Craig Breedlove is the Second-Fastest Man Alive

01 May 1998, Posted by Steven Kotler in

And he wants to go faster. The man has a blind, driving desire. And nothing—no telephone poles, no waters, no heartbreak—can stop him

There is only one gauge in the cockpit, a speedometer, and it is the only thing that matters. It is all Craig Breedlove watches as he fires the engines and the Spirit of America begins to accelerate. This doesn’t happen quickly—the car takes more than a mile to get up to speed. As it moves through the desert, the Spirit looks like an outsize hypodermic needle with a giant exhaust pipe for a plunger. It looks like science fiction. There are spectators here today, as there always are when Craig Breedlove is around. They line the desert’s edge. They watch as Breedlove moves through the lower hundreds, and they watch as the speed really kicks in, as the rooster tail of dust rises in a solemn curtain, as the air starts to blur with heat and acceleration. They watch as Breedlove drives 500 and 600 and then passes the world-record mark of 633 and gets it up to 675, and he’s really hauling ass now—he’s the fastest man alive; he’s all that and more—and then in the middle of that run a gusting wind rises up and rolls across the desert and smacks the car onto its side, and Breedlove slides for two miles at 675 miles per hour. He’s lost in a roar of sideways desert and folding metal. Then something rocks the car back onto four wheels, something akin to the Red Sea parting or Lazarus rising from the dead. And when Breedlove is upright again, when he looks past the speedometer and above the steering wheel, when he looks out his little window, he sees the mountain. Not a vision off in the distance, but right there in front of him, taking up all of his little window. The fastest man alive is about to run smack into a mountain. Which is when Breedlove does the only thing he can do: He makes a sharp right turn. He makes a sharp right turn at Mach 0.9 and becomes the only man in the history of the world to pull nine g’s while on the earth’s surface. He swings a 2 ½ -mile-long U-turn, and when they pull him from the wreck and ask if he is OK, Breedlove just smiles and shrugs and says, “Yeah, I’m fine—but I think my car’s going to need some work.”

This is how Craig Breedlove registers disappointment—disappointment and ruin and fear for his life. This was October 1996 and indeed cause for disappointment. There’s a rule in land speed racing that a record is made up of the average of two runs. Breedlove crashed at the tail end of his first run, which means he never got to make a second, which means his 675-mile-per-hour run, his attempt to break the sound barrier in a car, was all for naught. He wasn’t the fastest man alive; he was little more than a tinkering mechanic with a really, really fast car. See, that’s the thing about record breakers: One minute you’re the fastest man alive; the next you’re an asterisk—the second-fastest man alive, which is a lot like being the second man to walk on the moon.

Breedlove knows this, embraces it. It does not shake him. He has the faith of the fathers. He has the kind of myopia that flashes into brilliance. He is, in the words of his crew chief, Dezsö Molnár, “a man who can pick an end point so much further away than the average human being can conceive.” Breedlove sees envelopes, limits replacing limits.

And he knows that he will not be remembered as the man who made the biggest U-turn in history. No, he knows that, once again, he will be the fastest man alive.

Start in Reno. Drive thirty miles out of town and take a left. Drive past Pyramid Lake. A lake so blue and big and damn out of place that it looks like a mirage, some cosmic error in judgment. Drive seventy-seven miles up the ass end of that state and you’ll arrive in the town of Gerlach, Nevada, population 350. Even if you speed like the devil, it will take hours. It shouldn’t—the mileage doesn’t ever add up that way—but that’s how long it takes to drive out of time, to drive to the edge of the middle of nowhere.

Gerlach is the closest town to the Black Rock Desert, a dried-up lake bed more than fifty miles long and the epicenter of a world people by men like Craig Breedlove, by men who have spent and given their lives to moving too fast. When the speed-racer show isn’t in town, Gerlach does little more than provide fodder for the gypsum mine a few miles down the road. It’s a dusty slot machine of a place, with one Main street and a mean desert on all sides. The wind is quiet for less than two months a year, and for the other ten it stings and whips and brays like a tubercular mule. There’s a T-shirt they sell in Gerlach that reads, WHERE THE PAVEMENT ENDS AND THE WEST BEGINS. If you don’t believe it, here’s proof: The Black Rock Saloon is a shit-kicking dive with bent floors and a jukebox loud enough to do battle. One way or another, it’s the middle of town. Last September, when all the land speed racers and wives and crews and press and spectators were in town, at around eleven one night, the town’s judge, meaning the only judge in town, meaning the only judge in the whole blessed country, stumbled into the Black Rock. He was barn-burning drunk. There were more than fifty people in the bar. He was brandishing a fully loaded AK-47. Welcome to Gerlach.

