craig breedlove land speed record


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Samuel Hawley is a writer of narrative nonfiction and fiction. His books are highly eclectic. He has written about 16th-century East Asian history, 19th-century Korean-American relations, Olympic sprinting and land speed racing and a circus elephant named Topsy who was electrocuted in 1903. He lives in Kingston, Ontario.


Here is the transcript of my first interview with Craig Breedlove, July 21, 2009.

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[I ask about what his step-dad Ken Bowman did when Craig was growing up.]


He was involved in ornamental horticulture at UCLA. Later in his life he was a language professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu. But during the time I was growing up he worked for the ornamental horticulture division, and he also worked at a place, his employment before UCLA, he worked for a nursery in Inglewood, California, which was Inglewood Nurseries. He worked there and then he got a job at UCLA. And then later my mom and he had a business in Malibu. They sold African violets. And then when he retired from that he went to work for Pepperdine, I think teaching Spanish.


I understand that your real dad, Norman, was a cameraman before going into special effects. Do you remember, growing up, any of the movies he worked on?


He did a lot of the John Wayne movies, with Glenn Ford, and they did a lot of the Tarzan movies. I used to like to go over to the sets in Culver City because I got to play with Cheetah--who recently I saw on television was still alive, which blew me away. [Laughs] But anyway, that was fun as a kid. Then over at Fox he did one movie about Sinbad. They used to have a big tank over there with all of the water front, of course done in miniature, and they had ships and stuff like that and I used to get to swim in the tank.

Was that what he was, a cameraman, a cinematographer?


Yeah, he did that and—most of his time at the studio, when I went with him, he was in special effects. He actually tried to get me a job as an assistant cameraman during the time I worked for Douglas Aircraft. He and I lived together for a period of time in a little house in Culver City. And anyway, he had some friends and he was trying to get me in as an assistant cameraman. At the time I was working for Material and Processing at Douglas. But that [the cameraman job] didn’t work out. I moved my family to a home I bought in Costa Mesa, then I applied for the fire department and passed the test and got hired. So four a year or so I worked as a fireman for the city of Costa Mesa, just prior to the time I started building the first land speed car.


Your mom told me that when you were a kid you went through a wrestling stage and for a time wanted to be Gorgeous George.


Oh yeah. Bill Moore and I, the guy that helped me with the artwork and stuff like that, he was the Golden Terror and I was Courageous Craig. We had a wrestling ring in the back yard. Jimmy Lennon the announcer—I went to school with Michael Lennon. I don’t know if you’ve heard of Jimmy Lennon [a top wrestling and boxing announcer back in the day; wore a tuxedo]. Jimmy Lennon Jr. is a pretty prominent announcer now in the fight game. Anyway, his father, Jimmy Lennon Sr., was Michael’s father, who I went to school with. Friday nights were visitation nights for Jimmy. Jimmy was divorced from Michael’s mother. So every Friday night was his time to come and pick Michael up and spend some time with his son, and Michael would always want to bring me with him to the Ocean Park Arena where Jimmy announced the wrestling matches on Friday nights. So anyway, we got really into the wrestlers.


How old would you have been?


Oh, I was going to grammar school, probably nine or ten.


[I ask about a mention in an old LA Times sports column about Craig being involved in “bootleg races” back in the day, and read the quote: “Craig also won a few uncertified events, like at 2 in the morning on Culver Blvd., where first you had to eliminate the competition, and then, the cops. On one of these impromptu races, Craig left the car vertically and came down like an incomplete pass on the pavement. It ended his career on the bootleg tracks and very nearly his career, period. It was several weeks before he could part his hair without saying ‘ouch.’” I ask Craig if this story is true.]


Yeah, I flipped a ’32 coupe on Culver Boulevard. It was not my car. It belonged to Stan Burnelay [?]. Stan wanted me to test his car. I had done some of the engine work for him, a flathead, and so he wanted me to race it. That was the local pastime at the Clock Drive-in, was to race on Culver Blvd. So anyway, he asked if I would drive his car and race this other guy and I did. And sadly, he had neglected to put shock absorbers on the front of the car and when I hit the railroad tracks at well over a hundred, the thing went right out from under me. I ended up in a flip crash and came through the soft top, you know the ’32 coupe had the soft patch in the center, and I was thrown out of there. It had a ’44 steering wheel that I wrapped into kind of a pretzel design as I departed the vehicle. It knocked me out of my shoes and split my head wide open, and I also broke my neck. I didn’t find out about the neck fracture until years later, when I started having trouble with it. But anyway, my step-dad Ken got me out of the hospital. They stitched up my head but figured I was okay and kicked me in the butt and put me back on the road again.


