On Oct. 4, 1983, Richard Noble went to the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada, one of the flattest places in the world, hoping to break the world land-speed record of 622 miles per hour. An American named Gary Gabelich had set that record some 13 years earlier when he scorched across the salt flats at Bonneville, Utah, in a car named the Blue Flame. That day at Black Rock, Noble answered with his Thrust2, a turbojet-powered car, and blasted across the desert at 633 miles per hour, claiming the record for the UK for the first time since a brief two-month period in 1964—and establishing Gabelich’s achievement as the last time to date an American set the mark.
But 633 mph wasn’t good enough; Noble wanted his team to become the first to break the speed of sound on land. Over the next 14 years, they designed and built the Thrust SSC (Super Sonic Car), a 54-foot-long, Batmobile-looking machine powered by twin Rolls-Royce Spey Turbofan engines. On Oct. 15, 1997, Andy Green, a British Royal Air Force fighter pilot whom Noble had recruited to man the SSC’s steering wheel, drove the new car 763 mph, becoming the first person ever to break the sound barrier on land.
Ed Shadle of Spanaway had mixed emotions about Green’s success. While supportive, Shadle had to concede that his car, an aluminum-bodied monstrosity, couldn’t compete. Shadle had started building it in the mid-’90s, thinking that, if funding came through, if everything ran properly, if the weather cooperated, he could possibly fire the car across the Black Rock Desert at a speed faster than 633 mph. But after Green’s success, the 67-year-old Shadle admitted to himself that his car wouldn’t measure up.
On a flight home from California, Shadle began chatting with his friend Keith Zanghi, who had also worked on the old car. What if, they wondered, instead of designing the body of the car themselves, they used something that had already proven itself to be aerodynamically capable—say, a jet! The more they talked about it, the more it made sense. Zanghi had seen a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter hanging in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and thought it would make a great land-speed car.
The F-104 fighter is a smaller, lighter airplane with tremendous horsepower. Aerodynamically, it’s one of the fastest airplanes ever designed. By the time the pair landed in Seattle, they had decided to move forward with the project, which they dubbed the North American Eagle. The idea was this: find an old F-104 fighter, chop off the wings, drop it on a chassis, fire it up, go like hell—and maybe, with a little luck, this fall they’ll become the first team to drive a car faster than 800 mph.
But the attempt is not without its challenges. The costs are high, public interest is down, and sponsorship in the sport is next to nil. So why invest massive quantities of time and money for a 20-second ride? Shadle answers with the Mount Everest analogy: Why climb it? Because it’s there.
“The difference between me and some of the others is I always have this motto that is ‘Do what you say you’re going to do,'” he adds. “So when I said I would do it, that’s it. I’m moving forward with it.”
Shadle grew up as one of four children in a small central Washington town called Malott, just south of Okanogan. His family was always into cars, his uncles flying around dusty dirt tracks in shaky stock cars. Speed was in Shadle’s blood.
As a young kid in the late ’40s, Shadle would perch behind the steering wheel of those jalopies as his family towed them behind their sedan to the next race. Then his father, a carpenter, couldn’t find work. “The Okanogan Valley, when the wind starts blowing in the fall and it starts acting like it’s gonna be winter, well, everything just shuts down,” Shadle explains. “Too much of that.”
So the family moved to Puyallup. It was there, in 1955, that a 14-year-old Shadle heard about the Soap Box Derby for the first time. He borrowed a set of authorized derby wheels—Chevrolet dealerships sold the only sets, to ensure fairness—and slapped together a racer. On 38th Street in Tacoma, Shadle and a handful of other kids barreled down the hill.
He doesn’t remember much about those races, but he does recall that he walked away enamored with racing. So when he got his driver’s license, he immediately picked up a “car or two to run around the streets with”—a ’49 Ford and a ’51 Studebaker. Three years later, he was spending Friday nights at Puyallup’s Thun Field, racing grudge matches.
