Infinity Over Zero: Meditations on Maximum Velocity (land speed racing)

5 Dec

The Land Speed Record war is an interesting thing. More interesting than Dancing With the Stars, you say? More interesting than American Idol? Absolutely. If Craig Breedlove breaking the 500 mph barrier, crashing, then laughing about it all while sitting on the half submerged wreckage doesn’t entertain you then I give up.

 

And Mr. Coonce… if you see this, I’m copying it with the deepest admiration and respect.

Infinity Over Zero: Meditations on Maximum Velocity

http://www.amazon.com/Infinity-Over-Zero-Meditations-Velocity/dp/0971997705
Go buy this book!

I thought this one piece was worth sharing. I’d never heard this side of the story before:

 

Craig Breedlove at the press unveiling of the rebuilt Spirit, 1963

 

 

500 MPH

In October of ’64, Walt Arfons makes his presence felt at the salt flats with his Wingfoot Express. With Tom Green pushing the pedals and pulling the parachutes, this bulbous, bulky flounder of a ‘liner reels off a new record of 413.2 mph at Bonneville… three days later Art Arfons and the Green Monster turns 434 mph… Breedlove clocks 468… and so it goes, a month long game if ping pong with a target speed of 500 mph.

Walt Arfons makes the mod to his wienie roaster (now dubbed Wingfoot Express II), modifying the thrust from his jet engine with JATO (jet assisted takeoff) rockets. The car is now denied sanction by United States Auto Club timing, the American sub-contractor and corollary to the FIA, because of the alteration. Just as the jets had initially caught the powers that be off guard, so had the rockets. The technology was ahead of the intellectual capabilities of the sanctioning bodies…

On the 15th, Breedlove strikes paydirt — and a telephone pole. After bursting through the 500 mph barrier on the first lap, Craig turns his SOA (Spirit of America) around and is chewing up black line in supreme fashion, easily generating enough thrust to back up his provisional record run. Through the speedtrap, however, chaos envelopes the vehicle. At 539 mph the parachutes shred like CIA phone records and, like a domino, Breedlove’s brakes melt into goo-goo muck. The barreling machine is vaccuuming up salt like June Cleaver on benzedrine, and begins swerving off axis from the infitine black stripe burnt into the salt and continues barreling towards an imminent peril. After the rampaging bull of a streamliner snaps a telephone pole into kindling, it hits an embankment which launches the race car and dunks ‘er into a brackish brine canal. Breedlove swims to the surface and climbs onto the stabilizing fin of his streamliner, the only portion of the vehicle not completely submerged. “For my next act, I will set myself a-fire,” a wet but euphoric Breedlove tells stunned camera crews. His two-way average speed is 526.61 mph.

 

Bill Moore's cutaway drawing of Spirit, rebuilt with a tail in 1963

 

Now I’m Going to Drown

The following transcript is verbatim from a portable recorder operated by voice-over announcer Jim Economides and his recording engineer, Bill Robinson. While producing a verite sound f/x record, they were station at an observation station manned by United States Auto Club timer Joe Petrali. After Craig went zooming past their stations with parachutes shredded to ribbons, Economides and Robinson gave hot pursuit in their rented vehicle, whereupon the continued to roll tape at the final rest of the SOA. This is unexpurgated documentation of the return leg of the record run, when Breedlove became the first person to eclipse the 500 mph mark.

Breedlove sounds adenoidal and likea chipmunk, giddy and vaguely bi-polar. He also sounds very glad to be alive.

 

TRANSCRIPT:

USAC OFFICIAL : He’s on his way… he’s standing on it… they say he’s really standing on it now… nice and straight… he’s really rolling… into the mile…

VOICE : I see a smoke trail.

USAC : … Something fell off of the car… that must be the chute… wait a minute, something fell off the back of the car… he lost his chute…

VOICE : I hope it was his chute…

USAC : … he lost his chute…
VOICE : Before he hit the trap of after?

