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Breaking the sound barrier on land Last updated on September 26, 2013

The teams

Beyond words

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The ThrustSSC

Above, the BBC documentary on the ThrustSSC.

Below, the BloodhoundSSC that is currently being built.

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The teams

Black Rock Desert It has been said that the first car race probably took place the first time two cars pulled up beside each other. And ever since then, there has been competition to see who could go the fastest.

In the fall of 1997, two teams, one from Great Britain and the other from southern California, traveled to Nevada and gathered at the Black Rock Desert. Surrounded by the media and hundreds of devoted race fans, they took turns doing the best they could.

One team came fully prepared. After thousands of hours of hard work, they met their goals.

The other team tried but had problems, and has since sold the car to another American team that hopes to bring the record back to the United States.

But for now, and for the foreseeable future, there is no doubt whatsoever as to who has the fastest car in the world, and the fastest car in history.

Before we were able to fully appreciate the degrees of dedication, preparation and professionalism that the ThrustSSC team had put into their campaign, many of us had been betting on Craig Breedlove to be the first to go supersonic on land, with his Spirit of America jet car. Relatively lightweight and looking very aerodynamic, the Spirit of America seemed like an intelligent approach to the challenge at hand.

Spirit of America On September 4th, 1997, Breedlove and the Spirit of America crew began testing the car at Black Rock. Breedlove and his team struggled with everything from a damaged engine (and a spare engine back in California that they hadn't even brought with them) to getting their truck and trailer stuck in the mud (and then being pulled out by the members of the ThrustSSC team).

And before long, Breedlove's team was forced to aim for Andy Green's World Land Speed Record of 714 miles per hour.

Craig Breedlove stated that he still intended to beat the current record set by the ThrustSSC team. Having driven the Spirit of America to a best speed of 636 miles per hour in 1997, Breedlove claimed to be optimistic about regaining the Land Speed Record, with runs of at least 771 miles per hour. For several years, Breedlove had a Web site at http://www.spiritofamerica.com/ but after being very rarely updated, the site disappeared in 2003.

In 2006, Breedlove's race car was sold to the late Steve Fossett, who had planned to run at Bonneville in 2007, possibly after Speed Week. Steve's target was 800 mph. That would have been quite a ride.

This page was originally created back in March of 1997, and has been revised several times thereafter, in light of the ThrustSSC team's incredible accomplishments on Monday, October 13th, and Wednesday, October 15th, 1997.

Beyond words

Richard Noble's Thrust 2 Richard Noble had a vision. He wanted to beat the world land speed record, and he believed he could do it. The record to beat was his own, set on October 4th, 1983 in Thrust 2, a jet car that was designed by John Ackroyd, with brakes and wheels that were designed with the help of Glynne Bowsher.

Noble's record had stood for almost fourteen years, since he had traveled to the Black Rock Desert in Gerlach, Nevada, and made two runs that averaged 633.468 miles per hour.

After considerable thought, in the early 1990s he concluded that it was possible to build a car that would not only set a new record, but actually break the sound barrier.

It was decided that between its surface, distance, and accessibility, the ideal place for history to be made was the Black Rock Desert, where Noble had set his record in 1983.

Castrol, who had sponsored Noble's record-holding Thrust 2, invited him to give a presentation on Land Speed Record racing to company executives. After he finished, he was told that when he was ready to build a new car, Castrol would help. In May of 1994, the ThrustSSC (Thrust-powered SuperSonic Car) project was announced.

Castrol funding made possible a considerable amount of research. A chance meeting between Richard Noble and Ron Ayers, an experienced and inventive aerodynamicist, led to the two of them working together to refine the concept. They agreed that the project would proceed as long as they were certain that the car was safe.

Glynne Bowsher Glynne Bowsher, who had helped Noble with the design of the Thrust 2, was happy to be able to contribute to the new project as the mechanical and structural designer.

On a computer, Bowsher used finite element analysis to design the unique aluminum wheels, which had to withstand more than 35,000 Gs.

