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.
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
and we had similar car clubs and we knew each other from those days
were teenagers. And then I went into the military service and Craig got
with the fire department in Costa Mesa and we didn’t see each other for
while, until I got out from pilot training and was flying as a fighter
ran into him while I was looking for a stolen car. [Laughs] He was in a
shop that I was at, and we renewed our friendship from high school and
out he was looking to build a car that would break John Cobb’s record.
going to take two Allison aircraft engines, lay them down on their
drive one through the front wheels and one through the rear wheels. And
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.
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
aware that after the Korean War there were a lot of jet engines coming
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,
got it down to Costa Mesa.
from Vic Elischer that back in the early 1960s the military would
components from J-47s they were selling off as surplus, and that it was
challenge getting the working again.] Do you have a recollection of
Well now, we
had quite a conversation with Romeo...
Before that. We got involved with aerodynamics
and he didn’t, and of course Glenn Leasher was killed in Romeo’s car.
him basically what would happen and they didn’t want to believe us. We
that with Dr. Nathan Ostich. It was Ostich’s wheels that we were able
ahold of; that’s what put us into those 48-inch wheels that he had.
built for Ostich’s car, yeah.
Firestone wheels and I thought Craig was a Goodyear guy.
Firestone may have dropped the forgings for the
wheels, but we had Goodyear build our tires. The wheels were designed
Ostich’s car and they were being hand laid-up for Ostich’s car.
did you see as
wrong with the Infinity jet car? I know it didn’t have a tail, but
Spirit of America in its initial design.
We were relying on a design concept with a
canard fin under the nose of the car to steer the car. The first year
up there we didn’t have much control over it, the steering wasn’t
aerodynamically and the car would drift off course. That’s when we took
to California and developed the steering ratio between the canard fin
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
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
design. There were a lot of other things too. Craig could give you
information on that because he actually talked to him. And then Dr.
Ostich didn’t pay much attention to air duct design, and we knew a lot
that too. That’s why he collapsed his air ducts and pulled out of the
The GE engine
that we procured I actually got at Northrop
Institute in El Secundo. They put the engine together after tearing it
ran it on their test stand before we got the engine from them. So we
had a working engine. And when Craig took the engine down to his house
Mesa, he actually laid out a frame on the floor of the garage to cradle
engine in, which is still, to my knowledge, painted on the garage floor
We became very excited about it. I basically
car and got all the technical people together to build the car, and we
together quite a team, from aerodynamicists to engineers all the
way down to the mechanic who worked on the vehicle.
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
gyroscopic action on the front wheel that was twisting the frame and
the car to go off course.
tensions that arose in the team during that first season, when the car
handling.] Do you recall any of those tensions?
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
fin would work or not.
things hadn’t gone well that first trip up to the salt.
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
big business bought in, it became Craig’s project completely. It was no
a group project, if you understand what I’m saying. Because I even have
recording of the night we created the name “Spirit of America.”
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
back wall to make the garage big enough to hold this mock-up, which was
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.
you still have
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
a tape that I made.
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
guys it was. But because it was all of us, quote “late teenagers” you
we thought we’d caught the spirit of America. We thought that was a
for the car.
used to hang out at the drive-in with Craig. Was that the Clock
Clock, and Scrivener’s. Scrivener’s is no
longer...it’s a gas station. I don’t know if the Clock has changed
that was at Venice and Sepulveda. Craig lived just up the street, up
with his dad. He had a ‘34 coupe. It was a neat little car. We’d
the drive-in before we’d go down and drag race.
then, when you
were teens, did you all race your hot rods on the street and things
that you weren’t supposed to do?
There was a law against showing expediency
of speed. We used to go out and race at night. We had a black eye,
When you were called a hot rodder, you were a rebel. We all had our own
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
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
going to help build us a drag strip. But because of the military
wouldn’t allow it, so we went back to street racing. But no, we had a
in those days. As a matter of fact, Wally Parks came to those meetings,
was shortly after that that he formed the National Hot Rod Association.
had a lot to do with street racing.
I correct to say,
then, that you were involved in street racing, but would have preferred
on drag strips, but they just didn’t exist at that time?
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
long, and rather dangerous. This was before we had any real drag races.
Saugus strip was one of the ones around LA, and they finally got one at
Anna Airport, the Santa Anna drags, and those were the two basic drag
ask if Mike recalls
the use of the derogatory term “squirrel” to refer to someone who was
outlaw, not part of a hot rod club, breaking the law and giving hot
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
obey any law, you might say. Or they would cheat. We’d call them
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
talented, and did a lot for Craig.
kind of guy was
Oh, a great
guy. He was very knowledgeable, a great
engineer, very talented mechanically. He was working for Task
which was developing these little motors for wind tunnels. He got us
tunnels and opened a lot of doors for us. I still keep in touch with
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.
