Moths and rattlesnakes

Rob Widdows, Dispatches

Do you know this bloke Richard Noble?” Says the news editor. “Yes,” I say, “he’s about to go for a new Land Speed Record and “Yeah, we know. We need you to get out there and cover it for us and ITN.” “Right,” I say.

“We’ll get you on a flight to San Francisco, then it’s up to you to get to Nevada. We’ll find a local camera crew.”

That’s how it started, my sojourn in the tiny hamlet of Gerlach in the Black Rock desert And now Mr Noble is gearing up to do it all again, this time on a desert in South Africa, with his driver Andy Green and a rocket-powered car called Bloodhound.

Back in the autumn of 1983 Noble himself did the driving, strapped into a ‘safety cell’ alongside a Rolls-Royce Avon jet engine. But that wasn’t all he did, as I quickly discovered.

Having found a room in a motel, my first port of call was the grandly-named Bruno’s Country Club, the operational headquarters for the Thrust team. Noble’s leadership qualities were immediately apparent. The man is a whirlwind, never standing still and, it seemed, never sleeping. Soon after my arrival, an engine problem was threatening to derail the project. Noble gave his friend John Griffiths of the Financial Times an exclusive story about the engine problem in return for which John would somehow obtain the private fax number of Rolls-Royce chairman Sir William Duncan. Noble’s message from Gerlach was clear: “If you decide not to help us, we will have to come home.” The chairman was outraged at being put on the spot but Noble got his way, and an engineer was dispatched from Atlanta.

With the car out of action, Noble soon had me out on the desert for some last-minute ‘fodding’, a term devised by the USAF to describe ‘foreign object damage’. This entailed walking the course in temperatures approaching 100 degrees, picking up anything that could be sucked into the jet engine. By the end of the day I was hallucinating and saw tiny stones in my sleep.

Late nights playing pool with the locals in the Miners Club were the only recreation. My daily reports back to ITV were done from a neon-lit call box, giant moths in my hair and rattlesnakes crossing the road. I was glad of my knee-high desert boots on dark nights.

The man from Atlanta, a happy Lancastrian called George Webb, soon had the engine back on song and on September 29 Noble did a single run at 622.837mph to equal Gary Gabelich’s record. But he needed to do two runs to establish a record and the sponsor contracts were due to expire the following day. In his room along the corridor from mine, Noble began a series of persuasive phone calls, one of his specialities. My news editor was also becoming restless. “When’s he going to do this thing?” he kept asking me. To relieve the tension a few of us went skinny-dipping in a hot pool in the desert and were promptly sent packing by the local sheriff. Time was running out.

Then, on October 4, in perfect weather conditions after three days of high winds, there was a feeling that this would be the day. We stood in the desert and held our breath as Noble prepared for his first run. Not a time for Thrust’s ignition system to fail, but that’s what happened. We couldn’t take much more of this. Then finally it happened, the huge gold-painted car streaking across the desert at 624.241mph, the return run producing 642.971mph to give an average through the measured mile of 633.468mph, a new World Land Speed Record. As Noble climbed from the cockpit I asked him why he’d put himself through years of graft and turmoil to do this. “For Britain, and for the hell of it,” he replied. My cameraman flew back to Reno and later that day these words would be broadcast all around the world.

In 1997 Noble and his driver Andy Green were back in Gerlach, Thrust SSC taking the record to 763mph. Next year they will do it all again, this time aiming for 1000mph. I would dearly love to see that. Note to editor: I still have my desert boots.