THE UNIVERSE IS EXPANDING: MACH 1 AS THE BIG BANG

Thrust SSC moments before a Mach 1 attempt

by Cole Coonce

(This story originally ran in Drag Racing Monthly in 1998. Excerpted from TOP FUEL WORMHOLE: The Cole Coonce Drag Strip Reader, Vol. 1The piece was later expanded into the feature-length book, Infinity Over Zero.)

 

In the Northwest corner of Nevada, in the shadow of Granite Peak on the Black Rock Mountain Range, there dwells a valley whose innards are the desiccated bowels of a prehistoric lakebed that stretches nearly 80 miles longitudinally.

One gets the feeling that this here prehistoric lakebed has seen its share of paradigm shifts—and weathered them all. It is a very cynical landscape: A cracked, upturned seabed that is mostly gypsum and lithium and is surrounded by abandoned mining claims etched into gargantuan lava rock whose elements make up half of the periodic table. It is hard to fuck with.

And this charred chunk of alkali has a history that resonates both spiritually and in a secular fashion: 100,000 years ago when the Ice Age melted into the Stone Age, the condensation yielded the leviathan Lake Lahontan, a body of water with a mass greater than most sovereign states in the Northeast of the US of A. This wonder of nature eventually evaporated into playa dust, not too long before the local Pauite Injuns were pulverized by “Superior Caucasian Forces” from Virginia City, forces who understood that the Black Rock desert was a strategic fork in the road, both for Bible-totin’ homesteaders who could bear right into the Oregon territories and for till-the-wheels-fall-off 49ers who could hang a louie, follow the Truckee River into Donner Pass and do some righteous prospectin’ in Gold Country out California way. Parenthetically, this intersection’s dusty tributary is known as Nobles’ Trail, named after a golddiggin’ trailblazer.

All of this went down on a lakebed that is so uninhabitable only scorpions would call it home. Yet in the presence of all that history in the American Outback, you get the feeling that time is completely still—a notion reinforced by the service in the local coffee shop—or that the universe is expanding at a velocity us mortals can’t fathom. Either way, you realize this is the perfect tableau for humanity’s attempt at emulating a supernova via traversing land faster than the speed of sound…

And although ol’ Nobles has been picked-over coyote meat for over a century now, the terrain that bears his name is still a launch pad into unchartered territory, most recently for two teams of Land Speed Record crusaders, one from across the pond in the United Kingdom and the other hailing from the far side of the Donner Pass. The trail these folks set out to blaze had a mother lode somewhat more esoteric than Nobles’ cache. For the teams of Thrust SSC (UK) and the Spirit of America, paydirt was thus: the honor of traveling at the Speed of Sound. Mach 1. On Land.

Ironically, the point man for the UK operation answers to the name of Noble, and is an honest-to-goodness Order of the British Knight, christened by God and the Queen as Richard Noble, OBE. Noble and his minions were here to make history and, in many ways, they were also here to observe tradition—the tradition of seizing one’s destiny, a tradition perfected by other folks passing through these parts such as Nobles, Kit Carson and, more recently, Spencer Tracy.

What all the aforementioned have in common besides the Black Rock desert is adversity: Nobles had the elements, Carson had the wily Pauite Indians, and Spencer Tracy had Lee Marvin (cf. Bad Day at Black Rock, probably rentable at your local video emporium). Likewise, for adversity, the Thrust SSC and the Spirit of America teams not only had each other, they also had to endure a plethora of seemingly insurmountable elements (floods, lack of venture capital, sandstorms, lack of venture capital, fod (foreign object damage), lack of venture capital, etc.).

This is the story of how Richard Noble and a band of compatriots not only overcame adversity but actually stared it down whilst engaged in a shootout the likes of which Washoe County, NV hadn’t seen since wily ol’ Chief Winnemucca and his scrappy Paiutes nearly staved off genocide.

*****

In 1983 Richard Noble turned 633 mph at Black Rock and reclaimed the LSR for Great Britain in his Thrust 2 jet car, taking it away from the late Gary Gabelich, a California drag racer and Rockwell test pilot who clocked a 2-way speed average of 622 mph in a hydrogen-peroxide powered rocket in 1970. Noble’s conquest struck a raw nerve in Craig Breedlove’s craw—and in his sense of patriotism.  Breedlove was the 5-time holder of the LSR in the 1960s, as well as the conqueror of many barriers — 400, 500, and 600 mph—in his Spirit of America jet cars. As Noble had tea and crumpets with the Queen, Breedlove immediately began drawing eyelid diagrams of a third-generation Spirit of America that he felt was sleek enough not only to enable him to procure the LSR but also to slip through the last great barrier: Mach 1.