“You’d say, ‘Hey, there’s a guy over there with a ’47 Ford with the straight pipes making a lot of noise. And I got my ’49 Ford with my Flathead…hey, I’ll run you.’ So we’d go over and get in line.”
The races were not always kind to the cars. “If you broke your car, one of your buddies would tow you home with a rope tied between the bumpers,” Shadle says. “No rules, no insurance, no lawyers.”
At about that same time, Shadle heard about Speed Week at Bonneville, where amateurs from all over the country compete annually to see who’s fastest. It sounded like the grudge matches at Thun Field, only the whole country showed up. Shadle immediately wanted to go, but it wasn’t until the late ’80s that he finally got the chance. “I was hooked,” he says now.
That first year, Shadle talked his way into helping out one of the teams. The next year, he was crew chief. By 1993, he had built a car to compete in the street roadster class (there are dozens of classes, determined by engine displacement and body style). The next year he built a lakester (elongated body, open wheels, different engine sizes), for which he was crew chief. He held records briefly in both classes.
“I’ve been going back ever since with one car or another,” he says.
But the Bonneville records aren’t enough. Shadle wants more—for himself and his country. What we need, he says, is a cause, something that’ll restore some national pride. The Brits used our soil and resources to set the world land-speed record. Now, Shadle says, it’s time to take it back. He wants to be the fastest person on earth—period.
People have been trying to set world land-speed records for more than a century. On Dec. 18, 1898, Count Gaston de Chasse-loup-Laubat won a contest sponsored by the French magazine La France Automobile, when he drove an electric car through Achères, Yvelines, a suburb of Paris, at the white-knuckle speed of 39.24 mph. Four years would pass before an American took the record for the first time: On Nov. 5, 1902, William K. Vanderbilt drove an internal-combustion car through Ablis, France, at 76.08 mph.
The record bounced between France and Belgium over the next two years until Henry Ford became the first to break the record on American soil, driving over the frozen surface of Lake St. Clair, Mich., at 91.37 mph. According to legend, Ford was so spooked by the ride that he never drove the car again.
In 1927, Daytona Beach, Fla., became the preferred venue for the record. Between 1928 and 1935, another British citizen, Malcolm Campbell, broke the record eight times, with speeds ranging from 146.16 to 276.71 mph. Then on Sept. 3, 1935, Campbell became the first person to drive 300 mph, marking the first time the record was broken at the Bonneville Salt Flats.
At 159 square miles of pancake flatness, the Flats provide a 10-mile linear track that gives speed freaks plenty of room to accelerate and slow down. Between 1935 and 1970, the Utah venue hosted every successful attempt at the land-speed record except one. It was also the site of America’s land-speed heyday, the period between 1963 and 1970 when the record belonged almost exclusively to two Americans: Art Arfons and Craig Breedlove, who exchanged the record eight times between 1963 and 1965. Their cars were the first land-speed racers to run on turbojet engines. That technology, as well as the competition between the two, saw the record shoot up from 407.447 mph to 600.601 mph in just two years.
“It was very popular at that time,” says Breedlove, now 71, from his home in Rio Vista, Calif. “I think primarily because of the competition between Art Arfons and myself and [because] the record went back and forth a number of times. It was something that caught people’s imagination and they followed it.” (Arfons died last year.)
In 1996, Breedlove gave it another shot, but his car rolled over at 675 mph when someone misread a wind gauge. Then, a year later, Green shattered the previous record. Subsequently, Breedlove sold his car to Steve Fossett, who owned speed and endurance records in everything from ballooning to yachting, and hasn’t made a serious attempt since.
“I just decided that when Steve (Fossett) wanted to buy the car, I should take him up on the offer,” says Breedlove. “I wasn’t doing too well trying to get sponsored.”
