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LAND SPEED RECORD

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LAND SPEED RECORD

IMJIN WAR

PERCY WILLIAMS

ELEPHANT TOPSY

GEORGE FOULK


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.

GLENN LEASHER / INFINITY: TOM FUKUYA REMEMBERS (PART 2)



Here are the final two e-mails I received from Tom Fukuya, dated December 7 and 8, 2009. In the first Tom touches on published errors regarding "Infinity" that he would like to correct; in the second he discusses what he feels went wrong at Bonneville that day in 1962 when Glenn Leasher was killed.

*          *          *

From: Tom Fukuya

To: Sam Hawley

Date: Mon, Dec 7, 2009

Subject: Infinity: Published errors of fact I wish I could correct.

 

Hi Sam,

Here are some corrections of published errors about Infinity that I wish I could correct.

1) "Infinity crashed at 250 mph". Vic's and my estimate, after studying the newsreel film we obtained, plus Vic's measurements, plus our experience with Untouchable, is that it happened at a rock-bottom minimum of 440mph, and more likely at 460 to 470mph. Also, a Time Magazine article published at the time quoted an eyewitness as estimating the speed at possibly 470 mph. This person might have been one of the timers, possibly even Joe Petrali, himself...(I only saw this article for the first time this summer)....

2) "There was an explosion and fire". There was no explosion, in the sense of the engine exploding, or fuel tank exploding, but the big cloud of white salt thrown up could have looked like an explosion, to a bystander. And we saw no flames when we arrived at the crash site...

3) "The engine cost $12,500". Vic told me that it cost $125, plus expenses.

4) "There might have been a compressor stall". The jet powerplant engineer I talked to up at Boeing, who was extremely familiar with compressor stalls, said that the usual stall is an extremely loud event...I didn't hear any such loud noise, and also, the very bright afterburner flame remained constant and stable until just before the crash.

5) "Glenn might have been unconscious during part of the last run". I believe he was conscious throughout, and also that he consciously shut off the afterburner, just before the crash.

6) "Infinity was built by a firm in Berkeley". Romeo and his team built Infinity, with the body and parachutes built by outside craftsmen hired to do specific jobs. All of the final assembly was done in Oakland.

7) "The metal parachute compartment covers seen in photos from the first trip were certainly the final configuration of the car". We had completely given up on jettisonable chute covers by the second trip. Instead, we had very clever four-piece canvas covers designed by Dan Abbot of Security Parachutes. These were bolted to the car, and were, hopefully, durable enough for many chute deployments...

8) "The parachutes were recovered, still in their packs, after the crash". Chute packs were never used, with the chutes packed directly in their metal compartments, and after the crash, the chutes, still attached to the frame, were both wrapped transversely around the car's frame and engine.

9) "Chassis problems were discovered during the one run the team made during the first trip to Bonneville". There were no problems with the chassis, just badly unbalanced wheels, which we had been assured had been high-speed balanced....I never saw Romeo make any changes to the chassis between the two trips....

10) "The car yawed to the left, then crashed". The car curved to the right, then abruptly flipped left.

11) "Art Arfons was very angry at the Infinity team, who dumped the remains of their crashed car near the entrance to the Bonneville track". Our team was utterly betrayed by someone on the Bonneville track team, after we had been assured that everything would be cleaned up and properly disposed of at the local waste dump. We offered strongly to do a thorough cleanup, ourselves, but it was made very clear to us that that would not be allowed. We were especially worried, of course, about any sharp fragments on the track, possibly causing future accidents....I, myself, did not discover what had been done until July, 2009, 46 years later.....

 

*          *          *

 

From: Tom Fukuya

To: Sam Hawley

Date: Tue, Dec 8, 2009

Subject: Infinity; Final question: "What is your latest theory on what happened at Bonneville?"

 

Hi Sam,

First, I want to thank you very much for letting me have my say about  Infinity's story as I experienced it, and for acting as a catalyst, causing me to think about and to try to resolve things that perhaps I had avoided all this time....

Anyway, the following theory is speculation, and subject to revision if new facts appear, but it's my final theory, as of today....

I believe that when we arrived at Bonneville on the second trip, Infinity, the machine, was fully capable, with no alteration whatsoever, of breaking John Cobb's Land Speed Record.

However, I believe that Romeo and Glenn wrongly believed that the LSR timing was done in a short drag strip-type speed trap just at the beginning of the measured mile, and that whatever speed was measured on any single pass, would be the record, if it exceeded the old speed record by however much or little.

This explains Romeo's utterances and his and Glenn's entire approach to the problem.

(Incidentally, this approach makes a lot of sense, especially as speeds go higher and higher, and the danger grows and grows. Romeo's idea may in fact become the norm, someday, say, in the range of maybe 2,500 mph...????).

After Dan Abbot's explanation, however, I believe Glenn finally understood exactly what setting a new LSR entailed, and finally understood what Vic had been telling him all along.

Although he was shaken to the core, Glenn, with very great courage, devised a plan of his own, to accommodate both what the LSR rules required, and what Romeo believed needed to be done, to set a record.

On the last run, he backed off farther than ever, and ran at the mile marker as hard as possible, in order to arrive there at the highest possible speed, and hoping then to be able to coast through the mile, averaging sufficiently above Cobb's record.

I believe Glenn ran into a torque-steering problem which only appeared at very high afterburner pressures, which caused him to veer gently to the right, because the engine was pressing down on the right side of the car, increasing the size of the tire contact patches, causing increased rolling resistance on the right side...

Glenn tried to figure out this new phenomenon, while keeping the afterburner full on.

As the curve to the right tightened and the required centripetal force to hold the curve increased, the car tilted up on its two left wheels, running quite a distance, balanced in that way. After awhile, the overloaded left front bearings failed, and Glenn abruptly closed the throttle.

When the afterburner was shut off, the rightward torque tending to hold the right side down with a lot of force (enough in Art Arfons' case to burst tires, as you pointed out, Sam) abruptly disappeared, and the car executed a vicious snap-roll to the left, slamming into the salt, shattering and with the body being blown apart by 400+mph winds.

When Glenn held the afterburner on so long, he put himself into a box, with no easy way out. This is much like a thing that causes light airplane crashes, where pilots try to fly over high mountain ranges by following a narrow valley, then they experience carburetor icing, lose power, can't climb high enough straight ahead, and are hemmed-in to left and right....

Glenn's last chance, I think, was to maybe just deploy the chutes, regardless of the afterburner flame, simultaneously closing the throttle slowly....

Anyway, that's the end of my story, Sam. I hope you have great success with your book, and I'm sorry I've been so slow and so long-winded!

see you around....tom.


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