craig breedlove spirit of america


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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.


Mike Freebairn was a friend of Craig Breedlove's from the early days and was involved in the first "Spirit of America" jet car, the three-wheeler.  I interviewed him over the phone at his  home in Les Vegas on June 2, 2009.

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Craig Breedlove and I went to rival high schools, but we grew up at the same drive-in [Mike means a drive-in diner, not a movie theater] and we had similar car clubs and we knew each other from those days when we were teenagers. And then I went into the military service and Craig got a job with the fire department in Costa Mesa and we didn’t see each other for a while, until I got out from pilot training and was flying as a fighter pilot. I ran into him while I was looking for a stolen car. [Laughs] He was in a barber shop that I was at, and we renewed our friendship from high school and I found out he was looking to build a car that would break John Cobb’s record. He was going to take two Allison aircraft engines, lay them down on their sides and drive one through the front wheels and one through the rear wheels. And I asked him if he’d ever thought of using a jet engine, and he said no he hadn’t. I worked with him right up through the breaking of the speed record.


Why did you suggest the jet idea to Craig? Were you aware of other jet cars?


I was aware that there were people who were starting to play around with them, but nobody had really taken it serious. And I was also aware that after the Korean War there were a lot of jet engines coming out of surplus, and I was very familiar with jet engines, being a fighter pilot. And I actually physically went out and found a jet engine for Craig to use, and we got it down to Costa Mesa.


[I mention hearing from Vic Elischer that back in the early 1960s the military would remove key components from J-47s they were selling off as surplus, and that it was thus a challenge getting the working again.] Do you have a recollection of that?


Well now, we had quite a conversation with Romeo...


Way back then?


Oh yeah. Before that. We got involved with aerodynamics and he didn’t, and of course Glenn Leasher was killed in Romeo’s car. We told him basically what would happen and they didn’t want to believe us. We also did that with Dr. Nathan Ostich. It was Ostich’s wheels that we were able to get ahold of; that’s what put us into those 48-inch wheels that he had.


Those were Ostich’s wheels?


They were built for Ostich’s car, yeah.


But Ostich used Firestone wheels and I thought Craig was a Goodyear guy.


Well, Firestone may have dropped the forgings for the wheels, but we had Goodyear build our tires. The wheels were designed for Ostich’s car and they were being hand laid-up for Ostich’s car.


What did you see as wrong with the Infinity jet car? I know it didn’t have a tail, but neither did Spirit of America in its initial design.


That’s true. We were relying on a design concept with a canard fin under the nose of the car to steer the car. The first year we went up there we didn’t have much control over it, the steering wasn’t sufficient aerodynamically and the car would drift off course. That’s when we took it back to California and developed the steering ratio between the canard fin and the front wheel. We also found out those big wheels were a detriment to our situation because it would tweak the frame so hard; even on a three-knot crosswind the car would drift off course. So there were some design characteristics that played a big part in what we did. We were the first car to go in a wind tunnel and actually get data against a ground plane. That’s why we knew Romeo’s car wasn’t going to work very well, because of the aerodynamic design. There were a lot of other things too. Craig could give you better information on that because he actually talked to him. And then Dr. Nathan Ostich didn’t pay much attention to air duct design, and we knew a lot about that too. That’s why he collapsed his air ducts and pulled out of the racing.


The GE engine that we procured I actually got at Northrop Institute in El Secundo. They put the engine together after tearing it down and ran it on their test stand before we got the engine from them. So we knew we had a working engine. And when Craig took the engine down to his house in Costa Mesa, he actually laid out a frame on the floor of the garage to cradle the engine in, which is still, to my knowledge, painted on the garage floor of that house. We became very excited about it. I basically promoted the car and got all the technical people together to build the car, and we put together quite a team, from aerodynamicists to engineers all the way down to the mechanic who worked on the vehicle.


Were you on the salt that first season in 1962, when the car wasn’t handling well?