The wheels were forged by HDA Forgings and then machined by Dunlop Aviation, who tested them on a dynamometer at 9,500 rpm.

SKF contributed special tungsten carbide roller wheel bearings, and Castrol developed the lubrication technology that would enable the bearings to reliably withstand 8,500 rpm.
ThrustSSC concept Arrows are made with weight at the front, so to provide stability, a forward center of gravity was called for. Concern for the safety of the driver lead to the decision to use two jet engines, with one on either side of the driver. At speed, this would make it easier for the driver to have a feel for what the car was doing. As a bonus, the two engines would also provide enough thrust to overcome tremendous aerodynamic drag and rolling resistance.

To minimize the aerodynamic drag, the frontal area of the car naturally had to be kept to an absolute minimum. The front wheels were to be located under the inlet ducts for the engines. Since the carbon front brakes and independent front suspension had already spoken for all of the available space around the front wheels, this presented the problem of providing room for the front wheels to steer.

Bowsher theorized that the frontal area of the car could be kept to its ideal minimum if the rear wheels provided the steering. He proposed mounting one rear wheel ahead of the other, spaced apart laterally as was allowed by the narrow rear end of the car, with both steering. This one was a tough sell.

Austin Mini with rear steering Amongst considerable skepticism, a scaled-down version of the car's proposed wheel layout was built, using an old Austin Mini that belonged to Bowsher's brother-in-law.

With its front wheels locked in place, many people drove the rear-steering Mini. When the car was tested at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour, it was found that it could be held in a straight line to within a one-inch tolerance.

Everyone who drove the Mini was surprised and impressed. Bowsher's idea got the approval of the team.
ThrustSSC concept Gaining access to a Cray Research 92 computer with Flite aviation design software enabled them to refine the concept, using computational fluid dynamics. After a great deal of work, they were able to predict the car's performance under a variety of conditions.

The concept looked promising, but the team wanted to be absolutely certain that they were taking the correct approach. An accurate, 1/25th-scale model was built, and run on a military rocket sled track at Pendine Sands in South Wales, where it was mounted in front of a rocket and run at supersonic speeds. After each pass it was lowered, until at the end it skimmed across the surface of the track. Data collected from these tests enabled the team to become the first to fully understand what really happens to the air underneath a car when it goes faster than the speed of sound.

Another breakthrough followed. The data from the computer projections and the supersonic scale model testing were then compared. To the amazement of everyone involved, the conclusions from both testing methods correlated almost exactly.

Richard Noble Noble wisely decided that since this was to be an exceptional race car, its driver must have some exceptional skills. And the more the project progressed, the more it became apparent that he needed to focus on its other aspects:

"My situation is that I have made a very, very painful decision not to drive. We're in a situation where, to get the car operational by next year, we've got to go for one hell of a build operation. Basically, to fund that and to manage that is going to be a tremendous undertaking. The reality is that we've got to find somebody who has got to live with the team, who has got to actually train up with the team, and who will then become the car's driver."

A competitive selection process took place to see who would drive the fastest car ever built. But rather than advertise for people to apply, he simply allowed the message to spread, thereby providing the applicants with their first test — their own initiative.

Thirty people applied. All of them were either drag racers or pilots. At the Center of Human Sciences in Farnborough, Professor Roger Green provided help with the project:

"What we had to do was decide how to whittle this down further. The most obvious thing to do was to give them all a sanity test and take the ones who failed. But one Richard Noble is obviously quite enough already."

The ability to be part of a team was given equal importance as being able to control the race car. Based on their experience, the thirty were first narrowed down to sixteen, who were given numerous intelligence and personality tests. The goal was to find the most analytical individuals, who would be likely to contribute the most in solving problems, both in controlling ThrustSSC, and in its design.

Eight remained, all of whom were pilots. The next objective was to find out who could handle extreme stress and discomfort for extended periods, and yet still be part of a team that was working toward a common goal.