But to sell his dream to America and to his sponsors, Craig needed an adversary like Ike needed Khrushchev. So he approached the then-LSR record holder, Noble, and confided in him his aspirations towards conquering the Sound Barrier. Noble took the bait. Immediately both men jettisoned their relatively prosaic lives—Breedlove was now a realtor, Noble was now marketing  recreational aircraft—and focused all of their energies toward their new goal.

A funny thing happened en route to the epochal “Duel In the Desert ‘97” in the Great American Southwest, however…

You see, both Breedlove and Noble had ambition but were lacking three other elements critical to his success: 1) Venture capital. 2) A crew. 3) A design for a vehicle that would somehow subvert the laws of physics and aerodynamics as applied to the turbulence inherent in supersonic travel—forces which would most likely launch and/or shred the vehicle and its driver. For in a motorcar traveling at that speed some of the pressure and  shock waves which would envelop the vehicle would have no way to diffuse themselves as they hit the floor and then reverberated UNDER the vehicle, acting like a 750 mph catapult. As Noble himself described it, “At Mach 1, you’re either on the ground or you’re ten miles in the air at a force of 40 g’s.” Blimey.

So, yeah, Noble sets off to meet the esteemed Ken Norris, designer of both Sir Malcolm Campbell and his kid Donald Campbell’s revolutionary LSR machines, to explain his plight, i.e. that he had the “want to’s” real bad but no design team nor plan. And in a crucial and profound stroke of luck, Norris’s earlier appointment, Ron Ayers (a retired guided missile designer from the Brit military-industrial complex who is as renowned in his field as Noble and Norris are in theirs), is caught in cross-town traffic and arrives at Norris’s digs the same moment as Noble.

Before the chance encounter with Noble, Ayers had no desire to design a Mach 1 motorcar (and very little interest in motorsports in general). “My immediate reaction was to distance myself from the project,” is how the elderly, erudite, avuncular aerodynamicist recalls the moment that Noble pitched him the project. “To drive at supersonic speeds would clearly be extremely dangerous, and indeed, it could well be impossible. I pointed out to Richard that even keeping the car on the ground would be extraordinarily difficult.” But Noble knew fresh meat when he saw it, and commenced to dog-and-pony-showing his way into Ayers id and sense of purpose. Suffice it to say, Ayers became the “Thrust SuperSonic Car’s” first conscript—and its prime architect.

Indeed, the next day Ayers went into his garden, got out a pad and pencil and began free associating… “How can we keep a motorcar stable as it passes from the transonic to supersonic speeds…” Ayers continued to sketch and the Thrust began to take shape. “…It will need two jet engines, not for thrust but for weight, drag and downforce…they will have to live on either side of the cockpit…” His approach to cannonballing through the turbulence of Mach 1 was an aerodynamic application tantamount to the bigger hammer method. “…We will not finesse this per se, but punch through the sonic barrier…the center of gravity must be forward, but not so fore that it actually burrows into the desert floor and resurfaces in Eurasia…”  “Everything that isn’t lift is downforce…” The only logical shape this beast could assume was the bastard, mutant spawn of the Batmobile and Lockheed’s SR-71 Blackbird spy plane—i.e., the gnarliest, baddest contraption to attack the jet stream since the Cold War ended. It was gorgeous.

And for all its designed inefficiency, it was practical. Richard Noble concurred emphatically with Ayers’ take on attacking Mach 1. “The key thing in this is stability,” he told me out on the playa. “Anybody can stick a jet engine on a chassis and light the fuse. Ron and I sketched out something and we thought, ‘My God, this is really rather good. This could work very well. Right: twin-engines, aluminum wheels’ and then Ken (Norris) says, ‘There is no room for steering’—and it started to build from there.”

