Craig Breedlove drove the “Spirit of America” on the Bonneville Salt Flats to a new Land Speed Record of 407

Monday 5th August 1963

Craig Breedlove drove the “Spirit of America” on the Bonneville Salt Flats to a new Land Speed Record of 407.45 mph. The Spirit of America was the first of the modern record breaking jet-propelled cars, built with a narrow streamlined fuselage, three wheel chassis, and most significantly, turbojet engine. Like most of the other competing vehicles the engine was ex-military, the first Spirit had a General Electric J47 engine from an F-86 Sabre and was tested at Bonneville Salt Flats in 1962, where difficult handling resulted in failure. Before trying again, a new stabilizer and steerable front wheel were added. Breedlove set his first record on September 5, 1963 at Bonneville, the first man to set an average speed of over 400 mph (640 km/h) during a land speed record. At the time of Spirit of America’s construction the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) rules for a land speed record required a four wheel chassis. Spirit’s record was thus not recognised as an official record by the FIA. The Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM) did recognise it however, classing Spirit as a three-wheeler motorcycle. Although this controversy has been widely reported since as being due to the use of a jet engine, the FIA rules describing a qualifying car as being “driven through its wheels”, the only issue raised seriously at the time was over the number of wheels, hence the FIM acceptance. For a period there were thus two simultaneous land speed records, the 1947 Railton Mobil Special record remaining as the FIA four-wheel Class A record, which from July 1964 went to Campbell’s Bluebird. Although Bluebird also used a “jet engine”, it was a turboshaft that drove the wheels. Both FIA & FIM records were broken in October 1964 by Tom Green and further extended by Art Arfons. Breedlove returned to Bonneville with Spirit and pushed the record over 500 mph (800 km/h), setting it at 526.277 mph (846.961 km/h) on October 15, a record that stood for almost two weeks. In setting the new record, at the end of his second run, the Spirit lost its parachute brakes, skidded for five miles (8 km), through a row of telephone poles and crashed into a brine pond at around 200 mph (320 km/h). Drenched but uninjured, Breedlove climbed out of the cockpit and declared “And now for my next act I’m going to set myself on fire.”[2] This feat earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for longest skid marks. Spirit was recovered and taken to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago as an exhibit.

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