Craig’s initial idea for the racer was to use two Allison engines. Had
ever been done before, to put two Allisons in a car?
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
their sides so he could get a lower profile and drive one through the
wheels and one through the rear wheels. At that time he had the
Ed Perkins and that was the way he was thinking because he had more
of that mechanical work. When I suggested the jet engine he said, “Well
have any real knowledge of jet engines.” And I said, “Well I do, so
what we can do.” That’s when I started bringing people onto the project
knew and understood it. And I got him into the wind tunnels at North
Aviation, to visit with the wind tunnel engineers to talk about the
They’re the ones who helped us create the design for the car, along
engineer from Hughes Aircraft.
contrast the other
LSR guys, building their cars on their own, with Craig going out to
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
Yeah, most of
the guys were working in their backyards.
You get people like Arfons, Arfons got the same basic vision we did.
found out in the wind tunnel was that you could either take an
shape and do it with little horsepower, or you could take brute
no aerodynamic shape and do the same thing. We chose to do the
far as sponsorship was concerned, Craig already had a sponsor, Ed
he could only spend so much money on the project. And that’s when we
looking for other sponsors. Craig was able to open a door at Shell Oil,
got Alcoa Aluminum to do the drop forgings, I got Goodyear to build the
and they all started coming on as sponsors. And then they had corporate
between Goodyear and Shell and Alcoa and Alcoa dropped out of the
even though they did the drop forgings for the wheels. But we realized
sponsorship was something we needed if we were going to do this type of
Because the original budget we had was $300,000, and it ended up
$3 million. But when Shell Oil bought in, that was when things really
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
the record, but I was there shortly thereafter. There were a lot of
à tetes that I wasn’t able to be at, but when I called Craig he was
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.”
been friends a long time and we’ve gone through the whole thing
just because of circumstances we were there or we weren’t there.
you remember Stan
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
America...we all got these plaques from--Shell put a promotional dinner
together and we were all made members of the Spirit of America
1963 or ’64?
ask about Stan’s
comment that Firestone’s tires weren’t as good as the ones Goodyear
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
awe of what they were able to do. I was up in ’97 when Craig was
last car, and I was up there when Andy Green broke the sound barrier.
my own videotape of it, from a distance away, but you can still hear
booms as it went by. They were running with composite wheels then that
laid up for them.
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
flying with them and I just couldn’t be a part of the project. I made a
take over Craig’s promotional work with Shell Oil. They of course
that. But I put together some toys and was able to sell a few things
I was more in the promotional end and getting sponsorship and that type
thing rather than being on the actual crew.
go back to check
on Mike’s situation when he met Craig at the barber shop that day. He
was in the Air National Guard, flying F-86s out of Van Nuys,
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
fireman with the Costa Mesa fire department and I just got a job with
Corporation, doing sales for them, the aircraft missile electronic
people, and I was flying with the Air National Guard. And through the
National Guard, one of my flight commanders just happened to be the
pilot on the F-104 program out at Palmdale, for Lockheed. And Glen put
touch with Walter Sheehan, who was head of the propulsion staff at
And the guy in our engine shop, Bob Johnson, was a great jet mechanic
came on the project. So I started putting people together to work with
project who were very professional. And it all came together, and we
well, I think.
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,
found out who it was and befriended the kid and helped him a little bit
than let him, you know...
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.
But the car had been seen, so I was looking for a couple of people and
just happened to be there when I was looking for people.
did you all
think about Art Arfons at the time?
was building his
car on his own, and was keeping abreast of Craig every step of the way.
must have had a pretty high opinion of him.
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
who told us about whether you use aerodynamics or brute force, and Art
the classic case of brute force. I think we had a good relationship. It
It was quite a see saw.
ask about Dick
I knew Dick,
but not very well.
he involved with
Spirit much in the early days?
I think Stan
would be able to answer that better.
explain the book
I’m working on for a bit.]
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
that Mickey Thompson.] I was involved with
Craig when he was trying to put together his two-engine coupe. And
some rivalry between Mickey Thompson and Craig. Craig had a break-in
in his garage that took him out of the competition...
In the ‘50s.
had assumed you
guys all looked up to Mickey.
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
to stretch yourself...I liked Mickey. He was a good guy. But we didn’t
along with him because we had a lot of things that we were doing that
doing, and some people from his part we think we trying to scuttle what
doing. And so there was a competitive situation there that brought some
blood between us all.
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
what our needs were. And it worked. [several minutes of chatting]
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.
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,
job, a lot of us thought we’d like to go with the fire department. But
Craig’s wife was very upset that he would leave his job to go off and