For most of two days and both nights, the eight were kept at the Center of Human Sciences. The Thrust team was to spend a great deal of time working for long hours on a hot desert. As a surprise, they were kept awake all night in a heat chamber, where they were filmed at all times and given difficult computer-based tests at periodic intervals, to see how fatigue and stress affected their performance.

British rally champion Russell Brooks gave the five potential drivers that remained the opportunity to drive a Formula Two rally car in time trials as quickly as their abilities allowed. Feedback from Brooks narrowed the five down to four, who then interacted with the rest of the team, facing design challenges. Finally, without the four realizing it, the members of the team filled out questionnaires asking their opinions.

Andy Green Of all of the contenders, one man came out on top: a British Royal Air Force jet fighter pilot named Andy Green.

But once the car had been designed, and the driver and race track selected, the logistics in the project that remained were staggering. There was the cost of building the car, testing it, bringing it from England to the desert in Nevada and back, and looking after a substantial support crew. Richard knew that in order for this to happen, he would need a lot of help from a lot of talented and dedicated people working together. The more the concept of Noble, Ayers, Bowsher, Green and the rest of the team was refined, the more it seemed that the most significant obstacle to overcome was in raising the enormous amount of money it would take.

Robin Richardson suggested forming the Mach 1 Club, which provided a way for land speed record racing enthusiasts to become involved in everything from publicity to fundraising through the sale of memberships and souvenirs.

Early on, Castrol and Dunlop had become sponsors of the ThrustSSC project. This was a big help, but it would take far more. In the hope of securing the sponsorship that would make it possible to race the car, Noble took his vision to a number of large corporations, explaining what he was going to do, and what it would mean to the United Kingdom and to the automotive industry. People listened, but none stepped up with a commitment to provide all that was needed. He continued knocking on corporate doors. "Quite impressive, Mr. Noble. Call us when you've done it."

This was in the mid-1990s, a time when the Internet was new to most of the world. And there was the answer.

In April of 1995, team member Robin Richardson obtained help from his employer, Digital, in launching a Web site for the ThrustSSC project. In November of 1995, Nick Chapman and Jeremy Davey took on the responsibility of managing the site. In essence, the message was that ThrustSSC was being built, and it was going to be the fastest car in history. It was also going to be the first car to officially break the sound barrier. But considerable help was needed to make it all happen. The necessary technology, equipment, and projected costs were outlined.

The Antonov 124 Arrangements were made to borrow the largest airplane in the world, the Russian Antonov 124 cargo plane. The Antonov would make it possible to transport the completed race car, its spare jet engines, spare parts, tools, pit control station, computers and data acquisition equipment, all of the required support cars, trucks, trailers, and ATVs, ultralight aircraft for flying overhead to check the track and take photographs, a number of big tents to protect everything, and a whole lot of fuel.

On the Web site, mention was made that in order to do all of this, it would take a total of 250,000 gallons of fuel. If no single source was going to provide it, would some of you care to help by buying 25 gallons?

British television and radio picked up the story. Traffic to the site began to grow. All through the United Kingdom, a sense of duty and pride led to everyone from executives to young children sending in payments for 25 gallons, a hundred gallons — whatever they were able to share.

Not only was history made by building and racing the ThrustSSC successfully, but their Web site demonstrated the potential of the Internet as a means of sharing a story with the world, and for helping to create the interest and support in a project that ultimately made it possible for the team to meet a goal that relatively few believed would ever be possible.

Jeremy Davey Special thanks go to Jeremy Davey, the Webmaster of the ThrustSSC Web site, who took most of the pictures that appear in this article. Until the team reached their objective, their site was revised regularly. Jeremy Davey did a superb job of sharing the excitement and suspense of their adventure with the rest of the world.

The ThrustSSC Web site can be found at http://www.thrustssc.com/

A souvenir CD-ROM made up of the entire ThrustSSC site is available. It contains the entire story, including lots of engineering information, a number of audio and video clips, and thousands of photographs. Proceeds from the sale of the CD-ROM and from other souvenirs go towards paying back loans that were made to the team for this extremely expensive endeavor.

