Jessi Combs and the Land Speed Record

I was taken aback this week by news that Jessi Combs had died in a crash during an effort to break the women’s World Land Speed Record, first set in 1908 by Dorothy Levitt in a 26 hp Napier, and last raised to 398 mph, by Combs herself, in 2013.

I first heard about Combs years ago when she co-presented Mythbusters. Since then, I gather, she’s been a presenter on many automotive-themed shows, a professional driver, metal fabricator, builder, motorcyclist, off-roader, and enthusiast for all things automotive. As Ultra4Racing said, Combs was the ‘real deal’. And she was, I understand, a relentless advocate of true empowerment for women. All good things.

There is something unique, something remarkable, about all people who pursue their dreams with such intensity, as Combs did. They have a courage of being that perhaps all of us have in some place within us; but these people are often also prepared to put that to the fore and set their lives on the line – knowing the risk – for a reward that, perhaps, they also feel most intensely. And as such, these people are in a sense larger than life. And they are, I think, people who dream of more than the ordinary, who are driven to push that dream and to find what lies beyond. This spirit is something that humanity needs more of, if we are to survive as a species.  

Land speed record breaking has many classes; women’s, wheel-driven and jet-propelled among them, along with classifications for cars with particular size of engine, even numbers of wheels, all with their own speeds to beat.

Malcolm Campbell in his Napier-Campbell Bluebird on Pendine sands, 1927. Public domain.

For much of its history, however, the LSR was simply a quest for ultimate speed in a car, and in its heyday during the 1920s and 1930s, to be the fastest driver in the world was a guarantee of superstar status, worldwide. For those in Britain – and it was, primarily, a British obsession – it was also a virtual guarantee of a knighthood. And it was always dangerous, particularly in the early 1900s, when custom-built race cars began surging up over 100 mph – all on thin tyres with whipping chain drives, negligible braking and even less handling – drivers took the attitude that they weren’t going to survive any accident anyway. Vehicle stability was a mystic science; drivers belted off down the road with spinning rear wheels and bare control over their bellowing aero-engined monsters, hoping to reach the end of the track safely after bucketing along at speeds that often exceeded that of period aircraft. For me the doyen of this heroic era remains Ernest Eldridge, whose monster Fiat of 1923, Mephistopheles, is still running today.

Ernest Eldridge at Arjapon with his immense Fiat, Mephistopheles – about to break the world land speed record. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Still, most of those who dared these violent, bucking speed runs survived, and many lived to a ripe old age, Henry Ford among them. Sir Malcolm Campbell died of a stroke, at home, aged 68. George Eyston – who designed and drove the twin-aero engined, eight-wheeled Thunderbolt of 1937 – lived a long and full life before passing away of old age. Some died young, although not behind the wheel: Eldridge died of pneumonia after falling into an icy pond, aged just 40. Mickey Thompson – whose name has been given to a brand of racing tyres – was tragically murdered in his own home in 1986, by an intruder.

Only a few died on the track. The first casualty came in 1926 when talented Welsh engineer and racing driver John Godfrey Parry-Thomas was killed on Pendine sands during an attempt to break 3 miles a minute. Then, in April 1928, US driver Frank Lockhart died when his Stutz Bearcat racer crashed on Ormond Beach, Daytona – again in pursuit of the LSR. The Stutz was a sublime piece of engineering, capable of over 200 mph with a V-16 engine of just 3 litres – this with 1928 tech. In March 1929, Lee Bible died at the wheel of the racer Triplex, also on Ormond Beach, trying to break Sir Henry Segrave’s record of just over 231 mph.

Lee Bible driving the brute-force 1200 hp White Triplex in 1929. Public domain.

However, the LSR took no more lives until the early 1960s. By this time it had moved from a ‘sport of gentlemen’ that demanded rich drivers such as Campbell – a stock-broker – with high-end sponsorship and relatively specialised engineering facilities. Instead, as Eyston had predicted years earlier, it had transmuted into something hot-rodders with home garage workshops and some additional funding could attempt. It was also an annual affair by this time, part of a wider series of races held on the Bonneville salt flats. There were multiple classes of record – often defined by size of engine – of which the ultimate prize was the unlimited class land speed record. At the time this stood at 394 mph, set by John Cobb in his Railton Mobil Special in 1947. War-surplus piston engines were to hand, and some cars emerged with early military-surplus jet engines. This saw a sharp step up in speed, but also demanded a new category to set them apart from wheel-driven vehicles which, inevitably, couldn’t match that pace.

George Eyston’s enormous Thunderbolt at Bonneville, 1938. The remains of the car, minus engines, are in a landfill in Wellington, New Zealand – thrown there after the car was caught in a fire while in storage in Wellington during the Second World War. Public domain.

Two casualties followed. In 1960, Athol Graham, driving his 3000 hp Allison-engined racer City of Salt Lake, crashed at over 300 mph. He died less than three hours later in Tooele hospital – ironically, where his wife Zeldine was a nurse. Then in 1962, Glenn Leasher, driving Romeo Palamides’ jet car Infinity, crashed at a speed estimated to be anything from 250 to 460 mph. He was killed instantly.

For all that there were multiple near-misses in the quest for ultimate speed. Fred Marriott’s steam-powered Stanley Rocket (aka ‘Wogglebug’) crashed at a speed likely well over 100 mph on Ormond beach in 1907. Donald Campbell crashed his CN7 Bluebird turbine-car at 360 mph in 1960. In 1966 Art Arfons’ jet-driven Green Monster rolled at over 600 mph after a wheel collapsed. Incredibly, Arfons suffered only bruises and scratches. And in 1996, Craig Breedlove crashed in the Black Rock Desert at 675 mph in his Spirit of America Sonic Arrow. All survived. To an extent this was as much luck as anything else; but the point is that, for all the dangers, fatalities remained fairly rare at the top end of the sport.

Women began re-entering the field in the 1960s, starting with Lee Breedlove, wife of Craig Breedlove, who drove his jet-powered Spirit of America Sonic 1 to 308.5 mph in 1965. Kitty O’Neill subsequently raised it to just over 512 mph in the rocket-powered SMI Motivator in 1976. This vehicle, however, was three-wheeled – making it a motorcycle by FIA rules and meaning the women’s record had two categories.

Combs was not shooting for the all out LSR, which stands at just over 763 mph – and looks likely to be pushed over 1000 mph by a new British car, the Bloodhound. She was looking to break the women’s four-wheel category which she already held at just over 398 mph, set in 2013 in the North American Eagle jet car. Apparently her target was O‘Neill’s speed or higher. Alas, this week her luck seems to have run out. Damn.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019

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2 thoughts on “Jessi Combs and the Land Speed Record

  1. That’s flying too low to the ground without wings for me. Never been an automobile enthusiast. It’s the whole kinetic energy thing that scares me! But more power and infinite respect to those who try. What it must be like, I can only wonder; those who try, know.

    1. Yeah, the Ke is just scary high at those speeds! I had been wondering about the aerodynamics of that car since Ed Shadle and his team first developed it – apparently the airframe they got was the actual one flown by Scott Crossfield and others as chase plane during the X-15 programme. Which is fine and dandy, but (a) it didn’t superficially appear to have some of the bespoke cockpit construction now given to high-speed cars (per Formula 1 technology) to protect the driver, and (b) I do wonder about ground effect interactions. Doubtless Shadle’s team thought of all this, of course, but I haven’t seen any information about it. I am sure the causes will come out in a while when the investigation is finished.

      Meanwhile, as you say, absolute respect – and all power – to those who try!

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