(You can imagine the conversation amongst the SSC design team: “Yeah, Ron it’s bitchin’—but where do we put the torsion bars?” In an epiphany, SSC Chief Mechanical Designer Glynne Bowsher—one of a succession of aerospace hitters hornswoggled by Noble and intrigued by the notion of breaking the sound barrier on land—concluded that in order to shoehorn a steering system between the framerails, the SSC must turn by the two in-line rear wheels. Talk about form follows function…)

The Thrust SSC was housed and fabricated in a spare hangar in Farnborough, UK, the locale of what, in essence, is the British Skunk Works (in other words, the hangars for her Royal Majesty’s stealth and supersonic aerospace programs). Suffice it to say, the bulk of the SSC engineers who became intoxicated with Noble’s dream already knew where Farnborough’s commissary was well before Noble approached them for help…

As the design came to life at Farnborough Airfield, Noble canvassed the breadth of the Jolly ‘Ol, banging on boardroom doors for financial support and hosting seminars at campuses and air shows in order to recruit a pit crew. Interestingly, his stirring pitches appealed to the hoi polloi more than the suits in the corridors of power. The hoi polloi formed the Mach 1 club—“give us a few quid, drop what you’re doing and come with us to America to break the sound barrier”—and became another indispensable element to the Thrust SSC’s eventual success.

And finally, another crucial element was in place. That is, Nobles’ choice for a shoe: A soft-spoken-yet-buff, dashing, Royal Air Force pilot named Andy Green whose physique, psyche, and demeanor were ideal for the project. Indeed, Andy Green could have been culled straight outta’ Central Casting. The team was in place.

And after some CFD data and rocket-sled testing confirmed Ayers’ theories on supersonic travel, the vehicle was completed. But before the conquering of Mach 1 in America was to commence, the team trudged off to an RAF air base in the Al Jafr desert in Jordan during November of ‘96 for some shakedown runs, with the blessing of ol’ King Hussein. Testing the synergy of all systems on this technological marvel commenced: Computerized suspension, telemetry, satellite uplinks, communications, aluminum wheels, rear wheel steer, twin Spey 202 turbofan engine, support vehicles, etc.

All systems seemed to be speaking to each other, but a full dress rehearsal for the upcoming mission in the Black Rock desert would have to wait, for then came the prerequisite trial, error, and anguish that, if you study your motorsports history, seems to accompany all LSR efforts. In a Middle Eastern desert that is dryer than microwaved kitty litter, it rained. And rained. And flooded.

Indeed, as Ron Ayers related in retrospect: “According to the weather statistics, November should have the ideal combination of moderate temperature, low wind, low precipitation, and few dust storms.” It was, in fact, quite the antithesis. The Thrust SSCer’s arrival at this arid Middle Eastern desert was akin to fording a river:  At the air base where Thrust was stationed the flooding was moving so fast that it appeared to be pushing stones ahead of it. Finally, Glynne Bowsher pointed out that the stones were actually floating camel droppings…

Meanwhile: Concurrent to the SSC frantically evacuating the flooded desert in Jordan, days before a provisional Bureau of Land Management permit at Black Rock expired, Breedlove caught a crosswind at 675 mph as his Spirit of America streamliner “Wrong Way” Corrigan-ed and assumed the attitude of a traffic circle. It was the fastest U-turn in history.

“I didn’t know that I had the side wind,” said Breedlove. “I was confused. I wouldn’t have run had I known what the wind was.”

In fact, it was one of those moments when a bad case of “Go! Fever” short-circuited logic. With the permit dwindling and bad weather encroaching, Craig knew his window for making history was finite. As he was strapped into the car early that ill-fated morning for his record run, Craig had requested a wind profile. It came back, “Crosswind One-point-five mph.” When the SOA crew fired the J-79, it developed a fluid leak and was shut down. As the crew tightened some fittings with their wrenches, a cloud cover blew in over the playa, obscuring Breedlove’s vision. He continued to wait, and kept his game face on while still strapped into the cockpit. Finally, the clouds lifted and Craig could see the 13-mile black stripe that was his sole guidance system down the course. Finally, four hours after the original time of departure, all systems were go and Craig requested another wind profile. The response over the radio was “Crosswind at One-Five mph.” Knowing that the SOA could only withstand a crosswind of 5 mph or less, in his zeal to go 700 mph Craig inserted a decimal point in the wind profile… He interpreted the transmission as “1.5” not “15” mph.