Richard Noble and Ron Ayers Shown on the right are world land speed record holder Richard Noble (left) and aerodynamicist Ron Ayers (right), standing beside ThrustSSC as its construction was underway.

In an article written by Andrew Graves, published in the January 1998 issue of Prototyping Technology, Ayers explained his role in the project.

"The rocket sled tests confirmed our computer predictions. At that stage, my job as an aerodynamicist was substantially done. The shape was defined."

"I became more involved again when the car was running. This was because I then had to specify what its performance capabilities were and define the run profiles for each run and effectively define each run as a scientific experiment. A run profile includes the rate of acceleration and at what level the car reaches certain speeds."

"The third member of our design team is a chap called Jeremy Bliss, who used to do active suspension on Formula 1 in the days when it was allowed."

"Experiments included exercising the active suspension by pushing it up and down, partly to test it, but also to check the aerodynamic characteristics of the car during a range of circumstances."

"There were over 120 sensors on the car measuring everything you can think of, from the wheel loads to the bearing temperatures, the brake temperatures, the aerodynamic pressures on thirty different points, hydraulic pressures, engine characteristics and fuel forces. So we treated it like a first prototype airplane, going a little faster each time and checking the data."

Downloading the measurement data "We could download the data between runs and check the safety-critical items like the wheel loads on the desert, the bearing temperatures, et cetera. We did this between runs, even when we were breaking records and we had to do the turnaround within the hour. While we were refueling the car, which took about twenty minutes, we could download data that myself, Glynne Bowsher, Jeremy Bliss and probably Andy Green, the driver, would then check. We knew in advance what we wanted to check. We could call up that data and check that the lines were where we expected them to be on the graphs, and that there was nothing near to the limits. If this was so, then we would authorize the next run."

In an interview published on the ThrustSSC Web site, former missile designer Ayers provided these cheerful thoughts:

"If the front of the car lifts by as little as one degree, or even half a degree, all the weight will come off the front wheels. The car will then nose up and flip over backwards. The forces acting upon it at maximum speed will be in excess of forty times the force of gravity."

"If the nose comes up, you're going flying. But equally, if it goes down, then you're going mining. The car's aerodynamic behavior has got to be neutral."

On the Black Rock Desert Jeremy Bliss designed an active rear suspension system to allow the rake of the car to be adjusted during its runs, very quickly. It worked quite well.

ThrustSSC is fifty-four feet long, and twelve feet wide. It is powered by a pair of Rolls-Royce Spey 202 jet engines from a Phantom fighter producing 50,000 pounds of thrust and 110,000 horsepower. Easily as awesome as any car ever built, ThrustSSC is an incredible achievement and an overwhelming sight.

Ron Ayers Some think the car looks like a giant hot dog. An article Ayers wrote about the shape of the car contains a story worth sharing:

"The shape of the car has certainly aroused much comment. Everyone agrees it is impressive. Many people have said it is beautiful. One young lady disagreed. She told me in accusing tones that the shape I had designed was the ultimate male sex symbol. Lamely, I shrank from asking her what geometric modifications would be required to turn it into a female sex symbol. I contented myself by telling her that the shape had been designed by mathematics, and that I would check the equations to see which one contained the gender information."

After its construction, the car was taken to a 7,000-foot airfield in Farnborough, where low-speed tests verified that all systems performed as intended.

ThrustSSC in the Aireshelta Then another longtime racing fan became involved. King Hussein of Jordan provided access to a large area of the Jafr desert, with the full cooperation of the Jordanian Army. On two visits a number of test runs were made. The team spent thousands of hours clearing a course for the car to run on, battling dust storms and torrential rain.

Back in the UK, Aireshelta flew in a huge inflatable shelter to house the race car. The desert surface ultimately proved to be too uneven for the car to go beyond 540 miles per hour, and a rear suspension bracket was damaged. Nonetheless, ThrustSSC essentially performed very well, and was found to be stable and safe.

