The fastest-ever car speed record is very much in the news again, thanks to the magnificent achievement, after nine years of disappointment and frustration, by Richard Noble with his Rolls-Royce-powered Thrust H jetcar, as described in last month’s Motor Sport. In view of the widespread interest aroused, including congratulations to Noble from HM The Queen, a few observations about what is loosely called the Land Speed Record seem justified.
What Noble really holds is the World’s unlimited fs mile record, at 633.468 mph and as this is the fastest officially recognised speed on land he has, in the public mind, the existing “Land Speed Record”. The man he was out to beat, Gary Gabelich, retains the World’s unlimited fs kilo record, at 630.388 mph, because, although Noble went faster, at 634.050 mph, this failed to meet the FIA requirement of an increase of at least one per cent above the previous best time. This is an indication of how properly the declared records are safeguarded, but it is confusing — in fact, the “LSR” could be said to stand at this 634 mph, in the minds of many.
When it all began, way back in 1898 at Acheres in France, with the Comte de Chasseloup-Laubat pressing his electric Jeantaud over a timed kilometer at 39.24 mph, it was more or less properly conducted. However, the stop-watch timing was for a run in one direction only, with all that could imply in terms of gradient and wind. This persisted until 1914, after which Authority insisted on runs in opposite directions of the chosen course. Burman, it seems, was the last holder of a one-way “LSR”, with the Blitzen Benz, timed at 141.37 mph at Daytona in 1911, but as the FIA was dubious about the set up, this speed was never recognised in Europe, where the then “LSR” stood to the credit of Hemery’s Benz, properly observed at Brooklands in 1909 to do 125.95 mph. The first “LSR” (if I may conveniently use this loose designation) to be established after the introduction of the two-way ruling was again made at Brooklands, where proper distance-measurements and timing-facilities existed — by Hornsted in another of these giant Benz cars, his speed being 124.10 mph, after the times had been averaged. The difference of 17.27 mph between one-way and two-way Benz timings suggested that the new ruling was timely, if you will excuse the pun, although the difficulty of driving that fast on Brooklands, especially in the “wrong” direction of the Track, should perhaps be taken into account.
From 1914 until 1927, the so-called “LSR” progressed without change in the rules, going from 124 mph to nearly 175 mph. When the record was claimed in America the FIA continued to close its eyes and turn a deaf car. Thus, at the time in 1919 when de Palma’s Packard was said to have done 149.8 mph we insular (but commendably accurate) Europeans accepted only the Benz’s 124 mph, and after Milton’s Duesenberg was applauded in the USA as having done a rousing 156 mph (again at Daytona) in 1920 the FIA would have nothing of it, the next surge forward in their book being Lee Guinness’s 133.75 mph, made two years later with the 350 hp V12 Sunbeam single-seater, on the tricky two-way Brooklands run.
The Americans seem to have given in at this point but the thing came to a head in 1927, when Segrave was after 200 mph or more with the crude and fearsome twin-engined “1,000 hp” Sunbeam, hoping to pulverise Campbell’s record of 174.8 mph with “Blue Bird”. Campbell had risked his neck on Pencline sands but Segrave thought more room desirable if he was to tack 25 mph on to the speed. The only place he could go was to Daytona Beach. This meant that at last records claimed in America came into line with those in Europe. The requirements, however, were stringent. It became necessary for the Contest Board of the AAA to join the FIA, after which the FIA required that the American timing-apparatus be certified as accurate by the Federal Bureau of Standards and that called for a certificate from another independent organisation. It also involved a visit to Paris by the Brooklands’ Clerk-of-the-Course, and two very high-ranking Officials of the RAC, before the FM was agreeable, after which Mr V. Haresnape, Secretary of the AAA Contest Board, had to furnish affidavits from the Official Course Surveyor, the Official Examiner, a cable to Paris stating that the timing-gear was approved, together with rating reports on its chronometer for 1922, 1924 and 1927 and blueprints from the Chief Surveyor of the course, as well as the original tape from the timing-gear and other documents. Obviously, the distances over which the Sunbeam was timed were very accurately measured, although I do not know how they compared with the official measuring of the Brooklands Motor Course, done by Britain’s Director-General of Ordnance Surveys 18 years earlier, who guaranteed an accuracy of 1/50.000 for the lap, with greater accuracy for the kilometer and mile markings. This was an improvement over time-keeper’s paint marks by the roadside, which drivers might move closer the day before a record bid!
The requirement that a record has to improve on an existing one by at least one per cent came much later, when speeds were so high that even modern bearn-timm8 might make a hiccup or two. I think it originated during record bids by aeroplanes, when the problems were accentuated, so that this time-keeping margin was seen as a good thing.
So the “LSR” rolled along, with cars required to be wheel-driven until the jet age prompted a change. This was regretted in some quarters, the point being made that land speed records might be attempted by aircraft with high wing loadings touching down, perhaps on a multi-wheeled undercarriage, and flying in contact with the course for the required distances. It has not happened yet… As tyres became an ever more vital factor in “LSR” bids and had to be changed between runs, an allowance of 30 min was permitted between the out and back timed assaults, and I think I am right in thinking that 60 min are now allowed; clearly, if this stipulation had not been introduced, it would have been possible to attempt a record on a day when the wind was favourable and then wait for it to veer favourably before going out again, but whether the 1911 rules specified a target time within which both runs had to be made I do not know.
Leaving aside the various engine-size and stock-car classes, the latter an American innovation, which have governed record attempts down the years, there is one final point to be made. It contains record categories. Thus there are local records, appertaining to a particular track or course, National records, meaning the fastest times made in a given country, and International and World’s records, which are self-explanatory. Now it used to be the case that a National record referred to the country where the record was established, having nothing to do with the nationality of driver or car. Thus, when Malcolm Campbell, seeking a new venue in 1929, took “Blue Bird” to Verneuk Pan in S. Africa, but failed to set a new “LSR”, his 217.6 mph for the kilo being 13 mph too slow to crack Sir Henry Segrave’s record in the Irving-Napier “Golden Arrow”, Campbell came home with the kilo, mile and five-mile British records, not because he and his car were British but because he had set the new records on British soil, in the days when we still had an Empire and much of the Globe was marked in red… If this rule still applies, and I have spent a long time studying the “Yellow Book” without finding that it doesn’t, Noble cannot, as some reports insist, have broken British National records in America, but, conversely, he has taken a number of American National records in spite of car and driver being British, if I make myself clear… The fastest-ever official record by a wheel-driven car is 409.277 mph, by the Summers’ 4WD Chrysler-powered Goldenrod, set up at Bonneville in 1965. It may well stand for ever, unless sufficient sponsorship from the makers of things like tyres, wheels, final-drive gears, universal joints and propshafts could be raised to build another contender. — W.B.