The Crazy Demons of Land-Speed Racing and Their Record-Breaking Rides

On the eve of a new attempt to break the world land-speed record—and crack 1,000 mph—we look in the rearview.

What possesses a man to attempt to motor across the face of the planet faster than anyone in history? To raise the backing, build the team and the car, and risk it all? World land-speed record holder Andy Green of Great Britain has an answer.

“This is about creating a sensation around science and technology,” says Green. “This is about bringing engineering to roaring life for a global generation of young would-be engineers.”

Green, a fighter pilot in the Royal Air Force, is the only man ever to travel at supersonic speed on wheels, something he accomplished 20 years ago. But the speed of sound is not fast enough for him, apparently. His new car—the Bloodhound SSC (for supersonic)—is powered by both jet and rocket engines, and he is set to test it for the first time on October 26, on a 1.7-mile runway in Britain. When he does, he’ll be uploading live video and technical data from the car—suspension loads, brake temperatures and the like—to fans and followers on social media.

Green’s ultimate goal: 1,000-mph, a mark he intends to achieve later in 2018.

But Green is only the latest champion in an elite club of record-holding speedsters, almost all of whom have hailed from the U.S. or Great Britain. Humanity’s defining ambition is to harness power, and the journey to supersonic speed on wheels has been a treacherous ride. Some record-seekers drove on sand, others on salt. Some ultimately gave their lives in the quest. Here’s a look in the rearview at the cars, drivers, triumphs and tragedies of world-record land-speed racing—plus a hint of what the future holds.

16-cylinder Duesenberg 16-cylinder Duesenberg

Speed record: 156.046 mph

  • Driver
  • Tommy Milton of St. Paul, Minnesota
  • Date
  • April 27, 1920
  • The scene
  • Daytona Beach, Florida
  • The car
  • A 16-cylinder Duesenberg

Motoring down the hard-packed sand of Daytona before crowds of spectators and reporters, Tommy Milton became the first man to crack 150 mph on wheels, in a Duesenberg powered by a pair of 8-cylinder engines. Nearing the end of his run, flames burst from under the hood, and Milton, who was blind in one eye, steered the car into the ocean to put out the fire before the gas tank exploded.

In most American towns in 1920, the motorcar had not yet fully replaced the horse as a means of quotidian travel, and Milton’s feat shocked the nation. The Los Angeles Times headline screamed: “Milton Drives at Awful Rate.” His record of 156.046 mph would stand for six years. A year after setting the record, Milton won the Indianapolis 500 in a car owned by Louis Chevrolet himself.

1,000-horsepower Sunbeam 1,000-horsepower Sunbeam

Speed record: 203.793 mph

  • Driver
  • Henry Segrave of Great Britain
  • Date
  • March 29, 1927
  • The scene
  • Daytona Beach, Florida
  • The car
  • A 1,000-horsepower Sunbeam

The vehicle awed anyone who saw it. Nicknamed Mystery, it required a sprawling nose to house two 22.4-liter aircraft engines. (In terms of displacement—the standard measurement of an engine’s size—that’s the equivalent of 12 base-model Ford Mustangs today.) But what awed audiences more was the idea that a man would have the courage to climb inside and unleash the vehicle’s 1,000 horsepower, which Henry Segrave did successfully on the Daytona sand in 1927, becoming the first man to crack 200 mph on land.

Segrave was also the first to hold world speed records on land and by boat, simultaneously. In 1930, he crashed while trying to set a new record on water. Rescuers reached the scene in time for a shattered Segrave to speak his last words: “Have I broken the record?” He had. The Irish Times offered this in his obituary: “Swift death in a moment of triumph is probably the end that he would desire.”

The 2,500-horsepower Bluebird The 2,500-horsepower Bluebird

Speed record: 301.129 mph

  • Driver
  • Sir Malcolm Campbell of Kent, Britain
  • Date
  • September 3, 1935
  • The scene
  • Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah
  • The car
  • The 2,500-horsepower Bluebird

The “human bullet” Malcolm Campbell had risked life and limb in attempts to snap the 300-mph barrier. He set records of 246.088 in 1931; 253.968 in 1932; and 276.710 in 1935, winning worldwide fame along the way. But 300-mph remained elusive, until September 3, 1935.

At sunrise, Campbell climbed into his Bluebird, which was more than 28 feet long with an insect-like exoskeleton and an outlandish tail. A thousand spectators stood in the Utah desert as he roared over the salt flats; as he finished a run, he blew a tire at 300 mph, the sound “like a rifle crack,” according to one man present. The driver swerved hard, his life hanging in the balance of a split-second correction with the steering wheel, which he performed magically.

Later in the day the timers made it official: Over two runs (the rules now stated that a car had to drive two “flying miles”—beginning each mile already at speed—within an hour, and the final speed would be an average of the two), Malcolm Campbell had accomplished 301.129 mph. “I’m a happy man,” Sir Malcolm said. “For years I have dreamed of driving 300 miles per hour. Well, boys, I made it.”