When the car tipped up on its side and went into a skid, “I had dirt in the windshield, and I really couldn’t see what was happening,” he said. “I thought I’d probably had it, that this was going to be it.”

The next available permit for speed trials would be in September, 1997.

*****

On the eve of the press conferences in Reno that will hail the Mach 1 attempts, I arrive at the Reno Airport after spending the flight engaging in heavy and heated discourse with a geeky film buff about the aforementioned Spencer Tracy movie. I am heavily mythologizing not only the flick, but also the actual location of Black Rock itself. He’s not buying it.

“Yeah,” I said with authority, “there is a coffee shop called ‘Bruno’s’ that is right across the street from the train station used in Bad Day at Black Rock. It has to be the same diner coffee shop where Spencer Tracy—with his only good arm—karate-chopped Ernest Borgnine in the throat.”

“Well that can’t be,” the geek in the seat next to me sniffs, as he ramps his bifocals up the bridge of his nose. “I have the laserdisc in my library and on one of the Second Audio Programs the director, John Sturges, explains at length how they used these abandoned railroad tracks they found in Bishop, California for the train scenes. That fictitious coffee shop was actually a set on a back lot in Burbank.”

“I’m telling you they shot this film in Gerlach, Nevada. I’ve been there AND I’ve seen the movie. Spencer Tracy gets off the friggin’ train in Gerlach.”

“That sir is empirically impossible,” the geek bleats. “The production never set foot in Nevada. Rent the laserdisc.”

“Laserdiscs are Satanic.”

When the plane lands, en route to scoring a rent-a-car I go to the Information Booth in hopes of procuring a map of the Gerlach area—I’ve been there before, but this is the kind of terrain where you just don’t want to get lost. There is a kindly, slightly senilitic Chamber of Commerce croater behind the counter who asks me where I am headed. I tell him, “Black Rock,” so he says, “Lovelock, it’s right here, “ and he points to the town of Lovelock  on the map.

“No,” I say, “ummm, Black Rock, out by Gerlach.”

“Ohhh; Tomahawk, it’s right here, just take I-80 east past…”

“No, no, no,” I interrupt and point to my destination on his map, crinkling it a little bit. “Black Rock, out by Gerlach.”

“O-h-h-h, Black Rock. That’s easy: Just take I-80 east to Fernley and take 447 north to  Gerlach. It’ll take you right to the station where Spencer Tracy got off the train.”

“Actually,” I pipe up, “that movie was shot in Bishop, California and on a back lot in Burbank.”

“You have a nice drive, sir.”

****

“Ladies, gentlemen, and members of the press, we are here to go Mach 1. Getting the record back does not interest us. Going 700 mph does not interest us. We are here to go Mach 1.”

Thus sayeth Richard Noble hisself from the podium at a press conference in a downtown Reno casino a couple of days after Labor Day, 1997. His audience was a motley mix of motorsports journalists, a couple of local betacam crews, some curious tourists (who strolled away from the keno girls after gazing through the tinted casino windows at what looked to be a phallic-shaped 10-ton spaceship that had landed by the valet parking), and some local street people who were intrigued by the commotion and had sniffed out the prospect of free Danishes and coffee.

Noble’s “No Sleep ‘till Supersonic” gauntlet was throw down just hours after his exhausted troops had arrived in Nevada on a blitzkrieg rock-and-roll-180 flight from the Farnborough hangar, jet lagged, sleep deprived and immaculately clad in matching green uniforms.

Cut to: the SOA press conference at a casino across town. Craig Breedlove was nonplussed by Noble’s earlier speech and retaliated by saying, “I spoke to Richard early on in his design process and he’d said that he’d decided they needed a twin-engine design and that was where we differed.

“I said, ‘Well, I really don’t think you need two,’ and he said, ‘All land speed record cars have always underperformed.’ I said, ‘I really haven’t found that to be true—I had a J-47 that I really think I could have reached 600 mph with. Maybe you experienced a lot higher drag numbers than I have.’ In any case, that was their philosophy: Really screw the car down, just suck it down with a lot of ground effects. Just power it through—(and) it’s a very stable way to do it.” But not the SOA way.

