Craig Breedlove has given us a choice. Either a smart restaurant in a vinery, or Hozy’s, a cheap and cheerful eatery. “Hozy’s,” explains Breedlove, “is where all the local racers go to hang out and eat.” Clearly there is no real choice here.
Hozy’s is in Santa Paula, a 20-minute drive from Breedlove’s beautiful waterfront home in Oxnard, California. He’s got a place in Mexico and a workshop in Rio Vista in Northern California. Breedlove and his wife Yadira have driven up from Mexico to meet us. They have a dog, so air travel is avoided. Breedlove, 82, looks well after the three-day drive in his Toyota pick-up.
Breedlove was the first man to hold the land speed record at over 400mph and first to 500mph, and also first to 600mph. There were two racing drivers that I knew all about in the late 1960s: one was Graham Hill and the other was Craig Breedlove. People today bang on about Steve McQueen being the king of cool, but for me Breedlove occupies a far lower point on the thermometer. Unless my musical knowledge is lacking, Breedlove is the first of our lunch guests to feature in a pop song. George Harrison’s Faster was about Jackie Stewart, but his name isn’t in the lyrics. The Beach Boys’ Spirit of America namechecks Breedlove, and his car.
So, let’s go back to Los Angeles in the 1950s, hot rodding and the teenage years of the man who dominated land speed record breaking in the early 1960s. What upbringing or influences inspire a man to risk death to be the fastest man in the world?
“I was really interested in cars, boats and aeroplanes. I built model aeroplanes when I was a kid and used to be a member of a club called ‘Sky Kings’. I designed and built my own control line aircraft and took part in contests. You couldn’t buy those planes, so you had to build them yourself. I learned a lot, many of the older people there were really good on aerodynamics.
“My mum and dad had divorced and my mother had remarried to a man who was very intelligent and into horticulture and symphony music. He had been in military intelligence during the war and was some kind of professor. We were like oil and water, so I had to find my own entertainment and hobbies. There was a guy over the road called Ed Rourke who worked at Hughes aircraft and he taught me a lot and helped with my aeroplanes.”
Ed Rourke had a son called Roger who was older than Craig and Roger’s thing was building hot rods. “The first time we went to Bonneville we took this 1929 Ford roadster with two flatheads in it. The one in the back had fuel injectors on it and the one in the front was smaller but had a McCulloch supercharger on it. I think we went about 179mph or so with it.
“It was the same sort of guys who went to Bonneville; hot rodders and drag racers. They’d organise a kind of end of season gathering. There was a lot of space so you could go a heck of a lot faster and the course conditions were good. I was very familiar with John Cobb’s record, Malcolm Campbell and George Eyston, which I’d read about in school books and this all blended in with the aircraft modelling, aerodynamics, hot rodding and streamliners.
“I left high school and like any kid you’re wondering what you’re going to do with your life. I got married at 18 and by the time I was 21 I had three kids and I’m still trying to pay for the first one and buy a house. I had a decent job as a fireman at the Costa Mesa fire department. I read about Mickey Thompson building his Challenger land speed record car, which was featured in almost every issue of Hot Rod magazine.”
Breedlove had started building his own hot rod, a ’34 Ford Coupe, with help and inspiration from Roger Rourke, when he was 15 years-old. He’d street raced, nearly killing himself in the process, and drag raced the car throughout his teens. Now with his steady job in the fire department he concentrated again on racing. His wife Marge, however, was not quite so pleased about his renewed focus on racing.
To pacify her he agreed to have himself and his kids baptised into her faith: Mormonism. The Mormon bishop who baptised them was Ed Perkins, owner of Perkins Machine Company, manufacturer of specialist nuts and bolts. Breedlove managed to persuade Perkins to sponsor his Coupe and then his next project, a belly tank racer. Together with the Rourkes, Breedlove built a racer in which he managed an impressive 234mph at Bonneville. But his ambitions were way ahead of those speeds.
Mickey Thompson had taken his four-engined Challenger to Bonneville in 1960 and managed to beat John Cobb’s 394mph with a pass at over 400mph, but the trouble was that one of the Pontiac engines had blown and Thompson wasn’t able to make a return run and therefore hadn’t officially broken the record. Breedlove had taken note.
‘We’d had enough trouble with our belly tank racer blowing clutches and that was just with one engine. Four engines meant four clutches and way too much complication. We had also realised that wheelspin was becoming a real issue and that it was unlikely that a wheel-driven car was going to go much beyond 400mph.
“Plus I simply couldn’t afford the expense of putting all those gear trains together. Or doing what Donald Campbell was doing [with Bluebird-Proteus CN7] and taking a turbojet and harnessing all of the gear train and everything like a turbo prop. That was just something that was prohibitive for me to do. I had to look at “how can I do this” and the answer was to pick up one of the surplus jet engines that were coming onto the market back then. Guys were already running jet engines on the dragstrip and it seemed like the right way to go for the LSR.”