With just a few weeks remaining before the team's scheduled departure to Black Rock, further refinements and minor repairs were carried out. At this point, now that people could see that the team had a very real chance of success, more sponsors became involved, and new equipment was added. For the first time since the team had begun their adventure, there was no doubt that the trip to Black Rock was going to proceed according to plan.

Loading the Antonov After the final adjustments and improvements were made to the car, ThrustSSC was pronounced ready for its mission. It was time to make history.

Craig Breedlove and the Spirit of America race team were already at Black Rock, preparing for their own assault on the land speed record, and the sound barrier.

Everything that was needed, totaling almost ninety tons, was loaded into the Antonov cargo plane and flown to Gander, Newfoundland for a fuel stop, and then on to Reno, Nevada.

After the flight, the crew, the race car, and all of the team's equipment were transported to the Black Rock Desert.

Six miles of the desert were used to bring the car up to the timing lights set a few hundred feet apart. Then comes the measured mile, where the speed of the car is recorded. Another six miles were used to bring the car to a stop.

To mark the race course, a mixture of gypsum and water was used to create perfectly straight lines twelve miles long.

Clearing the race track The desert has been used as a firing range, and is littered with thousands of artillery shells. The entire course had to be inspected and cleared of anything that might cause damage to the race car's engines or wheels.

In early September of 1997, the stage was finally set for the ultimate car race — to be the first to officially break the sound barrier in a race car.

Between setting up their equipment, preparing the race course, mechanical challenges involved in taking care of the race car and continuing to refine it, press conferences, documenting everything, and waiting for the Spirit of America to make runs, the team spent over two months on the desert.

Andy Green rather casually went about his mission of driving ThrustSSC. Andy's skills as a British Royal Air Force pilot were put to good use.

On September 25th of 1997, the ThrustSSC team reached one of their goals by setting a new World Land Speed Record, with a two-way average speed of 714.144 miles per hour.

ThrustSSC at speed

The new record was below the speed of sound, but it nonetheless clearly proved the project worthwhile. The team had designed, built and raced the fastest car in history.

A few days later, an unofficial burst up to 750 miles per hour proved that the car could go supersonic and remain controllable. The design ideas of Ron Ayers, Glynne Bowsher, Jeremy Bliss and rest of the team, along with Richard Noble's perseverance, and Andy Green's talent and experience had once again proven themselves.

Then, on Monday, October 13th, Andy and the ThrustSSC team shocked the world with two runs, at 764.168 miles per hour (Mach 1.007) and 760.135 miles per hour (Mach 1.003).

The car forming a shockwave The unaltered photograph on the right is one of a series of pictures taken by Richard Meredith-Hardy while aboard one of the team's ultralight surveillance planes.

This image clearly shows a shockwave coming off the nose of ThrustSSC, raising dust and extending back from the fifty-four-foot-long race car for almost 300 feet.

On October 13th of 1997, when this picture was taken, it was the first time in history that any documentation had been made of a shockwave forming around a car.

When this area of the desert was inspected, it was found that the car's tracks were barely visible, due to the ground having been pulverized by the shockwave.

Tracks left by ThrustSSC

In order to set a new Land Speed Record (and the first official supersonic Land Speed Record set in a car), the car's first run has to backed up with a second run in the opposite direction within one hour. When the parachute failed to deploy on the first run, the car traveled much farther than anticipated, causing a delay in getting the car ready for its backup run. The crew did all anyone could have done, but according to the United States Auto Club officials, the backup run came at 60 minutes and 49.6 seconds.

ThrustSSC on its fiftieth run On Wednesday, October 15th, 1997, the ThrustSSC team made two more runs. The first, the car's 65th run, was timed at 759.333 miles per hour, which is Mach 1.015. The all-important backup run was successfully made within the hour, at 766.609 miles per hour.

