The sun doesn't rise over the Black Rock Desert in Nevada; it ignites. One minute the blaze-orange glow of dawn is cascading down the sulfur-rich Jackson and Kamma mountain ranges, tinting the prehistoric lakebed a million shades of pink. The next, it's full celestial throttle. By 6:30, the sun is blinding and the heat is ratcheting up.
So if you're going to spend a day in the open, pushing a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter attack jet that you've converted into a drag racer close to the speed of sound, it's advisable to get the prep work done before the heat sets in. Yet at 7:00 on a Wednesday morning in July, hardly a single member of Team North American Eagle was stirring. By 8:00, only a few bleary-eyed troops in this volunteer army of American and Canadian aircraft mechanics, engineers, scientists, machinists and hot-rodders had emerged from a cluster of RVs parked alongside a makeshift hangar. Apparently a party at the hot springs, about 12 miles north, ended well past midnight, culminating in a car-to-car flare-gun battle on the ride back to camp.
The wind had kicked up on the playa by the time Team Eagle rolled its car out to the 3.5-mile improvised runway around 10:00. Crew members, finally looking alert and focused, ran down their checklists. Data-acquisition engineer and resident hacker Steve Wallace was up on a ladder, making some last-minute tweaks, leaning down into the web of wires, nodes and connectors set inside Eagle's fuselage. In the supersonic zone, the slightest aerodynamic instability can cause a ripple effect, mustering forces that can annihilate a car and scatter its pieces across the desert like cracker crumbs, which is why the team had to pull off some successful data-collection runs this week. They had already pushed their erstwhile jet fighter faster than 400 mph, but before they can make their scheduled run for 800 mph—a new world land-speed record—on July 4, 2010, they need to gather enough data to finalize the vehicle's design.
Suddenly someone ordered a shutdown. One of the parachute bays had popped open. Shadle aborted the start-up, which, as it often does, left some unspent fuel in the combustion chamber. One of the crew spotted a small orange flame burning inside the tailpipe. Shadle got the signal to restart and blow out the flame, but when he did, a fireball leaped from the exhaust, sending crew members diving for cover.
At times like this, Team North American Eagle can look like a bunch of amateurs hot-rodding a surplus jet in the middle of the desert. And frankly, that's what they are. Such is the way with land-speed racing, an amateur pursuit in which sponsorship money is scarce and breakthroughs are often possible only when a new engine becomes available at the surplus auction. During the first such races, in the 1890s, a French nobleman and a Belgian racecar driver dueled in electric cars, the Belgian eventually setting a record of 65.79 mph. When aviation-derived gasoline engines replaced electrics, the record shot skyward quickly, pushing past 200 mph by 1927, with British teams leading the way. But it was during the 1960s that the land-speed race really took off, as a healthy stock of military-surplus jet engines spawned new competition among Americans Craig Breedlove and rival half-brothers Art and Walt Arfons. The record shot from the 300s into the 600s in less than a decade. In 1970, American Gary Gabelich, a former delivery driver, reached 622.4 mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats, in Utah, in his rocket-powered Blue Flame. And in 1983, after a 10-year effort, English entrepreneur Richard Noble eked past Gabelich's record in his jet-propelled Thrust 2, his 633.5 mph enough to put the record back in British hands.
During the 1990s, Breedlove, who had been working as a real estate agent, quit his day job to develop the Spirit of America II to battle Noble for a new record. But it was Noble who set the record that stands today. On October 15, 1997, a sonic boom echoed through the tiny Black Rock community of Gerlach, Nevada, as Noble's twin-engine Thrust SSC surpassed the speed of sound with driver Andy Green at the controls. Thrust SSC averaged 763.035 mph over two one-mile runs within one hour, the requirement dictated by France's Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), which monitors and certifies the world land-speed record.
Now, at age 63, Noble says he'll try to break his own record not only a third time in a run for 800 mph next fall, but also a fourth and a fifth time, until he's reached a nice round number: 1,000 mph. Shadle and his North American Eagle team hope to beat him to that first mark next Fourth of July.