“The problem I saw at Black Rock early on in this design concept with Richard was sinking in,” Breedlove continued. “I went to Ken Norris and asked what their (SSC) ground loadings were and he told me they were at 13,000 lbs. (of downforce). I asked how they were distributed and he said, ‘No, that’s on the front wheels.’ I said, ‘Well, you’re aware that you guys are going to have so much rolling drag that you guys are never going to get the record.’ He said they’d been discussing that and the only thing is that Richard is very reluctant to point the car up any because of the flying problem.”

Conversely, for his Mach 1 endeavors, Breedlove in essence eyeball-aeroed a projectile in the shape of an arrow. Using a hot-rodded J-79 General Electric jet engine from a Navy F-4 Phantom fighter aircraft for motivation, Craig visualized a sleek, narrow dart that would partake of the J-79’s 22,650 pounds of thrust (45,000 horsepower) and finesse the shockwaves that emanate when a vehicle climbs through  a transonic slipstream into—BOOM—a supersonic slipstream.

“When we ran Sonic 1 at 600 mph (1965) we had no weight on the front end. I’m not saying that’s a prudent way to do it, but that’s just the fact of the matter. Somewhere between 13,000 lbs. and zero is the speed record.”

****

After seven years of research and development as well as “dancing-as-fast-as-I-can” cajoling of corporations, the match was finally on: A quintessential California hot rodder arm wrestling a permutation of the British military industrial complex.

But although the match was on, there were still many obstacles in the path of both teams, not the least of which was negative cash flow. To facilitate the arrival of the Brits from Farnborough into Reno Int’l Airport—keep in mind it required 250,00 gallons of jet fuel to top off an Antonov AN-124 Russian cargo plane (the only vehicle in existence with enough trunk space to transport the Thrust’s 80-ton portable skunk works)—Noble appealed for alms via the London Daily Telegraph and the Internet. The vox populi responded with a vengeance. Thrust SSC got its jet fuel.

Ultimately, 20 percent of the funding for the Thrust effort came from Noble shaking the virtual bushes of cyberspace. Amazing.

*****

“My best wishes to all involved in Thrust SSC’s attempt to be the first through the sound barrier on land. This project is a graphic illustration of British enterprise and engineering at its best.  Good luck. The whole country is behind you.”—Tony Blair, British Prime Minister.

“It’s all about beating the British system. If there were any British government involvement (in Thrust SSC) we would end up with somebody on our board, okay? And this has to be a little organization that is very flexible and can dance and weave. The last thing we want is that sort of person on the board.”—Richard Noble.

*****

In May of ‘97 the Brits had made a return trip to Jordan for more shakedown runs—they managed to get the SSC up to 540 mph, which was apparently all that patchy surface could handle—and they were treated like royalty. Pomp and circumstance is not much in evidence in Gerlach, NV when the Thrust SSC mates first arrive. The Brits are homeless. Gerlach is a town of 300—counting the scorpions—and lodging is sketchy. There is one motel, “Bruno’s,” which is also the name of the bar and the coffee shop, all of which are named eponymously for the town czar, a lanky, bent elderly Italian with the kind of disposition only slightly surlier than that of Benito Mussolini’s. Despite Thrust SSC’s scout team undertaking a reconnaissance trip in April to secure the permits and lodging crucial to their mission, it has all turned to shit: Bruno double-booked all the available lodging and ultimately rented his rooms to the highest bidder: the SOA contingent.

Right then, the Brits are boycotting that turncoat Bruno.  They  adjourn to the bar next door, The Miners Club, and discuss Plan B. After enjoining Bev, the barkeep, to “Give us a fag, wouldya’ love?” (Loosely translated, “I’d like to purchase a package of cigarettes”), the affable Brits begin making friends with the locals, particularly Bev.

So picture this: Richard Noble and his lads (20 clamoring Brits clad in matching RAF-green) are hoisting Coors in a dusty, desert Dew-Do-Drop-Inn (this about as bizarre as it gets, in my book) when one of Noble’s crew members shushes the entire bar. The local teevee news is reporting on that morning’s press conference (“Going 700 mph does not interest us. We are here to go Mach 1…”) at the casino in Reno. Suddenly the videotape cuts to the chipper studio humanoid broadcaster who closes the report with this coda, “Noble and his team are taking Saturday off in observance of Princess Di’s funeral.”

Simultaneously Richard Noble, OBE does a “say wot??” double-take while his overworked and underpaid entourage cheer and Bev pours more drinks.

