At the end of 1983, at the height of the season of goodwill, I won an award. I occasionally wear it around my neck. It is a wooden disc, hanging from what appears to be a red bootlace. The inscription reads ‘The Very Stupid Award’. This is one of the most treasured items in my collection of motor sport memorabilia.
Earlier that year on October 4 to be precise, I stood in the Black Rock desert, Nevada watching Richard Noble break the Land Speed Record in Thrust 2. During the tense minutes leading up to a previous run, in the course of filming for ITN, I had somehow walked through a timing beam. Neither the USAC timekeepers nor Mr Noble were at all impressed. Later that night, as we celebrated in the Miners Club, the only bar in the desert community of Gerlach, I was reminded of my stupidity. The award was sheepishly received.
Now, 27 years later I am on the trail of Bloodhound SSC, Richard Noble’s latest endeavour. If all goes according to plan, his rocket-powered projectile will reach 1000mph in a desert in South Africa. He will not be at the controls, this dubious privilege having long since passed to test pilot Andy Green, but he is very much the driving force behind this extraordinary scheme.
The following advertisement recently popped up in the personal column of The Times: “People wanted to clear desert track for 1000mph racing car. No wages, constant heat, tough work in beautiful but remote Hakskeen Pan, Northern Cape, South Africa. Scorpions may be present. Inspiring the next generation of engineers the reward.” In Nevada it was the same, but with rafflesnakes. We spent days toiling in the desert, combing the surface for foreign objects that might endanger the mighty jet car and its derring-do driver. It is known as ‘fodding’, the verb arising from foreign object and debris. This advert could only have come from one man, so Madame Megane and I went to see him, not breaking any records, but in comfort and style.
“Aha, jolly good, so great to see you, chap,” Richard burst forth, gripping my hand. “Things are going really well. When the car runs in 2012 we will have 500 data channels streamed onto the internet. What a terrific learning opportunity for students.” The energy and the enthusiasm are undiminished. The man is a whirlwind of optimism and ebullience on the eve of the impossible.
In the desert that day in 1983, Richard told me and the rest of the world that he’d done it “for Britain, and for the hell of it”. Our ITN interview landed on TV screens around the globe. We should have won an award for that, after weeks in the desert during which time some of us were nabbed by the sheriff for skinny-dipping in the hot springs at night. This made a change from playing pool in the Miners Club, where I consistently lost to a man called ‘Whitey’ who only had one arm. Well, you need a break from waiting for a man to do 600mph across the middle of nowhere.
So, what the hell is Bloodhound all about, I venture. “Oh, for Britain, and for British engineering,” Noble responds. I must be very stupid, but how does driving at 1000mph do that? “Because we’re involving schools, colleges, universities,” he says with exasperation. “We’ve involved so many people in so many parts of the country, it’s a unique and wonderful challenge. And the benefits for students are just fantastic a whole new generation of engineers will learn new skills and techniques. Unlike Formula 1, we have no secrets Bloodhound is an educational project.”
In ’83, we thought Thrust 2 was impressive, but now she stands in a museum and looks like a truck compared with Bloodhound.
“Technology is moving forward incredibly fast,” he says, “and we are absolutely at the cuffing edge. It is vital that Britain retains its place as a world leader. We are inspiring people.”
Should you be a sceptic, remember this: after Thrust 2 came Thrust SSC, still the fastest car on earth. Wise men will not bet against Noble and Green breaking their own record.