USAC : He didn’t say it’s out… I see him coming… he’s really coming along, he’s really pouring it on… here he comes…

VOICE : … heads up…

USAC : He’s approaching the finishing line… he’s past the finishing line…

VOICE : … he’s got no chute…

(pppphhhhhweeeeeeeWHHHHHHHAAAAAAAHHHHHH……)

VOICE : …OOHH!!

(trucks and support vehicles roll, horns honk, general commotion as reporters dictate to their machines)

VOICE : … what a thrill for the people…

VOICE : He’s in the water..

USAC : He’s in the water…

VOICE : He’s in the water…

USAC : Better roll the ambulance down here… roll the ambulance… I’ll roll down there… okay… I’ll roll

(tape rolls out)

 

 

BREEDLOVE : (deep breaths and laughter) Unnhhhh, huunnhhhh…

VOICE : Suppose you’ll get a water speed record on that too?

BREEDLOVE : I think so.

VOICE : Who do you think you are? Cobb or somebody?

BREEDLOVE : What a ride! Uhh hnnnuhhhh… “FOR MY NEXT TRICK!”

(laughter)
(more laughter)

VOICE : Unintelligible overlapping dialogue)

BREEDLOVE : “I’ll set myself… a-fire…”

VOICE : … son of a bitch…

BREEDLOVE : I went over the top of that 10 mile light. Did I break it? Did I break the record?

VOICE : Yeah…

BREEDLOVE : Okay

VOICE : We didn’t wait to see…

VOICE : You went right over the top of it…

BREEDLOVE : If Petrali missed the time on that, boy, he’s out of business.

(laughter)

BREEDLOVE : I’m not doing it again!

(laughter)

VOICE : Jeez-us…

VOICE : Look out now…

(shutters click)

VOICE : Holy mackerel…

VOICE : See you had to swim there…That was an underwater job!

VOICE : Yeah.

VOICE : Craig, that was a tremendous run, though. It looks like you broke the record by a big margin.

BREEDLOVE : I obviously did!

(laughter)
VOICE : It can’t stand another one though…

BREEDLOVE : Hey, you did a pretty good job with that course old buddy…

(laughter)

VOICE : He was really steerin’. I thought you were going to go right by here and you might not make it in this water…

VOICE : I tell you that was the last we expected…

BREEDLOVE : PHHWEEEEHHHH!

VOICE : … to see ol’ Craig Breedlove

BREEDLOVE : (off mic and distorted) Roy, you wouldn’t believe it!

VOICE : I’ll tell you one thing, you’re a spectacular man

(commotion)

VOICE : I wonder what the people are going to…

BREEDLOVE : (shouts) WHAT’S MY TIMES? NOBODY WAITED TO GET IT!!!

VOICE : Nobody waited to get it!

BREEDLOVE : How fast did I go?

VOICE : Let’s all get in this four-wheel drive…

BREEDLOVE : (shouts) HOW FAST DID I GO??

VOICE : (off mic) Nobody heard, Craig.

BREEDLOVE : Hey… hey Bill… For my next trick I’ll set my self a-fire! (laughs)

VOICE : Well, you did a beautiful job on the car (laughs)

BREEDLOVE : (deep breaths) Huunnhhhh! Huuunnnhhhh… Did you see what I did to that telephone poll, Nye?

VOICE : Jeez-us…

BREEDLOVE : I damn near drowned… look at the racer!
VOICE : Craig, here’s your dad…

(commotion, heavy breathing, more commotion, unintelligible)

VOICE : Oh my God… oh my god…

BREEDLOVE : I’m okay, Pop.

(commotion)

BREEDLOVE : At least we went 500… (deep breaths and laughter) unnhhhhh, huunnhhhh…

(commotion)

BREEDLOVE : I damn near drowned in that thing! I couldn’t get out!

(commotion, overlapping dialogue)

VOICE : You know, you should get a skin diving license.

(commotion, overlapping dialogue)

BREEDLOVE : (unintelligible)… spectacular. If Petrali missed that he’s fired!

(laughter) (film camera rolls) (commotion, overlapping dialogue)

VOICE : He’s the first guy to try and set a Land Speed Record and a Water Speed Record at the same time!

