athol graham land speed record lsr


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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.


Harry Muhlbach rebuilt and drove Athol's racer "City of Salt Lake" for the land speed record in 1963. He and Athol's widow Zeldine were  together at the time and married the following year. I interviewed Harry over the phone at his home in Salt Lake City, Utah on September 11, 2009.

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Back in the early 1960s, how were you employed?


I had an automotive shop, and before that I was in the trucking business. I leased a dump truck to a ready-mix outfit. I was self employed. I didn’t have any employees.


What year were you born?




Did you serve in the Korean War by any chance?


No sir.


Did you know Athol Graham?




But you weren’t a friend of his?


No, not really.


How did you become the driver for the car the "City of Salt Lake," after Otto Anzjon drove it and crashed?


[Harry corrected me by saying that Otto did not crash in the car; he had a blow-out but didn’t crash. As for Harry's involvement with the car, he first became involved with Zeldine. He started seeing her (they would eventually marry) and they subsequently came up with the idea of fixing up the car and trying for the record again with Harry as driver.]


So it started with your personal relationship with Zeldine, not with your intention of driving the car?




[Harry stated again that the car hadn’t been in a crash. He couldn’t remember exactly what sort of fixing up it required, but no major work was required.] I think we had to do something with the engine, I can’t remember what. I took the engine up to Seattle, to a gentleman there who was a specialist in Allison engines, and he did some work on it. And then we built a nose guidance bar...You had to drive it sitting up in front and if you started to lose control it was a little bit hard to see it, sitting right in the nose. So we built kind of a triangular-shaped prong that went out in front that you could use as a sight to stay on the line. It went out from the front of the car about eight or ten feet. It was something like an antenna, straight out with a little horizontal bar, and we used that as a guidance sight. We also installed some automatic switches to trip the chute in case of a tire blow-out.


Did you have a sponsor to help you pay for the use of the salt flats and the timing officials?


No. There was no sponsor, no.


What can you remember about your crash on October 12, 1963?


Well, there wasn’t anything too spectacular about it. The switches I had put on behind the tires were not designed well. We put them there because we were concerned about a tire blow-out. The purpose of them was to trip a solenoid that would trip the chute. The tire didn’t blow, but evidently salt from the tires went up and there was enough pressure to trip the chute. It was kind of a pedal switch then when you pushed on was designed so that when anything hit that switch it made a connection and then that opened the chute door. And evidently the salt thrown up from the tires hit these switches and tripped the parachute. A tire didn’t blow.


So that caused you to lose control...


It tipped the car over. The parachute came out and I had no indication that the chute was out. There was no warning light and I couldn’t see behind me at all. So I had no idea the chute was out and I was still trying to accelerate. So it kind it threw me around and I went upside down and stayed upside down until I came to a stop.


The news reports at the time said that this occurred when you were going about 300 mph.


I was going about 400. I thought I had the record, in my own mind, because I still had plenty of power left.


Were you injured?


No, no. Other than a little bit of salt.


What about the car? I guess it would have sustained a lot of damage.


Not a terrific amount. I skidded for better than a quarter mile on its roof.


So it didn’t tumble end over end. It flipped over and skidded on its roof for a long ways.


Correct. That’s what saved me, that it didn’t flip up and down and take type of stuff. It turned over and stayed right on the ground and just cut a hole in the salt until it came to a stop.


In deciding not to repair the car and try again in 1964, was the fact that Craig Breedlove had broken the record and looked set to push it up still higher a consideration?


No, that didn’t have anything to do with it. See, Craig Breedlove was driving a jet engine and I was interested in piston engines. Actually, I think I probably went faster with a single piston-driven engine than anybody ever did. Most of the others had...Mickey Thompson I think had four engines. But this was just one engine. I guess it doesn’t count for much, but...When they reported it in the Deseret News, the headlines on it read that it was a 300 mile an hour crash. But I was pushing 400.


So why did you decide to pull out of competition so to speak and not try again the next year?


Well, there were financial problems, and then I started a business, and it just never happened. There was no particular reason. I don’t know if this is pertinent information for you, but there was a fellow named Hack Miller...


The sports editor for the Deseret News.


Correct. I had some conversations with him and he was quite upset about the car because of Athol Graham being killed in it and so forth. And he at one point told me that he wasn’t going to allow me to, quote, “publicly commit suicide.”


He said that to your face?


No, that was over the telephone. [Harry indicated that this was not a factor in his not running the car again.]