“When you hit 600mph, you’re on the verge of disaster”
“I got hold of a surplus J-47 engine [as used in the F-86 Sabre] for $500 and immediately called the FIA and asked them if they’d sanction a record using a jet engine and they said no. We then went to the FIM who were really interested, but to comply with their sanctioning the vehicle had to have two or three wheels. Which is why we built Spirit of America with three wheels.
“I’d originally designed a car in which you sat next to the engine, like Art Arfons’ Green Monster, but when we had to go to three wheels that was out the window. I went to a guy we went to school with called Bill Moore, who now worked at Hughes Aircraft. He’d won the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild and was into hot rodding and on the side had become an automotive artist for Car Craft and Hot Rod magazines. Another friend was Art Russell who’d also won the Fisher Body prize and like Bill had been at the Art Center in Pasadena. They were good modellers.”
Our food has arrived. Breedlove has ordered a tuna melt with an iced tea and I go for the same minus the iced tea. He’s in terrific shape, lean and fit-looking. Just an older version of the film star good-looking guy at Bonneville in the ’60s. Just as we tuck into our food a larger man with a goatee arrives and says hi to Breedlove. “This is Stan Goldstein. My best friend.” Goldstein has been with Breedlove from the start, from Spirit of America through to Breedlove’s later projects. And they’re still cooking up plans together over 60 years later.
“We were just a bunch of guys with like minds, you know, trying to focus on building this experimental machine to go to Bonneville and try and get the unlimited speed record for the United States.”
A group of friends, many highly qualified in their fields, but the Spirit of America was still built like a hot rod in Breedlove’s dad Norman’s garage in Culver City. The neighbours suffered all-nighters and the closest neighbour Mr Tuchen lost his hedge when they moved the nearly complete and very wide Spirit of America out from the garage.
The finished machine was launched at the Wilshire Country Club in July 1962. In this early configuration Spirit of America didn’t have its tall tail fin and there were other under the skin differences, too. “Rod Shapel, one of Spirit’s principal designers and an engineer at Task Corporation [which made wind tunnels], couldn’t work out how to steer the front wheel so he came up with this novel system of steering the car aerodynamically using a rudder or fin underneath the car behind the front wheel.
“When we went to Bonneville that year the car was virtually impossible to drive. I just couldn’t steer the thing and we never got beyond 300mph. We discovered that the fin wasn’t actually moving. We were really worried that we’d lose our Shell sponsorship. Over the winter and before the next Bonneville season we called in some engineers and really went over the car.
“We solved the problem of the fin and also managed to work out a way of steering the front wheel. Rod had said that was impossible but we were in a meeting with a bunch of engineers, one of whom worked at Hughes Aircraft and specialised in helicopter systems. He said: ‘You guys tried a focusing link?’. We all looked at each other and said ‘what the hell’s a focusing link?’ This guy gets out a pencil and draws one for us and it solved the problem.”
Breedlove, the Spirit of America and the team were back on the salt in July 1963. “I’d been pretty depressed after the previous summer but one of our team, Walt Sheehan, who worked at Lockheed, said: ‘Look Craig, there’s never been an airplane in history that went through flight testing without things going wrong and having to be changed. That’s why we do testing. That’s the whole point.’ He was right.
“And for my next trick, I’m going to set myself on fire…”
“Walt was responsible for the data acquisition system that we had on Spirit of America and later on [Spirit of America] Sonic 1 in 1965. It was the first such system used in motor racing. Walt had worked on the F-104 Starfighter’s time-to-climb records and he adapted the data logging system on the Starfighter to work in Spirit.
“Having that data was a huge advantage. The surface at Bonneville is far from smooth and at speeds approaching 400mph the wheels don’t have time to fall into the ruts and depressions so you’re literally skimming along. It feels like you’re driving on ice.” And presumably somewhat exciting? “Yeah sure, it’s a combination of many elements: you’re trying to manage everything that’s going on with the car at that sort of speed. The wind, course conditions, how much downforce you’ve got. It’s just like any form of motor racing, there are always many factors to monitor. Going 400mph blows your mind, but when you get to 600mph you’re absolutely on the verge of disaster, which is not too much fun.”
The mid-1960s was an incredible period in land speed record breaking and never more so than in October 1964. Breedlove was on the salt flats with Spirit of America looking to hit 500mph. With him were brothers Walt and Arthur ‘Art’ Arfons. The Arfons brothers (they were actually half-brothers) were from Akron, Ohio and had been building aero-engined and latterly jet-powered dragsters throughout the ’50s and early ’60s. On October 2, Tom Green, driving Walt Arfon’s Wingfoot Express nudged the world record up to 413.2mph and then three days later Art Arfons took it away from Walt with a 434.03mph. It was ultra-high-speed ping-pong with Breedlove fighting back with 468.719mph on October 13. The magical 500mph mark was close. Breedlove cracked that barrier only two days later, having broken another record at the same time with the world’s fastest crash and longest skid marks in history. And nearly drowning in a lake.
