History of Land Speed Racing

The History of Land Speed Racing

The Quest to be the "fastest man on earth".
Even before the automobile, mankind has been obsessed with speed. The desire to get there faster has been a measure of progress throughout history. However, the invention of the automobile has brought on an era in which man has been able to harness increasingly greater power and an explosion in increased speeds. This history of land speed records will travel from France to the U.S. and back to England at present; with a look at what presently is happening in this fascinating world of blistering speed.

The Early Years

Land speed record attempts are now over 100 years old. Before the advent of the automobile, man was accustomed to moving at a very leisurely pace. The fastest he could go was at a full-out gallop on a horse which may have been close to 40 MPH. The first record with an automobile was set in 1898 by Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat of Paris, France. His single run through a measured kilometer took 57 seconds; an average speed of 39.24 mph (63.13 kph). All he wanted to do was prove that his automobiles worked well and for him this was one way to prove it. What the Count started, and he didn't know, was a challenge which has sparked the imagination of millions of children thrilled with the concept of speed, but has lured only a select few adults who have accepted that challenge over the last century.

Janetzy, one of the early record holders.

Marriot, one of the early competitors of the record seeking few.

The land speed record came to the United States in 1904 when Henry Ford wanted to prove to the world that his cars were built better than anyone else's in the world. On January 12th at Lake St. Clair, Michigan near Detroit, Mr. Ford bounced his Ford Arrow across the frozen lake to reach an average speed of 91.37 mph (147.04 kph). He remarked of the run, after retirement, that it had scared him so bad that he never again wanted to climb into a racing car. With the news of his record spread around the country, his new car company got a much needed boost at becoming one of the most successful automobile manufacturers in history.

Ford in his "Sweepstakes".

The 100 MPH barrier was quickly broken later in 1904 when the land speed record returned to France. Louis Emile Rigolly was one who loved racing wheel-to-wheel with an opponent and is considered the world's first true drag racer. After being defeated in a standing mile race by Paul Baras, Rigolly decided to do something spectacular to save face; he flew through the kilometer at 103.55 mph (166.64 kph) and dazzled the crowd.

Rigolly at the wheel.

The Developmental Era

While there were many others who claimed the record at progressively faster speeds, the next notable level of achievement went to Malcolm Campbell of England. On February 4, 1927 Campbell drove the Napier-Campbell Bluebird to 174.883 mph (281.447 kph) on the beach at Pendine Sands. The Bluebird was the first car built strictly for breaking the land speed record; making it unique.

Cambell in the Bluebird.

Breaking the 200 mph barrier was the accomplishment of Major Henry Seagrave. He drove the Golden Arrow to a new record speed of 231.446 mph (372.340 kph), again at Daytona Beach, Florida. What made this car unique is that it is on record as the least used car; having been driven a total of only 18.74 miles. Seagraves was later knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his achievements. Sir Henry also attempted to capture the water speed record in his Miss England II when his boat hit a log in the water and capsized, killing Seagrave and mechanic, Victor Halliwell.

Seagrave's Sunbeam car.

Cambell in his later Bluebird at Daytona Beach.

The competition between Campbell and Seagrave brought down the 300 mph barrier when Sir Malcolm Campbell, also knighted for his achievements by the King of England, averaged a speed of 301.129 mph (484.818 kph) at the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah on Sept. 3, 1935 with a much more powerful V-12 Rolls-Royce engine in the Campbell Rolls-Royce Bluebird.

Cambell sitting at the wheel of an earlier model vehicle.

John R. Cobb of England was driving the Railton Mobil Special in his attempt to break the 400 mph barrier, when on Sept. 16, 1947 he managed to average only 394.196 mph (634.196 kph) at the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah. Cobb too, attempted to claim the water speed record in his Crusader on Loch Ness, Scotland, but lost his life on Sept. 29, 1952 when it flipped and exploded.

Cobb's Railton Mobil Special.

The 400 mph barrier was finally broken by Mickey Thompson of the U.S. on Sept. 9, 1960. Driving the Challenger 1 powered by 4 Pontiac V-8 pushrod engines producing 700 hp each, he reached an average speed of 406.60 mph (654.359 kph) to return the record to the U.S. after belonging to Englishmen for 32 years. Donald Campbell, son of Sir Malcolm Campbell, followed in his father's footsteps and claimed the land speed record on July 17, 1964 at Lake Eyre, Australia. This record was the only one set outside the U.S. during the recent period of records. His Bluebird-Proteus CN7 reached an average speed of 403.135 mph (648.783 kph) using a gas turbine engine. He lost his life attempting to break the 300 mph barrier on Coniston Water in his jetboat Bluebird.