Craig Breedlove has come back to the desert. He has come back with a version of the Spirit of America that, in the words of Molnár, “took one year to put back together. One full year. It took eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, for twelve months straight. It took almost everything we had.” Which is what it takes to build a car that can quite possibly drive at the speed of sound.

But this time the Spirit of America isn’t the only show in town. This year the Englishman Richard Noble has also come back to the desert. He has a car that looks like the Batmobile on steroids, a driver who flies planes for the Royal Air Force and a budget nearly eight times the size of Breedlove’s. This year Gerlach is divided into two camps. The British camp is a military compound, their operation a military operation. So much so that when Chuck Shepherd, one of the heavy hitters at Shell Oil and one of the reasons Breedlove has any kind of budget at all, came out to see the show, he looked at both sides and said, “By comparison, our team is just a bunch of guys in a dusty garage,” which is exactly the truth. Craig Breedlove is just that, a guy in a garage, and he has always been just that, and this is the reason he is such a national treasure. See, in America we understand what unlimited funding can render. We understand the Hoover Dam and the atomic bomb and the space shuttle, and we know damn well that nobody at Los Alamos ever woke up to find his checking account $17,000 overdrawn and his project going down the toilet, and that’s exactly what happened to Breedlove in the middle of this race.

“We’re up against the might of the British military-industrial complex,” says Breedlove. “Of course we’re outgunned. In fact, the English sat us down one night and said, ‘You have no idea what you’re fighting.’ I mean, we’re just twelve guys from Rio Vista.”

There is no flip side to this coin: If Breedlove smashes the record, if he smashes it with s steam train, if he sends it into the stratosphere, he stands to make exactly zero, nothing, nada. But this is not the kind of thing that occupies Craig Breedlove’s mind. There is room for only so much.

Craig Breedlove got his first car in 1950; he was 13 years old. He joined a Southern California car club called the Screwdrivers and became a tinkerer. The car was a 1934 Ford three-window coupe with a supercharged V-8 that Breedlove drove 154 miles per hour in his first speed trial, at age 16. He did this because it was 1950 in California and car guys were drag racers, speed demons, because 154 was the limit, the envelope. One hundred fifty-four miles per hour is faster than most people ever drove in their lifetimes, and Breedlove did it in a car that he bought in a backyard lot for seventy-five bucks. Then, in 1958, he drove a supercharged Oldsmobile-engine “belly tank” streamliner car 236 miles per hour. That worked out pretty well, so the next year he bought a J47 jet engine and set about building the first version of the Spirit of America. In 1963 he drove this car 407 miles per hour, smashing Englishman John Cobb’s 394 mark and taking the record back to America. This taking-it-back-to-America thing is serious business to Breedlove; he’s that kind of flag-waving patriot. If you ask him why he’s come back to Black Rock this year, the first thing he’ll say is “Right now Richard Noble holds the record; he’s British, and we’d like to get the record back for America.”

It was 1965 when Breedlove became the first man to drive a car at more that 500 miles per hour. He was 28 years old. Back then land speed trials were run on the Bonneville Salt Flats, outside Salt Lake City, under a desert sky hung wide and blue and bare. He ran fast and far across that cracked earth, but on his return run he failed to stop in time. His parachutes and wheel brakes failed, and instead of stopping, he went screaming by everyone who had come out to watch, hurling past at nearly 526 miles per hour. He sawed through a row of telephone poles at 400 miles per hour, and if it hadn’t been for a brine pond, he might have gone all the way to Salt Lake City. When Bill Neely, the representative from Goodyear Tires, ran to the scene, all he saw was tire tracks leading up an embankment, vanishing into the air. The car had launched off the embankment and soared through the air and buried itself in the pond, which was thirty-six feet deep, twenty feet wide, full of muck and water and banked by twenty-foot-high wall of salt debris. Only the back wheels and the tail rose from the swamp. When Neely finally got to him, Breedlove pulled himself out—he was unhurt—and did his fear-and-disappointment thing: He smiled and said, “and for my next trick, I’m going to light myself on fire.”