But Fossett went missing in September 2007 while scouting the Black Rock Desert in a small airplane. Louise Noeth, a land-speed historian who was doing PR for the team at the time, says that the car is still ready, but Fossett’s widow, Peggy, wants nothing to do with land-speed racing. And the team needs a driver, preferably one with a lot of sponsorship money. As it is, the project is at an impasse, Noeth says.
Meanwhile, Rosco McGlashan, the fastest Australian, says that he has an engine and funding to build a 1,000-mph car at the Treasure Island Casino in Las Vegas as part of a large motor-sport garage, “but because of the dismal financial situation in the U.S. at present, our construction program is about one year behind schedule.”
After Shadle made his pact with Zanghi, he began to beat the bushes looking for an F-104, eventually finding one at a scrapyard in Maine. It was in bad shape, but Shadle and Zanghi nonetheless bought it for $25,000. In the fall of 1998, the plane arrived in Shadle’s home hangar at Spanaway’s Shady Acres Airport. Covered in graffiti, punctured with holes, adorned with the wrong tail cone, and stripped of everything but the fuselage, it was exactly what the team needed: a template, nothing more.
“We knew we’d have to do a lot of work on it anyway,” he says. “No sense ruining a perfectly good F-104 for the project. It’s better to take one that needs the work.”
So Shadle and Zanghi cleaned the graffiti and stripped the paint. At the tail, Shadle found some history underneath the third layer: The plane’s tail number, 763, is the current world land-speed record. An interesting coincidence, Shadle decided. He then wrote to the Air Force Historical Research Agency for the plane’s history. In the reply, he found out that the plane was mostly a research vessel at Edwards Air Force Base.
But as he read the history, Shadle also found something else. If the plane’s maintenance records were correct, Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier, once flew Shadle’s F-104. It was an omen, Shadle decided.
Shadle’s hangar is a little bigger than a two-car garage, too small for the North American Eagle if the nose cone is attached. It’s cluttered with parts, people, toolboxes, and dogs. At beer-thirty, crewmember Jon Higley starts passing out Heinekens. One by one, crewmembers peel off. The humor quickly turns bawdy, and aside from the vehicle’s shiny red fuselage, team North American Eagle could be any group of garage monkeys on any Saturday afternoon in any small town in America.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of the group is its complete lack of haughtiness. If you don’t know Shadle, you won’t be able to pick him out. Dressed in jeans and a North American Eagle sweatshirt, he’s retired from his job as a project manager at IBM, and is now a great-grandfather with graying hair, a beer gut, a kind face, and an easygoing disposition.
He’s cracking jokes and sipping a bottle of suds when his crew goads him into practicing his best prime-time voice, one he honed during his time in front of TV cameras. “Take 15,” someone says.
“I’m Ed Shadle,” he says, “and this is the world’s fastest car!”
Yet driving a car faster than the speed of sound is not as easy as attaching a set of wheels to a plane and hoping for the best. There are a number of challenges to overcome. For one, an object traveling along the face of the earth has managed to break the sound barrier exactly twice, and both times that object was Green’s car, the Thrust SSC. (For a land-speed record, a car must make two runs in opposite directions within an hour of each other. The official time is actually the average of the two runs.) As a result, there is little information about ground effects at supersonic speeds.
Shadle was at Black Rock when Green broke the sound barrier. “The blast coming by you is tremendous,” he says. “It’ll practically bust your eardrums out.” He also saw the ground where the Thrust SSC ran. “It just pulverized the dirt,” he says.
If he’s fortunate, Shadle says, he’ll be able to use one of Boeing’s high-speed wind tunnels for testing. A handful of team members work for the airline manufacturer, but the company won’t officially endorse the project. However, if Shadle can somehow enlist the company’s support, a wind tunnel would give his team an idea of how the car will react as it approaches the speed of sound. If not, Shadle must rely on computer modeling to figure out how to mitigate the effect of the sound waves.
