The history of land-speed record attempts is a long one, involving many different world governing bodies – often with very different ideas of what rules and regulations should apply – and a string of courageous drivers.
In the first half of the 20th century, the record changed hands fairly often, occasionally twice in the same year. But by the 1960s, records were staying put for longer.
And successful drivers tended to be American: Craig Breedlove held the record three times during that decade, the last with Spirit of America – Sonic 1, which reached 594 mph (955.95 km/h) on 15 November 1965 at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, USA.
In the 1980s, however, the Brits started making headway. Richard Noble had reached 634.051 mph (1,020.406 km/h) in the jet-powered Thrust2 at Black Rock Desert in Nevada, USA, in 1983, and held the record for nearly 14 years. Then, on 25 September 1997, at the same location, fellow Brit Andy Green reached 713.990 mph (1,149.055 km/h) in the jet-propelled Thrust SSC, packed with a pair of Rolls-Royce Spey turbofan engines. And they provided serious thrust – they were also used in the F-4 Phantom II jet fighter.
Then again, Andy Green was no stranger to that kind of power: he was an RAF Wing Commander. And he wasn’t finished yet.
The following month, he was back at Black Rock, once more at the wheel of Thrust SSC. On 13 October, during trial runs, the car exceeded Mach 1, breaking the sound barrier.
Astonishing aerial photographs taken on the day showed a shockwave forming around the front of the car and extending behind it some 300 ft (90 m). Indeed, the car left hardly any tracks on the desert floor, because the shockwave had pounded them down.
On 15 October 1997, Andy Green made another official attempt on the land-speed record, which is measured as an average of two runs made across a measured mile, both to be completed within an hour.
As you can see in the video above, the ride looks super-smooth. For the driver, however, it was anything but. Andy described the vehicle at 500–600 mph (800–960 km/h) as “a massive handful, bordering on uncontrollable”. And the result? An average speed across both runs of 763.035 mph (1,226.986 km/h) – and an emphatic new world land-speed record!
The two huge booms that rang out over the site during Andy’s outward and return run sent his crew into spontaneous cheers – though because he was actually inside the vehicle that caused those sonic booms, he couldn’t hear them himself.
Andy Green had driven faster than any other person in history. What’s more, his record-breaking ride came 50 years and one day after the sound barrier was first broken, by Chuck Yeager (USA) in a rocket plane, the Bell X-1. So the letters ‘SSC’ in the car’s name proved prophetic after all: they stood for ‘SuperSonic Car’.
Thrust SSC was officially retired after those 20 dazzling days in 1997 and currently resides in the Coventry Transport Museum in the UK. But the story doesn’t end there. For some time now, plans have been afoot for the next generation of supersonic, record-smashing cars. Check out the plans for the jet- and rocket-propelled Bloodhound SSC.
It’s believed that the car will take part in a new land-speed record some time in 2016. And Andy Green hopes to be behind the wheel yet again. Watch this space – but don’t blink, or you just might miss Bloodhound SSC as it streaks by…