The American competitors, headed by Craig Breedlove, the five-time landspeed record holder, fared less well. The team and the sleekly elegant Spirit of America were still recovering from the world's highest-land-speed accident. In the fall of 1996 Breedlove survived when one of the rear wheels of his vehicle left the ground at Black Rock at about 675 mph. The Spirit of America veered into a U-turn that barely missed a spectator's vehicle stationed on the alkaline desert basin, known as a playa.
After the accident, Breedlove and his crew rebuilt the heavily damaged single-engine jet car. But when it arrived at Black Rock in early September, it confronted a series of mechanical problems, including a damaged engine, front-wheel instability, faulty readings from onboard sensors and the need to replace some of the tires and wheels. As of mid-October, the car had reached an unofficial top speed of 636 mph. Still, Breedlove vowed to beat the British eventually.
Appropriately, this head-to-head showdown occurred in a corner of northern Nevada that retains much of its frontier character. The nearest town, Gerlach, is but a few miles from a path, sometimes called the Death Route, that took thousands of settlers across Black Rock's forbidding barrenness on their way to Oregon and California. Today this hamlet of 350 residents, nestled at an altitude of nearly 4,000 feet, has five bars but no grocery store.
By early October, Gerlach's licensed establishments had succumbed thoroughly to the throes of supersonic fever. The Black Rock Salloon [sic]—the main after-hours gathering place for both teams—featured a lighted sign in the parking lot that supplied the highest speed attained by both the Spirit of America and Thrust SSC. And just outside of town on the way to the playa, someone had spray-painted "850," as in miles per hour, over the often ignored 55-mph speed-limit sign.
More than anything, the race to the terrestrial sound barrier showed that this level of record setting can no longer be accomplished by mere tinkerers. Organizing the Thrust team amounted to staging the equivalent of a small-scale military campaign, replete with a huge Russian cargo transport to deliver the car to Reno-Tahoe International Airport. Thrust SSC also proved a technical marvel. It incorporated an active suspension that changed how loads were distributed on the front and rear as it neared Mach 1. And the underside of the machine was fitted with technology adapted from supersonic wind tunnels that prevented shock waves from moving about and causing structural damage to the vehicle.
Funds for the 250,000 gallons of fuel for the Antonov air cargo jet's journey to Nevada came from donations from team supporters, some of whose contributions were solicited on the Internet. One commentator in Gerlach on the changing nature of these events was Art Arfons, who raced against Breedlove on the Bonneville Salt Flats in the 1960s for the title of fastest man on earth. After observing the preparations of the British, the 71-year-old Ohioan, who still resembles a hot rodder in his wraparound sunglasses, could only express amazement. "A backyard mechanic could never do this anymore," Arfons said. "This has turned into a high-tech business."