That’s when the famous “and for my next trick I’m going to set myself on fire” quote was uttered by a remarkably unflustered Breedlove. Spirit of America was written off. Worse, Art Arfons went 536.719mph on October 27.
“That was really bad news because we had a movie deal and a merchandising deal for Spirit of America toys that were going to be out for Christmas. Once we’d lost the record all that was cancelled.”
No car and more financial uncertainty. Breedlove responded by building Spirit of America Sonic 1, a four-wheeled machine fitted with a J-79 General Electric engine, the same afterburner-equipped unit that Art was using in his Green Monster.
“I got on really well with Art. He was a really nice guy, facing the same challenges as we were. He had his hands full. He approached me one evening outside the Stateline Hotel in Wendover [favoured base for LSR teams at Bonneville] in November 1965 when we’re trading places with the record beyond 500mph, and he said ‘You just went 555mph and my car’s in Vegas and now I’m going to have to go get it and try to beat you. What’s going to happen? Are we just going to go back and forth until one of us gets killed or what? What’s going on?’ and I said ‘Well, I’ve never thought about it in those terms, but I suspect that’s what we’re dealing with’. Art replied: ‘Well that’s OK, I just wanted to know…”
Art Arfons did come back from Vegas and pushed the record to 576.553mph. This in a car that cost him $10,000 to build. The car crashed at the end of the run and so Arfons was unable to respond to Breedlove’s incredible 600.601mph on November 15. “Like I said earlier,” says Breedlove, “at that speed we saw from the telemetry that the front wheels were barely on the ground. Sonic 1 was flying.”
Known globally as the fastest man on wheels, did Breedlove consider the more conventional and slightly slower forms of racing? Or relatively slower, like racing at Indianapolis? “Yeah, I had done a deal with this guy called Lindsey Hopkins who was running a driver called Bobby Marshman. The idea was that I was going to drive the number two car at the Indy 500 in 1965 and that Bobby would tutor me on driving these cars. My first race was going to be at Sacramento on the mile dirt track but a week before Bobby crashed testing Hopkins’ turbocharged Ford car in Texas. He was really badly burned and died from his injuries. Lindsey withdrew from racing so that was that. But I’d also been at the Indy 500 earlier that year and watched as Dave MacDonald and Eddie Sachs were killed, which shook me up a lot.”
How did he think he’d have done on the ovals? “Well, I was young and healthy and could drive my cars well enough. Stan [Goldstein] always said I had pretty big cojones, so I guess I’d have done OK. Certainly, the road racing guys were encouraging and always pretty good to me. Looking back though, I’m glad I didn’t do it. Later I got to know Parnelli Jones really well and all those guys were really concerned about getting killed or badly injured.
“I was starting to get a bit concerned about running some of the really fast stuff. Even the little rocket dragster. Man, when that thing lit off it was like being hit in the back by a semi doing 300mph.” The rocket dragster that Breedlove refers to has an interesting tale attached to it that is another link to Donald Campbell.
“In around 1969 I’d got the idea to restore Donald’s Bluebird CN7 car and go for the wheel-driven record. I mentioned it to Tonia Campbell [Donald’s widow], who told me that Campbell had said before he was killed that the only people he ever wanted to drive the car were Dan Gurney and Craig Breedlove. I didn’t manage to raise the sponsorship, but while I was in England I stayed with Tonia in Surrey and was looking through Donald’s library where I found a book about jet and rocket engines. It mentioned TRW Energy Systems, which had built the rocket engines for the Apollo programme. They were down the road from me in Redondo Beach, so when I got home I went to see them.
“They put me in touch with a guy called Jerry Elverum Jr, who’d designed the rocket motor for the Apollo Lunar Excursion Module that had just put Neil Armstrong on the moon. Jerry agreed to help me with a rocket engine for a dragster. He designed me a simple motor with a six-second burn that would produce 35,000lb of thrust and be good for 900mph in 32 seconds.
“We built the motor and I took the car to Bonneville where I could test it without having the worry of having to stop at the end of the quarter mile. I dialled in 5.5sec of burn time that I had on the fuel and when I came out of the quarter mile it was doing 377mph and by the time I’d burned off the fuel load I had an ET of 465mph. That thing gained so much speed in a second it was unbelievable. By the time the fuel ran out I was pushing 500mph. Trouble was as soon as the engine shut down I lost the rocket blast that stabilises the car and acts like a rudder because of the density of the thrust plume. It turned 90 degrees in a millisecond, the nose came up and the car started to spin in the air and when I got the parachute out it ripped the back of the car off.” Another high-speed crash – this one at 500mph – to go with this 400mph crash in 1964 in Spirit of America. Breedlove would add to that later.