Noble's Bloodhound project (named after the Bristol Bloodhound, Britain's premier Cold War–era surface-to-air missile) is a quasi-national effort designed to encourage students to study engineering, although it's not entirely paid for, and Noble still spends much of his time gathering funding for his vastly expensive endeavor. North American Eagle, on the other hand, has no major financial benefactor and no real track record. The team relies on technical sponsors for equipment and 44 people donating their expertise—in engineering, electronics, firefighting—and their vacation days to pack parachutes, lug supplies, and troubleshoot a quirky turbine in the desert sun.
The land-speed record is now set so high that no one is quite sure how to push beyond it, and so no one knows which approach—ground-up engineering versus DIY scrap-yard modding—will win out. The physics of high-speed movement means that the teams face diminishing returns the faster they go; because aerodynamic drag increases with the square of speed, going faster than 763 mph (not to mention making it all the way to 1,000 mph) will require exponentially more horsepower than it took to break any land-speed record so far. Shadle believes that if his team can modify their Starfighter correctly, there's no reason it can't go half as fast on the ground as it could in the sky. Noble, on the other hand, is betting that it will take a completely novel vehicle, powered by both jets and rockets, to reach their target.
It's easy to question the sanity of people like Shadle and Noble. The feat will never land either one on a Wheaties box. "You can compare it to people who want to climb Mt. Rainier or Mt. Everest or whatever," Shadle says. "In our case, we also feel somewhat that it's our patriotic duty to show that here in North America, we can do everything the Brits can do. Why walk around being satisfied with number two?"
I would love so much to build something to beat the record, but keeping it on the ground given the power source I have in mind....that's another story
"a car-to-car flare-gun battle" I love these guys!!
What is the purpose ?
what a waste of time ,talent and energy.
The purpose is pride, something this country is all to soon forgetting about.
Mike Spinelli, this is one excellent article! A great pleasure to read. Thank you.
Male ego knows no bounds. Wasted energy. Lots of air pollution. Nothing of value accomplished.
Can only imagine what the resulting mess would look like if you crashed at 1000mph. I doubt there'd be more than a red smear on the track.
(Reply to Ellenbetty from a geriatric British engineer:-)
I'll bet the wife of the first caveman to make fire by rubbing two sticks together said the same thing.
This isn't (completely) about male ego; it's also about pushing the boundaries of the unknown. When you go into the unknown you sometimes find good things there. And maybe sometimes those good things can improve human life (yea, even for housewives, and for five minutes stop them nagging you!) It's why men have sheds.
The very best of luck to both teams. It's a great thing to do.
jstack6 & ellenbetty,
When I was in high school during the late sixties, many were saying the very same thing about the Apollo moon shots. I debated in a class that society would benefit massively from the "spin-offs" as a result of the research from that program. You now, are enjoying those very benefits in the form of communications, advance health care, and even the appliances in your kitchen. I know it isn't a moon shot program, but it's definately research in an area no one else is bothering with learning from. So, instead being short sighted, pull your head out of the compost pile and think a bit farther than your nose. And oh, BTW, at least the North American Eagle project recycled a fighter jet from becoming beer cans.
Years ago man thought if you exceded 65mph your head would blow up. Thank goodness someone proved them wrong. I could only dream that i could be apart of one of these teams.
May you have success!
It's not just a 2 horse race. http://www.aussieinvader.com/
Sorry, chaps .. but give a thought for Donald Campbell's Bluebird, presently on dispay at UK National Motor Museum at Beaulieu, Hampshire UK.
It reached 404 mph powered by a jet engine, but through a box of cogs and a driven axle. All that power put through a pair of tyres .. .. ..
That is a car .. it propels itself by traction.
Faster vehicles since Bluebird have all been akin to jet-propelled skateboards, more like wingless taxying aeroplanes. Not many people drive a car to work remotely like that. ( Although I hate tailgaters .. .. ).
I have seen a pair of 10 year old boys make a winning 'car' in ten minutes from a rectangle of corrugated cardboard,two drinking straws,four cardboard discs and a balloon, all held together with duck tape.
Not much of a challenge, then.
The biggest problem is in keeping these jet contraptions in contact with terra firma. .. .. But calling them a car is stretching the imagination.
First there were two then there were three and now there are four:
LSR1000.com launching at the speed of sound soon.
"Live The Dream"
Yes, Campbell was a pioneer on land and water. He doesn't hold the wheel-driven record though. It was broken shortly after his mark by 'Goldenrod', which also happened to have an internal combustion engine (subsequently beaten also).