How old would you have been?


I would have been 16.


Was your step-dad pretty pissed off at you?




How well did you get along with your step-dad?


Not really well, because he had absolutely no mechanical intuition or desire or anything whatsoever. Pretty much he was kind of an intellectual kind of guy. I mean he played nothing but classical music. To be really honest, when you’re in a home with a step-father and he’s married to the mother and he has his own child by the mother—you know, I was sleeping in the den and kind of felt like a third wheel there. That’s kind of why I got into hot rods. I sort of gravitated to the older kids who lived across the street who had a bunch of hot rods and stuff. I used to go over there and hang out because I really didn’t have any companionship, you know, basically I didn’t have a male role model in the home so I sort of hung out with these older guys across the street with the hot rods and that’s what kind of got me interested in it.


[I ask about his earliest conception of the land speed car.] Was it something involving an Allison engine?

At that time there were a lot of war surplus military hardware places in Los Angeles down on Alameda Boulevard. There were a number of them down there. There was a big Pally Surplus and some Airmotive Equipment company. So anyway, they had some V-12 Allison engines, Mustang WW2 vintage. And right at the end of the Korean War they had a bunch of surplus jet engines that started hitting the market. Basically we bought surplus fuel tanks to make belly-tank lakesters out of. And they had all kinds of aircraft nuts and bolts, surplus aircraft safety belts, just all kinds of stuff. So that’s where we used to buy parts cheap to build hot rods out of.


Would it be correct to say that your first conception of the land speed car arose from what you were seeing in the surplus shops that you could buy for cheap?


Yeah, basically that’s—excuse me for one second. [He answers his cell phone. It’s his wife. He tells her he’ll call her back when he’s done with me.]


Rod Schapel told me that when you first came to him you had this model of the car, a supersonic thing with a pointed nose, he told you, “I’ll help you build the car, but not that one.”


Yeah, I think that’s a pretty accurate assessment.


What were your feelings about the steering-with-rear-brakes idea he came up with?


It seemed like a very strange concept to me, but at the time Rod was a real mentor to me. I really looked up to Rod. Rod had done some other Bonneville streamliner projects. He’d done the wind tunnel testing. Essentially I needed to get through some wind tunnel testing and I needed some expert advice on how to do certain things that were basically above my pay grade at that point. And so I looked Rod up because I was aware of his background with the Chet Herbert streamliner that he had done the wind tunnel work on. So I called him up and he agreed to meet with me and I brought the concept model, the one that you’ve seen with the pointy rear fairings and stuff, that was the configuration at that point that we’d worked to. But I knew I needed some more expertise and I respected Rod from the work he’d done for Chet Herbert. They’d done some magazine articles on it when they wind tunnel tested those cars. I didn’t know Rod and I called him up out of the blue and told him what I was trying to do and he agreed to meet with me and I met with him at his home.


We got pretty far into the project before Rod actually settled on that rear brake thing. The first part of it was basically—Art Russell and I built the wind tunnel model. Rod took the concept of the car, which he liked, he liked the outboard wheel thing and stuff. But for the speed range we were looking at, the record was just under 400 mph, and so Rod thought the aerodynamics should go more sub-sonic. And that was correct. That was a professional assessment. That’s the reason I sought him out, because I needed that kind of input and advise.


So Art Russell and I built the wind tunnel model and we did a really nice job on it. Both of us are really good with our hands. We built that, built all the ground plane, the instrumentation pieces, everything that was necessary for the tunnel. When we had things done we would take them to Rod or he would stop by and check on how we were doing and if we needed to do something different he would say, “No, no, do it this way,” or something. So anyway, we learned a lot building that. Rod was able to arrange to use the wind tunnel at the Naval Post-Graduate School up in Monterey, California. We could use it on weekends by paying the technicians that normally worked in the tunnel basically spare money. The navy was okay with them kind of gee-jobbing on the weekends to make some extra money. Rod’s company, the Task Corporation that he worked for, did a lot of work on that particular tunnel and also built the tunnel instrumentation, the balance system that measured all of the loads on the model, so Rod was very familiar with the tunnel and its workings. He had spent months and months in Monterey working on that project for his company. So it really worked out well. And Stan Goldstein had gone into the military at that point and he was stationed in Monterey, working out of Fort Ord. So Stan was there to help out on the weekends and he got to know Ron Burthoff who was the technician there. So anyway we went up there numerous weekends doing wind tunnel work on the car and we made different configurations or fairings and noses and stuff like that to test in the tunnel and that’s how we refined the configuration. [Continues to talk about tunnel testing.]


