On 15 November 1965, Californian Craig Breedlove earned the title of “The Fastest Man on Earth” when he set a land speed record of 600.601 mph over a measured mile at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, USA, in his custom-built Spirit of America – Sonic I.
A consistent record breaker for several years, Craig began his high-speed career the day he walked into the Shell Oil Company’s Santa Monica office in 1961 and asked to see the manager.
He commenced construction of his three-wheeled Spirit of America in his father’s backyard in 1959. When the money ran out he went in search of sponsors and Shell Oil and the Goodyear Tyre and Rubber Company agreed to help.
Looking like an old jet fighter with the wings chopped off and wheels added, special hubs, tyres and oils had to be developed to cope with the blistering heat encountered when travelling at 400 – 600 mph.
Craig’s first shot at English racer John Cobb’s 394.2 mph land speed record at Bonneville in 1962 ended in failure as the car was not handling properly.
A fixed tail fin was added to put the centre of pressure at the centre of gravity and a combined steering linkage was developed for the nose wheel.
In July 1963, Craig used 90% engine power for a recorded speed of 388.47 mph. On the return trip, he boosted power to 95% and made 428.37 mph.
This gave an average of 407.45 mph, from a car powered by a 5,200 lb thrust turbo-jet engine.
His final 1964 speed run destroyed the car when both the steering wheel and drag parachutes failed and Craig’s wild ride – which included making matchsticks of a telegraph pole – was concluded when he travelled 150 feet through the air and landed in a lake some five miles off the speed course . . .
His next car, Spirit of America – Sonic I, was to be powered by a 15,000 lb thrust turbo-jet.
The new car was 35 ft long and 10 ft 6 inches from the ground to fin top, with pistol grip type steering, like handlebars on a bicycle. Sonic I – nicknamed ‘the Coca Cola bottle’ – looked more like a missile than any other known car and was destined to take Craig across the earth’s surface faster than any other man ever.
Craig Breedlove’s record stood until it was broken by Gary Gabelich in 1970.
To take the record back, Craig built a supersonic rocket car (complete with ejector seat) known as Spirit of America – Sonic Arrow – although its official name was Spirit of America Formula Shell LSRV – and raced it in the Black Rock Desert, Nevada, on 28 October 1996. The attempt ended in a crash at around 675 mph. Miraculously, Breedlove survived the accident unscathed.
In 1993 Breedlove was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America and in 2000 into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. He was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2009.