Craig Breedlove, once the world’s fastest man, has died at the age of 86

Craig Breedlove, the first person to set land speed records at 400, 500 and 600 mph, died Tuesday at his home in Rio Vista, California. He was 86.

The cause was cancer, said his wife Yadira Breedlove.

Breedlove was something of a cross between Neil Armstrong and Evel Knievel – a 1960s American folk hero known for being both an explorer and a daredevil.

In 1963 he made the land speed record a major cultural phenomenon, and when challengers emerged he beat them back, setting records again in 1964 and 1965.

He was a former firefighter whose childhood love of cars inspired him to make his breakthrough in land racing. He took the lead in developing a vehicle whose three wheels, jet engine, missile shape, and tailfin made it resemble less of a car and more of a wingless fighter plane.

His record-breaking vehicles all bore the same name: Spirit of America.

This became the title of a 1963 pop music ode to Breedlove by the Beach Boys, who mythologized him as a “daring young man” playing a “dangerous game”.

Breedlove seemed destined for the role. Born in Los Angeles to a Hollywood studio exec and a showgirl, he was often pictured with a crew cut and a serious smile. He was both the impresario of a new show and its star actor.

He first won the national spotlight on August 5, 1963 in Bonneville, Utah, whose miles of salt flats, the deposits of an ancient sea, provide a natural route for high-speed driving. Breedlove’s first jet-powered vehicle weighed 3 tons and cost $250,000 to build, but it was essentially handcrafted, using tools like files and screwdrivers. He wanted to beat the record of 394 miles per hour set by John Cobb of Great Britain in 1947.

At 6:25 a.m. he took a final sip of his ice water breakfast, stuffed cotton balls in his ears, donned a helmet and wrap-around goggles, and climbed into his cockpit. “All right,” called a race director.

“The Spirit of America moved forward, jet engines screeching,” Sports Illustrated reported that month. “Soon it was a speck, seemingly heading straight through the orange sun to the south-east. Then it disappeared.”

Adhering to the rule of making two runs in opposite directions to avoid a wind advantage, Breedlove clocked 388 mph one-way and 428 mph back, averaging a 407.45.

He grinned for the first time that day. “I don’t think it’s hit the limit yet,” he told Sports Illustrated. “I think I can drive faster.”

Breedlove wasn’t the only one with this idea. Over the next year, Bonneville became the scene of a showdown between Breedlove and brothers Walt and Art Arfons, who all drove jet cars. The trio traded records between themselves, with Breedlove first to break a 500mph average. On its way back, Spirit of America jumped an embankment and ran into a brine lake, with Breedlove barely escaping the vehicle.

The next year he was back with a new four-wheeled rocket car: Spirit of America Sonic I. It used parachutes similar to those used on spacecraft. On November 15, he reached a speed of 600.601 miles per hour.

It wasn’t just the world record. It was the end of the sport itself for years.

Craig Norman Breedlove was born on March 23, 1937 to Norman and Portia (Champion) Breedlove. He grew up in Los Angeles.

At 13, he persuaded his parents to buy him a $75 1934 Ford coupe. He fixed it at a local body shop.

In his teens, Breedlove married Margaret Chancellor and the couple quickly had three children. He graduated from Venice High School and found work as a welder and firefighter.

By the time he was 21, he had already started towing tricked cars to the Bonneville Salt Flats. He worked on the first Spirit of America in his father’s garage. He and Margaret divorced in their early 20s, which he attributed to his obsessive quest to break speed records. He filled his front yard with afterburners, power tools, and auto parts.

His ambitions became more realistic when he approached Goodyear and Shell in 1961 and persuaded them to support him.

At the height of his fame, he was a household name, earning $100,000 annually through sponsorships and speaking engagements. But just as quickly as he rose, he also experienced a downfall.

Many business ventures failed. A flood ruined about $100,000 in auto parts and machinery. He battled potential sponsors and insisted he remain in control of his cars’ design. Worse, for a while he had no one to race against, taking the drama out of the land speed record race.

By 1970, Sports Illustrated reported, Breedlove lived above his garage and drove a battered 1956 Buick he bought for $100. He considered it unsafe to drive more than 80 km/h.

“Let me tell you that Buick doesn’t do much for a man’s morale,” he said.

Gary Gabelich broke Breedlove’s land speed record of 627 mph in 1970. Breedlove pursued a career in real estate but returned to racing regularly as a driver or as a team organizer. One of his goals to break the sound barrier was finally achieved in 1997 by British driver Andy Green.

Breedlove has been married six times, but his last marriage lasted 20 years.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by two children from his first marriage, Norman and Dawn Breedlove; a half-sister, Cindy Bowman; five grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren. Another child from his first marriage, Christine Breedlove, died of cancer about 10 years ago, Yadira Breedlove said.

Justin Scaccy

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