Nine years of endeavour, frustration, patience and heartbreak finally ended for Richard Noble on Tuesday, October 4th — when he piloted the 34,000 hp jetcar Thrust 2 to a. new mile land speed record of 633.468 : mph. For Noble, the latest in a highly distinguished line of British speed kings, the success was the culmination of a dream that had begun as long ago as 1952 when, as a six-year-old, he watched John Cobb’s Loch Ness preparations for a water speed record attempt in the jetboat Crusader.
As the cheers faded across the sun-baked wastes of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, a 15-mile trip by road from the nearest town — Gerlach — there was plenty of time to reflect on the price of Noble’s achievement. In hard cash terms he will breezily mention some £1.75 million, but in human currency the stakes were equally high. Noble’s dedication to his task was instrumental in persuading key figures to join Thrust. Designer John Ackroyd, for one, turned down a far more lucrative position with Messersclunitt. Highly individualistic, he accepted the challenge of designing the fastest car on four wheels and succeeded brilliantly, Thrust 2 peaking at its 650 mph target design speed during Noble’s fastest run.
The path to the record, however, had been strewn with stones and pitfalls. No sooner had Noble’s fledgling team achieved a new 418.118 mph British car and driver record at Bonneville salt flats in October 1981 than torrential rain washed out, quite literally, any chance of further speed increases. The team returned home disheartened yet determined, and the major sponsors agreed to back a new attempt the following summer. After all, nobody could control the weather and 1982 was bound to be better. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. 1981’s record rainfall for the Utah area was nothing compared to 1982’s; in fact, the salt flats never did dry out that year.
Faced with defeat even before Thrust had turned a wheel in anger, Noble and his crew began a desperate search for an alternative site — and found the Black Rock Desert. Within six clays the team had relocated, and t with the townsfolk of neighbouring Empire and Gerlach successfully fought for the right to use the desert. Noble had successively upped his own record to 590.551 mph by November 4th when the onset of winter forced yet another halt.
Time, and credibility, was beginning to run out.
Come what may, 1983 was going to be Thrust’s last hurrah. Commitments from the major sponsors — Castrol, Champion, Faberge, GKN, IMI Norgren Enots, Initial Services, Kluber, Loctite, Plessey, Trimite and Trust Securities — went as far as September 30th, after which date Thrust Cars Ltd would cease to operate. Noble launched his latest attempt in May, with a view to running in Nevada by mid-June, only to be forced to wait yet again — for the weather.
Winter had come early in 1982, and left late in 1983. Ackroyd had plotted a 15-mile course — significantly longer than 1982’s — but snow melting on the Quinn Mountain ranges bordering the desert resulted in a persistent sump of water towards the middle of the track. Until that dried Noble’s hands were tied.
Weeks dragged on until August brought the good news that initial preparations could be started. Within days it rained again. The weather in the Washoe, Pershing and Churchill counties can be perverse, however, and within a further week the project finally got the green light.
Honed by the previous traumas and frustrations, Noble’s crew moved in with a slickness matched only by its determination to return to Britain with the record. Eight runs through the measured distance were planned and the first three went exactly to plan, although the weather conspired to separate the first and second by two days due to high wind. On the fourth run, however, trouble reared its ugly head as the afterburner failed to operate properly. Within hours though, Noble had established a new British car and driver record of 606.470 mph — further evidence of the team’s refusal to be thwarted. Even the fact that the new mark was not quite enough to better Craig Breedlove’s 1965 jetcar record by the FIA’s mandatory one per cent failed to make much of a dent in morale. “We’ll get it tomorrow”, Noble remarked confidently, elated at exceeding 600 mph.
Thursday the 22nd of September brought disappointment, however. Disappointment and near despair. With a 607.9 mph clocking Noble looked in good shape after his first run, but engine trouble prevented the return. Moreover, initial diagnosis suggested Noble had blown the 20 year-old Rolls-Royce Avon 302. John Watkins, the team’s engine expert, was hurriedly summoned from RAF Binbrook. Noble made urgent contact with Rolls-Royce, who responded by sending George Webb out from Atlanta. The pair hit it off from the word go and the findings were encouraging. Suspicions that the Avon had surged — inhaled more air than it could digest and expelled it out the front, with subsequent damage to the turbine blades — were quickly dispelled. “When these things surge I’ve seen them blow three-inch thick doors down”, explained Webb laconically. “I think you can safely say you’d have known all about it if this one had surged”.
It transpired that incorrect air / fuel mixture had flamed out the Avon and following static trials at Reno airport, Thrust was back in action on the 29th, 31 years to the day since Noble’s boyhood hero had perished on Loch Ness. This time Noble beat Gary Gabelich’s outright record by a scant margin — 622.837 over 622.407 — but the elation was shortlived. Once again Thrust couldn’t make a return run. This time it was air in the fuel system preventing the engine running properly. Theories were put forward that under the 50 deceleration that resulted when Noble deployed the parachute fuel was thrown forward in the tanks, allowing the pick-ups to inhale air. Mike Hearn, assistant fire attendant in the Jaguar XJ12 Firechase, suggested the use of an automatic timer to control fuel flow between the two 62-gallon tanks and a 485 mph test run the following day proved another gremlin had been lost.
That was when the weather intervened again to call a temporary halt to proceedings. The downtime, however, was far from wasted. Visits to Gerlach by American speed kings Gabelich and Breedlove had resulted in no shortage of suggestions how to boost Thrust’s speed, while Ackroyd, team manager Ken Norris and chief engineer Gordon Flux most certainly weren’t stuck for ideas either. To reduce rolling drag Ackroyd altered the rake of the car to decrease aerodynamic downforce on the nose; body panel expert Brian Ball spent hours lovingly polishing the underside to lessen surface drag; the decision was taken to run when the temperature would be near its peak. Up to that point runs had been made early in the morning, when the cooler air would benefit engine breathing; now the team sought to exploit the other side of that particular sword. The higher the temperature, the higher the speed at which the sound barrier — Mach 1 — is reached and the higher up the speed range transonic drag becomes a consideration. With a non-supersonic machine such as Thrust, transonic drag is a real problem and Ackroyd was convinced it had hurt Thrust’s speed at 622 mph.
Thus the scene was set for October 4th, the day on which Noble would make history. At 73 degrees the ambient temperature was 20 degrees better than that for the 622 run and with zero wind Noble blasted north to south at 624.241 mph for the mile, 626.240 for the kilo. Promising, but perhaps not quite enough. The southern end of the track, however, was harder, giving the four-ton jetcar less of a trough to climb out of initially. On that second pass Noble stormed back at respective speeds of 642.971 and 642.051. Averaging elapsed times, that gave him 633.468 mph for the mile — a new record — and 634.051 for the kilo, faster than Gabelich’s 630.388 mark for that distance but not quite enough to better it by one per cent. A third run, aimed at beating the kilo figure, yielded only 620 mph speeds, thanks to the condition of the northern end of the course. Noble’s mile mark, however, was enough. Britain had regained a record it once regarded as its own, but had not held since 1964. Richard Noble — and his crew — had at least realised a dream. — D.J.T.