BREEDLOVE : (off mic) I lost my steering at the (unintelligible) mile.

VOICE : You did?

BREEDLOVE : The brakes just burned up

VOICE : They did?

BREEDLOVE : I put my chutes out after I cleared the mile because I lost my steering.

(commotion, overlapping dialogue) (film camera rolls)

VOICE : You put out both of them didn’t you?

BREEDLOVE : Well, the first chute, I pulled it, it just went to shreds. I felt it go to a ribbon. Then I hit the… I waited for a while and I tried to hit the brakes and the brakes just wouldn’t go… I was pumping the brakes and then nothing, no brakes at all. The I hit my other chute and nothing happened. I didnt’ have any… I just took that…

VOICE : No steering…

BREEDLOVE : …steering and I turned it clear around like this. It finally started…

VOICE : (interrupts) Did you see that…

BREEDLOVE : … coming around

VOICE : … telephone poll that you sheared?

BREEDLOVE : Yeah, I know I hit the pole.

VOICE : With your right fin, or what?

BREEDLOVE : I just saw that pole coming and I went just like that…

VOICE : (whistles)!

BREEDLOVE : … and then I hit the pole. I thought I had it when I hit the pole. I saw that telephone pole coming and I went, “Ooooooh” and I gritted my teeth.

(laughter) (film camera rolls) (commotion, overlapping dialogue)

BREEDLOVE : (loud, over laughter) I gritted my teeth and that pole just sheared off like nothing. You know, “DOUMMM” and no pole! (breathes in) UUNNHHH… I looked up and I thought, “Oh boy! Another chance!”

VOICE : (giddy laughter)

BREEDLOVE : I looked up…

VOICE : (giddy laughter)

BREEDLOVE : … I hit the water and the water started slowing me down and I seen (sic) this big ol bank coming up and I thought , “OHHH NAWWW.” (laughs)

VOICES : (giddy laughter)

BREEDLOVE : I hit the bank and it just went right over the top there. I was flying there about 30 feet in the air and I thought, “NOW I’M GOING TO DROWN!”

VOICE : (uproarious laughter)

BREEDLOVE : I couldn’t get the caopy off. I tried to get my belt done. I couldn’t get my mask off and the water was filling up like that…

VOICE : … Next run scuba gear…

BREEDLOVE : … and I thought, “What a way to go! After all this and now I’m going to drown!”

VOICES : (uproarious laughter)

VOICE : Next run, scuba gear, baby!

(shutters click)

BREEDLOVE : (giddy laughter) I broke the racer! (giddy laughter) Everything’s okay… How fast did I go, dammit? (giddy laughter) (shouts) DID WE BREAK THE RECORD?!

VOICE : (shouts) WHAT WAS THE TIME?

BREEDLOVE : (shouts) WHAT WAS THE TIME? (giddy laughter)

VOICES : (commotion, overlapping dialogue)

BREEDLOVE : (clears throat) Will somebody tell me how fast I went?

(giddy laughter)

VOICE : Hey Craig, you set a boat record!

VOICES : (giddy laughter) (commotion, overlapping dialogue)

VOICE : C’mon, let’s go and (unintelligible)

BREEDLOVE : I want to find out how fast I went, man!

VOICE : Where? In the water or in the…

BREEDLOVE : Hey Al. What was it?

VOICE : 526

VOICE : 539 for the kilo.

VOICE : 535

(truck pulls up)

VOICE : 526 average. 535 coming back.

VOICE : (reading off time slip) Mile is 539 point eight nine. The kilo was 535 point four-oh. And the average for both ways was 526 point two eight. And the kilo was 527 point three three.

(tape rolls out)

 

Craig Breedlove & Crew with Spirit of America, Bonneville Salt Flats, 1963

 

 

This page has an embedded video clip from an old film. It has footage of Breedlove breaking the 400 mph mark.

http://www.uniquecarsandparts.com.au/world_land_speed_record_34.htm

 

 

 

BTW, while reading this stuff I have come across what I think is now my favorite streamliner.

