It’s been 20 years since the Thrust SSC made its record-breaking speed run, becoming the only car to ever travel faster than the speed of sound. Yet as its driver explains, it wasn’t as simple as mashing the go-pedal and having its two enormous Rolls-Royce Spey turbofan engines blast him into the history books.
Cars move around considerably at high speed, forcing the drivers to correct for them even when they’re headed in a straight line. The same little wobbles you feel speeding down the freeway in a humble Mitsubishi Mirage are turned up to 11 behind the wheel of the Thrust SSC.
Worse yet, he had to contend with desert sand getting sucked into the engines. And then, of course, there was breaking the sound barrier itself.
“It’s the loudest, highest-pitched scream I’ve ever heard,” said British Royal Air Force fighter pilot Andy Green of approaching the sound barrier, who drove the Thrust SSC to set its world record. “The car tended to pull—because of the way it was constructed with the staggered rear wheels—tended to pull hard left at around 600 miles per hour, and that was requiring up to ninety degrees of steering lock to keep it straight.”
The movement was so much that Green had to back off the throttle.
“On our first supersonic record run, it was such a hard pull, I actually had to throttle back to minimum reheat and close the reheat nozzles right down to reduce the thrust and rebalance the car. The car is now 50 feet off line and I’m steering it effectively off throttle at 650 miles per hour.”
But as soon as it was back on line, Green straightened up the car and put full power back on. The car ran absolutely straight then and set the record, but that was only half his job.
The car slowed down so rapidly that it set off a zillion errors from oil and other things moving forward so quickly, but Green was able to stop it exactly 14 miles from where it set off.
Then Green had to do it all over again, as records have to be set twice within an hour to count.
But they did it. On October 15, 1997, the Thrust SSC set a World Land Speed Record of 760.035 mph, and becoming the first and only car to break the sound barrier.