The last time anyone paid any special note to the world of absolute speed it was 1970 and Gary Gabelich was going 622.407 miles an hour across Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats in a rocket car called The Blue Flame. "Gee, that's fast," they said. "I wonder if the price of steak is going up again next month?" If one mentioned the name Gabelich today, most folks, even those who regularly follow motor sports, would say "Gary...uhm who?"
"Gary (Rocket Man) Gabelich. You know, the world's fastest man. He took the land speed record away from Craig Breedlove. You do remember Craig Breedlove?"
"Oh yes. Uhh, Breedlove. I've seen him selling tires on television. Is that the one you mean?"
The sad fact of life for anyone who wants to break the world land speed record is that he will not get much attention for doing it unless he ends up on his head. That is what happened to Craig Breedlove recently after taking a run at the world's record for the standing-start quarter mile in his latest missile, a fierce creation commercially known as The English Leather Special. It is a lunar landing rocket bolted onto three wheels. It develops the thrust equivalent of approximately 15,000 horsepower. When it came to rest right side up on the salt after several barrel rolls, it was emitting noxious yellow clouds of nitrogen tetroxide (NO), the oxidizer that seconds before had caused a spontaneous chemical ignition when it came in contact with the unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine fuel. It did not smell even remotely like after-shave lotion.
But never mind the crash. The English Leather Special is a mere prototype, with only one-fifth the thrust of the car Breedlove hopes to build for another crack at the land speed record. And this time he will not be merely trying to better Gabelich's record by a few miles an hour. This time he will be shooting for 740 miles per hour, the speed of sound.
That fast? Why would anyone want to drive a car faster than the speed of sound? The point is well taken. Money would be an obvious answer, but none of the men who chase this dream have become wealthy through their land speed records. The money they might derive from breaking the sound barrier would be small change compared to a season's earnings for Jack Nicklaus or the fat contract offered Wilt Chamberlain. Fame? A land-speed-record attempt is a long and lonely business, impossible to stage in the Houston Astrodome or cover on live TV. It is a drama played out before several dozen spectators in a remote part of the Utah desert, and it is unlikely that those who succeed at it will get nearly as much publicity as anyone beating Bobby Riggs or even threatening to jump the Snake River Canyon on a motorcycle.
Listening to Gary Gabelich one gets the impression that asking why is what's really absurd. "Racing is really boss, man. If you like to go fast, that's all there is." The idea of the danger involved in traveling 750 miles an hour bubbles up and rolls away from his mind like droplets of water off a fresh coat of Simoniz. "Driving the car is a piece of cake," he says. "You could do it; almost anyone could. It's putting the whole project together that's tough, raising the $1 million we figure it will cost, and then converting it into a car and a team that we know can break the barrier." He speaks of his team so frequently that he begins to sound like the self-effacing player of the week in a postgame interview or the blushing astronauts giving all the credit for their being on the moon to the technicians of Houston. It is as if strapping his body in a supersonic rocket were no more a commitment and courageous act than trying out the air-conditioned fossil burners in Detroit's new fall line.
Gabelich is totally into whatever he is doing. He worked for North American Rockwell for 9� years in various positions from mailboy to staff assistant to part-time test subject for the Apollo program—not flying the capsules, but testing their long-term liveability in a weightless condition, their tolerance to and performance under conditions of extreme yaw and, though they seldom speak of it on televised moon shots, the toilet facilities.
He began drag racing in his father's Pontiac in 1957, and during his tenure at North American Rockwell established a name for himself at strips in Southern California. His employers, fearing the investment of too much time and unique training in a research subject who, it seemed to them, was laying his life and the continuity of their research on the starting line every weekend, gave him the ultimatum: "Cease this foolhardy diversion or forfeit your job." There was never really any question about the response. The choice was made for him by his dedication to the world he loves and his desire to prevail in it.
Gabelich's new sound-barrier car, which is being built in Long Beach, will be 44 feet long, eight feet longer than the current Blue Flame record car, which was sponsored by The Natural Gas Industry. The tail fin will be cut down, the rear wheels set farther back and wider apart, and the underside of the body will be V-shaped. This latter touch is an engineer's dream: when supercar breaks the sound barrier on land, the shock waves will go off the car at a 45-degree angle downward, hit the ground and bounce away from the car instead of bouncing back up to blow the thing off the ground.