December 16, 2012 4:17 pm 10 comments Views: 1402

An airplane, an auto now famous worldwide,
Spirit of America, the name on the side.
The man who would drive her, Craig Breedlove by name,
A daring man playing a dangerous game …

He is regarded as the last great “Adventurer” of the twentieth century. He is Craig Breedlove, a six-time world land speed record holder. He was the first to reach 400mph, 500mph, and 600mph, using several turbojet-powered vehicles, all named Spirit of America. (Pictured below)

In 1965 former World Land Speed record holder, Craig Breedlove drove his first “Spirit of America” jet machine 555mph, then to 600mph to take the crown for the USA. The five times record holder was finally beaten by Brit Richard Noble who ran 633.468 in Thrust 2 in October 1983.

 The Spirit of America was the first of the modern record breaking cars, build within new rules with its three wheel design, narrow stream-lined shape and most significantly turbojet engine. Like most of the other competing vehicles the engine was ex-military, the first Spirit had a GE J47 engine from a F-86 Sabre and was tested at Bonneville Salt Flats in 1962, where difficult handling resulted in failure. Before trying again a new stabilizer was added and a steerable front wheel. (pictured below)

Born in 1937, Craig bought his first car at the age of 13, a little deuce coupe. Three years later, when legally allowed to drive, he got his supercharged V8 1934 Ford Hot Rod Coupe up to a remarkable 154 miles per hour on the Mojave Desert dry lakes burning alcohol fuel. Four years later he later drove a supercharged “belly tank” Oldsmobile engined stream-liner to 236 mph on Utah’ 5 Bonneville Salt Flats.

 Growing up in the 1950s in Southern California, the car culture capital, may have had something to do with Craig deciding a career in speed. He won his first drag race at 16. By 1958, at 21, he was clocking 236 mph in a supercharged Oldsmobile “streamliner” at Bonneville.

 His father, Norman, was a motion picture studio special effects man. Breedlove’s mother, Portia, worked at the studios as a dancer, performing with the likes of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Craig grew up in the Los Angele’s suburb of Mar Vista and went to Venice High School. After school, Craig worked at Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica as a technician in structural engineering, where he learned many of his design and engineering skills before taking on fire-fighting duty in Costa Mesa.

 Employing the aerodynamics he’d learned making model airplanes and working at Douglas Aircraft, Breedlove set to work building a car that would challenge Cobb’s record. In the autumn of 1962, his team wheeled Spirit of America onto the salt at Bonneville. It was gorgeous. At a time when American spacecraft looked more like they’d been built by high school science classes than by rocket scientists, Spirit of America looked like something out of “The Jetsons.” It was powered not by conventional internal combustion, but by a surplus J-47 jet engine out of a U.S. Navy F-4 Phantom.

 In 1959, he paid $500 for a military surplus J-47 engine and began building his first “Spirit of America”. Breedlove clocked a record run of 407 mph in this car at Bonneville in 1963 to return the world land speed record to America after more than three decades.

…a young bright eyed Southern California Hot Rodder, Craig Breedlove

 With sponsorship funds from Shell Oil Co. and Goodyear, Breedlove finished his revolutionary new jet-car in 1962 and took it to Bonneville, expecting to break Englishman John Cobb’s land speed record of 394 mph in an effort to bring home the record to America for the first time in more than 30 years. The new car’s handling problems prevented Craig from doing that, but his sponsors hung on.

The 26 year old Craig Breedlove went to Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats again in August 1963 hoping to break John Cobb’s 1947 world land speed record of 394.20 mph. His car no sported a steerable nose wheel and a high, vertical stabilizer on the car. When he returned, he had indeed driven the fastest vehicle on Earth. But just the nature of the vehicle became a topic for debate because it did not have four wheels and the wheels were not driven.

 Some said his Spirit of America was not a car but a motorcycle because it had only three wheels. Others said its jet engine meant it wasn’t a car or a motorcycle, but something that defied existing classifications. Everyone agreed that Breedlove had driven this 38-ft.-long tricycle in both directions across Bonneville’s measured mile at an average speed of 407.45 mph, clearly a record for wheeled vehicles.

