The Race to 1,000 MPH

Britain’s Richard Noble, the reigning king of land speed, is building a rocket on wheels to shatter his own record. The only problem: A ragtag American team might beat him to it

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.

A team member towed the car to its mark with a pickup truck. Team leader and driver Ed Shadle lowered himself into the cockpit. Pulling on his helmet and lowering his oxygen mask, Shadle gave the thumb’s-up. The crew wheeled over the “huffer cart,” a mobile power unit used to start aircraft engines. With a shriek of its own small turbine, the cart cranked over the Eagle’s General Electric J79. Dust swirled as the jet engine gulped for air.

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?”

Before it set its 1997 record, Noble’s Thrust SSC team dealt with terrifying unknowns. What would the violent airflow do to the car’s handling? Would the pressure waves generated by supersonic travel tear the whole thing apart? “People were saying this is a very expensive way of killing someone,” Noble says.

Noble’s team proved that supersonic land travel doesn’t necessarily guarantee death, but the dangers are still daunting, as Noble explained to me on a visit to his team’s engineering center at the University of the West of England in Bristol. As a vehicle passes from transonic to supersonic speeds—around 700 mph to 750 mph—the vehicle itself may be traveling at Mach 1, but air flowing over it might be moving faster than the speed of sound. For a poorly designed car traveling that fast, the varying airflow can transmit catastrophically unbalanced forces because faster-moving air exerts less pressure than slower-moving air.

And then there’s the shock wave. At subsonic speeds, a moving body transmits sound waves ahead, forcing air molecules to make way for the object approaching. As it closes in on supersonic speeds, however, a jet car catches up to the sound waves, which collect and form a pressure wave at the front. That wave is, literally, the sound barrier. Breaking the sound barrier triggers an immediate change in air pressure, releasing the pressure from the shock wave and causing the deafening crack of a sonic boom. Somehow, the car must pass through this barrier without, as Noble puts it, being torn to bits “like it were put through an office shredder.”

Wind-tunnel tests are of little help in developing supersonic land vehicles. The winds aren’t sufficiently strong in a wind tunnel, and, as Noble points out, it’s how a supersonic shock wave interacts with the ground and the underside of the vehicle that’s the question. The moving floors in wind tunnels used to test racecars simply don’t go fast enough to replicate the forces a vehicle will experience at 800-plus mph. Instead the team has to make these calculations using computational fluid-dynamics, greatly improved since Noble’s Thrust SSC days, in which supercomputers simulate how air will interact with the car’s moving body and the ground beneath it. According to simulations conducted at the team’s satellite office at Swansea University in Wales, at 1,000 miles per hour, 12 tons of air pressure will push against every square inch of Bloodhound SSC’s aluminum body.

Noble’s first Bloodhound SSC show car sits in a campus garage downstairs from the Bristol office. The full-scale fiberboard mock-up is just an exoskeleton, but at 42 feet, it’s so long that they’ve had to turn it diagonally to fit inside the garage. Alongside the model, in a cylindrical case the size of an economy car, sits Bloodhound’s main source of propulsion—a Eurojet EJ200 turbofan engine, best known for powering the delta-winged Eurofighter Typhoon jet, still in service with the British, German, Italian and Spanish air forces. A V12 racing engine similar to that of an Aston Martin sports car rests inside the mock-up’s belly. This V12, however, plays only an indirect role in providing forward motion. It’s a pump designed to funnel 2,100 pounds of hydrogen peroxide oxidizer from an aluminum tank located behind the cockpit into Bloodhound’s main weapon: the rocket. Inside the rocket, which will be mounted either above or below the jet engine (that’s still being debated), the oxidizer ignites a grainy synthetic rubber to generate 27,500 pounds of thrust. This solid-liquid hybrid rocket design is the safest bet, because unlike entirely solid-fuel rockets, it can be shut down easily: Turn off the oxidizer pump, and the candle goes out. In all, the twin power supplies of the Bloodhound SSC will provide as much power as 252 Aston Martin Vanquish S’s.

All this hardware—the sports-car-worthy engine being used as a fuel pump—makes it obvious why Noble believes it will take as much as $17 million to build a car that can reach 1,000 mph. Which is why he spends as much time hustling for sponsorship money as he does thinking about the technical aspects of the project. “Allied to that almost naive, anything-is-possible enthusiasm is a very shrewd business mind,” says David Tremayne, author of The Fastest Man on Earth, an account of Noble’s Thrust 2 record run. “Lots of people dream of doing these things, but besides having the ability to articulate that dream, Richard also has this understanding of how the business world works, and that is the true key. He’s like one of those wobbly balls with sand in the bottom. Push it over, and it just springs back upright.”

If Noble has business savvy working in his favor, his American rivals also have a couple of important advantages. They possess a working, drivable car, and they’re the kind of obsessed American amateurs that now and then succeed at making great and unlikely things happen—such as, oh, say, flight. Team North American Eagle’s co-owners—Keith Zanghi, a manager at Boeing, and Shadle, a retired IBM project manager—are gearheads long involved in racing on drag strips and on the Bonneville Salt Flats. For Zanghi, sparks first flew in 1966, when his dad took him to a Seattle Chevrolet dealership to see Spirit of America–Sonic 1, the car Craig Breedlove had used to break the 600mph mark the year before. As a kid, Shadle was hooked on soapbox derby, and he steadily developed a talent for scrounging what he needed for speed. “I had a neighbor with money,” Shadle says. “He had all the newest equipment, and I wound up using his wheels from the year before on my car.”

