The first land speed record (LSR) at greater than 400 mph (643.7 kph) was set on 17 July 1964 by UK driver Donald Campbell in the wheel-driven, gas turbine-powered streamliner named Bluebird CN7. Regarding his new official land speed record of 403.10 mph (648.73 kph) in the measured mile, a disappointed Campbell is reported to have said, “We’ve made it – we got the bastard at last.” Campbell thought the Bluebird CN7 was capable of much higher speeds, but did not mount another LSR challenger with that car.
This year, 54 years after Campbell’s record run, Team Vesco’s Turbinator II became the first wheel-driven vehicle to exceed 500 mph (804.7 kph). In addition, there are several LSR contenders in diverse vehicle designs that regularly are making runs in the 400 – 500 mph range. Donald Campbell might be impressed with the current state of the “sport.” Let’s take a look at what’s happened in 2018.
1. Governing land speed records
The FIA (Fédération Internationale de L’Automobile) establishes the process for making world land speed record (LSR) attempts and certifying the resulting speeds. FIA record attempts are standardized over a fixed length course (mile and kilometer) and averaged over two runs in opposite directions that must be completed within one hour. The FIA’s home page for land speed records is at the following link:
You’ll find the FIA’s technical regulations governing LSR attempts in Appendix D at the following link:
The FIA defines four basic categories of LSR vehicles:
- Category A LSR vehicles are purpose-built, wheel-driven automobiles that may be powered by any of a variety of engines, including Otto cycle (4-cycle), Diesel cycle (2-cycle), rotary, electrical, gas turbine, or steam, or any hybrid combination of these engines.
- Category B LSR vehicles are derived from series production automobiles, with the same basic engine options as Category A (as long as you can stuff it into a series production automobile).
- Category C applies to “special automobiles,” including LSR vehicles that are not wheel-driven, but instead are powered by the thrust of jet and/or rocket engines.
- Category D LSR vehicles are drag racing automobiles.
Within Categories A and B, the FIA defines Groups based on fuel type and Classes based on engine displacement and vehicle weight. In Category C, Groups may be defined based on engine type.
World motorcycle LSR records are managed separately by the FIM (Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme).
In contrast to FIA LSR rules, US National land speed records are the average of two runs going in the same direction over a two-day period. The rationale is that national events such as Bonneville Speed Week involve too many vehicles to swap directions on the course in less than 60 minutes. The basic processes defined by the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) and used during Speed Week are as follows:
For each run on the Bonneville five-mile long course, five different speeds are determined:
- The first speed reported is referred to as the “quarter” and is the average speed over a 1,320-foot (quarter mile) timing trap that starts at the 2-mile marker.
- Next, times are recorded and average speeds are determined over three flying mile intervals: from mile 2 to mile 3, from mile 3 to mile 4 (the “middle mile”), and from mile 4 to mile 5. Official time slips refer to these as Mile 3, Mile 4, and Mile 5.
- The final timing number is called “exit speed”, or terminal speed, which is an average speed measured over a 132-foot trap at the end of Mile 5.
When a car makes a first run at a speed greater than an existing record, it goes into “impound,” where the following process applies:
- After being impounded, the team has four hours to work on the car.
- The team must be back at the track by 6 AM the next day, when it has another hour of prepare the car for the second run (i.e., add fuel, ice coolant, etc.).
- The car must be at the start line by 7 AM, ready to make its second run.
If the average between the two runs is greater than the existing record, a new National record is awarded.
The SCTA defines several vehicle categories, with their Category A (special construction vehicles) being comparable to FIA Category A.
2. Category C LSR contenders in 2018
Category C LSR contenders, with jet or rocket propulsion, have been the fastest LSR vehicles in the world since Craig Breedlove set the absolute land speed record at 407.447 mph (655.722 kph) in the measured mile at Bonneville on 5 August 1963 in the turbojet-powered, three-wheeled Spirit of America. The FIA considered this to be an unofficial record because Spirit of America only had three wheels. This record later was ratified by the FIM. Since 1963, six other Category C LSR vehicles have held the absolute land speed record: Wingfoot Express, Green Monster, Spirit of America Sonic 1, Blue Flame, Thrust2 and ThrustSSC (supersonic car).
The current FIA absolute land speed records are:
- 763.035 mph (1,227.986 kph) for the measured mile, and
- 760.343 mph (1,223.657 kph) for the measured kilometer
These records were set on 15 October 1997 by the UK LSR vehicle Thrust SSC, which completed the required two runs in opposite directions within one hour on a track in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. Thrust SSC was driven by Andy Green when it became the first supersonic LSR vehicle, achieving an average speed through the measured gates of Mach 1.016.
