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Cars: Gary Gabelich’s Blue Flame

Posted in Cars, Historical articles on Friday, 25 March 2011

This edited article about Gary Gabelich’s Blue Flame originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 925 published on 13 October 1979.

The effect of the 1964 season on the Land Speed Record was nothing short of shattering. John Cobb’s 634·267 kph (394·2 mph) record in the Railton had stood virtually unchallenged for 16 years. Now, within the space of one month, it had been smashed five times and had been raised by almost 230 km/h.

Cars: Land speed record. Blue Flame. Illustration by Wilf Hardy

Gary Gabelich’s Blue Flame. Illustration by Wilf Hardy

It did not take long, either, for motor sport’s governing body, the FIA, to clarify the position of jet-propelled cars in relation to the “official” Land Speed Record. They agreed to recognise these machines under a new “Special” category, whilst conventional wheel-driven cars would henceforth be classified under the title of “Automobiles”.

There were now two different classes of LSR holder, and while some people mourned the relegation of wheel-driven cars, most understood that progress had to be made and that it would be the cars in the “Special” category which would hold the Land Speed Record for the rest of time.

Art Arfons’ 863·570 km/h (536·7 mph) record in Green Monster became the first officially recognised jet car LSR. Arfons thus became the first official American title holder since Ray Keech way back in 1928 with the White Triplex Special.

1965 was another eventful year for the Land Speed Record. First to arrive at the Bonneville Salt Flats that year was Walt Arfons, whose latest machine – powered by no less than fifteen JATO (Jet Assisted Take-Off) rockets – caused quite a stir when unveiled to the press in late October.

Walt christened his new car the Wingfoot Express after his earlier vehicle, but was unable to make a serious bid due to those ever-hungry rocket motors drinking up all their fuel before the Wingfoot even entered the measured distance.

It was left to brother Art, with his faithful Green Monster, to maintain the family’s honour in the duel with Craig Breedlove.

Breedlove had just unveiled a brand new LSR contender, called Spirit of America – Sonic 1. Propulsion came from a J-79 turbojet engine, similar to that fitted in the Green Monster. The car was constructed with a space-frame of aluminium tubing to cut costs and ensure simplicity. The twin front wheels were closely faired into the fuselage to reduce drag.

The design was rounded off with the addition of the customary tail-fin, which was essential for stability at high speeds. Braking on the Spirit of America-Sonic 1 was by parachute, augmented by double-spot disc brakes.

Despite some minor damage to the body panels in some places, caused by pressure build-up during trials, the Spirit of America-Sonic 1 took the LSR on 2 November, 1965 with a two-way average of 893·390 km/h (555·0 mph).

As might be expected, Art Arfons was not going to allow this youthful interloper to steal “his” record and wasted no time in getting out to Bonneville for another try. With impressive ease he shot through the timekeeper’s tapes at an average speed of 947·846 km/h (576·3 mph).

On the return run, Arfons had left the measured distance at over 600 mph, thus becoming the first man in history ever to do so. However, the Monster’s tyres, designed for a maximum of 600 mph, burst at just over that speed, sending Arfons and his car into a frightening skid and causing extensive damage.

Quite naturally, everyone expected that Breedlove would attempt to achieve his ambition of being the first man to top 600 mph in a Land Speed Record. The US press were quick to latch on to the idea and exerted a fair amount of pressure on him to have a crack at Arfons’ record.

Breedlove, however, sensibly considering the consequences of making a premature attempt, waited until he was absolutely sure that all the necessary preparations had been made. Finally, on 15th November, 1965, Craig strapped himself into the Spirit’s cockpit and fired up the J-79 engine to make his bid.

The ice-cool Californian put in two beautifully-controlled runs and pushed the LSR up to 966·602 km/h (600·6 mph). This record was to stand for five years until finally broken in October, 1970, by Gary Gabelich in his rocket-propelled Blue Flame.

Meanwhile, Art Arfons had repaired the Green Monster after its 600 mph blow-out and wasted no time in preparing to win back the record. In November, 1966, he brought the car to Bonneville to attempt the near-impossible. Disaster struck, however.

Whilst he was travelling at over 610 mph, a bearing in the offside front wheel broke and the Green Monster cartwheeled for seven kilometres before coming to rest as a total write-off. Arfons survived the world’s fastest car accident with only cuts and bruises.

But no history of the Land Speed Record would be complete without mention of the current holder – the Blue Flame.

The shape of this fantastic vehicle, evolved after extensive wind-tunnel tests on a scale model, was rather like that of a guided missile. It had a long, slender fuselage and a covered-in cockpit merging into a high tail-fin.

Blue Flame was propelled by a purpose-built hydrogen-peroxide rocket motor, developing the equivalent output of 35,000 hp!

A fatal accident in a dragster had tragically deprived the Reaction Dynamics team of their number one driver for the Blue Flame, Chuck Suba, so the honour went to a 30-year-old Californian named Gary Gabelich.

Of Yugoslav origin, Gabelich had made a name for himself in his youth as a successful hot-rod and dragster driver. He had also enjoyed a brief spell of racing motor cycles and drag-boats before joining North American Aviation as a “guinea-pig”, undergoing long environmental tests in space capsules in zero-gravity conditions and making parachute jumps. All of this richly qualified him to drive Blue Flame and brought him to peak physical condition for the gruelling job ahead.

Gabelich and his Reaction Dynamics colleagues succeeded brilliantly. Trailing a long white veil of smoke and hydrogen vapour, Blue Flame slammed across Bonneville’s vast wastes at 1,001·628 km/h (622·4 mph).

A new challenge – the sound barrier – now looms up ahead. Nobody is quite certain what will happen, if anything, when a car breaks this barrier, but one thing is certain – that brave men will come forward to find out.

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