On December 17, 1979, Hollywood stuntman Stan Barrett blasts across a dry lakebed at California’s Edwards Air Force Base in a rocket- and missile-powered car, becoming the first man to travel faster than the speed of sound on land. He did not set an official record, however. The radar scanner was acting up, and so Barrett’s top speed—739.666 miles per hour by the most reliable measure—was only an estimate. Also, he only drove his rocket car across the lakebed once, not twice as official record guidelines require. And, none of the spectators heard a sonic boom as Barrett zoomed across the course.
Barrett was a 36-year-old stuntman and ex-lightweight Golden Glove champ who had been introduced to auto racing by Paul Newman in 1971. (He was the actor’s stunt double for the film “Sometimes a Great Notion.”) Barrett’s car, the $800,000 Budweiser Rocket, was owned by the movie director Hal Needham, a former racer himself who had broken a nine-year-old world land-speed record on the Bonneville Salt Flats the previous September. The car had a 48,000-horsepower rocket engine and, to give it a little extra kick, a 12,000-horsepower Sidewinder missile.
December 17 was a dry day with temperatures hovering around 20 degrees Fahrenheit. In order to break the sound barrier under those conditions, Barrett had to go faster than 731.9 miles per hour. He started the rocket engine and stepped on the gas; then, after counting to 12, he pushed a button on his steering wheel to fire the Sidewinder so he could go even faster. After he zoomed past a battery of timing devices, Barrett deployed a parachute to help him slow down. In all, it took only a handful of seconds for Barrett to blast across the 5 3/4-mile lakebed.
Unfortunately, the radar speedometers on the ground malfunctioned: Instead of the Rocket’s speed, they measured the speed of a passing truck (38 miles per hour). The final speed estimate came from data by the Air Force, whose scanners seemed to indicate that the Rocket had “probably exceeded the speed of sound.”
Controversy over how fast Barrett actually went persists to this day. It took until October 1997 for another driver, in a British car called the Thrust SSC, to officially break the Mach 1 sound barrier.
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