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Spirit Of America at Bonneville

Bonneville, a place so synonymous with the land speed record that even those only mildly interested in record breaking know of ‘the salt flats’. Bonneville, a place so famous that Pontiac used it as a model name for one of the sportier cars in their range, while Triumph did likewise with their classic motorcycle. So it should come as no surprise to anybody that Craig Breedlove chose the World of Speed meet at Bonneville on September 24-28 to make the first tentative runs in the latest of his triumvirate of Spirit of America jet cars. No surprise that is to anybody except those with experience of trying to run solid wheeled jet cars on a slippery salt surface.

The portents hadn’t been good. I’d travelled to Bonneville in 1994 determined to witness the annual Speed Week meeting held since the late 1940’s only to be told two days before that it had been canned because of poor salt conditions. This year, I’d expected a similar result, so after a visit to Lake Mead to witness Miss Budweiser and the other Unlimited Hydroplanes doing their funky thing, a call to Mary West of the event organisers revealed that ‘we have a go’ but ‘no, Craig isn’t running, he has been here but the salt is not suitable so he’s going’ - Bugger! The ravages of time and the affect of constant potash extraction have left the salt perilously thin over the muddy sub surface, a sharp contrast to the rock hard couple of foot thick salt first enjoyed by Breedlove in the fifties with a series of hopped up cars and belly tank lakesters before he graduated to the big time with his first super successful 3 wheeler Spirit of America in which he aced out Donald Campbell in controversial fashion before blasting the opposition to oblivion with runs that culminated in a 526mph record and short flight over a bank and into a lake when the parachutes failed - a recurring theme as you will read later.

Spirit Of America at Bonneville

So given the condition of the salt and the experiences of Art Arfons, Richard Noble and Rosco McGlashan, who all found that solid wheels and salt lakes get on together like Liam and Noel Gallagher, why did he choose Bonneville instead of the alkali surface of Black Rock or Edwards Airforce Base. Well, that depends on who you listen to. For starters, the BLM were still listening to environmental objections to the use of Black Rock, objections given some credence by deaths that happened at the Burning Man Festival on the desert that attracted the sort of numbers some predict for the LSR attempts. Until those objections were resolved, nobody could use Black Rock.

It’s known that Breedlove’s deal with backers Shell contains a number of performance clauses linked to key events and dates in the project’s evolution. It was Shell, insisted some, who dictated the use of Bonneville for the record attempts. One story even went so far as to suggest that failure to run by a specific date would result in the funding plug being pulled by the oil giant. Whatever, we arrived to find that far from packing his tent and heading back home to Rio Vista, Craig and his team were very much present and getting ready for a major photo shoot while continuing to work on the car. ‘What you have to remember,’ said one long time Bonneville regular when asked why he thought Breedlove would use such an apparently unsuitable surface, ‘is that Craig is one of us. He’s still basically a Southern California hot rodder; this is where he’s comfortable; this is where he enjoys being.’ And you could see his point looking around at the array of car and bikes planning to attack all manner of class records. Parked at one end of the pit with their huge Peterbilt rig and pit trailer, the Spirit of America team were treated with a strange mixture of awe and apparent indifference. The indifference turned out to be no such thing. It’s simply a case of, ‘everybody knows everybody else, so what’s the big deal?’ They were still impressed though.

One gentle run at 85mph with the engine at idle was sufficient to prove a number of things. As one of his team revealed, ‘the engine’s OK, the steering’s OK, the ski brake works fine, but the salt is just so rough that we won’t be running here again - it’s Black Rock or nothing.’ The ski brake, or the Fred Flintstone brake as Craig sometimes refers to it, is a ground acting pressure pad ahead of the triple front wheels that takes the place of conventional disk brakes in the interest of lowering circulating masses and improving aerodynamics. As with his first SoA all those years ago at Bonneville, Craig had a problem with parachutes. This time it wasn’t that they wouldn’t work, but rather that they wouldn’t fit in the first place. With the rumoured deadline looming, thus it was that the tickover run was made without chutes. This was not a major issue since the ski brake was going to have to work at speeds in excess of that anyway.