And that’s only if the engine works. The North American Eagle contains a J79 turbo jet engine, the type used on the F-104. But at stock, it’s not fast enough, so Shadle has had to soup it up, coating the turbine blades with molybdenum to reduce wind resistance and resizing the fuel nozzles to hop it up. Now the car is running at about 52,000 horsepower—compared to around 180 in a standard eight-cylinder.
If the engine runs well and he can keep it on the ground (preventing the car from taking off is a real issue), Shadle will then need to put it on wheels. Gary Gabelich was the last land-speed record holder to run on rubber tires. He also was the last to run at Bonneville. Now, speeds are simply too high to use rubber tires. When a wheel spins at 800 mph, the centrifugal force spreads the tires wide enough to fall off the wheel. So when Noble and Green broke the record in 1997, they used a special set of hand-crafted aluminum wheels.
“We’ve taken their design and modified it slightly to get even more speed,” Shadle says. “Now, they’re rated to about 900 miles per hour. It’s not something you can go buy off the shelf at your local racecar shop.”
Even if you could, they’re not cheap. Shadle says a set of five wheels, which is what his car requires (two in the middle, two in the back, one in the front), costs $94,000—and that’s without design work or the grease, which goes for $3,000 per gallon. The manufacturer, Eagle Machine in Abbotsford, B.C., is providing both to Shadle, basically free of charge. (Shadle only had to pay for the forgings, which run about $10,000 for a set of five.)
But perhaps one of the biggest problems is getting the car to stop once it’s going 800 mph. For this, LEV-X, out of Port Angeles, came up with a set of magnetic brakes—the only set of its kind in the world, Shadle says. Using hydraulics, the car activates a cylinder that pushes a magnet to within an eighth of an inch of the aluminum rotor, causing deceleration without rubbing metal against metal.
On a recent Saturday, Higley wants to show off the system, so he digs out a heavy bar of aluminum. Then he pulls a smaller neodymium-iron-boron magnet from a box. He sets the magnet on the bar of aluminum and tips it over. It lands softly, slowed by the magnetic field.
“Pick it up and run it over the top of the aluminum,” he says. I hold the magnet about a half-inch above the aluminum and wave it back and forth. The force feels about like it would if I were doing the same thing in a bucket of water. “See that?” Higley says. “That’ll stop the car from 200 miles per hour in about a mile.”
Even if everything runs properly, Mother Nature doesn’t always cooperate—something Breedlove found out the hard way during his last run, when wind flipped his car. The wind can vary from minute to minute, but some changes are much more gradual—and much more permanent.
Dave Cooper, a field manager at the Bureau of Land Management’s Winnemucca, Nev., office, explains that recent seasons of drought have cracked the Black Rock Desert’s surface, making it more brittle than it was during Green’s run. “The surface is not as hard and flat as it was back then,” says Cooper. “[When Green set the record], the conditions were just ideal for it at that point in time.”
Throwing money at a project like the North American Eagle is a gamble for a potential sponsor, especially when there are safer opportunities in conventional racing. Undeterred, Shadle has embarked on an all-out media blitz in his quest for sponsorship. Hence, the North American Eagle has shown up in newspapers from Seattle to London, and Shadle’s been to countless air and car shows as well as television and radio programs.
At one time he was so desperate for money that he even allowed an agent to briefly talk him out of the driver’s seat, the idea being that a younger, Robert Redford–looking fellow would generate sponsorship. The advertisement went up on the Web under the headline: “Are you fucking insane?” Shadle still gets applications constantly, he says, but has thus far refused to relinquish his seat.
That’s not to say that Shadle hasn’t been able to find any sponsorship. At the hangar at Shady Acres, he points out each logo on the car and explains what that company has agreed to do. One of his largest sponsors is S&S Turbines in Fort St. John, B.C. (hence the name “North American Eagle” instead of “American Eagle”). That company owns the car’s engine, and fixes it when it blows up—something that happened during the most recent test run.
