Chapter 10 -- Breaking the Sound Barrier

September 26, 1997, Black Rock Desert, near Gerlach, NV.

I had heard on the news that some people were trying to set a new land speed record here, so I decided that the Black Rock desert wasn't too far out of my way (about 75 mile north of I-80), and I came up here. I arrived in Gerlach a little after sundown. Gerlach is a tiny town, population 358, with about four bars, all hopping with activity. Team "Thrust SSC" set a world land speed record yesterday, of just over 714 MPH. There are about 30 or 40 British people on the team, all of whom seem to be in the bars. Since Gerlach is so tiny and so remote, someone like me can go in, mix and mingle, and get to know lots of the people involved with the project. I've met the pilot, the fuel systems engineer, the guy who lays out the markings for the track and his wife, some security people, a photographer, the guy doing composites engineering for the body panels, and others. There's a real tingle of excitement here, both on the level of a tremendous technical aerospace engineering project, and a human drama. The British team is most in evidence here, but also Craig Breedlove, an old-timer from the Bonneville Salt Flats, is around, and he's going to try and make a run tomorrow. There's somewhat of a rivalry between Breedlove and the Brits, though team Thrust SSC seems to have the edge. Although the Brits are very excited to have broken 700 mph, and set a new land speed record, the real goal is to break Mach 1. After that, they plan to go 850 mph. They're in the transonic regime already, and they hope to break Mach 1 in a week or so.

I got here about 8:30, and I've been drinking with these folks until after midnight, when I decided it's time to call it quits. Everyone is very friendly, and willing to talk about what they're doing, though if you start trying to discuss a few things regarding aerodynamics and boundary layer interactions between the car and the ground, people hush up and change the subject pretty quickly. I wish I had known about this earlier; I would like to have spent more time here, and maybe even helped out a bit.

Sept 27, 1997

Got up before dawn this morning (after drinking with the supersonic Brits at the Gerlach bars until far later than I should have) to watch American Craig Breedlove try and run his jet-powered car competitively with the British effort. I also got my first daytime view of the Black Rock Desert. I need a wide-angle lens with at least 180 degrees field of view to begin to capture this place; a dry lakebed which continues in a flat expanse of nothingness for at least 30 miles or so. Of course, I can't see the far end of the lakebed, due to the earth's curvature. They keep spectators off of the lakebed during the run. I had camped last night at a good observing location, perched a couple hundred feet above the lakebed. The photo shows the British pit area, as seen from my campsite at dawn. Most of the big flat area is far to the left of the field of view, almost behind me when I took this picture. You can barely see the Breedlove "Spirit of America" pit area, to the left of the British Pit area, at what appears in this photo to be the edge of the playa (but its actually pretty far from the "shore").

As the photo suggests, we're pretty far from the action. So I use my telescope to watch the crew preparing the Spirit of America car, and others around me have scanners to listen to their radio communications. It takes a long time to get everything set up, and then he makes a very short run, only attaining 350 mph. Still, it's pretty impressive to hear the roar of the engine, and see the dust thrown up behind him. He aborted early, apparently because of steering problems. The run itself wasn't so spectacular, but I met some interesting people, including a large extended family from Nevada who were watching the event. I let them look through the telescope in exchange for them letting me listen to their scanners.

It's ironic that there is so much preparation time for such a short run. The British have been working for 6 years with the goal of covering a measured mile in 4.3 seconds. It's pretty easy for an average person to walk a measured mile in 20 minutes, thus saving 5 years, 364 days, 23 hours, 39 minutes, and 55.7 seconds. But you don't get worldwide press coverage that way.

Even though this is world record stuff, and nobody's charging a cent for admission, the crowd is small, probably numbering about 100 or 200 people at most. The Black Rock Desert just isn't located as conveniently for most people as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, nor is this event as commercially promoted (hmm, might have something to do with the fact that there's no way to charge admission).

After the Breedlove car is in the hangar, they open the playa to the public, and I get to drive out to the pit areas of both teams. Driving across the Black Rock is an experience more like piloting a boat or airplane -- there's no concern about steering precisely, since there are miles of hard surface with no roads marked, but it's wise to keep alert for other vehicles, because they come at you from all directions with no lane markings or traffic control. I resist the strong temptation to point the van out toward the far end of the desert, turn on the cruise control, and climb into the back of the van to grab a bite to eat as the van moves on its own.

