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SPORTS WEEKEND | MOTOR RACING / SHAV GLICK

Breedlove's Sights Still Set on Regaining Land-Speed Record

April 02, 1999|SHAV GLICK

Craig Breedlove is 62, but he's still pursuing the dream that has consumed him for most of 40 years.

He wants the land-speed record back. He has held it five times, but not since 1965 when he drove the Spirit of America Sonic I at 600.601 mph across the Bonneville Salt Flats. Since then the LSR has been increased to 763.035 mph. Britain's Andy Green became the first to officially break the sound barrier on land Oct. 15, 1997, when he drove Richard Noble's Thrust SSC to that speed on Nevada's Black Rock Desert.

Breedlove was there that day, an interested spectator watching from a knoll on the barren desert as the Thrust broke through Mach 1. The experience only made him more determined.

"We're coming back one more time," he said earlier this week. "There is a certain urgency this time. The window of opportunity is closing on me."

Breedlove had unsuccessful attempts at the record in 1996 and 1997, then canceled last year's try when he came up $500,000 short in sponsorship.

"The English put up a pretty high barrier, but that only makes the effort more challenging," Breedlove said. "It was a beautiful run Andy Green made. He will always be the first to get through the sound barrier. That's something that he can never lose."

When Noble returned to Black Rock, about 125 miles northeast of Reno, two years ago he was 51. He had set the record at 633.47 mph in 1983, but when he returned with a more powerful Thrust in 1997, he had hired Green, 35, a Royal Air Force test pilot, to drive 700 mph and beyond.

Breedlove, however, doesn't believe that 62 is too old.

"If I had any qualms about my driving capabilities, I wouldn't hesitate to find someone else, but I feel confident I can do it," he said. "I know I can't do this forever, but I feel pretty good, I'm in good physical shape and I still enjoy being in the cockpit."

Breedlove has requested permission from the Bureau of Land Management to use the Black Rock site from Sept. 7 through Nov. 30.

"Right now, the car is in the shop in Rio Vista [a small community on the Sacramento River delta], getting some modifications in preparation for the record run."

Modifications to the 48,000 horsepower Spirit of America included widening the wheelbase for more stability, installing a cleansing system that will prevent dirt from packing in the wheels and knocking them out of balance, and designing new tires to withstand speeds up to 900 mph.

"We're not looking for 900," he said smiling, "but it's nice to know they'll still be safe at that speed.

"We still don't know how our car will react to the sound barrier. It is that great unknown. The Thrust went supersonic, but although I feel we have a better design, we still won't know until it happens. I have confidence in our design and really don't foresee any problems."

More critical than his age, Breedlove said, are concerns about financing the project.

"It will take a million bucks to pull it off," he said. "We have about 50% of it, mainly from our primary sponsor, Shell Oil Co., and Speedvision. As we progress closer to the record, we expect an infusion of money from other sponsors."

In 1996, Breedlove was approaching record speeds when a gust of wind tipped the Spirit of America on its side at 677 mph. Breedlove was not injured, but damage to the car ended further attempts.

Two years ago, sharing the desert with Noble's British team, Breedlove was unable to go faster than 636 mph, and mechanical problems and rain sent him back to Rio Vista.

"Sitting out last year gave us a chance to regroup," he said. "The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to get the record back. It would mean a run of 770 mph, which is 1% faster than Green's mark.

"It's time we brought the LSR back to America. It's been 16 years since Noble took it back to England. Ever since the first automobile was built, being the fastest in the world has been a point of national pride.

"Way, way back the record belonged to Germany, France and England before Henry Ford became the first American. Since then [Ford ran 91.37 in 1904] it has gone back and forth between us and Great Britain.

"There's not much money in it, it's more an amateur sport, but national pride has no price."

IRWINDALE SPEEDWAY

Flush with the response to the opening of Irwindale Speedway, Jim Williams, the short track's chief executive officer, is already exploring the idea of building similar facilities in other metropolitan areas.

"We're looking for places right now," Williams said. "I think Irwindale has shown that there is a need for tracks this size. We have the plans, all we need are the right places."

Stock cars from NASCAR's Winston Racing Series, which will be the weekly staple at Irwindale, make their debut tonight, then will race again Saturday night at the week-old speedway.

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