Anyway, we got down to where we were actually building the car and we still hadn’t come up with a design to steer the front wheel. And I remember the first time that this thing with the rear brakes came up, the car was well under construction in my dad’s garage behind the house in West LA and I visited Rod at his house and he said, “You know, I really haven’t been able to come up with a suitable way to steer the front wheel. It’s turning out to be a complex mechanical problem to solve. I’ve been giving this thing some thought and I really think we ought to steer the car with a fin and leave all the wheels in a fixed, rigid position and steer it with the rear brakes until we’re up to speed.” And God, it seemed like really a far-out kind of concept. And I really looked up to Rod and his expertise. He’s a real sharp guy. So I just sort of acquiesced to that. I said, “Well, I don’t know, Rod. I’ve obviously never driven anything like that. I’ll just accept your word that this is gonna work like this and this is gonna work like this.” [Laughs]


But it didn’t.


But it didn’t. We had a lot of problems. It was kind of a brilliant concept. There was really nothing wrong with it. It’s just that to get it all working in a short period of time, and there were some absolute complications, and then—You get up there under pressure and you’ve got huge companies, Shell Oil and Goodyear and all of this stuff and you’ve got a lot of pressure to deliver. And Rod had a lot of his personal reputation at stake—at least he viewed it that way—in this system working. The big problem was that there were sub-systems that were not functioning properly. We had some spherical bearings that held the wheel yoke that we didn’t have restrained adequately enough within the housing. These were just development bugs and stuff. They were actually sliding inside the housing and the damn car was sort of steering off on its own. It was going different places because unbeknownst to us these bearings were moving in—and they had broken their restraints because we had not adequately secured them for the loads that were being placed on them. And so that was moving around. And then another mistake that was made was somehow, in the rush to get everything ready to go and loaded, whoever on the crew had replaced the steering linkage up to the fin had put it at its absolute lowest ratio in the bellcrank system that provided adjustable steering ratios to the fin, and the damn fin was moving through like a quarter of an inch to the right and a quarter of an inch to the left. And so we were not getting the aerodynamic steering that was supposed to be happening and I’m in there going 300 mph trying to steer right and steer left and I turn right and the car goes left. It seemed to have its own mind where it wants to go and it was pretty unnerving.


And then Rod for some reason started it as a personal affront to his brainchild as a system to steer the car. And his system was fine. But the mechanics within the car, and everybody got so emotionally involved that no one was checking the basics like how, far was the fin moving? Stuff like that. And it just became this horrible conflict within the crew and the sponsors and we were burning money like it was bad toast.


And then on the very absolute last day Quinn Epperly and Nye found where the steering linkage was. And I came out, it was literally at sunset, climbed in the car and made a run and got the fin to work. It was our last day on the salt at about 8:15 pm. I made a run and actually got the thing to steer with that fin. But we were out of time and we had to leave. And of course by then everybody emotionally was in a shambles.


And so we got back and Shell’s position was: Wait a minute. We need to pull back. Let’s get some consultant engineers in here and see what the hell is going on. So that’s what happened. We ended up adding the tail fin to the car. It wasn’t that Rod’s system couldn’t be made workable, but for the sake of having something we absolutely knew worked. We had one engineer who came on board as one of the consultants from Hughes, a guy named Bob Heacock, who was familiar with designing helicopter controls, and he said, “Well, it’s real easy to make the front wheel steer. Why don’t you just put it in on a focusing link.” And everybody in the room turned around and looked at each other and said, “What’s a focusing link?” And he said, “Oh, this,” and he sketched it on a piece of paper and it was this brilliant solution that was just slam-dunk simple. Something that I guess Rod wasn’t familiar with. And so we ended up making the front wheel steer along with making the fin turn, and the next year went on to take the record. And so everything worked fine.


And then, sadly, Schapel sued me.


I wanted to ask you about that lawsuit. What was Schapel’s beef, his complaint?


Well, the complaint was that Rod—in the beginning of course we had no money. I think I was on unemployment when I first sought out Rod’s help. And he very benevolently agreed to help us out, you know, after work and on a part-time basis, as a hot rod hobby. I mean, hot rodding is an amateur thing that people do as a hobby. Basically no one ever gets paid. Rod knew that. But he sued me for the time he had put into the car prior to us getting sponsored. Once we got sponsored he was paid very well. But in the initial work, when we did the initial wind tunnel tests and what have you, and I paid for all the expenses and stuff to Rod, and Rod volunteered his time. He didn’t charge me for his hourly work on the car. The problem was that it was a substantial sum. I’m trying to remember, it was so many years ago, I think the lawsuit was for $350,000 or something, and also 30 percent of my income for the rest of my life. That was on the theory that he had taught me things that, without his mentoring, I would never have been smart enough to design the Sonic 1 car, which is probably true. I mean everybody goes to school, everybody learns from somebody. We’re not born with the knowledge.