In 2018, the two primary Category C LSR contenders were the UK Bloodhound SSC, which is under development and successfully completed low speed trials (> 200 mph, 322 kph), and the US North American Eagle, which has been running for many years and has reached a maximum speed of > 500 mph (805 kph). Following is a brief review of these Category C LSR programs.
Bloodhound SSC – Did it die in 2018, or is there still hope?
In posts in March 2015, September 2015 and January 2017, I reported on the ambitious UK project to create a 1,000 mph land speed record car known as the Bloodhound SSC.
In 2006, Lord Drayson, the UK Minister of Science, proposed developing a new UK LSR vehicle to LSR holders Richard Noble (Thrust 2) and Andy Green (Thrust SSC). This led to the formation of the Bloodhound SSC project, which was announced on 23 October 2008, along with an associated education component designed to inspire future generations to take up careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The Bloodhound SSC project website is here:
Original plans were for the Bloodhound SSC to make its LSR runs on the Hakskeen Pan in South Africa (see my March 2015 post), with initial trial runs starting in 2016. As development of Bloodhound SSC continued, the dates for the initial LSR runs slipped gradually to 2017, 2018 and most recently to the end of 2019.
In 2017, Bloodhound SSC conducted five weeks of testing, including its first successful public “shakedown” run on 26 October 2017, on the 9,000 foot (1.67 mile, 2.7 km) runway at the Cornwall Airport in Newquay, UK. Powered by its Rolls-Royce EJ200 jet engine and driven by Andy Green, Bloodhound SSC reached a modest top speed of 210 mph (378 kph) on this short runway.
You’ll find a YouTube video of the Newquay trial runs here:
The trials at Newquay demonstrated the satisfactory performance of vehicle systems and provided confidence for further development and testing. In 2018, Bloodhound SSC remained in the UK, but no further trial runs were made.
In 15 October 2018, Bloodhound Programme Ltd., the UK company behind the Bloodhound SSC, entered into “administration,” which is comparable to a Chapter 11 filing in the US and is intended to give a company in financial difficulties protection from creditors for a limited period while it attempts to reorganize and seek new financing. Bloodhound Programme Ltd. was seeking about $33 million (about £25 million) to fund the program through the actual land speed record attempts in South Africa in 2020 – 2021.
On 7 December 2018, BBC News reported that the attempts to reorganize had failed. Joint administrator Andrew Sheridan reported, “Despite overwhelming public support, and engagement with a wide range of potential and credible investors, it has not been possible to secure a purchaser for the business and assets.” You can read the BBC report here:
Plans are being implemented to return or sell assets. Driver Andy Green said the Bloodhound SSC vehicle was now available for sale at a price of about £250,000 ($318,275).
Let’s hope that the Bloodhound SSC project can find a last minute investor and a route to recovery.
North American Eagle – Continuing to make progress in 2018
Ed Shadle and Keith Zanghi started the North American Eagle LSR project 20 years ago, in 1998. Their idea was to take a surplus Lockheed F-104 jet fighter fuselage with a General Electric J-79 jet engine and afterburner and create a viable absolute LSR challenger. The result of their efforts, with assistance from a team of volunteers and support from many sponsors, is the North American Eagle LSR vehicle shown below.
The North American Eagle team website is here:
You can view a YouTube video on the North American Eagle LSR program here:
Here’s a shorter video of the September 2016 speed run in the Alvord Desert in Oregon. During this run, driver Jessi Combs achieved a maximum speed of 477.59 mph (768.60 kph):
The North American Eagle team website reports: “To date, we have made over 57 test runs, already attaining a top speed of 515 mph. This is only the beginning though. In September 2018, with Jessi Combs at the helm, she made a 483.227 mph (run). In 2019 she will attempt (to exceed) the 512 mph Fastest Woman record, as well as the single engine speed record. Both of these are major milestones on the road to 800 mph.”
Founder Ed Shadle died on 7 September 2018. Jessi Combs is now the primary driver and the team is expecting to continue its LSR program in 2019.
