He was going over 600 mph—and climbing—when he pulled the plug. The 20 mph cross breeze nudging the Spirit of America’s nosecone had shifted all four tons of the 46,000-horsepower, 44-foot earthbound rocket onto its left rear wheel. Craig Breedlove had to shut it down. The car had barely lost its line, but barely will kill you when your car is chasing the speed of sound.
He turned the engines off and ground to a halt several miles short and wide of where his crew was waiting. It was 1996 and it was a minor reversal. Breedlove knew he’d be back—back in the car, back in Bonneville, Utah’s alkali desert. He got out, dusted himself off and went home.
When he isn’t in Mexico, Craig Breedlove, 77, cools his heels in Rio Vista, a tiny delta town on Northern California’s Sacramento River that you’ve never heard of. If you didn’t live through the 1960s, you could be excused for not knowing Breedlove either. But the man was a hero, the guy who broke the land-speed record, the man who—exactly 50 years ago—pushed the needle past 500 for the first time. For motorheads, he’s a mythic hero. He lives in a former car dealership he’s turned into an office, workshop, and shrine to the god of speed, the deity that chose him.
There was a time when men would’ve paid good money to see Breedlove’s workshop, to touch the Spirit of America, the fastest car on Earth. Now Breedlove is cavalier about his homestead, clicking off the TV and opening the door. The living space is connected to, but apart from, his workspace. Breedlove has plans—literal, paper plans—for a car that can hit 1,000 miles an hour, but that car isn’t here. Instead, there are tools, workbenches, and car parts. The workshop is as organized and the office space is in disarray, a fact that says a lot about where Breedlove is right now.
Rio Vista is a 90-minute drive on a narrow, two-lane road north from San Francisco—two hours from Tesla headquarters in Palo Alto. It’s as good a place as any for a man who has accomplished much to go think about what he’s done. Breedlove has done a lot of that, but he’s not precious about the past. When car lovers make the trip here, they generally ask him to tell the same stories he was telling 50 years ago. He obliges them even though his heart isn’t in it. The people who admire Breedlove haven’t changed, but the world has and Breedlove has.
“You know how it goes,” he says, leaning back in his tiny old office chair. We don’t. Really, we never did.
When the first footage of Breedlove aired on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, he seemed like the leading man that a young Robert Redford would’ve played; almost as cool as the NASA astronauts, the baddest earthbound guy around. The Spirit of America, built with a turbojet engine and a very specific type of American gumption, raced cathode rays across America’s TV screens. The Beach Boys wrote a song about him and named it after his ride. They called Breedlove the "King of All Cars.”
Breedlove was 26 then, an icon at precisely the moment when being an American icon meant everything. He was another one of President Kennedy’s boys, determined to lead a life less ordinary and build himself a future on the New Frontier. Like a generation of dumb bastards, he was sold on America as a big idea. “I knew I couldn’t cure cancer,” he says. “But I did know how to go real fast. The most patriotic thing I could think of was to take the land-speed record away from the British.”
And that’s an important thing to remember about Craig Breedlove. He didn’t merely break the land-speed record. He didn’t merely become the first man to drive 500 miles an hour and then 600 miles an hour. He brought records to America, laying them on the White House lawn like a proud cat with a mouse.
Today, the land-speed record is held by Andy Green, a former pilot in the Royal Air Force, a Brit. Breedlove could change that. He’d drop everything—stop spending time in Mexico, even leave his lovely fourth wife for longer periods—if someone was willing to pony up the cash. He’s just not sure he wants to gamble with his future—not again.
* * *
“I got married at 17 and had two children with one in the hamper waiting,” Breedlove says, running his hands through thinning white hair. “I remember thinking, ‘What do I want to do?’"
It was 1960, and Breedlove, who bought a 1934 Ford coupe when he was 13 so he could race the older guys and learn to take apart exhaust systems blindfolded, was supporting his family by working for the Costa Mesa Fire Department. His stepfather had tried to convince him to go to college, but Breedlove didn’t see the point. He had defined himself in opposition to his stepfather, a “good man” he didn’t understand. He spent his free time in garages with less-tweedy types, talking about engines and jet engines.
