How a 50 year-old hot rodder and the 17 year-old car he built himself tore up the form book to break a 26 year-old record using 31 year-old tyres
It takes a peculiar brand of enthusiasm to keep returning to Bonneville, that desolate expanse of white nothingness on the Utah/Nevada border that nestles in the long-dried bowl of prehistoric Lake Lahontan. Art Arfons summarised it best when he said, “It’s the kind of place you’d dread going to, and when you were there you’d just want to leave. But once you were headed home, you’d already be planning when you’d come back.” It yielded him three land speed records in the ’60s before tumbling him down the salt at better than 600 mph when a wheel bearing seized as he tried to regain his laurels from Craig Breedlove in 1966.
Like Arfons, 64 and still pounding along in his jetcar, Al Teague has been unable to resist the lure of the wasteland. On August 21 last year his persistence was finally, albeit belatedly, rewarded. Using every available foot of the deteriorating surface, he peaked at a staggering 432.692 mph through the 132 foot section of the measured distance and slotted through the fifth mile at a fat 425.230 mph on his first run. In the pits open mouths inhaled flying salt, for these were figures way above Bob Summers’ existing wheeldriven record of 409.277 mph set with the Goldenrod way back in 1965. After going nowhere for 26 years, that mark was finally under threat.
The mandatory return run would be crucial. Even before it began there was trouble as the Spirit of ’76 bogged down and had to be pulled out of soft salt, but despite that Teague remembers feeling calm and relaxed during the turnaround. “I just felt that there was no pressure on me, despite the speed on the first run. I knew I had a short run-up, that we couldn’t expect to go as quick coming back. It just relaxed me.”
He pulled the elastic back as far as he could, but these days Bonneville is a muddy shadow of the time when it used to be pure white, inches thick. Over the years local industry has continued its remorseless plunder of the potash that helps the salt to reconstitute its hard surface. The flats might look as spacious as the surface of the moon, but track length is at a premium when the speeds nudge four centuries and you are driving through your wheels. Coming back, Teague had a five and a half mile run-up, half a mile shorter, and it was evident in the speeds. Through the 132 foot trap he clocked only 384.615, 394.602 in the five mile, 398.577 in the kilo, 411.852 in the four mile, and 351.627 in the three. The best average worked out at 409.986 mph for the figures in the fourth mile, but initially it seemed he hadn’t quite done enough to surpass Summers’ record by the FIA’s mandatory one per cent. Al shrugged, knowing that if you can equal a record, you can usually beat it, and Bob Summers’ brother Bill was among the first both to congratulate him, and to commiserate.
Only later would the governing body clarify things. Teague, it said some weeks later, had averaged 409.986 mph in the B/Fuel Streamliner class and in the newly ratified single-engined category. It was a new record for wheeldriven cars, regardless of the fact that it didn’t quite reach the 413.37 mph mark a one per cent increment might have required.
It is an achievement that falls into even greater perspective when one looks at the man and the machine. Elwin ‘Al’ Teague was born in Los Angeles in 1941, yet he looks a good 10 years younger. Spirit of ’76 is a sprightly 17 years old, powered only by a 1600 bhp supercharged Keith Black engine running a diet of methanol and nitromethane in equal quantities and driven through only two of its wheels. Since the ’30s four-wheel drive has been considered de rigeur for such cars, yet it was never an option for him. Finance simply didn’t allow such esoteric thoughts. Likewise, fancy rubber, or even the sort of aluminium wheels shod with Kevlar toothed belts used by rival Bruce Crower and his highly innovative Stars and Stripes Forever, never came into the equation. Santa Pod has its ‘run what you brung’ meetings; for Teague it was simply a case of run what you can afford.
In the early days, of course, he had no thought of the wheeldriven land speed record, beyond an open admiration for the likes and exploits of George Eyston, John Cobb and Sir Malcolm and Donald Campbell.
“When I was nine my older brother Harvey was mechanically minded. He was 12 and would buy an old car for $10 — an old Ford A or something like that — and bring it home and pull it apart. We never had any money but we’d scrape through. And we started getting Hot Rod Magazine. Then in 1948 in east Los Angeles my father took me to a motorcycle race. It kinda went on from there, when I smelled that Castrol R! There was just something about racing in a circle that got me, although Harvey and I went drag racing initially.” They survived the usual hot rod brushes with the LA law but did reasonably well for their budget.
He started going to Bonneville in 1967, and then began running his own B/Fuel high boy roadster with a blown Chrysler, just going “faster and faster and faster”. In 1972 he achieved a speed of 268 mph that simply stunned the Bonneville cognoscenti — “it was just unheard of at that time for that type of car!” — and only recently were those speeds beaten.