“The worst thing that happens is I lose the engine,” says S&S owner Robin Sipe. “Why wouldn’t you get involved in something like [the North American Eagle]? If the opportunity is there, you leap at the chance.” Other sponsors supply gas, parachutes, shelters, computers, and a slew of other services. But most provide just that: services—not cash.
This shortfall, George Calloway says, is not unique to Shadle. A longtime acquaintance of Shadle’s who lives in El Mirage, Calif., Calloway has been involved in the land-speed racing scene since the ’50s. He’s worked with at least one record holder (Gabelich), and several others who have made attempts. “That’s what’s holding it up these days: no sponsors,” Calloway says. “You get a nut-and-bolt guy who will…give you some nuts and bolts.”
It wasn’t always that way, Calloway says. “Before, when it was Arfons vs. Breedlove, it was Firestone vs. Goodyear. Now nobody builds 700, 800-mile-per-hour tires, so they’ve gone to aluminum wheels. You can’t run those on the salt because it’s too hard. That’s why Black Rock worked out so well. It’s dirt, and it’s just soft enough it takes up the vibration. They [Firestone and Goodyear] could put millions of dollars in development and they get nothing in return.”
As Breedlove explains, a run at the land-speed record involves a trip out to the desert and a lot of downtime. “There’s a lot of time spent making adjustments, modifications, and doing instrumentation runs,” he says. “It gets pretty technical. It’s interesting to see the cars when they do run, but in any given time period you’re never sure when that’s going to be.
“I think there’s just more promotional opportunity for sponsors through NASCAR, IndyCar, and drag racing,” he adds. “They get a lot of TV time, so the sponsors get a lot of corporate identification.”
Dan MacDonald, a spokesman for Bridgestone Americas Holding, Inc., Firestone’s parent company, notes that Bridgestone is not completely out of the land-speed business. A few years ago, the company sponsored Susan Robinson when she set the world land-speed record for a woman on a motorcycle.
“It didn’t require us to do a lot of special development work on a special tire or anything,” he says. “She did it on a very high-end, ultra-high performance…consumer product.”
But MacDonald acknowledges that intensive sponsorship for land-speed racing is probably a thing of the past. “In the ’50s and ’60s there was a lot of that activity,” he says. “I think at that time, it was before we were walking on the moon, and you could garner a lot of PR.”
Each time the North American Eagle makes a run, Shadle says, it costs about $20,000 in kerosene and worn parts. That adds up pretty quickly. He estimates it’ll cost another $500,000 to break the record. So far, he and Zanghi have each spent about $150,000 of their own money over the decade and a half they’ve been chasing the record.
There have been cash sponsorship offers, but most are ridiculous. Monster.com offered to kick Shadle $50,000 if he would paint the car black. No thanks, he told the company—it’d cost more than that to paint the car. A mailbox company offered some cash, but only if Shadle would install a special compartment for packages; the company wanted to be able to say that it had the world’s fastest land delivery service.
Still, he says he’d be willing to stoop pretty low. “We’ve said jokingly that we’d paint the thing pink with a bunch of purple lines on it if Viagra or Trojan would sponsor us.”
If Shadle can’t come across the half-mil in time to make an autumn attempt, he’ll wait until next year. “We’ll just do it when we have the money,” he says.
It wouldn’t be the first time the lack of funds has delayed the project. As early as 2006, Shadle was telling reporters he hoped to make a run at the record “this fall.” This weekend, team North American Eagle is planning to run the car at a speed somewhere between 400 and 500 mph at a site in El Mirage. If all goes as planned there, the team will then set up camp in Black Rock to accommodate 30 people for about a month. In a perfect world, the team would arrive, break the record, and drive home the next day. But if something goes wrong—the weather, the technology—it could take awhile.
Because attempts to break the world land-speed record are very rare (Green’s was the most recent), the Bureau of Land Management determines the permitting and application process on a case-by-case basis, says the BLM’s Cooper. “We’d have to process the application, which means writing an environmental assessment would be the minimum,” he says. There would also be a public review process and a competitive fee of about $5 per person per day.