They didn’t get the day off. Nor did they care, really. All of which underscores this question: What is it about Noble that inspires his troops, his lads, to persevere in high-desert heat to erect a portable self-contained military-industrial complex that meets the criteria for the digital era’s standard for data gathering, all on a dry lakebed that time forgot?

The answer is that is it is not explainable by the notion of “technological enthusiasm,” a phrase that has recently come to explain everything from hot rodding to the Apollo moon shot. The answer is deeper, more atavistic and completely primeval. The answer has roots that extend into the quintessence of matter: The universe is expanding. By extrapolation, consciousness is expanding, constantly encroaching into realms of the unknown. The technological enthusiast must go THERE, the technological enthusiast will devour and outmaneuver whatever is his or her way: Pauites, the laws of aerodynamics, Newtonian physics, whatever.

Thus you have some of the finest minds of our lifetime sleeping on other people’s couches, on their hands and knees picking up pebbles off the desert floor, all so they can have their moon shot.

Nobody exemplifies this “technological enthusiasm” more than Ron Ayers. Although retired and in the twilight of his stay here on Planet Earth, Ayers was as active as any of the fresh-faced Mach 1 Clubbers on holiday from the university.

Nearly a month after the Thrusters had arrived and were continuing to creep into the transonic speed range, I eavesdropped on Ayers as he was explaining his theories on supersonic travel in a motorcar to a bewildered and besotted patron in the Miner’s Club. Ayers was using a shot glass as a prop that represented the Thrust SSC and was gingerly gliding it along the surface of the bar to illustrate his theories about subsonic, trans-sonic, and supersonic pressure waves and how they would affect the handing of the Thrust SSC.

The guy at the bar was asking Ayers why don’t you Brits just put the hammer down and go Mach 1 and be done with it?

Ayers explained the SSC design teams rationale for chipping away at ever-increasing speeds: “The aerodynamic forces would be simply enormous, enough to lift the car and throw it around like an autumn leaf in a gale,” he said. “The crux of the problem is knowing how the flow would behave underneath the car at sonic speeds and what would happen to shockwaves in that region.”

The guy on the bar stool next nodded as if he comprehended Ayers’ riff.

“The most important thing,” he concluded as Bev the bartender repossessed the shot glass and put it to less theoretical use, “is that we don’t obliterate Andy.”

*****

And so it went at Black Rock: It was a month replete with sandstorms, rain, and incessant fod. Early on, Breedlove had “fodded” his engine when he sucked a bolt into the combustion chamber. At times it was like Waiting for Godot. It was a month of hurry-up-and-wait, hey maybe tomorrow is the day. It was an exercise in endurance. Occasionally sandstorms would kick in and nullify the very thorough “de-fodding” (removing debris from the 13 mile courses) that took place during the day. In addition to the capricious, recalcitrant weather that made a mockery of the Mach 1 club’s perpetual de-fodding efforts, the Brits were plagued with a malfunctioning on-board computer that would sense non-existing turbulence and kill both engines at 400 mph. The SSC software phreaks would chase after the jet car at 180 mph in a hot-rodded XJ12  Jaguar and blow some fresh code out off a laptop into the onboard computer’s SCSI port.

Through all of this both Bruno’s and the Miner’s Club in Gerlach became like Algonquin Rooms for the LSR maniacs who gathered on the playa in search of the Big Bang. The conversation was always good. It was during these nights that I engaged Noble in a dialogue about overcoming obstacles. He insisted that the two forays into Jordan prepared the Thrust team for any possible catastrophic eventuality.

“The problem with Jordan,” he said, “is that we built a car that was extremely unconventional and very complex. We took it out there with a very green crew, so we had the problems of sorting out the crew, sorting out the car and, even worse, sorting out the desert. It hammered the hell out of the car…(after) we cleared 170 miles of stone. And a lot of that was on our hands and knees.”

Another night I got a similar recollection from Andy Green. “We had gone out there with a car with a lot of features that people said couldn’t work: rear-wheel steering, twin engines, the computers,” he said. “We went out there and we had a lot of problems with rear-wheel steer. And the engineering fixed it out there in the desert—we got the car to work right out there in Jordan. Everything that could have gone wrong with everything we had did—and we fixed all of it. The only thing we couldn’t fix was the weather.”

