Back to Black Rock

On 4 October 1983, Richard Noble blasted Thrust 2, a Rolls-Royce Avon powered jet-car, across the Black Rock Desert, Nevada, USA to set a new Land Speed Record at 633.468 mph, a figure which remains unbeaten to this day. To celebrate the 10th anniversary of their accomplishment, and to meet the man who hopes to challenge the record some time next year, Noble and the rest of the Project Thrust team returned to the scene of their success and the tiny town of Gerlach.

Back in 1982, after repeated attempts at Bonneville Salt Flats had ended in failure, thanks in no small part to Thrust’s dislike for the salt surface, Noble switched to the Black Rock Desert, more in hope than expectation, and was delighted to find that, not only had he stumbled upon an ideal track for the car, but it was also found an ideal location for the team. The residents of Gerlach, who until then had witnessed nothing faster than the massive freight trains that clanked gently through the town, welcomed them with open arms and became very much a part of their endeavours.

The welcome given to the returning team in 1993 was just as warm, with Bev and Arley’s Miner’s Club and Bruno’s Bar and Motel providing the scene for three days of reminiscing, dinners, film shows and impromptu gatherings, not to mention some spectacular hot-air balloon trips across the desert. The team even managed to set a new LSR, albeit for a rather more obscure class of vehicle. During one of the low points in 1983, while waiting for favourable wind conditions, a small group lead by team member Ron Benton dashed across the desert to set a new record for a Sani-Hut (portaloo!) towed behind a pick-up truck. The event, captured vividly in the recently reshown documentary about Project Thrust, provided a much-needed boost to team morale and, when recreated during the reunion, was just as hilarious. Driving a brand new Dodge Ram truck with the Sani-Hut firmly lashed to it, Noble averaged 72.623mph with the intrepid Benton in the somewhat unconventional passenger seat.

More seriously, Noble, Thrust designer John Ackroyd and Bluebird designer Ken Norris, team manager in 1983, reckoned that the desert, which hadn’t seen rain for 106 days, was in better shape than ever, and absolutely perfect for thrust-driven vehicles. This was of great interest to Craig Breedlove, five times record-holder in the ’60s with his Spirit of America jet-cars, who had flown in with some of his team to check things out for himself. Far from being retired, he confirmed that he has a new J-79 jet-powered device on the stocks which, sponsorship money permitting, should be completed by mid to late 1994. Interestingly, some of those sponsorship deals may depend on the car running on the less suitable salt of Bonneville, a surface that, by Breedlove’s own admission, now features only 10 per cent of the salt thickness he enjoyed when he took his first record in 1963. Breedlove and Noble talked at length about the Black Rock Desert, and he definitely has it slated as a quickly available reserve track if Bonneville proves as unhelpful to his new car as it did to Thrust.

When Project Thrust first turned up at Gerlach, some non-local environmental protection protesters almost succeeded in stopping Noble’s runs, but representatives from the Bureau of Land Management present for the reunion confirmed that, provided they stuck to the guidelines laid down when Thrust 2 finally got to run, they would be happy to support applications by individual teams to use the desert. What they would not be happy about, and would definitely block, is any attempt to turn Black Rock into an alternative venue to Bonneville for the annual Speed Week involving hundreds of cars and motorcycles. Apart from the possible environmental damage, they cite the time taken for dust to settle after each run as just one of the practical reasons why such a switch would be impossible. To be fair, nobody has suggested this scenario, but it was a message taken away not only by Craig Breedlove, but also USAC timekeeper Dave Petrali.

Whatever the location, Breedlove is hoping that it is still Thrust 2’s 633.468 mph mark that he has to shoot for, although this is dependent on Australian Rosco McGlashan, who has his own Thrust 2 lookalike jet, Aussie Invader, ready to go some time in November, probably using Lake Gairdner in Australia. To spice things up even more, Breedlove’s long time rival Art Arfons has quietly “unretired” himself and is hard at work modifying his latest ultra lightweight Green Monster jet-car.

At the time of life when most others would be pottering in the garden, the 68 year-old Arfons hopes that a new steering rack, with a proper wheel replacing the lever system used last time out, and a stiffer chassis will rid it of the handling problems that forced his retirement 18 months ago. If things go according to plan, he hopes to have a shot at the record before Breedlove is ready to run.

Before Thrust 2 was proven to have outright record potential, Ackroyd had plans for Thrust 3 underway. Whether or not these ever get dusted off and fully developed will depend on the interest generated by McGlashan, Breedlove and Arfons when, and if, they succeed in taking the record. Ackroyd himself now lives in Reno and is based at Stead Field, home of the Reno Air Races, where he is putting together the three-man capsule to be used for a non-stop around-the-world balloon flight. He expects the giant balloon to travel on the air currents of the jet stream at about 35,000 feet and take approximately 11 days to complete the circumnavigation. Having the Russian cosmonaut, Vladimir Dzhanibekov, who was sent up to rescue the Salyut space station, as part of the crew is proof of the seriousness of the attempt which is a natural development from the TransAtlantic and TransPacific crossings that gained so much media attention because of Richard Branson’s involvement: much of the design work for those projects was also Ackroyd’s.

For now, Noble, Ackroyd and the rest of the Thrust team remain holders of the Land Speed Record, a record which, as Richard said, he attempted “for Britain and the hell of it”.

It remains an achievement of which they can all justifiably be proud.