3. Category A LSR contenders in 2018
At the beginning of 2018, the FIA land speed record for wheel-driven, piston-powered vehicles was held by Speed Demon, which set the record on 17 September 2012:
- 439.024 mph (706.540 kph) for the measured mile, and
- 439.562 mph (707.408) kph for the measured kilometer
The FIA record for wheel-driven, turbine-powered vehicles was held by Turbinator, which set the record on 18 October 2001:
- 458.444 mph (737.794 kph) for the measured mile, and
- 458.196 mph (737.395 kph) for the measured kilometer
2018 was an exciting year in Category A, with the two primary Category A LSR contenders, Challenger 2 and Turbinator II, raising their respective speed records for wheel-driven vehicles and Turbinator II making the first unofficial Category A one-way run at > 500 mph (805 kph). Five different LSR vehicles made runs at > 400 mph (644 kph) during the SCTA Bonneville Speed Week, which was held from 11 – 17 August 2018:
- Challenger 2
- Turbinator II
- Speed Demon
At the rain foreshortened Bonneville World Finals held on 2 October 2018, the following three LSR vehicles made runs at > 400 mph (644 kph):
- Turbinator II
- Speed Demon
- Eddie’s Chop Shop streamliner
Following is a brief review of these Category A LSR programs.
You’ll find the complete results from Speed Week 2018, World Finals 2018 and other SCTA events on their website:
Challenger 2 – Raised the wheel-driven, piston engine LSR in 2018
On 9 September 1960, Mickey Thompson, driving the four-engine, wheel-driven Challenger 1 streamliner, achieved a one-way speed of 406.60 mph (654.36 kph) in the flying mile on the Bonneville Salt Flats. Unfortunately, Challenger 1 was was unable to make the second run required by the FIA for an official land speed record. Thus, the existing absolute and Category A LSRs set on 16 September 1947 by John Cobb driving the Railton Mobile Express continued to stand at 394.19 mph (634.39 kph) for the measured mile and 394.196 mph (643.196 kph) for the measured kilometer.
Cobb’s absolute LSR was eclipsed on 5 August 1963 by Craig Breedlove, driving the turbojet-powered (Category C, not wheel-driven) Spirit of America to a speed of 407.447 mph (655.722 kph) in the measured mile on the Bonneville Salt Flats.
The following year, Cobb’s wheel-driven LSR was further eroded on 17 July 1964 when Donald Campbell set a Category A record of 403.10 mph (648.73 km/h) in the measured mile in the wheel-driven, Proteus gas turbine-powered Bluebird CN7 on the dry salt bed at Lake Eyre, Australia.
Cobb’s wheel-driven, piston engine LSR record and Campbell’s wheel-driven LSR both fell on 12 November 1965 when Bob Summers drove the four-engine Goldenrod LSR car to 409.277 mph (658.526 kph) in the measured mile on the Bonneville Salt Flats. By then, several turbojet-powered Category C LSR vehicles and had raised the absolute LSR to more than 555 mph (893 kph).
In an effort to regain the Category A LSR crown, Mickey Thompson built the greatly improved Challenger 2 for a planned LSR challenge in 1968. The unblown (not supercharged), two-engine Challenger 2 ran at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1968 with trial speeds approaching 400 mph (644 kph), but rain prevented an LSR run that year. Following the loss of key LSR sponsors in 1969, Mickey Thompson mothballed the Challenger 2 for almost two decades.
Mickey Thompson and son Danny removed Challenger 2 from storage in January 1988 and developed plans for a 1989 LSR challenge. These plans were cancelled following the tragic murder of Mickey Thompson and his wife in March 1988. Once again, Challenger 2 was placed in long-term storage. In 2010, Danny Thompson began efforts to prepare Challenger 2 for an LSR run intended to “vindicate his father’s faith in the streamliner.” The modernized Challenger 2 retained the original chassis and hand-formed aluminum skin, resulting in an almost unchanged external appearance. The original engines and drive trains were removed and replaced by more powerful dry block, nitromethane-fueled, unblown Hemi V8 engines in an all-wheel drive configuration. Other modifications were made to comply with current FIA and SCTA regulations for LSR attempts. You’ll find details on the updated Challenger 2 on the Thompson LSR website here:
Challenger 2 test runs started in June 2014 and speed runs on Bonneville’s full-length course began in September 2014.
On 12 August 2018, during Bonneville Speed Week and 50 years after its original runs at Bonneville, Challenger 2 driven by Danny Thompson set a new class record of 448.757 mph (772.204 kph) for the measured mile, breaking the record held by Speed Demon since September 2012. This record currently stands as the fastest overall wheel-driven, piston-powered land speed record. You can view a YouTube video on the Challenger racing team and the 2018 LSR run here:
The Challenger 2 is now retired. Thank you Danny Thompson for resurrecting this amazing car and mounting a successful LSR challenge. Your Dad, Mickey Thompson, would be very proud of you and your team.