Do you think this suit arose because you and Rod had a set-to on the salt in 1962?


Well yeah. I mean, yeah, that was there. And the other thing was that because of the record there was a lot of publicity and a lot of notoriety from it. And I think frankly there was a certain amount of jealousy from Rod’s point of view that he had contributed to this thing, and that as the driver I was getting a lot of accolades for this record and I think he felt he was not receiving the credit he deserved for the design work on the car. But I mean, in everything we publicized, everything always referred to Rod. And the jury that we went to, they didn’t agree with Rod’s position. I think they voted—there’s 13 people on a jury or something like that?—anyway, one person agreed with Rod and the other 12 agreed with us.


[I mention that Art Russell told me he testified on Craig’s behalf at the trial.]


Yeah. Art interfaced—well, most of the guys, we all interfaced together. It’s just that after the problems we had with the steering, that was kind of like gonna be Rod’s fifteen minutes of fame or whatever, because he designed this revolutionary steering system for the vehicle. And then the fact that Shell brought in all these consultant engineers, Bob Heacock with the focusing link deal and Bernie Pershing who was a PhD aerodynamicist at Aerospace Corporation, he calculated the stability on the car and pretty decisively substantiated that for safety purposes it needed a tailfin on it. Those were things that basically I guess diminished Rod’s ultimate authority over the design of the car. I mean Rod was a young guy too, a young engineer, and he was learning like we were learning. But unfortunately he just really got his dander up and that’s what caused the suit. He tried to get Walt Sheehan to join him in a suit against me and Walt basically just said, “Rod, this is total nonsense. We all knew when we got involved in this thing that it was a volunteer deal. Craig didn’t have a quarter.” So Walt wouldn’t participate with him.


Rod’s a very independent guy. He’s a very bright guy, and very talented. But he has a very strong ego and it’s just his personality. I’ve had him do work for me since then. I mean, it just was what it was. After the suit was over we talked about it and he said, you know, “I’ve just forgotten about that a long time ago.” I even wrote him a letter of endorsement for some company he was trying to get a job with. I mean, I like Rod. He’s a bright guy. He’s a little headstrong, that’s just his nature.


The model that you initially took to Rod, was this the same model that you took to Shell to get them to sponsor you?


No. The first model was that kind of pointy one. Art did almost all the work on that. I probably helped him a little bit, but not much. Art had won that Fischer Body Craftsman thing. He was an excellent model maker. That ended up being his career. The wind tunnel model I ended up participating in a lot more.


So you made a second model for the wind tunnel.


Yeah. That one had air ducts that went through it. After we finished doing all the wind tunnel work Art and I painted that model and built the lacquered mahogany case that it went in. Looking back on it now, I think Art painted it and did most of the work on the case. Together we built the model for the wind tunnel and afterwards I had him paint it for a presentation model which I took to Shell.


You married Lee just before you went to Bonneville in 1962. Is that right?


Yeah, I think so. I was given an ultimatum by Shell Oil Company. I either had to marry her or get rid of her.


I wanted to ask you about that, if there had been any pressure.


Yeah. [Laughing] It wasn’t very subtle either.


Stan thought that you got married in Arizona, down on the border. Is that right?


Yeah, we did. We went to Yuma, Arizona. It was a quick run from LA. Lawler, who was in charge of the project for Shell, called me down to his office and he said, “Look, that babe you’re shacked up with. Here’s the deal. Either marry her or get rid of her. I want it resolved by tomorrow morning.”


Bill Lawler was the general manager of the project in ’62.


Yeah. When this thing started with Schapel and Schapel started to really trying to run rough-shod over me—Bill was an ex-Marine major [Laughs]. You know, I’m a lot more mellow than Bill. And Bill just wasn’t going to put up it. He kept Rod on the project, but he said we’re getting some consultants in, and that’s what’s going to happen.


When you returned to Bonneville in ’63 and set the record, was Bill Lawler still overseeing things?


He was there, yeah. He was there right to the end.


In ’64 and ’65 as well?