Yes and no. I was up there but I couldn’t stay because of commitments I had with the Air National Guard. But I was there and I knew what was going on and I even told them that I thought the crosswind was causing the gyroscopic action on the front wheel that was twisting the frame and causing the car to go off course.


[I mention the tensions that arose in the team during that first season, when the car wasn’t handling.] Do you recall any of those tensions?


Well, Rod Schapel...I was at the meeting with Shell and Goodyear and Craig and the whole team. And Rod Schapel said that, because of my experience flying, I’m the one that should drive the car and see if the canard fin would work or not.


This was after things hadn’t gone well that first trip up to the salt.




How did you feel about the idea of driving the car?


Oh, I’d have loved to have driven it. But it took me completely off guard, and it was Craig’s project. It was never my project. When big business bought in, it became Craig’s project completely. It was no longer a group project, if you understand what I’m saying. Because I even have a tape recording of the night we created the name “Spirit of America.”


An audio tape? Why did you tape that?


It was the only thing we could do. It was at Craig’s home on Sepulveda Boulevard, where he built the first mock-up. He kicked out the back wall to make the garage big enough to hold this mock-up, which was very interesting.


So it was a few of you guys kicking around ideas, and you came up with this name?


We had an engineer from Hughes Aircraft who was there, and Bill Moore, and just the whole group of us. And I had the idea that this was something that I ought to record for history purposes, and I did.


Do you still have that tape?


I think so. But I’ve moved enough times and I’ve got enough stuff in storage that I would be a hard time to find it. But I do have a tape that I made.


What were you calling the car before that?


It was just “Craig Breedlove’s car.” The name “Spirit of America” just came up, I can’t remember if it was Bill Moore or which of the guys it was. But because it was all of us, quote “late teenagers” you might say, we thought we’d caught the spirit of America. We thought that was a great name for the car.


You mentioned you used to hang out at the drive-in with Craig. Was that the Clock Drive-in?


Yeah, the Clock, and Scrivener’s. Scrivener’s is no’s a gas station. I don’t know if the Clock has changed names, but that was at Venice and Sepulveda. Craig lived just up the street, up Sepulveda, with his dad. He had a ‘34 coupe. It was a neat little car. We’d congregate at the drive-in before we’d go down and drag race.


Back then, when you were teens, did you all race your hot rods on the street and things like that, that you weren’t supposed to do?


Oh certainly. There was a law against showing expediency of speed. We used to go out and race at night. We had a black eye, basically. When you were called a hot rodder, you were a rebel. We all had our own little car clubs. But there was a police officer in Culver City that helped put a stop to things. We stopped 80 percent of the street racing by forming the Bay City Timing Association. I’ve got a copy of a newspaper article showing a lot of the clubs standing there with their club names on their T-shirts. Howard Hughes was going to help build us a drag strip. But because of the military security they wouldn’t allow it, so we went back to street racing. But no, we had a black eye in those days. As a matter of fact, Wally Parks came to those meetings, and it was shortly after that that he formed the National Hot Rod Association. So we had a lot to do with street racing.


Am I correct to say, then, that you were involved in street racing, but would have preferred to run on drag strips, but they just didn’t exist at that time?


That’s right...Well, it was a chore. If you went up to Saugus you ran on an old abandoned runway, just a little over a quarter mile long, and rather dangerous. This was before we had any real drag races. The old Saugus strip was one of the ones around LA, and they finally got one at Santa Anna Airport, the Santa Anna drags, and those were the two basic drag strips we had.

[I ask if Mike recalls the use of the derogatory term “squirrel” to refer to someone who was an outlaw, not part of a hot rod club, breaking the law and giving hot rodders a bad name.] Did you ever hear that expression?


Oh sure. There were a lot of kids we used to call squirrels because they were just a little too extreme, or they didn’t want to obey any law, you might say. Or they would cheat. We’d call them squirrels.


Do you remember when Nye Frank entered the picture?


