The Contenders: The Spirit of America

Craig Breedlove, the first man through the 400, 500 and 600mph barriers and five time world-land speed record holder is back and is ready to set his sights on smashing the 800 mph barrier. Breedlove’s affair with speed came at the start of a sort of land speed-record renaissance, and he spent the next two years swapping places with several other teams, eventually breaking the 600-mph barrier in 1965.

The Spirit of America was the first design to take advantage of a change in rules that allowed for a 3-wheeled design. Using an ex-military General Electric J47 turbojet engine taken from a F-86 Sabre, the “Spirit” further evolved the “streamliner” approach taken by its predecessors, although it was far narrower. After adding a stabiliser and allowing the front wheel to “steer”, all was ready for an attempt on September 5, 1963.  Craig Breedlove opened the Spirit up, and in doing so became the first man to exceed 400 miles per hour .But as was the tradition of the land speed record, there were plenty of others trying to make the title their own. Tom Green would be the first to succeed a little over a year later (October 1964), then the title was taken by Art Arfons. Undeterred, Breedlove returned to the Bonneville Salt Flats and pushed the “Spirit” to over 500 mph , setting it at 526.277 mph (846.961 km/h) on October 15, a record that stood for almost two weeks.At the end of his second run, the “Spirit” lost its parachute brakes, skidded for five miles (8 km), through a row of telephone poles and crashed into a pond at around 200 mph (300 km/h). Miraculously Breedlove was uninjured, however the crash would see him enter the Guinness Book of Records, he taking out the title of producing the worlds longest ever skid marks.

A new “Spirit” was built over 1964-65 to attempt to wrest the title back from Arfons. The “Spirit of America – Sonic 1” now boasted a 4 wheel design affording better stability, and in-turn this allowing the use of the much higher rated GE J79 engine borrowed from a F-4 Phantom jet fighter (the same engine as used in Arfons’ “Green Monster”). In his new machine, Breedlove set the record at 600.601 mph on November 15, 1965, a record that stood until 1970.

After a lengthy break from world records Breedlove began work on a new “Spirit” in 1992, eventually named the “Spirit of America Formula Shell LSRV”. The engine was the same as that used in the second “Spirit”, a GE J79, but was modified to burn unleaded gasoline (generating a maximum thrust of 22,650 lbf /100.8 kN). The first run of the vehicle in October 28, 1996 in the Black Rock Desert, Nevada ended in a crash at around 675 mph (see video below).While the record has risen over 150 mph since that period, it’s remained at 763 mph since Thrust SSC clocked it back in 1997. Breedlove and his team of engineers attempted to set a record that same year with a redesigned ‘Spirit’, but never made the books due to set backs after the crash as well as engine damage caused by FOD.

Breedlove is not finished yet. In true American style, he hopes to smash Thrust SSC’s record on the 50th anniversary of his first record breaking run. Sadly, the 74-year old will not be at the wheel this time, but will take up a role as team leader of the project, a move similar to that of Richard Noble on the Bloodhound SSC project.

Little is known about Breedlove’s latest attempt on the lsr, however it is believed he will take to Bonneville Salt Flats in 2013 with a jet-powered streamliner.If you look at the history of the absolute land speed record, it’s a story of intensified efforts during several key periods and subsequent inactivity for years and decades.Breedlove’s 1963 record ended a 16-year drought and was the first of 11 records set over the course of two years. The 1970s, ’80s and ’90s saw one record per decade and there have been none since. The previous Spirit of America car was bought from Breedlove by adventurer Steve Fossett in 2007, however Fossett died in a tragic air crash in the Nevada desert mountains prior to the start of the trial runs.But it looks like we could be on the brink of another renaissance.