Just to show how closely the SoA and SSC projects are now tracking each other, Andy Green made his first run along the runway of Farnborough at about the same time that Craig was taking aim at the far end of the salt at Bonneville. Since ITN syndicates news reports to CNN, Thrust SSC was shown every half hour throughout the day, giving extra impetus to the American team to keep pushing things along. In truth, they probably didn’t need the impetus anyway, but like everybody else at Bonneville, they could have done without the film crew who turned up at Bonneville last year to shoot a commercial and then promptly bulldozed the temporary set when they’d finished and in the process ruined for many years the smoothest area of track available. ‘What do film makers care?’, opined one racer, ‘if they can’t sleep with it or drink it, they’re not interested.’ So another track was track laid out on 7.5 miles of the best salt that could be found. While good enough for many lighter and lower powered cars, as predicted it was no good at all for Spirit of America.

Spirit Of America at Bonneville

But that didn’t stop it from looking good, even if that one run had packed so much slushy salt into the wheels and fairings that it would take many, many hours to clean it all out. When wheeled out into the bright Utah sunshine in mid afternoon for the photo shoot, it looked simply stunning. As with all of Breedlove’s cars, the finish on the bodywork and the paint was superb. With its nose down stance and typical Breedlove spatted rears wheels, Spirit looks like 600mph standing still. While only 7 feet less in length than Thrust SSC, it looks much shorter and certainly more fragile. Where Thrust looks big, brutal, mean and purposeful, Spirit looks delicate and elegant. More than one observer wondered, and worried, about how safe the driver would be in the up front cockpit section in the event of a crash. Let’s hope we never have to find out.

Wandering around the car, a number of detail points not previously obvious became clear. Firstly, the rear wheels and their spats are very narrow and topped with small swept back fins that complement similar fins above and below the rear fuselage. From the back, this gives a definite ‘flights on a dart’ appearance and although the team confirmed yet again that the results had been arrived at without the aid of any wind tunnel work, you can be sure that the size, shape and location of these fins is based on empirical knowledge accumulated by Craig with the development of his previous cars. To illustrate that point still further, it was interesting to see rows of rearward facing louvres on the last third of the fuselage, presumably a way of avoiding the build up of air pressure within the fuselage that buckled the coke bottle shaped bodywork of Spirit of America Sonic 1.

Two canards on either side of the fuselage, about one third back from the nose, are joined by another vertical fin on top of the fuselage just aft of the cockpit. These provide downforce and directional stability. The canards are fixed during runs but the angle of attack can be varied, as can that of narrow trim tabs that run the full width of each rear wheel outrigger. Changing the angle of these trim tabs changes the downloading on the rear wheels and they can even be turned up side down to lighten the aerodynamic loads on the rear if this proves necessary. Finally, there are a series of tiny winglets just behind each air intake and ahead of the side-mounted canards. Although angled to provide downforce, they are probably there to perform a vortex generating role, cleaning up the disturbed air just aft of the air intakes before it flows over the canards.

The Spirit Of America team at Bonneville

IndyCar legend A J Foyt was showing a keen interest in the car, as were former Hot Rod magazine editor Ray Brock and Ak Miller, both of whom helped Nathan Ostich to create the world’s first jet car - The Flying Caduceus - back in the late fifties, early sixties. When that didn’t work and their glory was stolen by a young Craig Breedlove with his first Spirit of America, they could never have imagined that more than 35 years later they would be witnessing his first tentative attempts at adding a final chapter to his illustrious record breaking career. As this is being written, it has emerged that the objections to the use of Black Rock have been cleared by the BLM and it available for use. While too late for the Thrust team for this year, it is only a matter of hours along the I-80 from Breedlove’s base, so expect to hear news of him continuing his development there over the next few weeks - we’ll keep you posted.

© Robin Richardson 1996

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