Farewell to a Land Speed legend | Thank Frankel it's Friday

07th April 2023
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

I was very sorry to hear that Craig Breedlove has died aged 86. To me, he was the greatest of the Land Speed Record breakers, with the only possible exceptions being Sir Malcolm Campbell and Andy Green.

He was also the man who denied Donald Campbell the title of being the fastest man on Earth, because, when Donald broke the record in 1964 with his Bluebird gas turbine car in Australia, Breedlove had already gone faster at Bonneville in his Spirit of America. So was he and not Campbell, who was actually the first person to drive a car at over 400 mph.

The reason Campbell was able to claim the record was that at the time only wheel-driven records were recognised, and as Breedlove’s car was powered by a jet and not driven by its wheels, it did not stand as an official land speed record. So the truth is that Donald Campbell was the Land Speed Record holder, but never the fastest man on earth.

But it was his battles with Art Arfons, for which Breedlove remains chiefly remembered today. In the autumn of 1964, his unofficial record stood at 407 mph, which Arfons in his home built Green Monster raised to 434mph at Bonneville. The record did not last long, because just eight days later, Breedlove replied with a two-way average of 468 mph. And as if rub salt into the wound, two days after that, he drove Spirit of America to an unprecedented 526 mph, the first time anyone had driven at more than 500 mph.

However, it almost came at a very great cost. On his return run both his parachutes failed and as soon as he put the brakes on they burned up because he was going so fast. Now unable to slow the car, he snapped a telegraph pole in two as if it were a toothpick, before eventually driving into the salt lake itself, only managing to just struggle free from the cockpit as the water level began to rise. Far from being traumatised by this near-death experience, Breedlove simply announced to his team that “for my next trick, I shall set myself on fire.” It was only some minutes later that he thought to ask his team how fast he’d gone, whereupon it was confirmed that he had broken the Land Speed Record yet another time.

But Arfons and the Green Monster were not yet done, and just one week later he wound it off the clock to achieve a two-way average speed of 536 mph. This meant that between them and in not much more than a year they had added over 130mph to the Land Speed Record. But with Spirit of America now in no condition to run and already at the absolute limit of its design capability, Breedlove realised that if he was going to get his record back, he would need to design an entirely new car. The result was the Spirit of America Sonic 1, a brand-new design with a far more powerful J79 engine, the same as those used on the Lockheed F-4 Phantom. Another tit-for-tat exchange with Arfons duly played out on the blinding white expanse of the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Breedlove went first and broke the record again, setting the new mark at 555mph. Arfons was still using his old Green Monster yet managed to raise the do no less than 576 mph. Then Breedlove took Sonic 1 up to 600.6 mph, whiinch would be the last time he broke a Land Speed Record. Arfons tried to take the record back from him, but a wheel failure meant he crashed the over 600 mph, at that time the fastest crash in history. Remarkably Arfons were so lightly injured, he was back in his hotel that evening; but the record now rested with Breedlove, and with Green Monster now a ruin, that was the end of their epic battle.

Everyone thought that Breedlove was done with Land Speed Record breaking, everyone that is apart from Breedlove himself. In 1996 with the record now only 33 mph higher than he had set it over 30 years earlier, Breedlove returned to the salt with a new Spirit of America. On his very first run, Breedlove crashed at around 675 mph and was very lucky to emerge without injury. And, although he did return the following year, the car then damaged its engine, by which stage Andy Green and Thrust SSC had raised the record to an astonishing 763 mph, breaking the sound barrier in the process. Breedlove knew that was a speed with which his new car was never going to be able to compete, and he gracefully retired from the world of Land Speed Record Breaking at the age of 60.

Fearless, fiercely competitive but also great fun, Craig Breedlove is one of the greatest figures from the history of motorsport, a world that is left poorer for his passing.

  • land speed record

  • Thank Frankel it's Friday

  • richard-noble-thurst-2-record-andrew-frankel-goodwood-08052020.jpg

    Andrew Frankel

    Nothing in Richard Noble’s life has been slow or ordinary – Thank Frankel it’s Friday

  • affordable-hot-hatches-02.jpg

    Andrew Frankel

    Thank Frankel it's Friday: Hearing the heart of Bloodhound SSC roar for the first time

  • bernd_rosemeyer_goodwood_27012018_01_list.jpg

    Andrew Frankel

    Thank Frankel it's Friday: Bernd Rosemeyer – legendary speed demon, peerless racer