Turbinator II – Raised the wheel-driven vehicle LSR record in 2018
Team Vesco has been a long-time contender in land speed record racing. You’ll find a history of and their many projects and LSR challenges on the team website here:
Team Vesco introduced the original Turbinator to the public in 1996 with the goals of setting a new wheel-driven LSR and becoming the first wheel-driven vehicle to exceed 500 mph. Turbinator was powered by a single, stock 3,750 hp Lycoming T55 gas turbine engine (a former turboshaft helicopter engine) delivering power to a four-wheel drive system. On 18 October 2001, the Turbinator, driven by Don Vesco, eclipsed Donald Campbell’s 37-year old land speed record, raising the FIA Category A LSR to 458.440 mph (737.788 kph).
A 2011 paper in the University of Leicester (UK) Journal of Physics Special Topics, by Back, Brown, Hall and Turner, estimated the top speeds of the Turbinator to be 486 mph (782 kph) and its follow-on, the Turbinator II with a 4,400 hp engine, to be 509 mph (819 kph). You can read this paper here:
Turbinator II is an update of the original Turbinator, using an uprated Lycoming gas turbine delivering somewhere between 4,300 – 5,000 hp power to all four wheels. You can see what a high speed run in Turbinator II looks like in the following video made on 13 August 2018 when driver Dave Spangler raised the fastest mile speed to 463.038 mph (745.187 kph) during Bonneville Speed Week.
Just six weeks after Danny Thompson raised the LSR for wheel-driven, piston-engine vehicles to 448.757 mph (772.204 kph) with Challenger 2, Team Vesco raised the wheel-driven vehicle National class record to 482.646 mph (776.743 kph) on 15 September 2018 with Dave Spangler driving Turbinator II at the Bonneville World of Speed time trials hosted by the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association (USFRA).
Read more about this Turbinator II LSR record for wheel-driven vehicles at:
At the Bonneville World Finals on 2 October 2018, Turbinator II made a one-way run through the measured mile of 493.996 mph (795.009 kph), with an exit speed of 503.332 mph (810.034 kph). Turbinator II became the world’s first wheel-driven vehicle to exceed 500 mph and 800 kph. Weather precluded making the second run needed for an official record. You can view this speed run here:
With continuing improvements being made to the vehicle, Turbinator II appears to be a good candidate for being the first LSR vehicle to set an FIA land speed record at > 500 mph.
On 17 September 2012, Speed Demon, driven by George Poteet at Bonneville, established an FIA Category A land speed record of 439.024 mph (706.540 kph) for the measured mile and 439.562 mph (707.408 kph) for the measured kilometer. For this record run, Speed Demon was powered by a turbocharged, 2,200 hp, 368 cubic inch small block Chevy engine driving the rear wheels. This record stood until 12 August 2018 when it was eclipsed by Danny Thompson in the Challenger 2.
The original Speed Demon was destroyed on 12 September 2014 after a crash at 375 mph (606 kph) during a speed run at Bonneville, possibly due to a temporary loss of traction on the salt track. You can read a synopsis of George Poteet’s recollection of this crash here:
In an all-new Speed Demon II, George Poteet returned to land speed racing in 2016. The new Speed Demon is powered by a single, twin-turbocharged, small-block V8 engine delivering over 2,600 hp to the rear wheels. You’ll find details on Speed Demon’s V8 piston engine here:
In its current incarnation, Speed Demon is a strong LSR challenger that appears to have the potential to exceed 500 mph.
- During Bonneville Speed Week in August 2018, Speed Demon made three runs at > 400 mph, with the fastest being 452.255 mph.
- During the foreshortened Bonneville World Finals in October 2018, Speed Demon made one run at 431.435 mph.
You’ll find more information on the Speed Demon team homepage here:
Flashpoint streamliner made its debut on the Bonneville Salt Flats in 2013. It is powered by a 482 cubic inch, nitromethane burning blown Hemi V8. In its 2013 debut, the streamliner achieved a top speed of 395 mph (636 kph). The team has announced a goal of exceeding 500 mph (805 kph).
The Flashpoint team homepage is at the following Facebook site:
On 16 September 2018, during the USFRA World of Speed at Bonneville, the Flashpoint Streamliner achieved a speed of 436.308 mph (702.170 kph) on its first run of the five-mile long course, with an exit speed of 451.197 mph (726.131 kph). On the second run, a tire failed at 427 mph (687 kph), causing a spectacular rollover crash. Fortunately (and incredibly), driver Robert Dalton was uninjured.