Yeah. Nye got involved I think during the building stage [of Spirit 1]. Of course he was a great crew chief, very knowledgeable and very talented, and did a lot for Craig.


What kind of guy was Rod Schapel?


Oh, a great guy. He was very knowledgeable, a great engineer, very talented mechanically. He was working for Task Corporation, which was developing these little motors for wind tunnels. He got us into wind tunnels and opened a lot of doors for us. I still keep in touch with him periodically.


Is he still alive?


Oh yeah. I could probably find him. I don’t have a current list on him now. But we have mutual friends that we keep in touch with.


You mentioned that Craig’s initial idea for the racer was to use two Allison engines. Had that ever been done before, to put two Allisons in a car?


No...well, I think it had been done a couple of times, but more for drag racing. The way Craig wanted to do it was to lay them down on their sides so he could get a lower profile and drive one through the front wheels and one through the rear wheels. At that time he had the sponsorship of Ed Perkins and that was the way he was thinking because he had more knowledge of that mechanical work. When I suggested the jet engine he said, “Well I don’t have any real knowledge of jet engines.” And I said, “Well I do, so let’s see what we can do.” That’s when I started bringing people onto the project who knew and understood it. And I got him into the wind tunnels at North American Aviation, to visit with the wind tunnel engineers to talk about the machine. They’re the ones who helped us create the design for the car, along with the engineer from Hughes Aircraft.


[I contrast the other LSR guys, building their cars on their own, with Craig going out to find sponsors, and ask Mike where this idea came from.] Did Craig just figure it out? Or was his dad or somebody telling him what he needed to do to win a sponsor?


Yeah, most of the guys were working in their backyards. You get people like Arfons, Arfons got the same basic vision we did. What we found out in the wind tunnel was that you could either take an aerodynamic shape and do it with little horsepower, or you could take brute horsepower and no aerodynamic shape and do the same thing. We chose to do the aerodynamics. As far as sponsorship was concerned, Craig already had a sponsor, Ed Perkins, but he could only spend so much money on the project. And that’s when we started looking for other sponsors. Craig was able to open a door at Shell Oil, and I got Alcoa Aluminum to do the drop forgings, I got Goodyear to build the tires, and they all started coming on as sponsors. And then they had corporate rifts between Goodyear and Shell and Alcoa and Alcoa dropped out of the picture, even though they did the drop forgings for the wheels. But we realized that sponsorship was something we needed if we were going to do this type of car. Because the original budget we had was $300,000, and it ended up costing over $3 million. But when Shell Oil bought in, that was when things really took off.


Were you on the salt for the 1963 season when Craig broke John Cobb’s record?


I again was busy popping kids and I had moved back to Ohio with the job that I had and I couldn’t get out to the salt flats when he broke the record, but I was there shortly thereafter. There were a lot of little tete tetes that I wasn’t able to be at, but when I called Craig he was very happy with the situation. And when he went into the brine pond at 500 mph [in 1964], I called him and talked to him at Wendover and he said, “Mike, I broke my toy.” We’ve been friends a long time and we’ve gone through the whole thing together, and just because of circumstances we were there or we weren’t there.


Do you remember Stan Goldstein?


Oh yeah, real well. Stan’s a good friend. We all grew up in the same era, same time...I was going to have a party for the Spirit of America...we all got these plaques from--Shell put a promotional dinner together and we were all made members of the Spirit of America Association.


In 1963 or ’64?




[I ask about Stan’s comment that Firestone’s tires weren’t as good as the ones Goodyear made for Craig.]


I sat there and watched them being laid up [in Akron]. They laid them all up by hand. It was an outstanding tire. To this day I’m in awe of what they were able to do. I was up in ’97 when Craig was running the last car, and I was up there when Andy Green broke the sound barrier. I’ve got my own videotape of it, from a distance away, but you can still hear the double booms as it went by. They were running with composite wheels then that Goodyear laid up for them.


Were you much involved with Craig’s second car, Sonic 1?