 Tom Green drove 413 mph at Bonneville in February of 1964. Then a drag racer from Ohio, Art Arfons built a land speed car in his back yard he called “Green Monster,” using a military surplus J79 jet aircraft engine with afterburner to reach an astounding 434 mph on the Utah salt flats for a new world’s record in May of that same year. (Green Monster pictured below)

Art Arfon’s iconic Green Monster

Craig returned to Bonneville with Spirit of America to defend his reputation with a new speed record of his own, at 468 mph. Then he went through 500 mph, with another new record of 526 mph.

The new record came at a high price. While surpassing Arfons’ newest speed record, Craig lost both drag parachutes and wheel brakes. The Spirit of America sliced through a row of telephone poles at 400 mph and “flew” at 200 mph into an 18-foot-deep salt brine pond. (picture blow)

He had to swim out to save his life, but was miraculously unscratched. Although it never ran again, the record-setting car has been a main hall exhibit in Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry for the past 30 years. Arfons responded by breaking that record with 536 mph.


With 5,000 pounds of thrust, it wasn’t just pretty, it was fast. On Oct. 5, 1963, clocking a two-way average of just over 407 mph, Breedlove brought the land speed record back to the United States for the first time in 32 years. He broke records with Spirit of America until October 1964, when, at more than 500 mph, his chute snapped off. The car overshot the track, smashed through some telephone poles, skipped across a saltwater pond and sank like a stone. Breedlove walked away wet, but unscathed, and with a record — 526.28 mph. He’s the only driver to nearly drown while setting a land speed record.

 At a time when drag racing was the fastest-growing sport in the United States, Craig Breedlove was a hero. While his speed records won him the kudos of his racing brethren, his matinee-idol good looks assured him photo spreads in national magazines. People called him Captain America. Even the Beach Boys sang his praises on their “Little Deuce Coupe” album:

 But despite Breedlove’s confirmed speed, Cobb’s record still stood, that is, for motor-driven 4-wheeled vehicles. Breedlove’s land speed record was recognized by the United States Auto Club, which had established a new class for wheeled jet-propelled land vehicles, and by the international motorcycle body, Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme, as a world record for 3-wheeled vehicles.

 In August 1963, Breedlove’s confidence and hard work paid off. One record, however, does not a legend make; few people outside the racing world had ever heard of Craig Breedlove. But jet engines quickly lit the afterburners of competition. In 1964 Art Arfons came on the scene with his Green Monster to give Breedlove some serious competition. This started a trade between the two men which was to last for three years.

This eventually started Craig on his Sonic 1 rocket powered car.

Lately, Craig has been developing his supersonic Spirit of America 3 to challenge the current 763 mph record held by Andy Green in Thrust 2 since October of 1997. Breedlove plans to reclaim the record soon with a run of 800 miles per hour in his new snazzy good looking Spirit of America 3. (pictured below)

Lately, all of the absolute land speed record talk that we’ve been reading about is in relation to the Bloodhound SSC, a beast of a jet/rocket-engined streamliner with visions of 1,200 mph.

Right now, though, the record stands at 763 mph, leaving several milestones before Bloodhound’s ambitious 1,200-mph goal.

Well, 800 mph is officially in the sights of one man with a whole lot of land speed record credentials. Craig Breedlove was the first to break the 400-mph barrier back in 1963, when he powered the Spirit of America to 408 mph.

Breedlove’s record 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.

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 engine damage.

But Breedlove isn’t done yet. He has some big plans for the 50th anniversary of his first land speed record and will make an attempt at doubling the accomplishment by becoming the first to break 800 mph. Breedlove won’t actually be driving himself but will be part of the engineering team that develops the jet-powered streamliner to do the job.

According to Hemmings, Breedlove and company plan to attempt the record in 2013 at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats, where Breedlove set his records in the 1960s.

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.

But it looks like we could be on the brink of another renaissance. In addition to Breedlove’s team and the Bloodhound SSC team, several other teams around the world are working on streamliners to take on the speed record. So we could very well see a multitude of world records over the next few years.

Can America and Breedlove capture the record again with his newest effort ?

Is there a speed limit for wheeled vehicles ?

Would you take the ride yourself ?

Kurt Wilson, Freelancer Motorsports Intl.


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