The fastest men on Earth

This summer's runabout is 54ft long, drinks 125 gallons a mile, and does 750 mph. It has been built to break the land speed record. But why, asks Jonathan Glancey, should its driver want to do something so daft?
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The Independent Online
Chuck Yeager, the great American test pilot, had what Tom Wolfe called the Right Stuff. It saw him through the sound barrier in 1947. First man there. No one knew at the time whether or not the build-up of sonic waves around the tiny Bell X-I rocket plane would send Chuck spinning from the stratosphere over Edwards Air Base, Texas, and into the realm where only angels need wings.

Fifty years on, RAF Tornado pilot Andy Green has the Right Stuff, no question. In September, Green aims to do what Chuck Yeager did before him and break the sound barrier. The difference is that while Yeager did it in the air, exceeding 670mph, Green is hoping to do it on land.

This will mean steering a rock-steady course across the Black Rock desert, Nevada, at no less than 741.8mph - the speed needed to go supersonic at sea level - in Thrust SSC. This black wingless jet is a British-designed and built supercar, powered by two Rolls-Royce Spey engines grafted from an RAF Phantom fighter-bomber and generating a mighty 110,000 horsepower, equivalent to the power of 140 Formula One racing cars. On paper at least, Thrust is capable of a mind-boggling 850mph.

"It will be a bit like skating on ice for the first few hundred miles per hour," says Richard Noble, Thrust's gung-ho creator. "Andy is going to have the drive of his life." Noble should know. He has held the land speed record, 633mph, for the past 13 years. "If all goes well, Andy should accelerate to 100mph in four seconds, 600mph in 16, and be up to 850mph in half-a-minute, by which time Thrust will have covered five miles." Parachutes and disc brakes from a Boeing 757 will bring Thrust back into the realm of Escorts and school-run Volvos.

"This is about four times quicker off the mark than a Tornado," says Green, who will pushed back into Thrust's driving seat by a force six times greater than gravity. No wonder the man looks fit.

A fortnight ago, Thrust - all 54ft and eight tons of it - was taken out for air and exercise on the landing strip alongside the Defence Research Agency in Farnborough, Hampshire, where the car has been assembled (in "Q-shed" - very James Bond) by G-Force, a team of Sussex-based racing engineers. Green ambled up and down the Farnborough strip at a leisurely 200mph to see if all systems were go. They were. So this week, Noble, Green, Thrust and the G-Force team have been putting the car through its paces on a 10-mile stretch of Jordanian desert lent by King Hussein, a monarch with a passion for fast cars. It is possible that Thrust will break the sound barrier in Jordan this month, although Noble's secretive preparations mean that it will be witnessed by few outside the team.

Even then, Jordan is just the beginning. The official attempt on the land speed record takes place on the hard mud flats of Nevada, where Thrust will not be alone. As in all Boy's Own stories, fact or fiction, there is a rival in the running.

From the land of Chuck Yeager and the Right Stuff comes Craig Breedlove, 59-year-old record-breaker, the first man to break the 400, 500 and 600mph barriers on land. Breedlove is convinced that he lost the record to Noble in 1983 only because of the friendly technical advice he gave his British counterpart. Noble denies the claim.

No matter: this time round the rivalry is intense. There will be no helpful hints as, all being well, British and American supercars engage in a duel to the sound barrier that could easily be a duel to the death. Everyone involved is only too aware of how one slip of a sweaty palm could send either jet-powered car into a fatally shallow orbit.

Breedlove's would-be supersonic mount is Spirit of America. Less powerful but much lighter than Thrust, it has been taking shape in a decidedly low-tech ambience behind an old Ford dealership in Rio Vista, California.

It is currently on test on the famous Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, where many former world-speed record attempts have been made. The pencil-thin car is seven feet shorter than Thrust and weighs half as much. It has just one engine, again from a Phantom fighter-bomber.

Breedlove aims to recapture the land speed record and the sound barrier by stealth. "Our car is designed with supersonic potential," he said in a recent interview, "but we will only go up in 10mph increments. The best way to kill yourself is to make a giant leap of faith." Breedlove says this is not because he lacks the Right Stuff, but because he is a seasoned veteran of land speed record attempts.

He reckons that when Noble reached 633mph at Bonneville in 1983, the British driver was just 6mph short of taking off. Not a good state to be in when you have neither flaps nor wings to make sense of the situation.

This gradual build-up of speed, run by run across the Nevada desert, could well mean a duel lasting most of a month. Unless, of course, Green's faith in Thrust is strong and he decides on an early full-throttle attempt on the record.

Of the two cars, Thrust is the more scientifically developed, the end- product of five years of computer design, research into materials and components and wind-tunnel studies at Farnborough. Spirit of America has been crafted in the back of Breedlove's Californian workshop in much the way Wilbur and Orville Wright shaped The Flyer, the first successful powered aircraft, nearly a century ago. Breedlove, however, has been at work for two years longer than Noble - seven as opposed to five - and has, as both men know, a deeper purse.

At the annual Festival of Speed held at Goodwood last month, Green and Noble not only presented the newly completed Thrust SSC to an enthusiastic motoring crowd, but personally sold them pounds 10,000 worth of Thrust merchandising.

There are no government grants for a project like this, and more than 80 sponsors have had to be found to raise the undisclosed funds needed to give birth to one of the world's two fastest and, if they are successful, noisiest cars yet built.

There is little doubt that Noble's escapade has caught the imagination of British boys, and tomboys, of all ages. The Mach 1 Club for Thrust supporters was formed two years ago and has more than 4,000 loyal members who have been privileged to watch the car taking shape and to ask Noble and Green all those "what'llshedomister?" questions that surround a car like Thrust. More significantly, since Digital Computers put Thrust on the Internet last September (http://www.thrustssc.digital.co.uk), more than 1.3 million computer buffs with a passion for speed have plugged in. As yet, however, the media has been sparing in its coverage of the race to break the sound barrier on land. Why? Most probably because the attempt seems both foolish and irrelevant. Why bother? For most of us 80 or 90 mph on land is quite enough, while those who would like to see Concorde, to say nothing of RAF jets, grounded continue to grow, as the letters pages of newspapers have demonstrated.

Certainly the development of Thrust cannot be said to have been ecologically sound. Autocar magazine revealed that one of 13 rocket-powered models of Thrust tested in Wales skewered a seagull at 600mph and "barbecued it with the retro-rockets". And, if the project was murderous to innocent seagulls, what might it cost in human life?

In answer to the big question - why? - Green and Noble can only be expected to reply with a "why not?". "There are always records to beat," says Noble. "We can always run a little faster, but we can't climb higher than Everest and, anyway, that's been done many times. Breaking the sound barrier on land is something that has never been done and we want to prove that it can be."

Breaking the sound barrier on wheels - aluminium discs, as tyres would burn up at such staggering speed - is one of the few final frontiers where no man or woman has gone before. No one even knows, at this late stage in the impending duel between Thrust and Spirit of America, whether it is possible. Perhaps Breedlove and Green will be forced to back off; perhaps, despite, all the preparations, their cars will flip over or otherwise try to take off. It is the unknown and the attempt to breach and conquer it that spurs the likes of Noble, Green, Breedlove and Chuck Yeager before them.

There is no rational case for Thrust and Spirit of America. When it comes down to it, you've either got the Right Stuff or you haven't, and you either want it or you don't. But those of us who remember willing on Donald Campbell in his fatal attempt to break the world speed record on water in 1967 - and telling all those horrid schoolboy jokes about Campbell's condensed soup - will be wishing Breedlove and Green God speed.

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