At the British pit, I get a good close-up view of the car. Its large forged aluminum wheels are bigger and wider than I expected. It's quite an engineering challenge to build a wheel which can take those speeds without flying apart -- no pneumatic rubber tire is up to the task. Other than the wheels, the car looks pretty much like I expected, two huge jet engines with the minimum amount of other stuff needed to hold things together. Sort of a wingless phantom jet, or perhaps a scaled-down wingless SR-71. You can see them doing some work on the car in the hangar here. You'll also notice that the car looks a bit dusty. Everything in this desert quickly gets that look about it. The Union Jack is covering the cockpit where the driver sits. The car is housed in an inflatable hangar, which made for a relatively quick and easy setup.

Here's a view of the two Pegasus Microlight aircraft that the British team use for reconnaissance, to make sure nobody is on the playa when the car is running. They also will give rides to journalists during the runs. At the left edge of the photo, you can see two jet engines, shrouded in cloth. These are spare engines, with higher thrust than the ones currently installed on the car.

I talk with some of my friends from the previous night in the bars. They're friendly as usual, showing me around and explaining what they're doing.

There are several small propeller-driven aircraft here. They look very sleek and fast, but their top speed is around one-fifth that of the racecars. Even a jetliner (Concorde excepted) couldn't keep up.

There's another car here with a world record, fresh from the record-breaking run at Bonneville a couple of days ago. Jack Costella just drove this car to set a world's record for its class, of about 304 mph. I'm not sure exactly what the restrictions are on this car's class, but it's powered by a conventional racing V-8 engine, with a fairly ordinary transmission providing power through the rear wheels. The engine is located where the "788" numbers are. Compared to the jet powered cars, this car is tiny, only a couple of feet off the ground, and barely wide enough to hold the engine. It doesn't look like it's nearly as well-funded as either of the big cars, either.

In the photo on the left, there's Jack Costella, the driver, showing the car to spectators. In his hand is the canopy. Notice that you can't see much through the windshield. That's because there's a periscope-like prism arrangement blocking the view. The car is so small that the driver has to lie on his back, and he can't get his head up enough to see directly forward. Instead, he looks upward, and the prism gives him his only forward view.

I go over to the American pit area (a few miles across the nothingness), and find a smaller crew of people, keeping people much farther away from the car. Oh well. Someone points out that this is quite an occasion, with all four of the humans who have driven a car past 600 MPH here together, within sight of each other. Craig Breedlove and Art Arfons are in the American pit, and Richard Noble and Andy Green in the British pit. I can't get much of a photo, but you can see the Spirit of America in its hanger back there. It's a single-engine car, with the driver out front, and dual air intakes just behind him.

Word is that the next run won't be until Monday, and I'm wanting to get moving, so I reluctantly leave the Black Rock. On my way out, I stop for a tee shirt at the bar in Gerlach. The lady who's running the place talks with me for quite awhile about Gerlach, the racers, and the recent Burning Man festival, also held nearby. She's quite pleasant and talkative; I have a hard time getting away.

I must say, I've never met a more friendly atmosphere, with the locals, the tourists, the journalists, the British racers, and the American racers. I hope someone is writing a good account of this autumn in the Black Rock, because there's a great story here, both on the level of the technical, engineering, organizational and logistical challenges being met here, and also the human drama of competition and nationalism. The British and American teams have a friendly rivalry going, but they cooperate well, towing each others vehicles out of the mud when needed, and helping each other out in other ways. All this is happening within an isolated group of a relatively small number of very accessible people. I wish I had known more about this earlier. I would have enjoyed spending my entire sabbatical here and writing a book myself.

I get back to I-80 at Fernley around 2:30pm. I'm tired from staying up late and getting up early, so I quit driving near Mill City, not far from Kyle Hot Springs where I soaked a few days ago. This time, I don't drive all the way to the springs, stopping at Star City, instead. I'm camped next to a babbling brook with a few scattered remains of a mining town around me. The nearest humans are untold miles away from me.

Thumbing through this month's Scientific American, I run across an interesting article about the speed record attempts at Black Rock. I wish I had known it was in the magazine I had, because I'm sure some of folks in the Gerlach bars would love to have read it.

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©1997 Richard Cochran
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