After verifying the timing equipment, the USAC officials granted the team a new world land speed record. The average speed between the two runs was 763.035 miles per hour, which is Mach 1.020.

Not bad, considering the slug of a plane that brought them there only did 340.

A goal that many among us had thought of as being unattainable had been reached. And now, if you want to set a new unlimited world land speed record, first you're going to have to break the sound barrier.

ThrustSSC cockpit

Andy leaving the ThrustSSC
When an excited reporter asked him what the world looked like from the inside of a car going over 700 miles per hour, Andy replied, "The same as stationary, only faster."

Some of the most prolific race car drivers in the world shook their heads in amazement when they heard of what ThrustSSC jet car team members Ron Ayers, Jeremy Bliss, Glynne Bowsher, Jeremy Davey, Andy Green, Richard Noble, Robin Richardson, and their hundreds of helpers had accomplished. What they accomplished goes far beyond words.

We salute everyone who helped the ThrustSSC team break down what may have been the most significant remaining motorsports milestone.

There can be no doubt that everyone involved with the ThrustSSC team truly deserve every bit of their success. They impressed the world with their determination, their pioneering resourcefulness and creativity, their nation's pride, their sense of adventure, considerable brilliant engineering, and their unequaled spirit of sportsmanship towards their struggling competitor.

To all who were fortunate enough to have met them in Black Rock, they were indeed a class act. When the team returned home, they left behind many new American friends.

Upon reaching the goal of setting a supersonic land speed record on October 15th, 1997, Noble announced that the ThrustSSC was officially retired. The car is now on display in the Coventry Transport Museum.

After spending months on a remote, dusty desert, the team returned home. A few of them had their old jobs waiting for them. Andy Green returned to the Royal Air Force. Others began searching for new opportunities. Richard Noble and Ron Ayers went to work at Farnborough Aircraft, developing a revolutionary single-engine turboprop air taxi.

Standing on a hot, dusty, Nevada desert, an excited reporter asked a member of the ThrustSSC crew, "Now that you've gone faster than the speed of sound, what are you going to do next?"

"Well, there's always the speed of light."

ThrustSSC at speed

The video tribute above is the work of Thomas Saintin.

The ThrustSSC Team at the Black Rock Desert in 1997
Robert Atkinson Ron Ayers Rod Barker Jeremy Bliss
Glynne Bowsher Chris Cowell Jeremy Davey Martyn Davidson
Nick Dove Eddie Elsom Jack Franck Andy Green
Mike Hearn Rob Hemper Ninetta Hearn Mike Horne
Robbie Kraike Suzy Kraike John Lovatt Jayne Millington
Andrew Noble Jack Noble Richard Noble Sally Noble
Adam Northcote-Wright Steve O'Donnell Brian Palmer Leigh Remfrey
Paul Remfrey Robin Richardson Pete Ross Ruth Stringer
Steve Wiltshire
The Pegasus Microlight Team
Simon Blacker John Fack Richard Meredith-Hardy Bill Sherlock
Mach 1 Club Members at Black Rock
Jim Cavanagh Jin Clark Mathew Cole John Coppinger
Rob Coy Mike Dempsey Ian Dennington Anthony Edwards
Phil Evans Steve Francis Duncan Garrett David George
Steve Georgii Paul Hannaford Damien Hawkins Bob Ibbertson
Mike Jenkins Jonathan Lee Damien McCann Jason McCann
Roger McCann Barbie McSean Fred Patrick Allan Reid
Sue Richardson Doug Spence Robin Spence Brian Taylor
Sarah Tilley Clive Tucker Stanley Tucker Allan White
Andrew Whyte
The UK Support Team
Nick Chapman Neal Fletcher Nigel Grant Rob Hazell
The entire team also thanks all of the sponsors, and the almost 5,000 Mach 1 Club members who helped to make this possible.

The ThrustSSC team

All images on this page are Copyright 1996-2013 Jeremy Davey

All text on this page is Copyright 1996-2012 Dave Mann

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