Jocko’s Porting Service Special.

Pretty sure it’s the only ‘liner that actually set records on a dragstrip.

 

 

I’m not much on pushing books on people because I know everyone likes different stuff, but holy shit you have to read this one.

I think this review (or part this small part of it) sums it up best:

When I finally gave Cole Coonce’s, Infinity my full concentration, I was upset with myself for having delayed. It was something I had trouble laying down.

I had better state here that when I began reading Hot Rod, the magazine was giving pretty heavy coverage to Bonneville. A year or so later came the tremendous LSR race between Craig Breedlove and Walt and Art Arfons (as well as several other lesser characters). As a highly influence-able youngster, I sucked it all in like the proverbial human vacuum. When I could, I borrowed older magazines and read about the exploits of Mickey Thompson, Athol Graham, and others matching the efforts of highly funded, even government backed, foreigners like Malcolm and Donald Campbell and John Cobb. It seemed unbelievable that hot rodders could take war surplus engines and a few 3-ton truck bits and run over 400mph but they did and it excited me. It must have had similar effect on Cole Coonce.

Infinity over Zero helped me relive many of those feelings. Coonce describes the salt and speed happenings of the mid 60s in some detail. He also gives tremendous personal insight to the jetcar buildups that ran on the dragstrips of the time, including rarely heard anecdotes from some of the land-locked pilots. The mishaps of Jetcar Bob are possibly worth the cost of the book.

But Infinity over Zero is not a historical overview of some period of land speed racing. It is rather better described as what its subhead implies – “Meditations on Maximum Velocity.” It is instead a verbal vortex of the emotions Cole Coonce encountered while a variety of men gave their all in pursuit of dreams. And it is certainly not for me, you, or Cole to decide for others that their dreams are too costly in lives or dollars spent.

 

 

It’s a history lesson for gearheads with a perfect amount of philosophy thrown in written by an eccentric car guy who brings it all together very well.

The timeline of the book jumps around. It is a story told while the author and a friend are making thier way through the desert southwest following the 1996-1997 Land Speed Record war between Craig Breedlove and Richard Noble.

 
I’ve got this book dog-eared and highlighted to hell and back. Seriously, some of these stories blow my mind…

The last hurrah for the rocket went down on an abandoned Royal Airforce base in England.

“Slammin Sammy” Miller stopped the clocks at a mind warping 3.58 seconds at 386 mph in the Vanshing Point rocket funny car. Miller, who had his crotch burned off in a nitro funny car fire in the early 70’s routinely kept his foot in the throttle until he would pass out (!) from the excessiv g-forces, which was usually 660 feet into the run. According to crew members, Miller routinely got his thrills from waking up in the car after the car stopped accelerating, coasting through the speed clocks at nearly 400 mph.

(As an addendum, “Slammin’ Sammy” Miller posesses the only 1 second ET on a time slip; circa 1980, at an 1/8th mile drag strip in Holland, he actually tripped the clocks at 1.60 at 307 mph. He was relegated to Europe after an NHRA blacklisting…)

Brent Fanning explained Miller’s method cum madness thusly: “He had the brake handle rigged with a brass knuckles type grip (it was a push brake) so his hand would stay on the brake should he black out when the car ran out of fuel, which it had been calculated to do at just past the 1/8th mile. Then the deceleration would move his arm and brake handle forward applying the brakes and also releasing the chutes, which were attached to the brake handle in some manner. Thus slowing the car until he regained consciousness.”

 

WTF?!?!

 

 

On and on it goes. Thrust SSC ripping the chutes off the car on it’s first supersonic run then trying to get refueled and make the backup pass within an hour… saying fuck the ‘chutes, we don’t need ’em and lighing up the jets to go back the other way, only to miss the 60 minute turnaround time by 43 seconds. (A few days later they made both runs in 60 minutes to claim the official record)
More stories about drag racers cratering the pits with hyrdazine explosions, the NHRAs decision to outlaw aircraft engines, building LSR cars during the Compton riots (with guns in hand)….

 

GO! NOW!

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