Meanwhile, Breedlove had to get through the tricky business of a post racing adrenaline-free life. “In the late ’70s and ’80s I was in a real mess. I was broke, I owed the taxman money that I didn’t have and my back was against the wall. I had to get a real job to earn some money.”
So, Craig Breedlove, first man to 400, 500 and 600mph became… an estate agent.
“I don’t think anyone has survived a crash at over 675mph”
“A friend owned Harbour Realty in Manhattan Beach, so I went to work for him. I did some good deals and earned enough commission to get the IRS off my back and re-establish myself. I even invested in some properties in Northern California I still own.”
So, now financially stable and back on his uppers, does Breedlove take up golf and join a country club? Not quite.
“I had gone up to Utah to pick up a couple of J-79 engines and on the way back stopped off at Bonneville where I bumped into Richard Noble. Richard saw the engines on the trailer and said: ‘What the hell are you doing with those?’ and I said: ‘well, I’m going to build another LSR’. Richard went back to the UK saying to people: ‘We’re going to lose breaking the sound barrier on land to the Americans just like we lost it in the air.”
Breedlove’s new car was christened Spirit of America Sonic Arrow and just like in the old days it was powered by a trusty J-79 engine. The car wasn’t a three-wheeler, but it looked like one because the front wheels were so close together. Richard Noble’s Thrust SSC was a much fatter and beefier machine powered by a pair of Rolls-Royce Spey jet engines. Breedlove was first to have his car ready in 1996, at Black Rock Desert in Nevada where in October 1983 Richard Noble had broken Gary Gabelich’s 622.407mph record set in 1970 with his Blue Flame rocket car.
“The whole experience with Sonic Arrow was frustrating. I’d put a lot of my own money in, but we were still operating on a very tight budget with not enough money for any CFD work. Our spare J-79 was ruined by a company that did special coatings and then they sued us. I spent so much time sorting that mess out that I took my eye off running the project and then we had morale issues in the team. The one thing that we did have was a very fast car.
“We were at Black Rock in 1996, the year before Richard [Noble] came out with Thrust SSC. Black Rock is a harsh environment and is notorious for high winds and that’s not what you need with a relatively light car. Anyway, because we were under so much pressure on time, I made a really simple mistake. On one of the runs I had assumed, when I heard it over the radio, that one-five knots meant 1.5kts of wind because that’s what it had been all day. But no, I was actually being told it was 15kts. That car was so fast: by the time I went through the start of the measured mile I was doing 675mph and the car hadn’t stopped accelerating. According to the data if I’d stayed in the throttle for six more seconds we’d have come out the other end at 920mph. That thing just did not slow down. But a gust literally blew the car onto its side. It happened in a fraction of a second. I don’t think anyone has survived a crash at that speed. We fixed the car and came back to Black Rock in 1997 to join Richard and his team. I have to honestly tell you that when I went over to their camp and saw Thrust SCC I was so excited. I thought I was going to go by them like they were tied to a telephone pole. I was so confident that we were going to blow the doors off that thing. I thought if they get to Mach one [717mph] that will be amazing. And they did. It taught me a few things, I learned a lot.
“I tell you one thing though, if they hadn’t have had Andy Green driving they wouldn’t have got the record. That thing was terrible to drive and Andy told me that after their test in the Al-Jafr desert in Jordan he was almost ready to quit because the car was so bad to drive. When I saw the in-car video of Andy driving on his record run I was blown away by the amount of opposite lock and inputs he was putting in. I wouldn’t have driven it.
“We couldn’t fight back that year; we didn’t know it but Sonic Arrow’s frame had been bent in the crash the year before and not repaired properly, and our spare engine – the one that had been damaged by the coatings company – wasn’t producing enough power. We managed only 630mph and the car was all over the place.”
For the 60-year-old grandfather of five it was all over. No good engine, no money. Twenty-two years ago now, but Breedlove has never stopped thinking about the business of breaking speed records.
Somewhere in Hollywood a filing cabinet holds a film script about the life of Craig Breedlove and his epic battles with Art Arfons at Bonneville over the late summers of 1964 and ’65.
It’s a great story that should be told.
Born: 23/3/37, Los Angeles, USA
•1963 First land speed record, achieving 407.45mph aboard the Spirit of America at Bonneville Salt Flats •1964 Breedlove improves to 468.719mph at Bonneville in Spirit of America to reclaim the land speed record •1964 Breaks his own record, and the 500mph barrier, by running at 526.277mph at Bonneville •1965 Reaches 555.483mph in Spirit of America Sonic I at Bonneville, again reclaiming the record •1965 Reaches 600.601mph in Sonic I •1993 Inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America •2000 Inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame