driver."