For 99 years, the land speed record – the highest speed recorded by a person using a vehicle on land – rose steadily. But since the ThrustSCC vehicle, driven by Royal Air Force pilot Andy Green, reached 763 miles per hour while driving across the Black Rock Desert in 1997, nobody has been able to surpass it.
With ensuing efforts plagued by financial issues, is it possible that 763mph remains the fastest land speed ever recorded?
NASA places the speed of sound at approximately 761mph. When, on October 15, 1997, Andy Green broke his own existing land speed record (LSR) set just three weeks earlier, he became the first man to drive a vehicle faster than the speed of sound. The remarkable achievement remains the benchmark for all LSR enthusiasts. It also highlights the rapid advancement that took place during the 20th century.
The first LSR was acknowledged in 1898 when Frenchman Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat revved his electrically powered Jeantaud car up to 39.24mph. By 1904, Louis Rigolly had topped 100mph, the speed demons now employing internal combustion engines in pursuit of the record.
Then, throughout the early 20th century, the LSR kept rising incrementally. Attempts became more regulated when the Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus (rebranded as the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, or FIA, in 1947) and Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM) established rules in 1924. At first, to qualify for the FIA record you needed to complete two passes in opposite directions (to negate wind) with a maximum of 30 minutes between runs, across a racing surface with a gradient no larger than 1%, with a timing gear accurate within 0.01sec, and all cars had to be wheel-driven.
The rules evolved slightly over the next forty years, with separate LSRs held by the FIA and FIM, until controversy arose in the summer of 1963. On August 5, American Craig Breedlove drove a three-wheeled, turbojet-powered vehicle across the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. In a vehicle called Spirit of America, Breedlove reached 407mph.
Despite being the fastest speed, this was not recognized as the LSR by the FIA as it broke two of their existing rules: having only three wheels and not being wheel-driven. The FIM developed a non-wheel-driven classification and awarded the Spirit of America the LSR as a three-wheel motorcycle.
The controversy raged on until December 11, 1964, when FIA and FIM officials came together in Paris. They agreed to recognize a single LSR as the highest speed recorded by either organization, reached by a vehicle running on any number of wheels, and whether wheel-driven. Since then, every LSR has been achieved in a non-wheel-driven vehicle. Only British driver Donald Campbell surpassed the 400mph mark in a wheel-driven vehicle, which he did in July 1964, during the LSR impasse.
The turbojet-powered cars evolved rapidly. By November 1965, Breedlove had reached 600mph in the Spirit of America – Sonic 1. He was in a fierce rivalry with Art Arfons and his Green Monster vehicle. Arfons set three different records, between 1964 and 1965, Beedlove retaking the LSR each time, before eventually prevailing with his Sonic 1.
Progress then slowed down. A rocket-propelled vehicle took the record in 1970, but it was not until a Rolls Royce turbofan engine in the 1990s that the LSR took another large leap. The ThrustSCC was controlled by former RAF fighter jet pilot Andy Green and became the first vehicle to reach 700mph on September 25, 1997. Just 20 days later, the same vehicle set the 763mph LSR over the course of a mile, breaking the speed of sound in both north and south directions.
Green was heavily involved in a project known as Bloodhound. It aimed to surpass the record and reach 1000mph during the 2000s, however went bankrupt in 2018. It was temporarily saved by Ian Warhurst, but last year he too announced he was stepping away from the project and wanted to sell the car.
Speaking to Autoweek, Warhust said: “I’ve not got the choice but to let somebody else have a go at it. I can’t put my hand in my pocket and pull out another £8m.”
There are still hopes for a wealthy benefactor or re-enthused sponsors to invest in Bloodhound, which uses a combination of jet and rocket propulsion, but with the project offering little financial guarantee and no other vehicle currently capable of coming close, it’s unclear if and when the LSR will ever be broken again.