We are saddened to report that Craig Breedlove, one of the most famous names in land-speed racing and a man whose name will forever be synonymous with Bonneville, has passed at the age of 86.
“The Bonneville 200 MPH Club reports the death of Craig Breedlove, a SoCal hot rodder who became the first man over 500 and 600 mph on land, and who was a pivotal figure in the land speed wars of the ‘60s in his Spirit of America cars. Everyone needs to see the spectacular documentary linked here, showing Breedlove’s pure joy at being alive after running 526 mph, hitting a phone pole, launching 30 feet in the air off an embankment, and plunging into the water at the end of the Bonneville Salt Flats. Godspeed to an absolute legend. ” -David Freiburger
The image is clear as day in my head: when I was a kid, one of the many books on racing that I owned had a picture of Craig Breedlove’s Spirit of America land-speed racer sticking out of a brine pool, three-quarters submerged, with the rear wheel sponsons and the tail fin with the American flag sticking out of the water. I had read up on Breedlove and Art Arfons’ battle for the land speed record, I knew that Bonneville was the mecca for land-speed racing, I knew that there was magic at the salt. But it was a few years later, when I found myself bored in an English class that I was easily passing, that I got a reason to do more research on the hows and whys behind how the car wound up in a very salty pond. That note would be Breedlove’s official Guinness World Record for the longest skid marks left by a wheeled vehicle, which were nearly six miles long through the wetter parts of the Salt Flats.
Breedlove had been chasing a speed record and was on a tear. He’d touched 526 MPH, but that was the last bit of good news that could be said about the run. The steering was almost not there at all. The emergency parachute bailed the program almost immediately after hitting the wind. The brakes were done the second Breedlove tried to lean on them at over 500 miles an hour. He ripped through the shutdown area, where the Spirit of America was supposed to be stopping, at over 400 miles an hour. He was freight-training towards what is now Interstate 80 at good speed, where he took out a phone pole, and drove the car over an embankment at well over 200 miles an hour, sending Spirit airborne. The evaporation pool was his touchdown point. In Breedlove’s own words, “The first time I hit the water, the car kinda skipped like a rock that you throw across a lake, and it jumped off the water. And the second time it came down, the water grabbed it really tight and sucked me down. And then I was starting to sink.”
The Spirit of America was done for. The salt water had done too much damage to repair. For 1965 he returned to Bonneville in Spirit of America-Sonic 1, setting a speed record of 600.601 MPH. That fell in 1970 to Gary Gabelich’s Blue Flame rocket-powered machine, and stayed there until Richard Noble’s 1983 blast in Thrust2. Breedlove stayed quiet…given that he nearly killed himself in 1964 and was pushing the limits of Spirt of America-Sonic 1‘s aerodynamic limitations on the 1965 run, maybe it was for the best that he took a bit of a hiatus.
(Thanks to Samuel Hawley for the tip!)