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?”single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.