You can read more about the crash at the following link:
Hopefully, the Flashpoint team will rebuild and we’ll see the next iteration of the potent Flashpoint Streamliner back in action in the future.
Carbinite LSR streamliner (Carbiliner)
The Carbiliner was designed and built over a seven-year period and made its first appearance at the Bonneville Speed Week in 2016. It is a radically designed Category A streamliner, similar in design to successful Category C jet- and rocket-powered LSR vehicles from the early 1970s. The Carbininte LSR team notes:
“Past efforts and current mindset in building Streamliners has focused on keeping the car aerodynamically neutral (no lift or downforce). This necessitates the addition of significant amounts of ballast to obtain enough traction for acceleration, resulting in two problems:
- The racing surface at Bonneville is not as flat as it once was due to deterioration of the salt. This causes the car to skip across the salt at higher speeds, breaking traction.
- The increased weight of the cars leads to slower acceleration. Cars may run out of track prior to reaching maximum speed.
The Carbinite LSR Streamliner design has addressed these problems.”
On means is through the use of active aerodynamic control surfaces on the rear wings (NACA 66-018 profile) that support the rear wheels and house the drive shafts. The control surfaces are designed to generate over 3,000 pounds (1,361 kg) of downforce with minimum drag. At low speed, the aerodynamic control surfaces are “full-up” at the start of acceleration. As speed increases, the flaps are lowered to maintain the same amount of downforce. The flaps, speed-based boost control and fuel injection are managed by a Holley engine control unit (ECU).
The Carbiliner is powered by a single, twin-turbocharged, 540 cubic inch Chevy V8 burning methanol (starting in 2017) and delivering 2,400 – 2,800 hp to the the unsprung (no suspension) rear wheels. You’ll find a good technical description of the vehicle here:
The team’s primary goal is “to break the 500 mph barrier at the next Bonneville Speed Week and become the fastest wheel driven car on the planet”. In 2018, it was one of five LSR vehicles to exceed 400 mph during Speed Week, making runs of 406.750 mph (654.601 kph) and 413.542 mph (665.531 kph). The team has work to do, but this radical LSR may have the potential to achieve their primary goal.
You’ll find more information on the Carbinite LSR team home page is here:
Like the Bloodhound SSC project, the Carbinite LSR team has established an education program “to excite the next generation of students about careers in STEM, and to inspire students to think big! Our program is geared for high school physics and shop students, as well as college engineering students.” You’ll find a good video describing the Carbiliner’s aerodynamics and the STEM education program here:
Eddie’s Chop Shop streamliner
Ed Umland, of Orangevale, CA, reportedly built his 29-foot blown gas, aluminum bodied streamliner in 18 months with the goal of being able to exceed 400 mph at Bonneville. The streamliner is powered by a single, twin-turbo, 439 cubic inch V8 engine driving the rear wheels.
On 2 October 2018, during the foreshortened Bonneville World Finals, this streamliner achieved a speed of 403.996 mph (650.169 kph) in the measured mile, with an exit speed of 411.209 mph (661.777 kph). Ed Umland has achieved his original goal, and his streamliner appears to have the potential to achieve higher speeds in the future.
You can view a short YouTube video of the Eddie’s Chop Shop streamliner running at Bonneville here.
More information is available on the Eddie’s Chop Shop Facebook page here:
4. In conclusion
The upper echelon of land speed racing is alive and well, in spite of the likely demise of the Category C Bloodhound SSC program. There is great competition among the Category A wheel-driven LSR contenders in the 400 – 500 mph range, with records being raised in 2018 and the 500 mph and 800 kph “barriers” being broken for the first time. Next year should be pretty interesting, especially if the salt flats are in good condition.
I hope the Bloodhound SSC program will get a last-minute (last second) reprieve and, as in the 1975 movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, be able to say, “I’m not dead yet.”
25 December 2018 Christmas Day Update: Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.
On Monday 17th December, the Bloodhound Project announced that its business and assets were bought by Yorkshire-based entrepreneur Ian Warhurst, who stated: “I am delighted to have been able to safeguard the business and assets, preventing the project breakup. I know how important it is to inspire young people about science, technology, engineering and math, and I want to ensure BLOODHOUND can continue doing that into the future.”
Thank you Ian Warhurst for your Christmas gift to the Bloodhound Team and the land speed racing community.