The Railton The Railton

Speed record: 350.194 mph

  • Driver
  • John Cobb of Surrey, England
  • Date
  • September 15, 1938
  • The scene
  • Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah
  • The car
  • The Railton

The question was always: How to go faster? In the mid-1930s, a group of British engineers dreamed up a land-speed car like no other, in an attempt to break the 350-mph barrier. The Railton’s bizarre design put the cockpit in the nose, ahead of the front axle, and the body looked like a flattened submarine. Two aircraft engines totaling 2,500-horsepower would power all four wheels, and blocks of ice were mounted on the engines to keep them cool. On September 15, 1938, John Cobb hammered the throttle and the Railton “shot forward like a comet” across the desert salt flats, according to one man present. The driver sat up front shifting the three-speed transmission and gripping the wheel.

When the new world land-speed record driver climbed out of the car that day, reporters wanted to know: What does it feel like to travel over 350 mph? “The car just went faster and faster until it seemed it couldn’t stand any more speed,” Cobb told them breathlessly. “My vision was blurred. I could hardly see anything at all.” Cobb was later killed attempting to break a speed-boating record, when he crashed at over 200 mph.

Spirit of America Spirit of America

Speed record: 407.447 mph

  • Driver
  • Craig Breedlove of Los Angeles, California
  • Date
  • August 5, 1963
  • The scene
  • Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah
  • The car
  • Spirit of America

What goes through a man’s mind when he’s alone in a cramped cockpit, rocketing across the desert floor at over 400 mph? “When I’m strapped in and the engine’s lit, I’m too busy keeping my eyes on the course to worry about anything else,” said the handsome 26-year-old hot-rodder Craig Breedlove, after setting a new mark of 407.477 mph in August 1963.

Breedlove had done more than crack the 400-mph barrier; he’d ushered in the golden age of land-speed racing, with velocities set to rise at astonishing rates. His story was so all-American, the press could not get enough of him. Breedlove was a $96-a-week fireman who had improbably convinced Shell Oil to fund the building of a nearly 40-foot-long vehicle called Spirit of America. It had no car motor, no valves or thumping pistons, but rather a jet engine, the same used in the Air Force’s B-45 bomber. The vehicle accelerated so fast, it required a parachute to slow its progress. The car’s name was telling; its patriotic driver aimed to take the land-speed record back from the British, who had held it since the 1920s.

When Breedlove made his record runs on August 5, a camera plane followed above, capturing the historic moment. (The Beach Boys later recorded a hit song in tribute to the feat, called “Spirit of America.”) When told he was now the fastest man on earth, Breedlove said that he had not used all the car’s power, that he could go faster. Good for him, because his new record would not last for long.

Green Monster Green Monster

Speed record: 536.710 mph

  • Driver
  • Art Arfons of Akron, Ohio
  • Date
  • October 27, 1964
  • The scene
  • Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah
  • The car
  • Green Monster

The world was a different place when Art Arfons crept into his Green Monster on the morning of October 27, 1964. Within the past 15 months, JFK had been assassinated, the Russians had launched the first woman into space and boxer Cassius Clay had defeated Sonny Liston in Miami. Martin Luther King had marched on Washington, declaring, “I have a dream.” Art Arfons had one too.

In his Green Monster—a vehicle Arfons built in his backyard “mostly from junk, used parts and government surplus,” according to a Washington Post story from 1965—the driver throttled a jet engine and thundered across the Utah desert at 536.710 mph. In the past, land-speed records had stood for years; Arfons’s new mark was the fifth time in October alone that the record had fallen. Rivalry is the impetus for innovation, and this rivalry was on: Arfons in his radically styled Green Monster, Breedlove in his Spirit of America, Tom Green in his Wingfoot Express. These were the gladiators in a new age of speed.

After setting the new mark, Arfons told reporters that his car “will go faster than I want to go—faster than sound… But right now I’m hungry—I haven’t eaten since five this morning. I’m going to go out and get a big cheeseburger.”

Spirit of America Sonic 1 Spirit of America Sonic 1

Speed record: 600.601 mph

  • Driver
  • Craig Breedlove
  • Date
  • November 15, 1965
  • The scene
  • Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah
  • The car
  • Spirit of America Sonic 1

The land-speed feud between Breedlove and Arfons climaxed in November 1965. Breedlove cracked 550-mph on the 2nd (555.485); Arfons topped him with 576.553 five days later. It seemed that nothing would stop this rivalry until one of them was killed.

When Breedlove returned to Bonneville on the 15th, all eyes were on him and his Goodyear-sponsored Spirit of America Sonic 1. The car looked as much like a rocket as anything ever designed to travel across the earth, and its driver—Breedlove—was hailed as the “Astronaut on Wheels.” He claimed the top prize that day: 600.601 mph. It would be his last land-speed record. Three years earlier, no one had heard the name Breedlove. “Now he has a custom tailor, and he’s the Arnold Palmer and the Roger Maris of the Bonneville speed set,” chronicled The New York Times. “He’s Mr. Hollywood and Mr. Show Biz and life—at 600 miles an hour—is his dish.”