“I just wasn’t that interested in being a fireman,” he says. “I knew that I could build a car to set the land-speed record.”
Breedlove decided he wasn’t meant to be a fireman and informed his wife of what was going to happen next. “I told my wife I wanted to build the car,” he remembers. “She thought what I was doing was just idiotic. We had children. We had bills to pay. I just had to do it, though. I was so sorry...but, that’s what I wanted.” Word spread that Breedlove was leaving his job to chase what was then a 407 mph dream and people started talking. A married man with three young children who quits his job to do what he loves isn’t called a hero. He’s called a lot of other things.
This is where it gets tempting to smash-cut to the Bonneville Salt Flats or to that fateful conversation with a buddy who was scrapping J-47 engines from fighter jets and selling them for $500 a pop. But Breedlove doesn’t do that. Breedlove wants to tell the whole story, especially the parts about struggling to make ends meet. He worked as often as he could for the men who’d taught him to fix cars to begin with and devoted the rest of his time—time he couldn’t afford—to designing and building a rocket on wheels.
“I was spending weekends in Costa Mesa with my family but sleeping at my dad’s in a spare bedroom during the week,” he said. “My stepdad was sorry that I’d made the decision. My real father said he hoped the decision wouldn’t ruin my life because I was putting everything into it. I asked my dad if I could build my garage off the back off his house and just live there.”
Breedlove went broke twice while trying to get his dream in gear. His wife and children left him in 1961. He was paying child support and trying to buy parts. “I was against the wall and needed to find sponsors,” he says. “I’d never flown in an airplane in my life, but I got a chance to talk to the people at Firestone about a sponsorship so I bought my own ticket and was flying to Ohio the next day.”
They turned him down.
It’s tempting to think of pre-fame Breedlove as a guy with an idea whose time hadn’t come, but—for a while—he was just a guy with a bad idea. The world has always been full of guys with bad ideas. It was no less so then than now.
* * *
The data from Breedlove’s 1996 trip to Bonneville is in a box full of sheets of paper and folders on a desk in his front office, separated both from his workshop and residence. “I’ve got it here somewhere, if you want a quick look at it,” he says, pawing through loose sheets before pulling out a stray piece of graph paper. Colored lines are slashed across it. Breedlove interprets.
“I went from zero to 200 miles an hour in four seconds,” he says. “If you just carry the increased speed out, we can see that it was capable of going up to 1,000.”
The reason that didn’t happen, and the reason Breedlove may never see what the salt flats look like at 1.5 times the speed of sound, is that gusting winds broadsided the car on a test run in Nevada, turning it onto its side at 675 mph. “The car was over the top in terms of power. It was certainly good up to 850,” Breedlove says. “I just didn’t have the money to rebuild it. I didn’t want to sell it…I had to.”
Breedlove got a million dollars from Steve Fossett, the wealthy adventurer who disappeared in the Sierra Nevadas a decade later, but what he really wanted was the car. It just made more sense to go back to the workshop, hash out some ideas and then look for funding. He would no longer have wheels, but Breedlove he figured he still had his name. "He’s probably the most famous land-speed-record holder that there ever will be,” says Harry Hurst, of the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum in Philadelphia. So there was that.
“If we can get Shell on board as a sponsor,” Breedlove says, “we might be able to do something. But it’ll take a couple of years, at least. My name opens doors but doesn’t automatically get us funding.”
Here’s the thing: Breedlove doesn’t sound determined. He doesn’t sound like a man possessed. He sounds like a man who has accepted that what he cares about and what most people care about are not the same thing.
That’s what it is to be older and comfortable.
“I love to spend time in Mexico,” Breedlove said. “I’ve got a lovely younger wife.”
