Surplus Jet Engines And Other Stories From The Deadly American Battle For The Land Speed Record

Photo: KIM KULISH/AFP, Getty

The desire to go fast is universal. The desire to go faster than anyone else has gone before, to buy your own jet engine and tempt fate at 650, 800, 950 kmh, is a drive few possess and fewer still survive. This is what’s detailed in Speed Duel by Samuel Hawley, covering a near decade-long battle for the land speed record.

Photo: Firefly Books

The book traces the paths of the various 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 of them hailed from a completely distinct background. Campbell had the financial and morale backing of all of England as he pursues the record. Ostich was an older physician who indulged in his passion for racing in his spare time. Breedlove was a young Californian hot rodder who saw land speed racing as a natural progression from drag racing. The Arfons brothers fell in love with speed after WWII, racing together in drag racing until a competitive rift drove them apart.

Some of these racers played a bigger role than others, and Hawley does a masterful job of tracking each of their trajectories to their completion. At first I found myself wondering why readers needed all this info about people who were far off the LSR and would ultimately never achieve it. Reading on, it grows obvious just how impressive a competition this was. Eight people within the span of a single decade fought for an outright human record. It’s hard to imagine eight different racers competing for literally anything these days. To understand the sensationalism that follows the more successful of the racers, you have to know how many people had set foot in the ring to give it a shot.

At the start of the decade, English racing driver John Cobb still maintained the third speed record that he set in 1947: 634.39 kmh, with a top speed clocked at 668. His record had been untouchable for years.

One of the best things about Speed Duel is that it shows how the cultural climate at the 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 his hands on the necessary parts—even military-spec jet engines—and throw together something competitive for around $US5,000 ($7,309) (or about $US43,000 ($62,857) in today’s money). As more and more sponsors got involved, it became a competition not just between men but between corporations. Walt and Art Arfons might have a personal rivalry to settle, but it was also a battle between Goodyear and Firestone. And the more drivers got involved, the more exciting the battle became.

The field of eight mentioned in the book’s prologue quickly narrows down. Athol Graham and Glenn Leasher were both killed behind the wheel. Mickey Thompson, growing older, turned to other forms of racing. Bad crashes sent other drivers home to their families. Still others were phased out with the switch to jet- and rocket-powered engines. The big battle bled down to two: Craig Breedlove and Art Arfons.

And that battle is fascinating. Breedlove, with his status and financial backing supporting his Spirit of America, was the first one to reach both 804 and 965 kmh. But Arfons and his Green Monster rarely ever let a record last. He’d head out to the Bonneville Salt Flats mere days later and crush whatever record Breedlove had just set. Breedlove, on a Goodyear-sponsored press tour, would have to cut his celebrations short and come back to try again.

Speed Duel is honestly an incredible read. I grew up vaguely familiar with Breedlove’s accomplishments and at one point my dad named one of our pocket-sized homemade rocket cars Green Monster, but I’d never read about the full situation in depth. This particular book does a great job blending multiple narratives together into one cohesive story that makes sense. I’ll admit that it was occasionally a little hard to keep track of all the names—drivers, crew members, wives, kids—but I think that was more a fault with the fact that I read the whole book in less than 24 hours and the human brain is only capable of so much.

The writing itself didn’t make things any easier to follow. Some sentences could have used a period or two instead of the multiple ‘ands’ that kept tacking on more clauses. Every so often, conversation wouldn’t be denoted with quotation marks, it would just happen in the middle of a paragraph. It never felt unintentional and it made for a very fast-paced read, at least.

I also would have liked some of the blueprints or designs for the cars mentioned in the book, but I think that’s just be being spoiled by Beast and How to Build a Car. It’s mentioned a few times that racers like Breedlove didn’t really do official technical design, and it likely would have been hard to publish anyway, but it still felt like an empty hole for me.

But aside from the very minor issues, 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 just anyone would go out of their way to read, but it’s fascinating for anyone who cares about racing. This push to develop faster cars impacted racing across the board. I loved it, and I’m honestly already looking forward to reading it again.

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