Cambell's Bluebird-Proteus CN7.

The Unlimiteds

The early '60s was the beginning of a new era of land speed vehicles. Through most of this decade the claim to the title "The Fastest Man on Earth" went back and forth between two Americans; Art Arfons and Craig Breedlove. Their speeds crept up gradually from just over 400 to 600 mph. Art Arfons achieved a maximum speed of 576.553 mph (927.873 kph) in his Green Monster on the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah on November 7, 1965.

The record set by Bob Summers, the following week in 1965, was to signal the sunset of an era in land speed racing. On November 12th the Goldenrod, what the purists consider one of the few wheel powered land speed vehicles from a bygone era, reached an average speed of 409.277 mph (658.526 kph).

Future vehicles would be free wheeling; driven with jet or rocket engine thrust, with the exception of one. On August 22, 1991 Al Teague achieved a 20 year dream and set a LSR at 409.986 MPH. Three days later, Craig Breedlove drove his Spirit of America - Sonic 1 to 600.601 mph (963.364 km/h) with a 15,000 lb. thrust jet engine blazing behind him. After surviving a near fatal crash with his earlier model Spirit of America - it crashed by losing its chutes & rolling over a burm and into a canal - Breedlove had triumphantly returned to break the 600 mph barrier which had eluded him for so long.

Breedlove's earlier vehicle and the saltwater pond it ended up in after he lost both chutes.

His Sonic I vehicle that broke the 600 mph. barrier.

Five years would pass before a new challenger would up the record. On October 23, 1970, Gary Gabelich drove the Blue Flame, a unique engine propelled by Liquid Natural Gas, to 622.407 mph (998.341 km/h).

Gabelich's Blue Flame.

Gabelich's record stood unchallenged for 13 years, until on October 4, 1983 Richard Noble of the U.K. would drive his Thrust 2 to a new record of 633.468 mph (1016.083 km/h), but this time on Black Rock Desert in Nevada instead of at Bonneville. For 19 years the Americans had dominated the land speed record books, but now the British have returned to reclaim it once again.


The Budweiser Rocket Car used a sidewinder missile to push it up to Mach 1, but didn't meet the international requirements for going into the record books. 

In 1983 Richard Noble flew his Thrust II low over the Black Rock desert to set a new record of 633 mph. It was learned later, as reported in a BBC two part special about the ThrustSSC Project, that had Noble gone only 7 MPH faster, the Thrust2 would have gone airborne; resulting in certain death. Noble's record stood unchallenged for 13 years.

The Supersonic Class - Beyond the Sound Barrier

Then, in October of 1997, Andy Green, an RAF fighter pilot, driving for Richard Noble in the Thrust SSC did the unthinkable by breaking the sound barrier at Mach 1.02. The speed of sound is estimated to be roughly around 740 MPH, but varies depending on temperature and elevation. In the process, he set a new two way average record run of 763.035 mph. While the ThrustSSC stands alone in its class of land speed record vehicles to this day, there are those who are setting their sights on getting the record back; working quietly and patiently until their time comes to take a crack at the record and hopefully reclaim it once again. Other vehicles will, no doubt, join this elite class some day with even faster speeds.

The Supersonic Thrust SSC at Black Rock Desert in 1997.1



Land speed cars classes are divided into four general categories: Special Construction, Vintage, Modified and Production. There are general rules for each category and they are related to safety of construction, drivers� attire, drivers� qualifications, basic configuration of the vehicle and so on.

The special construction is the pinnacle of the wheel driven straightaway racer�s art. It contains three groups. The Unlimited Streamliners, open wheeled Lakesters, running blown and unblown, gas or fuel engines and Unlimiteds. These are all-out straightaway vehicles with non-stock engine blocks allowed, innovation is unlimited. Modified production bodies are forbidden.

The Streamliner class is for the all-out land speed, wheel driven record car. Cars in this class must have four wheels, but they need not be arranged in a rectangular configuration. The design of the body is restricted only to the extent that at least two wheels must be covered.