No, he wasn’t there. In 1963, when we set the record, Bill was promoted to national marketing manager for Shell Oil Company in the United States. So he got a huge promotion when I set the record.


He was the Shell district manager before that. What district was that?


Santa Monica. It went all the way from Santa Barbara and I think it went all the way down to San Diego. So it was basically all of Southern California.


In film and photos of you in 1963, when you first set the record, you are wearing plain old sneakers. Later on you have nice lace-up boots. What’s the story there?


I think probably in about ’62 I just found some boxing shoes and I thought that they looked more cool. And I just bought ‘em. We were in a sporting goods store or something and I saw ‘em and I thought, “Oh, those would be great to drive the car.” You know, I probably was getting a little more appreciation for having the look, kind of professional. [Laughs] So anyway, I just thought they were some cool looking shoes and I bought ‘em.


I know your dad Norm was on the salt with you in ’64 and ’65. Was he there in ’62 and ’63 as well?


I’m trying to remember...He might well have been. He probably was. I know he was there in ’63 and he was there in ‘64.


I’ve heard from two or three people that Lee had quite a temper. Was she a feisty woman?


Very. She was half Indian. Her dad was full-blooded Cherokee. Nice guy. She had just a real streak, boy.


I was talking to Rod about ’62 and he  seems to think that Lee was somehow holding you back from going for it.


No, I don’t think so. The biggest thing holding us back in ’62 was that I couldn’t steer the car.


Well sure. But Rod doesn’t accept that fact for some reason.


Well no. He’s still stuck on that. And I’m the first guy to tell you that that system can be made workable. I don’t think it’s the best way to go, but I think that system can work—because I finally got it to work. But I’ll tell you, it was 8:30 at night, the sun had gone down, and I made a pass in that car at about 360 and I was steering it with that damn fin, with no steering in the front end. It was working fine. The air was dead calm and I could steer the thing right, steer the thing left. In fact I almost went too far under power because I was having such a good time driving the thing with the fin after this horrible ordeal that we’d been through. I told Rod, “That thing works. It’s working.” But we were out of time. Shell had pulled the plug earlier in the day, or I think even the day before, we were on our last day there. And I came back, I told Bill, “This fin is working. I got it to work.” We had some other problems with it. I said, “We need to get back and regroup and pull this thing together.” I’ll tell you, we were coming apart at the seams from the crew’s standpoint at that point and Shell had completely pulled the plug and told us we were under orders to leave. So we had no options. But I got that thing to work after sundown, under dusk conditions, driving from west to east, I made a pass in that thing and got that friggin’ fin to work at the last minute.


[I ask about the experience of all the fame and publicity after he broke the record in 1963.]


Well, I’m kind of a shy person and I found it difficult. I mean, within 24 hours of setting the record  was in New York at the Americana Hotel having a press conference for about 300 people from all over the press and they had me scheduled on the "Tonight Show" with Carson and a whole bunch of other stuff and I mean, this was all foreign stuff to me.


Was that nerve-wracking, being on TV?


Yeah. It made me really nervous. In high school I was the kind of guy that didn’t even want to get up to give a book report.


I read in your book that you lost a lot of weight.

Yeah. First of all, they had me booked, in I think it was 36 cities, to make public appearances, basically all the major cities in the United States. They would have advance teams that would go out and work in an area for three or four weeks lining stuff up before the day that I got there. I would literally get off the plane and they would hand you a schedule that went from early in the day into the midnight hours doing very functions and meetings and whatever you can imagine, all the radio shows in the area and television stations and sports interviews.


Did Lee go with you on all this?


No. I went by myself.


How did she take all this, you being away?


Not really well. It was difficult. I was literally taken out for a full year. I wasn’t even around. I didn’t even get to go home to be with the guys on the crew and stuff. For a full year—I mean I went to England, Australia. They had me going all over the world making appearances. And so that was all very new to me. I mean they just throw you in the fire and you got to learn how to swim. [Laughs] Obviously if you do it enough you get better at doing it and you become more comfortable doing it.


Did it ever become something you enjoyed doing, though?


Not really. I didn’t go set the land speed record with the intention of being a celebrity. I was a hot rodder. I wanted to pursue setting the speed record. That is an ego gratification to do that, to go to Bonneville and set a record or to go win a drag race or whatever you’re gonna do. So I had that drive behind me to try and accomplish something.


When I worked for the fire department for some reason I just started—Mickey Thompson had run 400 mph in the Challenger, and Mickey as like an idol or somebody to look up to, a male model or image or whatever.

speed duel land speed record

copyright 2011 Samuel Hawley