Ten years ago a cadre of British paramilitary-industrialists came to America and set the world on its ear; for the first and only time, a man set an official supersonic Land Speed Record of Mach 1. That hot shoe was RAF pilot Andy Green, a taciturn speed demon who punched through the sonic wall in his twin jet-engined Thrust SSC, an accomplishment achieved with the help of team owner Richard Noble and engineers such as aerodynamicist Ron Ayers. This watershed was accomplished on the barren wastes of Black Rock, Nevada, on a forty-mile long dry lake bed.
Yes: Mach 1 was a wet dream until Green hit it.
This Jalopnik correspondent was there, and witnessed the feat with a smattering of motor journos and sundry members of the proper Fourth Estate. Also among those gathered was a blind hippie named Danny Jo, who felt the shock waves through the toes on his bare feet.
The following is excerpted from INFINITY OVER ZERO, and is a chronicling of Green's epic feat from ten years ago today:
They see something and then they hear it. Puffs of smoke off in the distance and then an audible blast out of the jet engines' tailpipes. Empirical — and sensory — confirmation that light is faster than sound. Ernst Mach would be proud.
Members of the SSC support team are standing by in Supacats. They are aborigines gathered around a fire.
"The car is beginning to yaw," Andy Green says, a master of understatement. He is coming towards the Supacats, slightly weaving between parallel white lines. It appears to the observers, however, this machine is coming from an arc. It is empirical confirmation that the earth is round.
He manhandles ten tons of machinery back into the proper groove and passes through the measure mile at 763 mph. Boom. Boom. Windows rattle at Bruno's and glasses on the bar wiggle. A shot glass is knocked off the bar and breaks.
"Man, that was hard work," Andy Green reports through his mask.
At Mile 13.5, the support team turns the beast around and packs the parachutes, replenishes the fuel and interfaces the starter motor, spinning the turbine blades and injecting voltage and kerosene. The moment is nigh. Back to back, baby. Supermotherfuckingsonic.
THE DESERT EXHALES (RUN SIXTY-SIX)
"SSC ready to roll ... SSC is rolling ..." Andy Green keys his mic and leaves it open... (inhale) ... SSC slowly creeps up to a 100 mph ... a very careful, calculated application of thrust ... the white line fades ... (inhale) "two good nozzles, looking for max ..." (exhale) the afterburners glow with an orange flame... "350...jeez-us" "450..keep your foot down..." (inhale) ... compressed molecules of air pile up against the massive black missile of a marital aid like football players running in place against the closed door of a locker room... the winds begin to howl as Mach's Demon spreads his wings ... (inhale) even with the "bravery switch" the winds are deafening when molecules of air come together and create a unique form of primordial intelligence ... Green continues driving the shit out of it, giving it rudder while grunting in his brainbucket's headset, a measured breathing, phone sex for the supersonic set......in the measured mile the shaman closes his eyes, which is redundant as he is already blind, but whatever...
Andy Green is giving 'er full rudder at 700 mph... the machine has yawed off course and the steering yoke is pointed completely vertically...
Ernst Mach was right, Einstein was right....
SSC is fifty feet off of its white line that serves as the guide down the desert, a perilous conundrum reminiscent of the fate that claimed Glen Leasher... it is very easy to get disoriented in the desert, and Green is following the wrong white line... Green is fighting this vehicle, something that was designed as a model of stability in supersonic chaos and the car is blown off course by fifty feet... "I'll say that was fast... 450, chute out, yes, everything is wonderful."
Danny Jo goes into a singular trance, in tune with the manifold harmonics of the jet engines and the sound of molecules compressing into a pane of glass to be punctured like this was Vienna in 1868... he hears the singing of the angels, dancing on the proverbial pins... the desert exhales... it is like some bodacious, preternatural breath of relief, a post-coital moan of exultation worthy of tantric monks and snow leopards.
The blind hippie reaches for his sock, wiggles his toes again, and smiles.
Ron Ayer's approach to Mach 1 — use a ton of weight and downforce and just suck that baby onto the playa — proved to be the correct one. Poetically, on October 15th, 1997, one day after the 50th anniversary of Chuck Yeager's supersonic flight, Andy Green recorded speeds of 759 and 766 mph, which translated to Mach numbers of 1.01 and 1.05, establishing a supersonic LSR of 763 mph. "The car becomes unstable at around Mach 0.85 as the airflow starts to go supersonic underneath the vehicle and requires very rapid, precise steering inputs to keep it on the white guide line," Green clarified afterward, ironically using the present tense to describe his benchmark performance. "The car becomes slightly more stable above Mach 0.9 and can then be steered fairly accurately through the measured mile. The shockwaves formed visible moisture on the front of the car, which could be seen from the cockpit and which moved back along the body as the car accelerated." Green continued to describe how Thrust SSC exquisitely but firmly punctured a hole in the sound barrier. "The car then remains reasonably stable as it accelerates through Mach 1, with the rate of acceleration dropping off as the vehicle generates the huge shockwaves which cause the sonic boom." BOOM. Mach 1 was no longer theoretical. The bigger hammer method prevailed.
Noble, Green, Ayers, et. al, achieved their technological imperative — designed a race car that wouldn't disintegrate as it punched a hole in the sound barrier — convincingly. Art Arfons put the magnitude of this achievement in perspective: "Everybody has been bragging — me included — that we'll go out there and go supersonic when we really couldn't," he said. "This guy did it. This has got to be the living end."
Arfons nailed it: It is the end of an era and it all transpired at the end of the century, during the waning moments of the millennium. Regardless of the heroics and foibles of Sir Malcolm, John Cobb, Craig Breedlove, and Art Arfons, future historians will regard Richard Noble's and Andy Green's feat as the last epic gesture of the fossil fuel age, because. . . hot rodding is over — the gearheads have reached the Holy Grail.
After Mach 1, what else is there?