Speedster Craig Breedlove's terrifying brush with death in race for land-speed record

By Vicki Newman
craig breedlove close up

Daredevil speedster Craig Breedlove put his life on the line in his race to break the land-speed record.

The American race car driver was so determined to drive his car Spirit of America faster than anyone else had gone before that he set a record he would never have expected to.

Breedlove did set the record numerous times, but not without escaping a dramatic brush with death.

His need for speed – and rivalry with contemporary Art Arfons, a fellow American – is the subject of an episode of Guinness World Records’ Behind the Book podcast.

The pair took the land-speed record from one another time and time again, with both determined to be the fastest in the world. But at what cost?

On 5 August 1963, Breedlove drove his jet-powered car up to a speed of 407.518 mph, setting a land-speed record as the first to exceed 400 mph over both legs of a two-leg run.

It was the following year that Breedlove’s need for speed set an unprecedented record – the longest continuous car skid – one that was almost 10 km (6 mi) long.

Describing what happened that day at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, USA, Guinness World Records Editor-in-Chief Craig Glenday says Breedlove remained focussed as his team celebrated around him, convinced that he was about to set another land-speed record.

He said: “And he’s right to be focussed. The previous night he was unable to sleep, tormented by a vision that he was going to die that morning.

“He even got out of bed and wrote a note to his three children, telling them how much he loved them.

And how prescient this was, because Breedlove was about to feel the force of what happens when the land-speed record goes wrong.

Craig continued: “Back in the car after just 30 minutes of preparation, Breedlove accelerates off. Spirit of America is powered by a J47 engine, a turbo jet built by General Electric for an F-86 Sabre jet fighter plane.

“It fires him quickly to within six miles of the one-mile timing zone and it’s then, when he’s at around 400 mph, something snaps, loud enough to be heard over the roar of the engine and the wind.

“Breedlove fights to control the yoke as the car veers off course, he pulls hard on the steering and aligns himself once again with the black guidance strip that’s painted on the Salt.

Craig Breedlove with his car Spirit of America

“Abort or not, that’s the decision he has to take. In a split second, with the one-mile marker just ahead of him he makes a call no other mortal human being would dare to - he accelerates.

“Within just seven seconds, surely the longest seven seconds of his life, Breedlove is clear of the mile, but the car is now veering uncontrollably.

He can’t slam on the brakes, not at this speed – brakes are designed for use below 150 mph. Instead, he punches the button on the yoke to deploy the drogue parachute. This should slow him down, but it has no effect.

“The line snaps under the incredible strain and the ejective chute was torn to shreds. ‘Not to worry,’ he thinks. ‘There’s a backup chute’. But this fails too.

“With no options left, Breedlove gently feathers the brake pedal, but the brakes are instantly reduced to ash.”

Things took a catastrophic turn as Breedlove’s car began colliding with obstacles.

Craig went on: “The first obstacle is a stand of telephone poles which he careers into at 300 mph, losing his right outrigger, slowing him down a little.

“At 200 mph, he tears into a flooded section of Salt Flat then smashes into an embankment, setting the car flying high into the air. 

“It slams back down into the briny water and starts to sink. Could it be that he survived such a high-speed crash only to drown in a ditch of salt water?

“Breedlove wrestles open the cockpit and undoes his harness, with the car sinking and salty water now up to his face, he lifts himself free and just makes it to the embankment.

There he collapses, amazingly unharmed and his James Dean good looks untarnished by the crash.

Somehow, Breedlove walked away unharmed and undeterred from gaining even more speed.

The following year, he returned to the Salt Flats in Spirit of America, where he became the first to exceed 500 mph and the first to exceed 600 mph.

Then in 1966, Breedlove’s main rival Arfons set out to break his land-speed record… but again, broke a record he wasn’t expecting to.

Arfons hit a speed of around 610 mph (981 km/h) in his jet-powered car Green Monster when the bearings on the right front wheel seized and sent the car tumbling for more than a mile across the Flats.

The driver was pulled from the wreckage, dazed and bloodied, but relatively unscathed.

With just a few cuts, bruises, and friction burns, he’d just set the record for fastest car crash survived.

This rivalry between Breedlove and Arfons spurred on the innovation of the vehicles used to reach land-speed records.

The record for land speed (fastest car) has been held by Andy Green (UK) since October 1997, when he hit a speed of 763.035 mph (1,227.985 km/h) over one mile of the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, USA.

And to show you just how far things have come, the first recognized land-speed record was set in France in December 1898 when Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat (France) achieved a speed of 39.24 mph in the electric Jeantaud Duc.

During his career, Breedlove raced Green, Arfons and his half-brother Walt Arfons, and other famous drivers like Donald Campbell, Tom Green, Richard Noble, and Gary Gabelich, and left almost all of them in the dust.

In the 1990s, Breedlove returned to try and break the land-speed record one more time, although a crash rendered his attempt void.

That car was capable of going up to 800 mph though, so if it hadn’t been for that mishap it’s very possible he would own the land-speed record to this day.

Breedlove died in April 2023 at the age of 86.

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