No. After he put the first car in the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, I had gone to work with American Airlines and was flying with them and I just couldn’t be a part of the project. I made a bid to take over Craig’s promotional work with Shell Oil. They of course rejected that. But I put together some toys and was able to sell a few things for Craig. I was more in the promotional end and getting sponsorship and that type of thing rather than being on the actual crew.


[I go back to check on Mike’s situation when he met Craig at the barber shop that day. He said he was in the Air National Guard, flying F-86s out of Van Nuys, California.]


In those days we were all young and excited about doing things. And Craig and I met in that barber shop after so many years. He was a fireman with the Costa Mesa fire department and I just got a job with Hartwell Corporation, doing sales for them, the aircraft missile electronic hardware people, and I was flying with the Air National Guard. And through the Air National Guard, one of my flight commanders just happened to be the chief test pilot on the F-104 program out at Palmdale, for Lockheed. And Glen put me in touch with Walter Sheehan, who was head of the propulsion staff at Lockheed. And the guy in our engine shop, Bob Johnson, was a great jet mechanic and he came on the project. So I started putting people together to work with the project who were very professional. And it all came together, and we did pretty well, I think.


Running into Craig at the barber shop, you said you were looking for a stolen car. What was that about?


I had a chopped and channeled ’29 Model A two-door sedan. And somebody had taken it out of my storage facility and hauled it off, and I found out who it was and befriended the kid and helped him a little bit rather than let him, you know...


Go to jail.


Yeah. We had all paid our dues, you might say. You try to help somebody rather than just put them away. I just wasn’t that mad. [Laughs] But the car had been seen, so I was looking for a couple of people and Craig just happened to be there when I was looking for people.


What did you all think about Art Arfons at the time?


Great guy.


He was building his car on his own, and was keeping abreast of Craig every step of the way. You all must have had a pretty high opinion of him.


Oh definitely. I liked Walt and Art. They were good. You got to remember, a lot of jet engines were built in Ohio. Art  was able to get his J-79 and we were still struggling with a J-47. And it was an aerodynamicist who told us about whether you use aerodynamics or brute force, and Art was just the classic case of brute force. I think we had a good relationship. It was competitive. It was quite a see saw.


[I ask about Dick Faulkner.]


I knew Dick, but not very well.

Was he involved with Spirit much in the early days?


I think Stan would be able to answer that better.

[I explain the book I’m working on for a bit.]


Goodyear used to have in their library the movie Spirit of America that they put together, and then they had one called 456 Plus, and then they had, uh...well, they had three movies that they put together, documentaries.


[Mike mentions that Mickey Thompson.] I was involved with Craig when he was trying to put together his two-engine coupe. And there was some rivalry between Mickey Thompson and Craig. Craig had a break-in and theft in his garage that took him out of the competition...


When was that?


In the ‘50s.


I had assumed you guys all looked up to Mickey.




What were your feelings about Mickey?


He was very talented. He could do a lot of things and put a lot of things together. But Mickey recognized that you had to stretch yourself...I liked Mickey. He was a good guy. But we didn’t get along with him because we had a lot of things that we were doing that he was doing, and some people from his part we think we trying to scuttle what we were doing. And so there was a competitive situation there that brought some bad blood between us all.


In going after sponsors for Spirit, do you think you were in part inspired by Mickey?


No, we were never inspired by Mickey. We just knew that we had certain things that had to be done, and we went after sponsorship based on what our needs were. And it worked. [several minutes of chatting] I’ve had a lot of involvement with Craig. I tried to get his first wife to stay with him, but she just wouldn’t do it.


Was it that Craig was obsessed with the jet car?


It’s hard to say. But he loved automobiles, he loved racing. He was with the fire department at the time, which was a good, stable job, a lot of us thought we’d like to go with the fire department. But I think Craig’s wife was very upset that he would leave his job to go off and race.

speed duel land speed record

copyright 2011 Samuel Hawley