“The biggest obstacle wasn’t the fod or the weather,” said Simon Rogers, one of the Thrust SSC microlight pilots whose job description was to patrol the desert looking for fod. “Some days we would have to abandon a run because I would spot camels straggling across the track or Iranians rampaging across the desert smuggling massive amounts of petrol in a lorry (tanker truck).”

But perhaps the finest quote I was able to extricate from the Brits came from Green when I asked him what possessed him to be the first driver of an automobile to burst through the Sound Barrier. He said, “Nobody knows what’s there because nobody has ever been there.”

It was a haiku for the technological enthusiast.

*****

I asked Andy Green to describe the differences in handling a Tornado fight plane and the Thrust SSC. “The car has a lot more acceleration than a jet fighter,” he said. “It has two jet fighter engines with half the weight of a jet fighter—tremendous acceleration.” He said he enjoyed his “holiday” from the RAF while he was moonlighting with the Thrust team. “You only run when the weather is nice, everything is good for you and the vehicle is perfectly sensible.”

*****

Einstein proved that space and time both bend. Empirical confirmation of this phenomena existed at Black Rock on the day the Brits went supersonic. There is a parallax of cones that delineate the boundary of the race course, from the shut down area through the “measured mile” speed trap all the way to the launch pad. With the human eye, the cones gradually meld into the floor of the lakebed itself.  Off on the horizon, a puff of dusty exhaust blossoms like Teutonic smoke signals as the crewmembers spin the Thrust SSC’s turbines and purge the afterburners of its Spey 202s. But this dervish of pyrotechnical activity transpires approximately 45 degrees off axis of the parallax view. Space bends. You are witnessing the curvature of the Earth.

Thrust SSC is rolling,” the radio hums. For the first mile of the record run, the machine is merely cruising at speeds that would not bat the eye of a highway patrolman in Montana. This is precautionary, to avoid creating a vacuum in the 202’s intake which would suck pebbles and arrowheads off the lakebed and into the motor. At the Mile 1 marker Green stomps on the loud pedal. Instantaneously, copious amounts of thrust sock the RAF hero in the solar plexus and he’s blazing across the lakebed with a rooster-tail of dust and exhaust in his wake as tall as Noble’s phone bill. The trajectory of the vehicle appears to be bending on an exponential curve, even though it is straight as a Southern Baptist. Everything is strangely silent, despite the fact that the machine must be making prodigious thunder in its wake. (Isn’t it?). Suddenly, the trajectory appears to change and is completely linear… it is absolutely boogeying… Thrust SSC enters the measured mile and… silence… a mushroom cloud begins to manifest itself in the wake of the vehicle and then WHHHOOOOSSSSHHH…. fuck that is loud! The sound of two fighter plane engines with turbines spinning at warp speed rattles the playa and the schoolhouse in Gerlach. Time bends.

*****

On October 13, 1997, one day before the 50th anniversary of Chuck Yeager’s supersonic rocket ride in the Bell X-1 airplane, Andy Green broke the sound barrier on land. He recorded speeds of 764.168 and 758.102 mph, at Mach numbers of 1.007 and 1.000. The timekeepers at the United States Auto Club could not confirm these numbers as an official FIA record as the prerequisite “back-up” run missed the one-hour window by 43 seconds.  Two days later, Green again performed back-to-back supersonic runs—this time within the allotted hour—at speeds of 759.333 (Mach 1.015) and 766.609 mph (Mach 1.020), with an official two-way average of 763.035 mph.

As his crew packed up the SSC portable skunk works, Richard Noble made no mention of his impending afternoon tea with the Queen of England. However, he did say, “I’m going to Brazil to hide from the creditors.” The Thrust SSC will be mothballed in a museum, never to run again.

Craig Breedlove is still on the playa, albeit with a new goal: to be the first man to travel at 800 mph on land. He clocked 636 mph as this story was filed.

*****

And there you have it: The theoretical work of Ayers, Bowsher, Noble and the entire entourage of the Thrust SSC—as articulated by Andy Green’s cockpit acumen—has been established. And it confirms this notion: The universe is expanding. Just ask Mr. Ayers the next time you see him at the Miner’s Club, having a drink with Spencer Tracy.

(Originally published in Drag Racing Monthly.)

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