The desire to go fast is universal. The desire to go faster than anyone before, to buy their own jet engine and tempt fate at 400, 500, 600 mph, is a unit that few possess and even less survive. This is what is detailed in Samuel Hawley's Speed Duel, which covers a nearly decade-long battle for land speed record.
(Welcome back to the Jalopnik Race Car Book Club, where we all meet to read books about races and send us all your spicy spicy. This month, we are watching Speed Duel: The Inside Story of the Land Speed Record in the 1960s by Samuel Hawley, the story of the intense battle to secure the speed record on land during the 1960s).
Photo: Firefly Books
The book traces the paths of the different men who pursued the pinnacle of speed: Mickey Thompson, Athol Graham, Donald Campbell, Nathan Ostich, Glenn Leasher, Craig Breedlove, and Art and Walt Arfons. Each one of them came from a completely different fund. Campbell had the financial and moral support of all of England while seeking the record. Ostich was an older doctor who enjoyed his passion for racing in his spare time. Breedlove was a young Californian hot rodder who saw speed racing on land as a natural progression of endurance racing. The Arfons brothers fell in love with speed after World War II, running together in endurance races until a competitive crack separated them.
Some of these runners played a more important role than others, and Hawley does a masterful job of tracking each of its trajectories until its completion. At first I wondered why readers needed all this information about people who were far from the LSR and would ultimately never succeed. Continuing reading, it becomes clear how impressive this competition was. Eight people in the span of a single decade fought for an absolute human record. It's hard to imagine eight different runners competing literally for something these days. To understand the sensationalism that follows the most successful runners, you should know how many people have set foot in the ring to give it a try.
At the beginning of the decade, English racing driver John Cobb still held the third speed record he set in 1947: 394.19 mph, with a top speed recorded at 415. His record had been untouchable for years.
One of the best things about Speed Duel is that it shows how the cultural climate at that time finally made all these record attempts not only possible but also a worldwide phenomenon. It was a time when the average Joe could get the necessary parts in his hands, including jet engines of military specifications, and gather something competitive for about $ 5,000 (or about $ 43,000 in today's money). As more and more sponsors got involved, it became a competition not only between men but also between corporations. Walt and Art Arfons could have a personal rivalry to resolve, but it was also a battle between Goodyear and Firestone. And the more drivers involved, the more exciting the battle became.
The field of eight mentioned in the prologue of the book is rapidly reduced. Athol Graham and Glenn Leasher were killed at the wheel. Mickey Thompson, getting older, turned to other forms of careers. Serious accidents sent other drivers home with their families. Others were gradually eliminated with the change to jet and rocket propulsion engines. The great battle was reduced to two: Craig Breedlove and Art Arfons.
And that battle is fascinating. Breedlove, with his status and financial support supporting his Spirit of America, was the first to reach 500 and 600 mph. But Arfons and his Green Monster rarely let a disk last. He would go to Bonneville Salt Flats a few days later and crush any record Breedlove had just set. Breedlove, on a press tour sponsored by Goodyear, would have to interrupt his celebrations and return to try again.
Speed Duel is honestly an incredible read. I grew up vaguely familiar with Breedlove's accomplishments and at one point my father named one of our homemade Green Monster pocket rockets, but I had never read about the situation in depth. This particular book does a great job of combining multiple narratives into a single coherent story that makes sense. I admit that it was occasionally a bit difficult to keep track of all the names (drivers, crew members, wives, children), but I think it was more a failure with the fact that I read the entire book in less than 24 hours. and the human brain is only capable of so much.
The writing itself did not make things easier to follow. Some sentences could have used a point or two instead of the multiple "ands" that continued to add more clauses. Occasionally, the conversation would not be denoted with quotes, it would only happen in the middle of a paragraph. He never felt involuntary and, at least, it was a very fast pace reading.
I would also have liked some of the plans or designs for the cars mentioned in the book, but I think that is only being spoiled by Beast and How to Build a Car. It has been mentioned sometimes that riders like Breedlove didn't really do the design official technician, and it is probably difficult to publish it, but it still seemed like an empty hole.
But apart from minor problems, the book is wonderful. Hawley's prose is entertaining, and his ability to digest a complex story is great. I don't know if this would be one of those books that anyone would do their best to read, but it's fascinating for anyone who cares about careers. This impulse to develop faster cars impacted racing in all areas. I loved it, and I'm honestly looking forward to reading it again.
And that's all we have for this month's Jalopnik Race Car Book Club! Be sure to re-tune on January 6, 2020. Let's read Black Noon: the year the Indy 500 stopped by Art Garner. And don't forget to drop those hot shots (and recommendations) in the comments or on ewerth (at) jalopnik (dot) com!
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