News broke in the last couple of days, that automotive pioneer and multiple land speed record holder Craig Breedlove sadly passed away aged 86.
Breedlove was part of a small alumni that would push and reset the boundaries of speed in the 1950s and 60s while living to tell the tale, in a sport that would see far too many taken far too soon.
A Southern California native, Breedlove’s obsession with speed started young. At just 13 years old, he got his hands on a 32′ Ford Coupe that he would drive around in secret, but just a few years later at 17, he would be taking an alcohol fueled 1934 Ford to 154MPH on the dry lakes of the sunshine state. This, is where the story of the fastest man in America would begin.
He began his high-speed career in what would now be seen as the start of the golden age of land speed racing. Where amateur enthusiasts could take homemade creations out on the dried salt lakes such as Bonneville and El Mirage to achieve speeds unseen or unobtainable just a few years before. To put into context, in 1927 Sir Henry Seagrave achieved a two-way average speed on 231MPH in his twin-aero engined, purpose built land speed car ‘The Slug‘. In 1957, at the age of 20, Breedlove piloted an alcohol powered ‘belly tanker’ at the Bonneville salt flats to a new record of 236MPH.
His chosen career path, would see him work for legendary aircraft manufacturer Douglas (later McDonald Douglas) as a structural engineer. The skills and knowledge gained from this would have a lasting and impactful future on his later career, speed.
As the sun set on the 1950s, the age of jet power had truly begun to dawn over the horizon of land speed racing. In 1959, Breedlove began his first forays into this new method of propulsion and into the record books.
With a second hand J47 jet engine, Breedlove made his jet fueled way into history with the first iteration of the legendary Spirit of America.
This move into the jet powered world, would also begin one of the most exciting eras of speed the world had ever seen. The 1960s would see the land speed record set, smashed and reset multiple times over a matter of months as Breedlove entered the fray against drivers/builders such as Art Arfons and his half-brother Walt. This triangle of competition would push the boundaries of what people thought would be possible out in the emptiness of the Utah salt plains.
In his first time out with the J47 powered Spirit of America, Breedlove would run the ‘car’ at over 400MPH – clocking a 407MPH average over the two-way course. In response, Tom Green (the driver for Walt Arfons) would respond with a 413MPH record in February of 1964 only to have that record shattered by Walt’s half brother Art at the wheel of his own creation ‘The Green Monster’ with 434MPH. To respond, Breedlove came back with a 468, 500 and then 526MPH. This would spark one of the greatest rivalries in the automotive world between Arfons and Breedlove that would see them push eachother harder, faster and stronger towards what many see as the true ragged edge.
Famously, at the end of his record setting 526MPH run – both of the parachutes used to slow down Spirit of America tore to shreds and because of this, Breedlove completely burnt the brakes out trying to slow the several ton machine down. He outran the boundaries of the salt flats, rolling the ‘car’ into the lake which sat at the end of the course. His crew, fearing the worst, rushed down the course to help their driver… only to find him soaking wet and dancing on the waters edge and screaming ”and now for my next trick, I will set myself on fire!” A true reflection of a man who understood the risks but chased the rewards. His car was in tatters and he knew that someone would be along to challenge that record soon…
He wasn’t wrong, his biggest rival Art Arfons soon responded with a 536MPH record.
The only way to truly prove a point was to push the limit of what was even conceivable. Breedlove came back to Arfons’s record with a now historic 600MPH run in November of 1965. To back it up, Breedlove then pushed Spirit of America even further on the way back to get an average of 606.6MPH. The first man to run 500 and 600MPH. With the sound barrier growing closer and closer, pilots and builders had no clue when this would happen as it also depends on multiple environmental factors. Would the car simply slip past it like a plane? Or, because of the shockwave being created so close to the ground – would it instantly rip the land speeder apart as it traveled across the vast emptiness? No one knew.
The following story has passed into speed record folklore: Breedlove and Arfons were bitter rivals. Arfons being the working mans hero and Breedlove as the all-American poster boy with the backing of huge sponsors and wore a spacesuit for his record runs. One night, towards the end of those crazy few years, Breedlove and Arfons would meet on the edge of Salt Flats. No one knows the words the two contemporaries exchanged exactly, but people have said it went along the lines of one asking the other ”when does all this end?” with the other replying ”when one of us gets it wrong”.
The fear didn’t stop Breedlove from trying to push the limits harder and harder. Over the following years, Breedlove would attempt to beat his records. However, he never did manage to push that any further but neither did Arfons who trying to break a record would see him survive the fastest and most severe accident on earth at 609mph with only a headache and two black eyes.
Over those beautiful few years in the early to mid 1960s, these superhumans would expand what people thought was possible. New ways to engineer solutions to problems never before faced – tyre technology, suspension set up and construction and advanced aerodynamic theory and implementation were all aspects of the automotive world which had been moved on at a pace no one had seen before.
In the following 20 to 30 years, the land speed record would only be moved on by around 100MPH. The current record being attributed to Richard Nobles Thrust SSC, an evolution of everything learned from pioneers such as Breedlove, to 763.055MPH – breaking the sound barrier for the first time on land. Breedlove’s status in the history books are sealed, his achievements and records can never be taken away or tainted or disputed.
The wonderful story of this gladiator of motion is best summed up in a beautiful film, The Wildest Ride. Released in 1964, it follows Breedloves attempts and record run to be the first person to cross the 500MPH mark (you can watch the film for free on YouTube below).
Craig Breedlove, and the team behind Spirit of America, were true pioneers of their time. From all of the world, and all throughout the car world, he will be sorely missed. One of the final connections to those glory days of speed.