Craig Breedlove was a professional automobile racer on a special mission: His only opponent was time.
Once known as “the fastest man on earth,” Breedlove, who died last week at 86, strapped himself to a turbine land missile on the salt flats at Bonneville and over the course of a few years in the Sixties, set land-speed records at 400, 500 and then more than 600 miles per hour.
All of his grounded rockets were named “Spirit of America,” and the man himself — handsome, earnest, and revered as a kind of earthbound astronaut — was a former fireman from Los Angeles who designed a type of vehicle whose three wheels, jet engine, missile shape and rear fin made it resemble not a car so much as a wingless fighter plane.
Breedlove erupted into automotive history on Aug. 5, 1963, on the flats in Utah with his first handmade, jet-powered machine, which had cost $250,000 to build. His had set his goal to beat the record of 394 mph set by John Cobb of Britain in 1947.
At 6:25 a.m., Spirit of America inched forward, “its jet engine shrieking,” Sports Illustrated reported that month. “Soon it was a speck, seemingly headed straight through the orange sun to the southeast. Then it disappeared.” Traveling an up-and-back route, Breedlove went 388 mph in one direction and 428 mph heading back, achieving an average of 407.45. It was a record but wasn’t fast enough. “I think I can go faster,” he said then.
Other drivers chased his records, but Breedlove eclipsed their efforts in the next years. In 1965, he returned with a new four-wheeled rocket car now called “Spirit of America Sonic I.” It braked with parachutes similar to those found on a spacecraft returning to Earth. On Nov. 15, Breedlove established a 600.601 mph record (including an amazing 608.201 mph return pass), which held until 1970.
He became something of a celebrity after that, earning a six-figure income from sponsorships, and achieved the kind of fame that elevated fellow racers Dan Gurney, A.J. Foyt, and Mario Andretti to national acclaim.
But the celebrity evaporated. Businesses failed, and other drivers entered the race, and went faster. By 1970, Sports Illustrated reported, Breedlove was living above his garage and driving a battered 1956 Buick he had bought for $100. He felt it was unsafe to drive it more than 50 mph.
“That Buick doesn’t do much for a guy’s morale, let me tell you,” he said.
But Breedlove didn’t give up on his mission even then. He began work on a new Spirit in 1992, eventually named Spirit of America Formula Shell LSRV, later known as Sonic Arrow. The second run of the vehicle on October 28, 1996, in the Black Rock Desert, Nevada, ended at around 675 mph when a crosswind pushed the car out of Breedlove’s control before he managed to stop it. Breedlove believed the vehicle was capable of exceeding 800 mph, but he never had the chance to test that belief.
Breedlove was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2009. Certainly there was always “another car” in the works. He was asked in an interview in 2018 if if there was anything he would’ve done differently. “I don’t think so,” he said. “It’s been a pretty exciting ride. Not that it wasn’t fraught with a few problems, but that’s life, and you grow from that. I’m really satisfied with everything I’ve done so far, and hopefully we’ll get to build this other car. If I last that long.”