The Lakester cars are constructed in such a way that there is no streamlining, fairing or covering of the wheels and tires. Tread width is optional so long as no part of the body or axle fairing is wider than the narrowest inner vertical plane of the tires.

Unlimited class is a special category for the Thrust Powered vehicles. They may be propelled with jet, rocket or any other means dreamed up by humans. There is no limitation regarding wheeled power. There are restrictions against using winged surfaces for controlling the vehicle. Winglets can be installed but must be fixed in one position and not controlled by the driver from the cockpit. Cars in this class also require a minimum of four wheels.


Sanctioning Bodies

USAC - United States Auto Club

NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

SCTA - Southern California Timing Association

FIA - Federation International de L'Automobile

USFRA - Utah Salt Flats Racing Association

ECTA � East Coast Timing Association


Race Tracks or Venues

Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah.
The salt flats are located 10 miles East of Wendover, Utah. At one time the course covered over 100,000 acres and the salt depth was over 36 inches. Today the salt flats is closer to 26,000 acres and the salt is three to four inches deep and in some places the mud shows through the salt. The old "International Course" was 13 miles long. Currently we have only seven miles left to race on. The "SAVE THE SALT" campaign has been successful in that Riley Company has been ordered to start a resalting program designed to put .4" of salt back on the race course each year. Eventually we expect to get some distance back and we may once again see the very fast cars breaking records.

Lake Gairdner, Australia.
Located about 100 miles North of Adelaide. It requires a drive of over 75 miles on dirt roads to the last cattle station and the last services, then another 25 miles of primitive road to the lakebed. Lake Gairdner is over 100 miles long and 20 miles across with salt over 4 feet thick in places. There is no shortage of flies and the greatest danger on the track is an occasional kangaroo. Racers say the salt is "perfect". You have to bring everything you will ever want during your stay or expect a long drive back to get whatever it was you forget to bring.

Black Rock Desert, Nevada.
Located 100 miles North of Reno, Nevada. The nearest town is Gerlach, population about 75 on a Saturday night. The lakebed is a dried alkaline. When dry enough to run on, about September to November, it looks parched, cracked and dusty. When the wind blows, and it really blows hard at times, the visibility drops to near zero. The course can be as long as 19 miles. There is considerable rubble on the surface so defodding is necessary. The Bureau of Land Management requires a bond and cash fund set up for their use while a race team is utilizing the lakebed. The surface acoustics of the dirt appears to have aided the supersonic run by the Thrust SSC by absorbing the sound shock wave rather than reflecting it back to the bottom of the vehicle.

El Mirage
El Mirage dry lake bed has been home to Land Speed Racing (LSR) for more than half a century. It is located just 30 miles east of a growing high desert community known as the Antelope Valley. There are five (5) one day races per year, May/June/July/Sep/Oct and a two day race in November. Racing began at El Mirage in 1944.

As of 1996, the SCTA decided to return to one of the original sites which hosted many LSR race events until WWII. 'MUROC' Dry Lake is once again hosting a yearly racing event at Edwards Air Force Base.


FIA History of Land Speed Record Holders - Unlimited Division

The Federation International de L'Automobile (FIA) is the world governing body for motor sport and land speed records.

Speed Driver Car Engine Date
407.447 Craig Breedlove Spirit of America GE J47 8/5/63
413.199 Tom Green Wingfoot Express WE J46 10/2/64
434.22 Art Arfons Green Monster GE J79 10/5/64
468.719 Craig Breedlove Spirit of America GE J79 10/13/64
526.277 Craig Breedlove Spirit of America GE J79 10/15/65
536.712 Art Arfons Green Monster GE J79 10/27/64
555.127 Craig Breedlove Spirit of America, Sonic 1 GE J79 11/2/65
576.553 Art Arfons Green Monster GE J79 11/7/65
600.601 Craig Breedlove Spirit of America, Sonic 1 GE J79 11/15/65
622.407 Gary Gabelich Blue Flame Rocket 10/23/70
633.468 Richard Noble Thrust 2 RR RG 146 10/4/83
763.035 Andy Green Thrust SSC RR Spey 10/15/97


LSR Timeline

Some important dates in Land Speed Racing History.

1947 SCTA formed
1949 First SCTA Speed Week
1950 Santa Ana Drags Opened
1953 First NHRA meeting at Pomona
1995 First NHRA Nationals, Great Bend Kansas


1 North American Eagle, History of LSR


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