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Craig Breedlove, the first driver to achieve 500 and 600 MPH on land, and a five-time land speed record holder, passed away on April 4th, 2023 at the age of 86.
Courtesy of the NSSN Archives
Not many men like him live to see old age. They are often the victims of their own pursuits of speed. Breedlove, however, had a knack for staying on his own two feet after many of the world’s highest-speed crashes. His artform was in keeping some of the fastest machines on the planet balanced on the edge of disaster, riding the narrow envelope between too much drag to hit his target speeds and not enough downforce to keep the nose planted. And his legacy is marked in his good graces in the face of setback and failure, rarely showing a hint of wavering confidence or commitment. In the best ways, he embodied the Spirit of America in its most literal sense — putting the world on notice with a home-built hot rod, just a kid from Southern California looking to chase one of mankind’s greatest challenges.
Born in Los Angeles in 1937, he quickly fell into dry lakes racing during his teenage years, before getting behind the wheel of a belly tanker that had been stuffed with a blown Oldsmobile V8 at Bonneville. His time working at Douglas Aircraft had given him the foundation to begin his conquest for the ultimate land speed record.
Courtesy of the Hot Rod Magazine archives
At the age of 22, he purchased the J-47 turbojet that would thrust him into fame with Spirit of America, a three-wheeled streamliner that began construction in 1959. His goal was to reclaim the land speed record from Britain’s John Cobb, who ran 394 in 1947. After an unsuccessful initial outing that resulted in numerous updates to the aerodynamics and chassis of Spirit of America, Breedlove was able to return with a successful 407 mph two-way average, reclaiming the record for the United States in 1963.
What he didn’t expect was to have to work so quickly to retain that record. Walt and Art Arfons would make it a habit of challenging Breedlove on the Salt Flats with their own jet-powered mammoths of speed. The Wingfoot Express and Green Monster vehicles, both a creation of the Arfons, challenged Breedlove to bump the record again to 526 MPH (becoming the first driver to break the 500 MPH barrier) before both of his parachutes failed. He cooked the brakes trying to get the vehicle to scrub speed. This led to a set of six-mile long skid marks that showed where Spirit of America careened off course (a Guinness World Record that still stands) before the land-speed racer clipped telephone poles, drove down an embankment still pushing 200 MPH and wound up three-quarters submerged in a brine pool. Somehow, Breedlove was really no worse for the wear and was laughing, shouting to the press, “For my next trick, I'll set myself afire!” He would soon return with Spirit of America - Sonic 1 to further challenge the Arfons brothers and push the record ever higher — eventually punching through the 600 MPH barrier too in 1965 to settle the feud.
There was a time when rocket-powered streamliners were becoming popular at Bonneville, and Breedlove also planned to enter his own, but government regulations on the hydrogen peroxide fuel had tightened up, effectively ending the era after only Gary Gabelich’s Blue Flame rocket car bumped the land speed record to 622 MPH in 1970. Breedlove, meanwhile, had been busy working with American Motors, setting 106 records at the Goodyear test track in Texas in 1968 with the help of wife Lee Breedlove and spare driver Ron Dykes.
However, once again, the British were coming. A new era of jet-powered fisticuffs emerged when Richard Noble’s Thrust2 took the land speed record in 1983 at 633 MPH. Beginning in 1992, Breedlove would design and build the Spirit of America Sonic Arrow (also known as Shell LSRV), a modernized take on his original three-wheeled combo that was powered by a GE J79 turbojet. Alongside its development would be Noble’s latest creation, ThrustSSC, and there was a spirited debate between whether twin-outboard engines were the key for extra power and stability or if a singular engine would minimize the aero penalty enough to make up the difference in a more efficient package. And while the ultimate goal was the sound barrier, LSRV was still largely built at home by a handful of Southern California fabricators.
By the numbers, he could’ve done it in 1995, but a miscommunication about windspeeds down course put him on an infamous crash course. At 675 MPH, Breedlove entered at 15 MPH crosswind and the streamliner began to roll onto its side. While grazing the earth on two wheels in a large 180-degree arc, he managed to get it settled enough to avoid an recreational vehicle and other obstacles, before coming to a stop unexpectedly closer to his crew. He had attempted to restore the LSRV into fighting shape, but it was never meant to be. Unfortunately, as sponsor funding dried up while attempting to sort out the damage. Thrust SSC would obtain the land speed record while breaking the sound barrier the following year. It wasn’t what the five-time land speed record holder had hoped for, but he was still present to shake the hands of Noble, who managed the program, and Andy Green, the RAF pilot who had been chosen to drive Thrust SSC — rivalry at what was one of the last performance frontiers on earth didn’t come before class and sportsmanship.
And the conclusion didn’t push Breedlove away from land speed racing bitterly either. He stayed in the background of the Bonneville Salt Flats, meeting racers and taking time to give advice where he could. He’d never stop pursuing the ultimate land speed record too, as he was actively working on a new car up until the time of his passing. There may never be another icon in motorsports quite as motivated, persistent, and outright ballsy as Craig Breedlove. Even during the ever-expanding heights of hot rodding and racing, Breedlove inspired a countless many to continue to keep reaching for that next level, that next frontier.