After experimenting with sprintcars — “it got to the point where it was taking too much time and too much money” — he came back to the salt. “I really loved Bonneville, because I was more successful at it. So I found a little niche.” What he did in that niche borders on the unique. Take a glance at America’s other racing categories — lndycars, NASCAR, IMSA — and the leading teams operate in an aura of high-budgeted sophistication and professionalism. Sponsorship is king, publicity paramount. Television captures the every deed and thought of the participants.
Al Teague has none of that. The Spirit barely fits into the small workshop area at the back of the Speed-O-Motive shop, and if it has the sort of clinical, eat-your-lunch-off-the-workbench technohype of the ’90s, it was well concealed during our visit. Turbojets and pure thrust are not for the 50 year-old millwright whose story reads like something from the pen of Horatio Alger, any more than are air-conditioned workshops and technical trappings such as wind tunnels and spare engines. There aren’t any keypad security devices either; when he’s there, Al’s door is always open. The Mexican family that arrived at one point was welcomed to take a look at the strange dark blue monster it had spotted protruding into the alleyway.
Teague has done for the wheeldriven record what Arfons did for the outright mark, pushing forward the frontier in his own time, going as quickly as the money, conditions and his own spirit would allow, with neither hype nor rancour on the numerous occasions when things have gone wrong. When you get only one or two shots at your goal each year, downtime tends to weigh heavily. Last August, when he aimed the projectile down the long black line and calmly pushed it faster than any man has driven a pure automobile, he achieved what he achieved through an almost unnatural blend of persistence, courage, determination and patience. That day, the waiting finally paid off.
There are unusual qualities to the man that reflect his inner calm. He doesn’t whinge about his lack of financial resources, nor rail at the unfairness of having to exercise so much patience when he knows he could have gone faster, sooner. He has a natural modesty. “The record waited for me,” he is grateful to acknowledge. “I was lucky. Nobody came along and beat it. It was just a matter of me setting a goal each year and just working with the equipment.” He doesn’t mention the refusal ever to give up, and only agrees with reluctance when you suggest he was owed something after doing so much the hard way. In fact, the comment provokes a chuckle. “I’ve enjoyed it, believe me. It’s been a big romance. If I could be up there with names such as Eyston, Cobb and Campbell, that would be real neat. It would really mean something to me.” He is, of course, but it hasn’t yet dawned on him.
Fear, the record breaker’s safety valve is something he quite clearly has well under control. He admits that he gets “hyper” before his first run during a new record attempt, but he is not a man to worry unduly. He has too many days at the salt flats behind him for the spooky atmosphere to pose real anxieties. But there is one nagging worry. “l am scared of failure. I’ve missed a lot of things, never raised a family. I’ve passed things over for the car. If I fail here, does this mean my life has been wasted? That ultimately I’ve failed?”
If he was the kind to fret about the little things — such as the lack of finance, a large enough place to work on the car, the right kind of tyres to go 400 mph in a vehicle driven through its wheels — he would never have broken Bob Summers’ 26 year-old record. Those tyres, however, have presented a massive problem. In the ’50s and ’60s Firestone and Goodyear fell over themselves in the battle for supremacy. Now, neither has the remotest interest. He tried the Bonneville specials produced by the late Mickey Thompson’s company, but though Mickey was the second man after Cobb to touch 400 (with a 406.60 one-way in Challenger in 1960), his current products were just too soft. “I hit something with them in 1990 and just stripped them,” Al recalls. He had also got hold of some 31 year-old Firestones. Incredible as it may seem, they still proved admirably suited to the sort of task that Dunlop spent millions addressing with Donald Campbell. If anything, the ageing process had cured them to the point where they could better withstand wheelspin.
In his workshop he still has a set that ran over 400, a chilling, shredded mass of exposed plies and beads. “The tyres were the same after the record,” he admits quietly, recalling the need to give them “a haircut and a shave” between runs as the damaged rubber strips were cut away. To anyone who is not driven by his obsession to take the record, is not similarly hooked on the narcotic of speed, they are testimony to a game of Russian Roulette played out at speeds that would let him cover two football fields or 633.6 feet every second. To Al Teague, however, there was simply no other option. Spare tyres were a non-existent luxury. “When we set the record, we were flat out of rears.” He was also nearly out of FIA sanction, which expired that day.
As usual, necessity overrode caution, but it was nevertheless a calculated risk. “We had our backs to the wall, and I don’t want to do it again!” he says fervently. “The tyres were down to only one ply at the end, not two. You can run through four plies altogether without a problem, but these were beyond that. I’ve done it, but I’ve said to myself I’ll never do it that low again. That was scary!”
