This was a somewhat bizarre and puzzling piece to put together, and I’ll explain why in a couple minutes. But first…
When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time looking at a paperback copy of the Guiness Book of World Records. It was a blue paperback (as I recall), and I believe it was the 1976 edition and in it, there were all kinds of fascinating things to discover.
There were the two heaviest brothers in the world. They were shown on motorcycles and each weighed about 1,000 pounds. There was the guy with the super-long mustache, the snake with fangs more than 2″ long, and a thousand other biggest, widest, deepest, tallest points of interest throughout the book.
But the one that’s on my mind today has to do with Gary Gabelich and the Blue Flame. The Blue Flame was built with one thing in mind…speed, and lots of it. It was a 37-foot aluminum tube with a cockpit and was propelled by a rocket engine capable of generating 22,000 pounds of thrust.
The 1960’s were all about speed records, and the name most synonymous with speed was, without question, Craig Breedlove. Behind the wheel of the Spirit of America, he had set numerous speed records, topping out at a touch over 600 mph.
He was the natural choice to pilot the Blue Flame, but fame had made him too expensive to hire. So the builders turned to Gary Gabelich, another speed merchant with a lot of experience in jet-powered cars, though he lacked Breedlove’s name recognition.
Like most contests of straight-line speed, the Bonneville Salt Flats would provide the venue. But first, a couple of rule clarifications. Land speed records are “two-way” records, meaning the runs have to be made in opposite directions (to cancel out wind assistance). The speed of the vehicle is measured over a flying mile, and the vehicle has to complete both runs within an hour.
So, the Blue Flame would attempt to accelerate to more than 600 mph, get measured through the mile, slow down and stop, get turned around, and do it all again…in about an hour. Got that?…it’s like LensCrafters, only at about the speed of sound.
It took a few days to get two runs completed, but the magic all happened on October 23, 1970, when Gabelich drove one direction at 617 mph and then returned at better than 627 mph, averaging 622 mph. He had solidly bested Breedlove’s record and, what’s more, Gabelich’s record would stand until the 1980’s.
To give you some sense of scope, the other day I alluded to Usain Bolt’s staggering 100-meter dash, completed in something like 9.6 seconds. The Blue Flame took 5.75 seconds…to cover a mile.
Now the mystery…
Researching this event is somewhat difficult, as some sources claim the record was set on October 23rd, while others indicate the 28th. In fact, many of the same articles use both dates, making this a maddening exercise in trying to decipher when this really happened…it shouldn’t be this hard. Furthermore, there are discrepancies in the reported top speed that Gary reached in the Blue Flame. Again, even in the 70’s, precise measurements were possible, so an correct top speed should be attainable.
In the end, I used the date from The History Channel’s website as the official date, and used the speed that was most referenced from the 3 or 4 different sources I used. So there you go…a history lesson that’s probably open for debate.