When Zanghi and Shadle started the Eagle project a decade ago, their car was a piece of military junk covered with graffiti and hardly recognizable as a former airplane. They bought it in 1998 for $28,000 from a surplus-aircraft dealer in Maine, hauled it cross-country to a hangar at the airport in Spanaway, Washington, and went to work turning the jet into a land speeder.

In its day, the F-104 Starfighter was the fastest fighter in the U.S. Air Force’s Cold War stable, rated for more than twice the speed of sound. When they started modifying the plane more than a decade ago, Zanghi and Shadle found something under many layers of paint that seemed like an omen. “The tail number proved the airframe was from the very same F-104 used at Edwards Air Force Base as a chase aircraft for such secret test prototypes as the X15 and SR71,” Zanghi says. Turns out Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to travel faster than sound, flew that very plane. And, Zanghi adds, “the last three numbers were 763—the exact speed of Noble and Green’s record-breaking speed in the Thrust SSC.” He winks at me. “We knew then it was divine intervention.”

Transforming the plane into a viable land-speed vehicle took 10 years of steady wrenchwork. They replaced 40 percent of the body panels and approximately 5,000 rivets. They had to round up technical sponsors to supply the stuff you need to operate at supersonic speeds but can’t find at the local auto-parts store. The braking system, designed by the Washington State company LEVX, uses rare-earth magnets strong enough to slow the car from 400 mph to a stop in two miles. Then there’s Steve Wallace’s elaborate Wi-Fi telematics system, with antenna towers installed along the run course. A network of sensors on the car sends a mountain of real-time data on air pressure, acceleration, suspension compression and more to the antennas along the track. Wallace monitors the data collection from his mobile command center, a Subaru Baja decked out with a wireless router, a flurry of antennas and, on the passenger seat, his laptop. Later, he’ll use the data collected on these test runs to improve a digital model of the Eagle car, which, like the Bloodhound team, he’ll feed into computational fluid-dynamics software. Eagle got free supercomputing time at the U.S. government’s National Center for Computational Sciences in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in exchange for sharing their data.

The showdown between the two teams is set for next year, but both crews will have to double down to make their deadlines.

In June, Noble wrote on his blog that Bloodhound is burning through almost $170,000 a month just for the engineering operation, and the aerodynamics team is still working on the design for the back end of the car. Also behind schedule is a huge installation in the Mojave Desert where the British team will test-fire the full-scale thrust rocket. “It’s an excruciatingly slow process breaking the record,” Noble says. “You do a little, go back, and do a little more. It requires enormous patience. It’s among the slowest, fastest things you can do.”

Eagle has had setbacks of its own. The team had planned to do its high-speed test runs at Edwards Air Force Base in California; nearby Rogers Dry Lake, best known as a landing strip for the space shuttle, provides both the expanse and smoothness ideal for high speeds—far better than the conditions at Black Rock. But this time, the team couldn’t afford the $25,000 fee the Air Force was charging to use the lakebed. That led them to Black Rock, where a permit they secured from the Bureau of Land Management cleared them for four days of testing. On Thursday afternoon they were still at it, working to get in one good run before they packed up and returned to Washington.

The Eagle team was exhausted, yet spirits were up. The fireball from the earlier run (known as a “hot start”) did no noticeable damage, but they wanted to find a longer, smoother spot for their final run. A couple of hours searching the lakebed on Wednesday afternoon yielded more room to stretch out, an open 4.25-mile stretch on the playa’s northeast end. The team towed the car about an hour and a half deeper onto the parched lakebed. The ground crew again swarmed around to prep the car for the launch that everyone hoped would meet the week’s goal of one good 500mph run.

The crew rolled in the huffer cart and kick-started the J79. Shadle’s son Cameron fired a signal flare. Shadle throttled forward, and the Eagle quickly disappeared in a plume of ginger-colored desert dust. Shadle throttled up to 100 percent at the one-mile mark. The car gathered speed, turbine wailing and dust rising in its wake. A deep rumble echoed across the playa as Eagle accelerated into the 200mph range, then 300, then 350…

And then it was over. Shadle threw the chute as the Eagle streaked past the end line. Following along were the team’s two safety trucks, loaded with firefighting equipment, and Wallace’s techno-Subaru. The activity didn’t stop. Eagle’s turnaround crew was on the move, and in 40 minutes they had prepped the car for another run, something they would need to be able to do come record-attempt day. But the run exposed a problem. A wiring mistake meant there wasn’t enough juice to fire off the J79’s afterburner, which extracts more power from the turbine by igniting the exhaust gases. Without the afterburner, Eagle was held to a modest 350 mph.

Back at the camp, Shadle began packing up the team’s dust-covered gear. He was pleased with the day’s results. The Eagle’s high-speed parachute worked flawlessly, and the team’s turnaround time was more than quick enough to meet the FIA’s rules. If they had been going for the record, they would have another 20 minutes to play with. They made 80 percent of their goal for the week, and they would have the rest of the year to make up the last 20 percent—the 500mph-plus runs—that will keep them on schedule for a record attempt next year.

By nightfall, the Eagle team caravan—two 18-wheelers, six RVs, Wallace’s Subaru and one land-speed car packed away in a trailer—were on the move, headed back to their day jobs, where they would spend their idle moments obsessing over the wiring problem, the logistics of the next run, and what it might feel like to one day bring the obscure, moneyless title of land-speed record holder home.