SI Vault
Coles Phinizy
January 17, 1977
When Kitty O'Neil broke the women's land-speed record by 200 mph, it was a certainty she could beat the men's mark, too...and that was the problem
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January 17, 1977

A Rocket Ride To Glory And Gloom

When Kitty O'Neil broke the women's land-speed record by 200 mph, it was a certainty she could beat the men's mark, too...and that was the problem

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One day last month on the Alvord Desert, a barren clay flat beneath a big lonely mountain in southeast Oregon, Kitty O'Neil, a 28-year-old part-Irish, half-Cherokee lady from Corpus Christi, squirmed into the cockpit of a narrow rocket-powered three-wheeled vehicle called the Motivator. Although Kitty O'Neil stands only 5'3" and weighs 97 pounds, her entry into the machine was a minor victory in itself, because the cockpit of the Motivator is barely large enough to accommodate an expectant baboon. Once properly wedged in, lying semi-supine with her head barely higher than her feet, Kitty gave the foot throttle two quick taps, and the engine responded, first with a gurgle and then a flatulent snort, throwing out a cloud of vapor.

Thirty feet from the rumbling car, Bill Fredrick, the Californian who designed and built it, began a 10-second countdown. Because Kitty is totally deaf, an assistant, Stan Schwanz, relayed the count to her by hand signals. When Schwanz signaled "zero," Kitty said a short prayer, depressed the throttle and kept it down. During a sliver of a second the howling machine stood motionless, as if stuck in time. In the next instant it was gone, a shrinking blur lost in its own trailing noise.

For one second after she blasted off, the force of acceleration pushed Kitty's guts gently back against her lungs, but except for this minor discomfort, the ride was a smooth one. Within five seconds she was going 180 mph. In 15 seconds she was a mile down the course, doing 500. Five seconds later she was going 200 mph faster than any landbound woman had traveled before, reaching a speed of about 600 mph and clocking 514.120 through a one-kilometer speed trap.

The international rules for land-speed attempts require the driver to complete a second run in the opposite direction through the same timing trap within two hours. There was almost an hour to spare when Kitty streaked back through the same kilometer in 4.375 seconds (only 24 thousandths of a second slower than her first run) for a two-way average speed of 512.710 mph.

Way back in 1954, in the pre-dawn of the Space Age, Lieut. Colonel John Paul Stapp rode a rocket-powered sled on rails 632 mph to test the effects of rapid acceleration and deceleration. Stapp survived, although he almost lost both eyeballs in the abrupt process of slowing down. (The Air Force had also subjected a trained ape to similar rides. When offered a banana as inducement before one wild run, the ape hit its handler over the head with it.) Stapp's 632 mph is still the highest terminal speed reliably recorded on land, although at least one man has surely exceeded it. The official world mark for a two-way run is 630.388 mph, set Oct. 23, 1970 on Utah's Bonneville Salt Flat by Gary Gabelich, a Southern Californian who dropped out of the space program in favor of a drag racing career. In the middle of his final run, the needle of Gabelich's airspeed indicator edged past 650.

Today, when the gaudy antics of Evel Knievel and his imitators dominate the scene, the feats of men like Stapp and Gabelich have low cash value, and the heroes themselves are fast forgotten. On those counts, Kitty O'Neil is a worthy newcomer to the 600-mph club. She drove the Motivator to a new women's record without monetary reward or so much as a banana as an inducement. As a result of her record-breaking run, she will reap, at best, a modest bundle from various endorsements and promotions—probably enough to keep her laughing halfway to the bank.

If her fame becomes short-lived as that of Stapp and Gabelich, Kitty is not the sort to worry. She has been tempered in adversity since childhood, and she now prospers in obscurity. She was born deaf but, tutored by a persistent mother, she learned to lip-read and speak well enough to attend regular classes before she completed grade school. She was a promising three-meter and platform diver in the early '60s, despite being crippled by spinal meningitis, and in the years since, she has survived cancer thanks to two operations. Until she drove the Motivator, probably not one in 100,000 people would have known her by face or name, although as a stunt woman standing in for Lee Grant, Lisa Blount and other actresses, in the past year she has had more public exposure than Knievel.

Remember how a bad guy had Lana Wood hanging out a sixth-story window in an episode of Baretta? Remember how Pamela Bellewood and Lee Grant struggled to keep their heads above water in a sinking jetliner in Airport '77? Remember Lisa Blount being set on fire during a graveyard seance in the movie 9/30/55? Well, Kitty O'Neil was the lady actually being mauled, drowned and burned.

Kitty got to drive the Motivator because some years earlier she had made the right connections in Hollywood. In 1970, while racing motorcycles in cross-country events, she met and married a one-time bank vice-president, Duffy Hambleton, who, realizing he was a jock at heart, had quit banking to become a stunt man. After several years living on an orange ranch serving as a housewife and a mother to Duffy's two children by a previous marriage, Kitty decided she wanted to get back into some kind of action herself. Duffy spent two years teaching her the survival techniques of his profession, and last March she joined him in Stunts Unlimited, a cooperative association that includes many of the best daredevils.

Through her husband, Kitty met Bill Fredrick, who earns his living developing devices that stunt men use to make smash action scenes ever more smashing. When a movie or TV director wants a bit of eye-stopping action like, say, a cute blonde being thrown through the roof of a speeding sedan, he phones Fredrick. After putting data through a few electronic abacuses and computers and mentally digesting the output, Fredrick reports back that to blast a blonde of X weight Y feet into the air through a car roof that fractures under Z stress requires such-and-such an explosive charge. Describing his particular genius, Fredrick says simply, "If you want to go up in the air, I can show you how and tell you exactly where you will land." After attending a high school that saturated him with mathematics, Fredrick had one year of engineering at UCLA before quitting to support his family. For 10 years he prospered as owner of a chain of meat markets, then after going bankrupt trying to expand his empire, he decided to devote himself to his hobby—high-speed cars.

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