There's just one problem: No one knows whether a land vehicle can even go that fast without destroying itself. When a jet breaks the speed of sound, it creates a cone of shock waves that radiates off the plane and causes the sonic boom. No big deal at 30,000 feet, where the shock waves have plenty of room to dissipate. But coming off a car, no matter how aerodynamic, the waves would travel only two or three feet before hitting the ground. In theory, they could pack in tightly under the car and create enough pressure to flip it.
Noble isn't buying the theories. He says he's conducted tests with an 18-inch model attached to a rocket sled going Mach 1.2 that show breaking the sound barrier on land and staying in one piece is possible. But even he admits he doesn't know exactly what will happen with a full-sized version. (It should be noted that Noble hired a former RAF pilot, Andy Green, to drive the car, and it's up to Green whether or not he has the nerve to prove Noble right.)
Breedlove, on the other hand, says his first priority is to stay alive. Should he attempt to break the sound barrier, it will be with him watching while a remote-controlled, unmanned Spirit of America fires its afterburners and races across the desert. If the shock waves fail to flip the car, the first driver to break the sound barrier could very well be a couple of circuit boards.
Kikes, designer of the impoverished American Eagle 1, says other teams talk about the sound barrier because it's good for fund-raising. But Swenson and Kikes, having left potential sponsors unimpressed, have resorted to selling T-shirts and AE1 club memberships over the Internet. Money from some 1,500 paying fans from the United States and Canada only covers administrative costs. In hopes of inspiring more-substantial contributions, the AE1 team is tub-thumping its pursuit in patriotic tones. "We're bringing the record back to America," Swenson declares. Breedlove is also taking the star-spangled approach, having painted his Spirit of America red, white and blue, with rhetoric to match. "When programs like this for the land speed record demonstrate America's capabilities, technologically and industrially," he says, "hey, I think it's positive."
It remains to be seen whether the multitudes will be moved by such testosterone-enriched nationalism. Nor is this the America's Cup or the Olympics--it's unlikely the spectators at Black Rock Desert will bleat "USA! USA!" when Breedlove takes the wheel. It falls to Noble, with crisp British detachment, to state the obvious. "Most of the people working on this project," he says, "see this as something they can put on their tombstone."
And that might be one of the few places we'll ever read about their feat 20 years from now. As Road & Track's Rusz bluntly puts it: "It'll be news if something sensational happens [such as a crash]. But other than that, I mean, so?"