He intends to try and better his record later this year, dissatisfied with his tiny margin over Summers, and convinced he can persuade the Spirit to fly a little faster. Tyres, again, will be the major problem. At Speed-O-Motive he has a supply of 1963 Firestones from the Indianapolis roadster era, their treads buffed away to leave a mere four plies of rubber, He admits he is less than keen to use them because of the reduced safety margin, and has in any case purchased five 31 year-old Firestones from Athol Graham’s son Butch. Graham, to whom the vision of a new land speed record had come in a dream, was killed when his flame red racer flipped and tumbled to destruction. Now, by supreme irony, these vital remnants of his quest may yet help a brave fellow spirit to succeed once again on the salt where he perished.
Teague began building the Spirit of ’76 on January 1 1974, as an open-wheeled lakester with a 1 1/2 in tube spaceframe chassis and four outrigged wheels. The fronts had, and still have, torsion bar suspension, but the rear end remains rigid. There are brakes on the rear wheels only, but two parachutes, one small, one large, provide high-speed retardation.
“I worked on it every day up until August ’76 only took one day off that whole time,” recalls a man to whom work is no enemy. His regular routine is to leave his fulltime job as a millwright in Brea and to arrive at the premises of the Speed-O-Motive speed accessory business in Santa Fe Springs around four in the afternoon. He is rarely home before nine, but his wife Jane is very understanding.
The 160 in wheelbase car was powered by a twin turbocharged 392 cu.in Chrysler Hemi, but after its first runs he added another 18 in between the front and rear wheels. For a long time a lubrication system problem melted pistons, and a cure was not fully effected until he relocated the oil tank ahead of the engine. “We only had one time each year to find the problem, when we went up to Speed Week, so progress was a little slow!” he admits freely. At this time he was edging 260 mph, but he had added 20 to that by the 1980 season.
That winter the Spirit changed radically, making the step from lakester to streamliner as he lengthened the wheelbase again, to its current 225 in (to the frontmost wheel centreline), and mounted the front pair of wheels in tandem, linking them with an ingenious but simple mechanism that illustrates his technical aptitude.
“We added a bolt-on section of chassis ahead of the coolant tank, and we finished off the body. Dennis Manning, the motorcycle racer, had lent me his original moulds, which was what had inspired me to do the streamliner.”
It was not until 1985 that his efforts really began to pay off, thanks to the sort of inclement weather at the salt flats that had sent Project Thrust scurrying home in ’81, and bound for the Black, Rock Desert in Nevada the following year. The speed began to pick up dramatically, with 353 mph.
By 1988 the full bodywork had been completed, with the rear wheels now enclosed by elegant integral spats that add a hint of Batmobile to the incredibly narrow rear end. Along the way he had acquired a 490 cu.in Keith Black motor to replace the 470 that had supplanted the original powerplant. He set a new B/Fuel Streamliner mark of 349.695 mph, later raising that to 378.567 with a peak of 382. Only Athol Graham had ever got as close to such speeds with two-wheel drive, in his ill-fated City of Salt Lake back in 1960.
“I wanted the world’s fastest single-engined record,” says Al, “but when we started knocking on the 350 mph door, and then went into the 380s, I began to think of the wheeldriven record, but I didn’t tell anybody. I figured they’d all think I was crazy!”
As the speeds rose, he wanted to be the first man to 400 mph in a single-engined car, but was narrowly beaten to the four centuries by Nolan White’s one-way 401 mph in 1990. The Spirit of ’76 named after bygone racer Earl Evans to whom the number always brought good luck but called ‘Betsy’ by Teague now measures 27 ft 9 in from its elegant nose to its batwing tail, is 39 in at its highest point, and a slippery 36 in wide, although Al himself is unhappy with the rearward bulge that hurts its frontal area. “But I figure I can’t get by with any narrower a rear track. Maybe I’ll fill in the rear wings and modify the diffusor, but the way it’s built it enters the air good and all the drag back here might just stabilise it. Maybe I’ll streamline the front wheels a little more. too. There’s always a project going through my head for the winter.”
From the rear, the overriding impression is just how tiny the car is in comparison with predecessors such as Eyston’s Thunderbolt, even Cobb’s RaiIton and certainly Campbell’s Bluebird CN7, yet it has now outstripped them all as the world’s fastest pure car. It is somehow gratifying that, after all the multi- and gas turbine aircraft-engined creations, exciting though they undoubtedly are, a single-engined piston-powered streamliner should once again hold the ultimate automobile crown.