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CAR CULTURE

The Fastest Car In The World?

If You Can't Buy It, Why Should You Care?

September 01, 1996|BILL SHARPSTEEN | Bill Sharpsteen is free-lance writer based in Los Angeles. His last article for the magazine was on auto shows

Gary Swenson says he has the fastest car on earth. And to prove it, he plans to break the land speed record--633.468 mph--on a flat chunk of Nevada desert. But Swenson needs a quarter of a million dollars for design changes and other costs, and no corporate sponsor looking to slap its logo on Swenson's American Eagle One has stepped up to write the check. So Swenson does what people in America do when they need publicity. He goes on Regis and Kathie Lee. After spending six years--and $300,000 of his and designer Rick Kikes's money--to build the car, he's willing to try anything.

On the show, with the AE1 parked on New York City's Columbus Avenue, Swenson revs the engine that once flew a Navy Phantom F-4 jet fighter and now powers a vehicle that looks vaguely like a 44-foot-long marital aid on four wheels. The turbines whine loudly enough to suggest the 48,000 horsepower within, and then a 70-foot flame bursts out the back end, rattling windows for blocks. With that show of might, Swenson thinks, someone will see how the AE1 could shatter the 13-year-old record and, perhaps, top his personal goal of 700 mph.

That was last April. So far, no one has called.

Perhaps Swenson and Kikes aren't ambitious enough. Their rivals consider the land speed record a mere detour to a much bigger goal--breaking the sound barrier of about 740 mph (it varies according to altitude)--a feat never accomplished by a land vehicle."The land speed record is purely incidental in this," says Richard Noble of Great Britain, the current land speed record-holder.

That's something a certain sort of sponsor can respond to. At last count, Noble had 190 corporate backers for his thrust ssc vehicle. meanwhile, funded in part by an Australian television station, Rosco McGlashan is gearing up to blast his Aussie Invader III across a remote Australian dry lake bed. And the dean of them all, 59-year-old American Craig Breedlove, with five land speed records set more than 30 years ago, has Shell Oil Products Co. pumping his gas and bank account. In a flourish worthy of P. T. Barnum, Noble and Breedlove might meet in a showdown at Nevada's Black Rock Desert later this month.

But while McGlashan, Noble and Breedlove have managed to snag corporate underwriters, odds are they'll earn barely a dime's worth of fame. Zipping over a desert track, no matter how fast, has lost much of its heroic aura. When Breedlove first strapped a jet engine to three wheels in 1961 and two years later broke the speed record at 407 mph on Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats, it was a wonderful novelty in both daring and backyard engineering.

Now, it almost seems quaint. Flame-belching cars built to boast one man's--ah--engineering prowess over another's aren't that impressive anymore; they're just loud. A car equipped with a surplus jet engine seems crude compared to the infinitely swift, silent power of a Pentium computer chip. These days, the competition for a land speed record looks more like Neanderthal breast-beating than a celebration of ingenuity. "Setting the land speed record is not going to save the world," Breedlove concedes. "It's just a contest to go out and have the world's fastest car."

But then, pursuing land speed records has always been a fringe activity at best. The first record--a blistering 39 mph--was established in an electric car piloted by one Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat, on a country road in France, with little fanfare. Of the 41 record-holders since, most simply drove as fast as they could on a remote track. The drivers made the record books, but they rarely gained lasting fame. "How many people even know what the [current] record is?" asks Road & Track senior editor Joe Rusz. "I don't, and I'm in the business."

That's not to say we couldn't be interested, but it would take a fundamental shift in the Zeitgeist. We've had our share of space shuttles and stealth fighters, not to mention an unrelenting bombardment of statistical trivia--from box office grosses to record high temperatures--in the daily media. Too, speed itself has become such a part of life that it would be nice if someone instead came up with a way to slow things down. The fastest car? What's the rush?

The rush, says Leslie Kendall, curator of the Petersen Automotive Museum, is for the possible resulting technology that can be applied to future automobiles. And even for the jaded, driving through Mach 1 has just the right Chuck Yeagar feel to tap into a nostalgic longing for one more battle of man against physics before the century ends.

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