All eyes will be on Australia as the Formula 1 circus arrives in Melbourne this month for the 2020 season opener. The media coverage will be wall-to- wall: there is the race itself, of course, and what it suggests about the coming year. Every reader and viewer will pore over the minutiae of Mercedes’ trick steering wheel. Then there’s Lewis Hamilton’s helmet design, and who said what to whom in the paddock…
And that is as it should be: F1 is a global sport with a global fan base and Motor Sport is looking forward to covering an intriguing year ahead for F1 as it gears up for the 2021 regulation changes.
But it might escape people’s notice that another motor sport event is taking place in Australia this month as well, one which will do well to attract a tiny fraction of F1’s coverage. It is run not on the streets of Melbourne but the dried-out Lake Gairdner in the remote outback of South Australia.
There are those – including one or two in Motor Sport’s office – who regard speed records as being at the very periphery of our sport. “Going fast in a straight line is hardly racing,” they say. This wrong-headed view discounts a vast and rich history that stretches from Henry Segrave to Andy Green, via such as Craig Breedlove, Malcolm Campbell and Richard Noble.
Those who pursue speed records possess all the qualities of other motor sport competitors: technical ingenuity, competitive spirit, physical skill, and personal bravery. It is the last of these that caught my attention when looking over the entry list for the 30th Annual Speed Week competition which is held between March 23-27 just before the World Speed Trials (March 28-30).
Among the entrants this year is Valerie Thompson, an American known a little unimaginatively as the ‘Queen of Speed’. Already the world’s fastest female motorcyclist, she will attempt to set several new speed records on four wheels piloting a Treit & Davenport Target 550 Streamliner, in which she hopes she will exceed 415.867mph. It would be the class record for a four-wheel blown-fuel streamliner powered by a piston engine.
“This will be my first full-on assault on the 415mph record driving the Target 550 Streamliner. I’ve had three successful tests with a 290+ mph run on less than optimal salt conditions,” said Thompson.
Thompson is no stranger to record-chasing. In 2018, at the same Australian event, she set her sights on breaking the outright motorcycle land speed record of 376mph set in 2010 by Rocky Robinson, the veteran Californian speedway rider and record- breaker nicknamed Rocketman. Thompson had just passed the four-mile marker on a 12-mile course when the nose of her streamliner rose off the racing surface, sending the vehicle airborne at 343mph. Footage of the crash shows the streamliner sliding sideways before a parachute slowed the vehicle as it flipped and rolled multiple times, scattering wreckage for more than a mile across the salt flats.
Incredibly, Thompson walked away with nothing more than minor cuts and bruises. Afterwards she called the crash “unfortunate”, adding with admirable understatement: “Nobody has ever walked away from a 340mph-plus crash on a motorcycle. I’d also like to thank the DLRA and all their racecourse workers who helped ensure my safety.”
A year later, tragedy struck. It wasn’t Thompson, but her friend and fellow American Jessi Combs. The 39-year-old was driving the North American Eagle, a 56-foot-long jet car capable of generating over 45,500 horsepower on a dry lake- bed in Oregon. The team had eyes on the outright land speed record, but Combs was trying to better her 398mph record when she crashed and died. Thompson also knew the North American Eagle and was pegged to pilot it herself a few years earlier. “I also had the chance to attempt this record, but it wasn’t my turn… this hits home. Godspeed, Jessi Combs.” No doubt Thompson will think almost nothing of saddling up again this month and attempting to become the first woman to travel over 400mph. You need a certain nerve to be in this business. But for me, she deserves as much respect as the gladiatorial F1 drivers lining up on starting grid at Albert Park this month.
A call comes in to the office: “Can Motor Sport help?” asks the voice on the line. “I’m calling from Shelsey Walsh. We are trying to trace all the remaining Shelsey Specials for a reunion planned for July. We’d like to get the message out to the motor sport community.”
Readers who have or know the whereabouts of a Wasp, Gnat, or any other special that tackled the famous hill should contact Amanda Palmer at the Midland Automobile Club on 01886 812211 or by emailing [email protected].