Campbell exceeds 300 mph

A new land-speed record is set by Britain’s famed speed demon, Sir Malcolm Campbell. On the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah, Campbell and his 2,500-hp motor car Bluebird made two runs over a one-mile course at speeds averaging 301.129 mph. In breaking the 300-mph barrier, he surpassed the world record of 276.82 mph that he had set earlier in the year.

Malcolm Campbell, born in a suburb of London in 1885, served as a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps during World War I. After the war, he took up automobile racing and was a favorite at the old Brooklands racing track in Weybridge, Surrey. In 1922, a new land-speed record of 133.788 mph was set at Brooklands, and Campbell dedicated himself to breaking it. Searching for an optimal racing surface, he conducted speed trials on a beach in Denmark and at Saltburn in England. At Saltburn, he surpassed the world record, but the result was not recognized by the international governing body of speed records.

In September 1924, he went to Pendine Sands in West Wales, one of the longest uninterrupted stretches of sand in Britain. On September 25, he made a series of runs down the seven-mile beach in a V-12 Sunbeam. According to the rules of land-speed racing, the two best times within an hour of each other were averaged, and Malcolm Campbell became the new land-speed world record holder, with an average speed of 146.163 mph.

In 1925, he raised the record to 150.766 mph at Pendine Sands but in 1926 lost his title as world’s fastest driver. Not to be undone, he constructed a car especially designed for land-speed trials with engineer Leo Villa. Streamlined and featuring a Napier Lion aero-engine, the innovative motorcar was christened Bluebird, after the play L’Oiseau bleu by the Belgian dramatist Maurice Maeterlinck. In 1927, he set a new land-speed record of 174.883 mph in Bluebird and in 1928 beat off British challenger Henry Segrave with a record 206.956 mph. In 1931, Campbell took a new and improved Bluebird to Daytona Beach, Florida, and set his fifth land-speed record: 246.088 mph. That year, he was knighted by King George V for his achievements.

Sir Malcolm went on to set three more consecutive land-speed records at Daytona Beach: 253.968 mph in 1932, 272.465 mph in 1933, and 276.710 mph in early 1935. Seeking a surface fast enough to propel him over the 300-mph mark, Campbell took Bluebird to the searing Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah, where the very level, smooth flats are as solid as concrete by summer’s end. On September 3, 1935, he set a new record of 301.129 mph. The attempt almost ended in disaster when Bluebird suffered a burst tire near the end of the first run, but Campbell managed to maintain control and then make the requisite second run within the hour.

After breaking 300 mph–his stated goal–he retired from land-speed racing. He had held the world record a record nine times. However, not content with a leisurely retirement, Sir Malcolm took up water racing and in 1937 set a new world’s water-speed record of 129.50 mph. The next year, he raised the record to 130.93 mph, and in 1939 to 141.74 mph. This record was unbroken when he died of a stroke in 1948 at the age of 63. His son, Donald Campbell, later set land and water-speed records.

Today, the land-speed record stands at 763.035 mph, set by Britain’s Andy Green in 1997. Green’s record was the first official land-speed time to exceed the speed of sound.

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