For a two-month permit, Shadle says he will have to post a $30,000 bond, plus another $10,000 in a checking account if the bureau has to clean up after the North American Eagle team has come and gone. And to validate the record, the team will have to fly officials from the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile in France to Black Rock. They’ll also be responsible for the officials’ housing during the stay.
Once the officials are there, the team will have to clear a 13-mile track. They’ll lay a run line down the middle and place human monitors along the way to ensure that nothing gets in the car’s way. And that’s only if Mother Nature cooperates. Last time he was in El Mirage, Shadle says, the dust was blowing so hard you couldn’t see the back of the car if you were standing at the front. Since the test, at 350 mph (Shadle’s fastest speed to date), involved relatively low speeds, the wind effect was negligible. But at Mach 1, they’ll have to wait for the weather to be just right.
One thing, however, is free: Shadle’s crew is all volunteer. In 10 years, they’ve grown from four to 44 members and have shown up everywhere from car shows to hardware stores. “You run into an airplane mechanic and say, ‘Hey, you ought to come down to the hangar,'” Zanghi says. “We’ve grown to 44 regular guys who have good jobs during the day who come together on Saturday [to do] something extraordinary.”
Rosco McGlashan got into land-speed racing when he was 12 years old, at which point Donald Campbell brought his Bluebird racer to McGlashan’s native Australia and set the world record at 403 mph.
“I quit school the same week that Campbell set his record, telling my schoolmates that I was going after Campbell’s record,” McGlashan says. “Obviously, they all laughed. The year was 1964, and it wasn’t until 1994 that I claimed the Aussie land-speed record at 500 miles per hour.”
For his part, Shadle traces his infatuation with the sport back to Thun Field in Puyallup: “Number one, it’s kinda akin to the old days of hot-rodding,” he says. “The amateur can still compete.”
And although Shadle complains constantly about funding, he says that the lack of money in land-speed racing is actually one of the sport’s big draws. “I can build a car in my garage and the high-dollar guys haven’t shown up with the multimillion-dollar sponsorship,” he says. “When you go to drag racing, unless you’re running some really low class, everybody seems to have big bucks. In land-speed racing, Joe Blow down the street can field a Camaro and run…You could spend all year letting your imagination run wild, trying to make this thing work better than the guy down the street.”
And when it comes to the ultimate land-speed conquest, McGlashan says, “There is only one team out there delivering the goods: Ed Shadle. We wish him all the very best of luck and take our hat off to a man who is truly following his passion.”
If Shadle is successful in his pursuit, what will it feel like to drive a car faster than the speed of sound? There’s only one person in the world who knows: Andy Green.
“The noise is both massive and unique,” says Green. “You can’t hear the distinctive sonic boom from inside the car, but you can hear the howling of the standing shock waves on the canopy, and around the bodywork, as the air is literally battered out of the way as you travel 350 feet per second. And then, of course, there’s the realization that this is a unique experience. I’m looking forward to Ed getting there so I finally have someone with whom to compare notes.”
So in the fall, after Shadle’s spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, after all the searches for parts and experts and sponsors, after all the testing, after the car is loaded and driven to Black Rock, after camp is set up, after the inspectors arrive and the wind’s right and the temperature’s right and the car’s firing, after he’s sat in the cockpit in four layers of clothing and flight suits, after the car’s accelerated and he’s pinned to the seat and flames shoot 70 feet out of the tailpipe and he’s covering a mile in 4.3 seconds (a speed fast enough to keep his eyes from focusing on the scenery around him), after the sound wave howls on the canopy and then dissipates as the car goes even faster, after the magnetic brakes kick in and the parachutes deploy and he finally rolls to a stop, after he turns around and does it all again, and after Ed Shadle has driven the North American Eagle to the fastest land speed ever recorded on the face of the earth…