Renowned for their military prowess, GE engines were once the force behind a dizzying duel for land speed supremacy.
Though not sanctioned for racing use, GE engines once drove race car drivers to the edge of their seats in torrid pursuit of land speed records.
GE engines made their first appearance at Utah’s famed Bonneville Salt Flats in the early 1960s, taking aim on land speed records that had held ground for close to 20 years. Originally designed to power the North American F-86 Sabre jet fighter, the J47 made its debut on the Flying Caduceus in 1962, powering a car driven by Dr. Nathan Ostrich — builder of the first jet car — to a speed in excess of 330 mph over the famed one-mile strip.
Over the next few years, numerous drivers pushed their pedals to the metal in what was dubbed the “Bonneville Jet Wars.” Inconsistent regulations and varying validation methods across governing bodies make the record books a bit blurry, but when the dust, or salt rather, settled, Craig Breedlove had established an amazing string of records behind GE power.
Breedlove was the first to break the 400-mph barrier in a low-slung Spirit of America “tricycle” configuration in 1963. Because the vehicle had only three wheels, the run was originally considered unofficial. Such trivialities were of little concern to an aspiring surf rock band known as the Beach Boys, whose “Spirit of America” album and lyrics to the song “Little Deuce Coup” were both titled in tribute to Breedlove’s exploits.
Two years later, the battle for fastest person on wheels laurels kicked into high gear.
Fueled by J79 engine power designed for the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, Breedlove screamed across the flats in his newly named Spirit of America-Sonic 1 and shattered the elusive 500 mph barrier. This record stood for a matter of days before Ohio native Art Arfons broke it aboard the J79-powered Green Monster, which clocked in at 576 mph. Undaunted, Breedlove coaxed his car to a 600 mph record-breaking run days later, cementing a mark that would hold for five years before being broken by a rocket-powered car.
Ladies, start your engines as well!
Breedlove’s wife, Lee, fastened her seat belt in the -Sonic 1 and shattered the 300-mph plateau in 1965, making her the faster woman alive at the time. For better, and luckily not worse, Lee allegedly took to the course to monopolize the flats for one day and block one of her husband’s competitors making a record attempt.
True to driving folklore, today’s land speed record of 763 mph is mired in controversy. Ex-USAF pilot Andy Barrett may have broken the sound barrier in 1993 at Edwards AFB. However, neither of the most widely-recognized sanctioning bodies were present, and speeds were measured over extremely short distances and times. Though famed pilot Chuck Yeager claimed photos revealed visible shock waves on rear wheels — signifying supersonic speed — bystanders did not report hearing any sonic booms.
Racing, like life itself, often goes in circles. Barrett’s attempt was financed by producer and famed Hollywood stuntman Hal Needham, who’s most enduring movie hints of racing lore of another kind: “Smokey and the Bandit.”