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Monsters of Drag 

Craig Breedlove teams with SOMA performance artists to regain his land speed record as the fastest human on Earth

Wednesday, Aug 13 1997
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There are some things in this world so wasteful, so dangerous, so dramatically irresponsible they deserve only praise.

Speed-of-sound land rockets driven by 60-year-old real estate salesmen fit into this category. As do giant machines programmed to battle to the death.

The car is the brainchild of hot-rod legend Craig Breedlove, who during the 1960s was the first human to drive 400, 500, then 600 miles per hour. The machines are the specialty of Survival Research Laboratories (SRL), the performance art troupe famed for shows featuring jet-engine-powered robots and semitruck-sized, iron-clawed monsters that rip apart cow carcasses.

"It's an endless quest for the extreme," says SRL founder Mark Pauline.
The quest unites Breedlove and SRL into the coolest farm-team relationship in Bay Area sport. Instead of shortstops and center fielders, SRL has supplied machinists and engineers to work on Breedlove's newest land rocket. One that he hopes to pilot past the 765-mph speed of sound.

The world land speed record of 633.468 mph, set in 1983, is held by Great Britain, that most un-extreme of countries. Breedlove and a team led by English record-holder Richard Noble plan to meet this fall on a flat, hard piece of ancient Nevada lake bed and individually try to best the record.

When the dust settles and the afterburner flares die down, it will be national sensibility, as much as thrust and aerodynamics, that will have prevailed. If Breedlove wins, he will show the world once again that the American seat-of-the-pants, grunge-thrash-radical, Jack-Daniel's-'n'-hot-rods way of doing things is better than any other national ethic yet devised.

If the British win .... Well, let's just hope they don't.
"It's crazy American ingenuity," says Liisa Pine, a SOMA machinist and SRL member who worked with Breedlove last year.

Breedlove, who was a hot-rod icon during his '60s record days, has tapped the techno-artist ferment of SOMA and the girlie-calendar hot-rod culture of America's heartland; he's built a NASA-like rocket hangar at the lower end of the Sacramento River Delta, smack-dab in the middle of California's beer 'n' bait country. His car will be powered by a custom modified F-4 Phantom fighter engine and will ride on fist-wide Goodyear carbon-fiber tires. He'll cram himself into a 4-foot cockpit in the rocket's nose, then dose on the speed sensation he's been jonesing for during the last 30 years.

"It could be the single most interesting and exciting motor sports event this century," says Breedlove, before letting his real motivation slip out. "It is so blindingly fast, it gives a speed sensation unlike anything I could think of. Perhaps an airplane hitting a runway at 120 knots. But that doesn't really compare to going 600 knots. It's kind of speed to the max."

Breedlove's crew chief, Dezss Molnar, worked as a musician, ran a SOMA performance space, and built extreme machines for SRL before he went to work on the rocket-car project. Molnar in turn recruited Kevin Binkert and a handful of other SRL techies. Not everyone stayed. "Some people just don't work out," Molnar says. But Molnar hopes to recruit still more SRL members to labor on the rocket car.

Breedlove himself is a quiet, Mister Rogers-esque man, whose face breaks into a wicked smile when he describes what it's like to drive really, really fast. He became a successful real estate developer between his record attempts 30 years ago and the current one. But the mere mention of his name in SoCal asphalt-track circles still causes imaginations to soar.

He similarly inspires SOMA art types.
"Why would you want to build a machine that continuously breaks the sound barrier? Why would you want to build a flame tornado?" says Binkert, describing SRL pieces he constructed before joining Breedlove. "I guess the answer is the same as it is for the question 'Why would you want to break the land speed record?' "

Englishman Noble's effort is much more highfalutin. He recruited a retired chief missile aerodynamicist of the British Air Command to design his car, and a Royal Air Force pilot to drive it. Approaching middle age, he felt it would be better to pass the task of driving onto someone younger, he was quoted in the British press as saying.

But it's in design philosophies where the greatest differences lie: The cars are a contrast between British obstinacy and American daring.

In accordance with classic muscle-car tradition, both vehicles vaguely resemble giant phalluses. But the similarities end there. In photographs, Noble's car looks like a stealth bomber on steroids. Its pencil-thin fuselage is sandwiched between two Rolls-Royce Spey 205 Phantom fighter jet engines capable of producing 110,000 horsepower. That's enough to run 900 ordinary automobiles down the freeway at the same time. At full speed.

Breedlove's vehicle, while astounding, is much more modest. Its single engine tucks neatly into the fuselage itself, and produces a comparatively modest 48,000 horsepower -- nearly twice the power of the entire Indy 500 field.

Noble's vehicle weighs nearly two times Breedlove's, and, because of its two huge engine shrouds, has a much greater frontal area. Its ample underbody leaves a 4-yard-wide aerodynamic "footprint" on the desert floor.

The shear created by the underbelly, the high-rolling resistance resulting from its weight, and its blunt aerodynamics make the British vehicle much harder to push than Breedlove's. The sleeker, lighter Spirit of America is designed to skim along the desert floor, thereby going faster with less power. And perhaps, more danger, Breedlove acknowledges.

"They know a lot of this stuff, but their philosophy is to simply lock the car on the ground as hard as they can, and power it through with brute force," says Breedlove. "Our design depends more on finesse."

A tour through the hangar Breedlove has built in the sleepy delta town of Rio Vista dispels any doubts about his supremacy. Housed in a converted Ford dealership, Breedlove's workshop is alive with technicians hunched over machining tables, crouched under the car's tubular steel frame, and fiddling with the Batmobile-like aluminum fins that lean against the walls. Where other hot-rod shops are littered with spare V-8 motors, Breedlove's workers trip over Navy surplus jet engines. Where other mechanics fuss with rack and pinion steering, Breedlove concerns himself with whether his waist-high custom-machined wheels will burst apart as his car approaches the sound barrier.

This sort of thing doesn't appear to frighten Breedlove. Last October, during a 675-mph record attempt, an unexpected crosswind tossed his car on its side. For a moment, it appeared Breedlove was headed for certain doom as he skidded toward the mountains that surround Nevada's Black Rock lake bed. But Breedlove managed to pull his land jet into a wide U-turn, then headed back toward his crew before slowing to a stop.

"We weren't thinking good thoughts," says Binkert of the experience of being in the path of the runaway jet. "That was pure adrenalin."

It was a lot like the time when Breedlove was going for the 500-mph record and lost his drag parachutes and wheel brakes, then sliced through a row of telephone poles. Or any of the myriad other times he's crashed at rocket speed.

"It was pretty hairy," Breedlove says of his latest mishap, picking distractedly at the grout on a nearby wall. "But having been through it a number of times, I kind of know what to do. First, you figure out where you are -- kind of like counting to 10 before you lose your temper. You take a pretty good inventory of what has happened, rather than do a knee-jerk reaction. I had no warning about the wind, and I was confused about what had happened. Fortunately, the car has a good design, and it went on its side, then came back down. I had to do a complete U-turn, or I'd have run into the foothills."

Breedlove smiles as he says this. As if he knew some secret formula he's not going to share.

But it's no secret. Not really. It's summed up in the equation known to even the dullest American junior high slacker:

Irresponsible + Dangerous = Bitchin'.

About The Author

Matt Smith

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