* * *
John B. Carnett / Bonnier Corp. / Getty Images
In 1961, Breedlove sold Shell Oil, then Goodyear Tires, on the idea of bringing the land-speed record back to America. He used the money they gave him to build three cars, each faster than the next. The first Spirt of America had three wheels, a jet engine, and an aircraft design. It was 38.5 feet long with a wheel base of 19 feet, 1 inch.
Breedlove hit 468.72 on October 13, 1964. Then, with the Spirit of America Sonic I as his ride, he became the first man to travel 500 mph—555.83—two days later.
“I was scared to death every time I got into the cockpit of the car,” he remembers. “As soon as you get over 300, it gets pretty icy. You tend to touch the highs (on the track) and the car flies over the low spots. So the car is airborne between the tops of the bumps. The feel in the car is that you aren’t getting any traction, like driving on a sheet of ice. Everything starts to feel a lot faster, steering is more sensitive. You’re really starting to push the envelope.”
Breedlove’s second wife Lee was a motorcycle rider who set the women’s land-speed record of 308.56 mph driving her husband’s four-wheeled Spirit of America Sonic 1 a few days later. Lee, according to legend, had never driven a car faster than 75 mph before Craig put her in his seat. She was a striking brunette and they were one of those '60s couples. They still hold land-speed records for male and female partners driving the same car, the sort of hyper-specific record no one bothers to break.
On November 7, 1965, Art Arfons broke the record, going 576.553 miles an hour, and Breedlove took speedy revenge. Breedlove went to the Salt Flats eight days later and regained the top spot by going 600.601 mph. “They were talking about filming a motion picture at that point,” he remembers.
The movie never happened, and the tug-of-war over the land-speed record ended in the early '70s. Breedlove was hamstrung by new government regulations on engines and fuels. He decided to make the most of his name and get into the real estate business. He made a lot of money and got married two more times.
* * *
A few months ago, a young man arrived in Rio Vista and knocked on Breedlove’s door. He announced that he’d come to work with his hero on whatever his hero happened to be working on. He explained that he was an aeronautical engineering graduate from Rutgers University and that he wanted to get his hands dirty.
Breedlove dug the sentiment and asked, “What do you want to do?” The recent graduate didn’t have an answer. He fancied himself a sort of itinerant mechanic—something out of zen and the art of record setting—but he was actually a pilgrim. He came for proximity, not opportunity.
“He was a really nice kid,” says Breedlove. “I suggested he apply for different programs or build his own airplane. He told me he couldn’t build an airplane, and I said, ‘I can tell you how to build an airplane; it’s not that complicated.'”
But they didn’t build an airplane. Instead, Breedlove told the kid that the only project he had going was tiling his bathroom. After that, the older man caught sight of the kid’s truck and the camper shell on top of it. It was a piece of junk—"I’d never seen such poor workmanship"—that the kid copped to having built for himself. “We both got a good laugh out of it,” Breedlove says. “Then he hopped in his van and left.”
It’s a story about an old man and a young man—the sort of story that old men tell about young men. Breedlove knows this and he doesn’t care because, for him, it isn’t just about streamlining the fuselage that looks more like a missile than a car or finding tires to take the beating that comes with going 600, 700 miles an hour. It’s about sacrificing and making do and gritting your teeth. Breedlove had heroes, but he didn’t bother them. He met them when he was famous.
Still, he sounds sad that he didn’t have work for the kid. It’s a bit embarrassing to offer up only memories and grunt work, especially when you’ve got the plans for the fastest car ever built just sitting on your desk.
The land-speed record, 760 mph, is just hanging there like an insult before a retort. Breedlove could bring it back to America, but he won’t do it if we don’t ask. He won’t do it if we don’t care. A hero’s priorities shift and so do a nation’s, but that doesn’t mean Breedlove doesn’t want to climb back into a rocket on wheels. He’s a car guy, a speed guy. He’ll tell you that. That will never change.
Photos by Bettmann / Corbis / AP Images