The magic about the absolute LSR is how crazy everything gets as you go faster; the difficulties are not linear. People have survived incredible high-speed crashes during record attempts. I fear we are now at a level that even with modern materials etc, a crash is 100% definitely fatal.
However I agree the wheel-driven record has a prestige of it's own that is underrated.
While these contraptions are not "cars", the contests they are involved in do not claim the title of "world's fastest car" either, but "the landspeed record". 100 years from now while mom (from NYC) is zooming along at 500mph in her new landspeeder to have lunch with sis on the gulf coast, she'll prabably be wondering why those egotistcal males have to continue to try and set new Earth to Lunar orbit speed records!
Today's magic is tomorrow's technology.
You gots ta love it :-) I wish the Eagel all the luck in the world.
this reads like it is from the old sir Campbell and that junkrodder micky times
Okay, boys .. Have a peep at those babies at the Hovercraft Museum at Lee-on-Solent UK. There's a pair of cross-channel (Dover-Calais) car carriers who are ripe for this job, and a steal at a million each. A redundant Concord(e) would provide some nice Olympus engines, and I am sure a couple of hundred tons of ship-launching drag chain could be found in our redundant shipyards along the Tyne, Mersey or the Clyde, just to give some directional stability. No problem with a wandering front end, we could enlist the help of whoever thieved Captain America's Harley 74 from the film 'Easy Rider,(the bike on display is not the original)to lend those supremely elegant chrome forks. We need the wheel, because after all, chums .. this is the land speed record .. ..
Goldenrod .. wow. 4 engines, 4 WD .. my kind o' car.. love it.. Not sure about it being a coupe. Tell me when they are making a station wagon version and I'll put in an order.
I am excited about the outcome of this project, (and unlike some women), I do NOT think that Engineering is a product of Male ego!
If American Eagle goes supersonic never mind 1001mph I'll eat my hat.
They've taken a vehicle designed to go Mach 2 in thin air and put wheels on it and expect it go 50% of that speed on the ground? I admire their optimism but I don't share it.
As for Bloodhound, Richard Noble has a habit of doing what he says he will so I'm optimistic it will at least break the current record.
I do not care much whether or not Team American Eagle makes 1000 mph or not. What's chappin my hide is the fact that the U.S.A.F. is charging this American team $25,000 to run their car, a piece of American equipment, on the optimal UNUSED surface of Roger's Dry Lake. The U.S.A.F. Really puts it to us citizens, huh? The scumbags have to open the gate, and have M.P.s that are ALREADY ON GUARD DUTY make sure the ex Boeing employee and his what? Cohorts? Do not violate the national security of the DRY LAKE BED. They send multi-BILLION dollar contracts for US DEFENSE to foreign powers that EMPLOY OUR ENEMIES to build our aircraft, and we gotta PAY TO USE OUR OWN UNUSED LAND. Anyone else have a problem with the MULTIMILLIONAIRES RUNNING THE US AIR FORCE? I know already the arguments that would be used to justify, rationalize, and minimize the SCUMBAGGEDNESS of the AIR FORCE GENERALS, and I have one pertinent reply, before you get started apologizing for them. The World Absolute Speed Record is a matter of INTERNATIONAL PRESTIGE. This American says let Team American Eagle run, as many times as they want.
oh,yeah, by the way, the team is already sharing it's data with the National Labs, so shouldn't that be considered cost defrayment?
While I do understand the security issues with a 44 man crew, and have to ask the team to trim people for the run, I see this in part as a safety issue. These events should be in the Olympics. Why not, if racing is a sport?
call it bubblecar. for the atmospheric differential.
and best of all, HGH? who cares?
Technical challenge and the human endeavor to carry out such a project requires good team management and this team ain't got it. Period. But I gotta give 'em my hat off for the car to car flare gun battle. That takes balls.
What a laugh! Take a ridiculously large round number in miles, then decide to see if you can go faster than that in a car!
Isn't this what being human is about?
Anyway it beats being an accountant (or maybe even a lion tamer!)
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I tend to get in moods for films and I like to set up my next round based on my mood.
If people like that really tried they could probably find a cure for cancer or some other much needed technology. It's so sad. On the other hand i wonder if they could go that far with ought the motivation they get from the things they love.
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Does anyone know if they are going to run on the 4th of
July. I would like to go. I was there in 1997 when
Andy Green broke the the Land speed record