Did Hack tell you that before your crash or after?


It was after my crash. I was interviewed by reporters and I said we would rebuild it and try again, but we never did. But it was after the crash that he told me that he would do all he could to stop me. But as I said, that didn’t have anything to do with me not rebuilding the car. I don’t know why we didn’t. It just didn’t come to pass.


[I asked Harry about Zeldine’s interest in the car and the land speed record. I explain that she maintains today that she wasn’t interested; that rebuilding it after Athol’s death was for the sake of Otto's health, and that running it again after Otto was all Harry’s idea.]


I would say that she was as interested as I was. That would be my personal feeling. She was there with me a hundred percent...She was just as anxious as I was to achieve the land speed record.


So it was a team effort between you and her.


That is correct. I had her opinion and so on and so forth, and she did most of the paperwork, and you have to notify an outfit in France. She handled all that. [Harry confirms the approximate dates Zeldine gave me re. their marriage: married in 1964 and divorced in 1969.]


Did you know Otto Anzjon?


No, I never met him.


I don’t know if this is of any interest, but we ran the car at the Bonneville Speed Week and went 293 and it ran absolutely beautiful. But at that time the problem we had with the car, it was shaped too much like a plane wing. It wanted to fly. In that run in Speed Week, that 293, it was just as smooth as silk. But the canopy that went over the cockpit, it was held down had springs in it. But at 293 that canopy stretched the springs and raised up about six inches over my head indicating that it was lift, and no wind came in. And at that point I knew the car was creating lift.

One of the big problems with the car was that when you got up over 300 mph it started to fly, it wanted to leave the ground...There were a couple guys who worked on jets there at Hill Air Force Base, they were helping me in my endeavor, they put some spoilers on the car to try to stop the lift. Whether they worked or not, I don’t know.


From Athol supposedly having trouble with the tire blowing out, that what led us to make these switches behind each tire, one on each side. They were just a flat piece of metal that when pushed down tripped a solenoid and that allowed the chute door to open and the chute would come out. They were put on there because we figured Athol’s problem was the blow-out of a tire...These switches were in the tire wells directly behind the tires. The idea behind them was that if the tire started to shed rubber, the remnants from the tire disintegrating would fly back and hit the switch and close the circuit and trip the chute.


So that was the problem I had. We didn’t have the foresight to put an indicator light on the instrument panel. If we had I’d have known the chute was out and I’d have slowed down...We had wanted a way to automatically trip the chute if there was a tire blow-out so that it would slow you down before you rolled over. But it turned out that it wasn’t good because there was enough force from the salt being thrown back from the tires to trip the switches. At least that was the only thing we could think of, because something tripped the chute.


Did the car have a seat belt or harness?


It had a harness.


A couple land speed books that mentioned Athol Graham say that he didn’t have a seat belt or harness in the City of Salt Lake. I find this hard to believe. What’s your opinion?


Well, I’d just be guessing, same as you, but I can’t imagine that he wouldn’t have had them. But he may not have. I have no idea.


Finally, did you have any prior racing experience before you drove the Graham Special?


Yeah, I had been involved in some road racing. I drove a Corvette.


Was it a hobby or occupation?


Well, I ran in a couple of professional races, but when I got started, the first club I belonged to, they had races.

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Harry phoned my the next day, September 12, 2009, to clarify a few things. He was concerned that I hadn’t understood the automatic chute release system and went over that again, adding that the pedal-switches were flat pieces of steel 3 or 4 inches across. He also clarified the guidance sight projecting forward from the nose of the car. It consisted of three long rods projecting outward from the top and either side of the car and coming together out front to form a tripod, with a little piece projecting up from this point like a gun sight.


With regard to the problem with lift, he said that a number of L-shaped spoilers were attached to the car at various points, maybe half a dozen all together.


About the crash he said: “There was no anxiety during the wreck. Once I stopped, though, I had a lot of fear about fire because I was trapped in the car. It was maybe five minutes before they came to pry me out, but it seemed like an hour.”


Afterwards Harry did begin to rebuild the car, but he never finished. One of the things he did was to redesign the canopy so that it could be opened from inside the cockpit even when the car was resting on its roof. He also encased the gas tank in fiberglass and installed a shut-off valve to shut off the flow of fuel at the gas tank. Both of these measures were to address his concerns about fire.

speed duel land speed record

copyright 2011 Samuel Hawley