All of this isn’t to say Craig Breedlove is lucky, because if he were just lucky, he might have set one land speed record and not five; if he were just lucky, he might have broken his legs or his back or had his jaw wired after driving a car headlong into the sea. But Craig Breedlove is not just lucky. He is a living, breathing legend, and there is a special god assigned to his party.

The Black Rock Desert is stone flat. They say it is one of the few places where you can see the curvature of the earth. This is one of the things everybody’s happy to tell you if you’re there to watch the speed trials, because it passes the time and takes away from the heat and because every conversation makes you forget, if only for a moment, about the waiting. See, land speed racing—and, more important, the part of land speed racing that is the record-setting part, the part that puts you in the history books, that gives you, if only for a while, the title of fastest man alive—is a turtle’s race. It is slow and torturous in the lead-up, the years fighting for cash and recognition, and it is slow and torturous once you get to the desert. Everybody waits at speed trials. That’s what they do, far more than speed. They wait for the rain to stop. They make a run, check the data, adjust the car. They wait for the car to be ready, wait for the dust storm to pass, wait for the sponsor’s money. The desert stays flat; the sun stays hot.

When all the reporters and tourists and crew members were cracking in the long heat of Black Rock, Craig Breedlove stayed calm. This is one of the reasons he is so good at what he does. He is mellow, reserved, deep thinking, slow talking and damn persevering. He knows how to wait. He is made of the same stock as endurance athletes and fighter pilots; his center is very central, very strong and very deep and does not, even at almost 700 miles per hour, waver.

Nor does it waver at sixty miles per hour—when Breedlove is sick and tired and trapped in a car with a reporter for seven hours. He just talks and talks and talks in a staid, even voice. He answers seven questions in seven hours. He fills space with evasion and technicalities, anything to keep the conversation on cars, on his mission. He answers in a voice that he has developed, that he has cultivated for this purpose. It is his fund-raising voice. The voice reserved for sponsors and possible sponsors and people who can get the word out to people who could turn into sponsors. No matter what you ask, this is a voice from which he will not waver.

If you ask him questions about the human element in all this, the real toll that this life of competition, intensity and catastrophe has taken on his private life, he will bring the discussion back around to cash flow and to his mission: “From the beginning, we’ve been underfunded. We were in debt. No money to go forward. When you’re these things, when you’re underfunded, you get understaffed, you get overworked. This is a business where overworked produces catastrophe. There are just some mistakes you cannot make. If you buy a thirty-second spot on the Super Bowl, you know just what you’re getting. With land speed racing, it’s an unknown quantity. The car could end up in a scrapyard or in the Smithsonian—you never know.”

He likes that phrase, likes saying that land speed racing is an unknown quantity. He pauses between the words, grows mellower when he speaks them. There’s calm in this, the unknown, because the unknown is where anything can happen, even redemption.

Craig Breedlove has spent four decades trying to build this car. Four decades raising the funding and losing the funding and raising the funding again and getting divorced, losing his home, losing a Goodyear dealership and having to live above his garage. Then a flood took his garage and ruined his tools, and when nearly everyone else would have given in or given up or both, Breedlove took a job in real estate. He took a job in a field he knew very little about and became so adept at it that he did what few of us ever do: He made a million dollars. Then he took that million dollars and plunged it into this car and this project and used the car as collateral to raise more funding, and all of this took time and energy and a blind, driving desire.

“Land speed racing is very expensive,” Breedlove says. “I mean, there are two people on this planet trying to get a land speed record; there’s a reason for that. To get yourself to a place to do this takes a lifetime of focus.”