Thrust 2 Thrust 2

Speed record: 633.468 mph

  • Driver
  • Richard Noble of Edinburgh, Scotland
  • Date
  • October 4, 1983
  • The scene
  • Black Rock Desert, Nevada
  • The car
  • Thrust 2

“The job of driving a car like this must have no emotion in it at all,” Richard Noble said in a filmed interview, looking back at his record 1983 run. “Because if you’re stimulated by emotion, you’re not the man for the job. You’re going to get into trouble.”

Noble had been inspired as a kid reading about the life and death struggles of fellow Briton John Cobb—the first man to surpass 350 mph on land. Starting with a budget of £175, Noble built a team and the Thrust 2 car, which packed a Rolls-Royce fighter-jet engine capable of 35,000 horsepower. When the Thrust 2 motored across the desert, it moved so fast that the human eye struggled to focus on the fuselage; all that could be seen was the 30-foot-high dust trail. When the driver pulled his parachute, he experienced what he later described as “a huge deceleration spike,” as the car slowed at roughly 130-mph per second. You feel “as if you’re driving straight down into the center of the earth,” Noble explained.

His mark of 633.468 mph would hold for the next 14 years, until another Briton could top him—the current land-speed record holder Andy Green.

Thrust SSC Thrust SSC

Speed record: 763.035 mph

  • Driver
  • Andy Green of Britain
  • Date
  • October 15, 1997
  • The scene
  • Black Rock Desert, Nevada
  • The car
  • Thrust SSC

At world-record speed, Andy Green’s flying mile went by in just under 4.7 seconds. Stop and think about that. Count out the seconds. There! A mile just went by. A lot was happening in the cockpit, Green explains.

“The car is all manually controlled,” he says. “Manual steering, manual throttle control, manual brakes, manual parachute.” The reason for manual control, he said, is to minimize things that can fail: “There’s no computer glitches. Monitoring the power and speed of the car, winding the jet engines up at a fixed rate, then getting the engines up to full power. Big flames are now coming out of the back. That light-up process takes all of five seconds, but I have to do it at the right point. Then I’m keeping the car straight.”

Green remembers a dicey moment when his car drifted away from the safety line painted across the desert. He began to fight the car hard, muscling the steering wheel. The safety line was disappearing from his view as he was nearing the speed of sound. He lifted off the throttle for a split second to tweak the aerodynamic balance of the car, just enough so he could steer back in line. Then he put his foot down hard on the accelerator.

What happens when a car hits the speed of sound? Journalists present on the scene reported hearing the sonic boom. But the driver inside the car, ironically, does not experience it. “On the plus side,” Green says, “where I was sitting, I had quite an interesting view.”

Bloodhound SSC Bloodhound SSC

Speed record: To be determined

  • Driver
  • Andy Green of Britain
  • Date
  • October 26, 2017
  • The scene
  • Cornwall Airport, Newquay, Great Britain
  • The car
  • Bloodhound SSC

Black Rock Desert, Nevada 1997 when Andy Green became the 1st person to break the sound barrier on land. - Credit: ITN/Getty Images

Forty-four feet long, 7.5 tons, designed to slice through the air at 1,000 mph with its four wheels on the ground. That’s a flying mile in 3.6 seconds. Between its Eurojet engine and its cluster of three Norwegian-designed rockets, the Bloodhound is expected to produce 135,000 horsepower. The wheels alone took five years to design, and they were tested on a machine at 1,100 mph (174 revolutions per second).

When Andy Green takes this car for a spin for the first time on an airport runway on October 26, he will aim for what he calls “slow speed testing”—around 200 mph. Innumerable simulations can be made, but until the vehicle is in the driver’s hands, it is impossible to know how it will behave. All this is in preparation for the attempt at 1,000 mph, next year.

“We need to get the car up to a reasonable speed for a functional check of the chassis and the systems and the suspension and all the rest of it,” Green says. “We need to understand how to refuel it, how to safely start it up and run the jet engine, how to supply cooling for the electronics, all the procedures for taking the most complicated straight-line racing car in history and actually using it.”

We know the question on your tongue. How can a man step into a 135,000-horsepower vehicle and not be afraid? “There is no room to let your emotions affect what you’re doing in the car,” Green says. “When I’m in the car, I’m making very objective clinical decisions all the way through at high speed in a quite unfamiliar environment. It’s hot. I’m strapped onto a high-performance jet engine and a rocket motor. I need to be thinking about the next control steps, and not whether I’m scared or excited.

“We’ve got a test program for a reason,” he continues. “It’s about step-by-step testing to make sure that the aerodynamic balance at each speed is exactly right. If you’re feeling unsure, you sit down with the team and work out what you’re uncomfortable about. Once the team agrees that all the data shows the car is safe, you then have to have the confidence to go out and do it.”