LAND SPEED RECORD HISTORY
by Larry Roberts
September 12, 1997
The title for "The Fastest Man on Earth" is currently being contested at Black Rock, Nevada; a windblown, dusty dry lake 150 miles north of Reno. Two Teams are involved, one British (Thrust SSC) and the other (The Spirit of America) American, and although the rivalry is friendly, it is serious. The honor of the two countries is at stake, and the two primary sponsors are competing petroleum companies (Castrol, a British giant and our own Shell Oil) which would like to lay claim to lubricating the fastest car in the world. The velocity being sought is 750 MPH (the speed of sound) and getting there takes lots of money.
The quest to be the driver of the fastest car in the world is as old as the automobile itself, and from those early times, the Land Speed Record (LSR) has been the Holy Grail for four generations of drivers.
In those days there was a second challenge involved: would the speed record be held by a vehicle powered by an internal combustion gasoline- fueled engine, a steam engine or an electric motor. At the end of the 19th Century, the answer was still in doubt.
Although every early mechanic was consumed by the question "...what will she do?," and the first recorded record attempt occurred 100 years ago next year when the Comte de Chasseloup-Laubat (a Simon-pure amateur French motorsportsman in what is now referred to as the Heroic Days of Racing) took his 1.5-ton Jeantaud electric vehicle out on a relatively flat road and had himself timed in two directions for an average of 39.3 MPH. This automatically qualified him as the first holder of the LSR.
Chasseloup-Laubat's record didn't last long and the following year Camille Jenatzy upped the record with a semi-streamlined electric of his own design. The competition between the two led to three matches that year with Jenatzy coming out on top with a record 65.79 MPH.
Then things got serious. In '02, Leon Serpollet raised it to 75 MPH with a steam-powered car of his own design, and then the rush was on. Each year there were half a dozen LSR records set (including one of 91.37 MPH set by Henry Ford himself driving his "Old 999") until Fred Marriott established a record in '06 of 121.57 at Daytona Beach driving a streamlined Stanley Steamer. Marriott made a second attempt the next year but crashed during the first run. A popular myth of the day was that he was clocking 197, but by F.E. Stanley's own calculations, the car was "only" going a bit over 150. This on wheels and tires that looked like they had recently been pulled off of a couple of bicycles.
In the early '20s, the cars of choice for speed record runs were generally track racers modified for top speed. Packard, Duesenberg, Delage, Sunbeam and Fiat all held the record, but the middle of the decade brought in the Age of Giants - huge specially-constructed cars that were usually powered by aircraft engines and designed to only go in a straight line. The British gentry was very much into it and by the start of World War II, the LSR had been raised to 369 by Sir John Cobb in the leviathan Railton-Mobile Special at the Bonneville Salt Flats.
At war's end, a question arose as to what kind of vehicle was qualified to go after the LSR. The military had lots of jet airplane engines available as surplus and a half-dozen hopefuls mounted four wheels on G.E. jet engines and captured the record. In '64 alone, the record was set and reset six times. Finally the FIA (Federation Internationale de l'Automobile - the officiating body of LSR records) stated that at least some of the propelling force had to turn two ground wheels and that three-wheelers are autos and not motorcycles.
The current "shootout" attempts at the LSR are part motorsports and part show business. Each of the teams has its own internet website (the Brits are ThrustSSC.Digital.co.uk and the Americans are The Spirit of America) and they're playing the P.R. game to the hilt. They solicit money, peddle merchandise and offer memberships in their own paying fan clubs right on your computer screen.
The Comte de Chasseloup-Laubat must be spinning in his grave.