Now Craig Breedlove is 61 years old, and for forty-five of his sixty-one years he has chauffeured around one mean demon. He has waved his patriot’s flag and smiled for cameras and tried to have a life, to have a marriage and a family and be a mild superstar, and the whole time he has carried that whispering little weasel on his shoulder; the whole time that voice has rung in his ear—faster, faster, faster—until, in the end, he is a man who has spent his life devoted to one cause, one thing, and he has done so better and longer and for more ball-busting hours than Moses spent freeing the Jews.

But the thing about being a man who has spent forty-five years doing one thing is that it becomes so all-consuming that everything else works back into it like a giant feedback loop. A typical conversation about Craig Breedlove with Cherié Danson, his media-relations manager during the Black Rock trials, goes something like this:

“Tell me about Craig; tell me about his hobbies.”
“Hobbies—you mean besides the car?”
“You mean beyond land speed records?”
“Yeah, boats and the water speed record.”
“What else?”
“What else? Well, let’s see. I guess there’s running, swimming and women.”
“Yeah, women.”

Which is another thing you may not know about Craig Breedlove, unless you are old enough to remember Craig back in the early days, back when he was going head-to-head with Art Arfons and Gary Gabelich and trading records and being Mr. Motor Sports: He was handsome. He still is, at age 61, handsome. But back then he was really, really handsome. James Dean of the gasoline alley. Goodyear and Shell and the entire motor-sports publicity machine advertised him as the all-American boy, and it worked. It worked so well that Craig Breedlove has been married six times and divorced five times, and if you go have a look at his apartment in Rio Vista, California, an apartment built right next to his garage, a place he built so both he and his car could sleep under the same roof, if you go look there, what you’ll find is a veritable Las Vegas penthouse. A bachelor pad extraordinaire, all the way down to the marble statues and the mirrors and the four-poster canopy bed.

The reason Breedlove has been married and divorced so many times has everything to do with land speed racing. See, Craig Breedlove is a fiercely honest man. Point-blank honest. Honest to a fault. So when he met and courted each of his brides-to-be, he didn’t hide his obsession; he didn’t try to play this land speed thing as a sideline game. He was right there with it; he told each and every woman all about the depth and nature of his obsession. He told them that this was his life and that this life was his first priority, and each and every woman thought she could handle it. Maybe she thought it would be different with her, or maybe she thought she was strong enough, or maybe she thought she could show him another way—in the end it didn’t matter; in the end the women left him or he left them or the marriage broke down like some over-taxed engine because, fundamentally, at the very core of it all, Craig Breedlove is a man and a car, and no amount of leverage can pry the two apart.

What does it take to stop a man like Breedlove? Well, you’re going to have to come at him with something more than 500-mile-per-hour wipeouts, something more than a river jumping its bank and washing away his last earthly possessions. You’re going to have to up the ante so high that there’s no one left at the table.

So now it is November, and Craig Breedlove has been in the desert too long. He has been in the desert long enough to watch his finances rise and fall and rise again. Long enough to watch Andy Green drive Richard Noble’s Batmobile straight through the 633-mile-per-hour record he came to beat and then watch Andy Green drive through the 700-mile-per-hour record he came to set and then watch Andy Green shatter the speed of sound. He heard that sonic boom. He was still in the desert when Andy Green got to step onto the Letterman show and be damn casual about being the fastest man alive. And still Craig stayed in the desert. He stayed and got his car dialed to perfection and got a new set of wheels to match this perfection, and then, when all the waiting had paid off, when Craig was all set to smash and shatter the record and reclaim his title, the rains came. The rains came because that is what happens in the Black Rock Desert in November. The rains came, and the desert turned into a long, shiny bog—a hint of a lake, some inch-deep carnival illusion with just enough reality to wash away his dream of speed.

“Sure, it’s hard,” Breedlove says, “but our viewpoint is still the same. We started out trying to get the record back from England, and now it’s just a little higher. Our goals haven’t really changed. I’m disappointed. Who knows? God works in mysterious ways.

So it is November, and there is nothing to do but wait. Breedlove will wait and wait and wait, and if it doesn’t happen next year, there is the year after and the year after that. He will wait with that persnickety little imp on his shoulder. He will grow old and dottle and play go fish with the little fellow. Together they sit and wait and let the water wash Noble’s tracks from the desert. Somehow they know the rains are good; the rains wipe the whole slate clean again. The rains are where the next race starts.

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