Milestones in Speed - Power

Don Sherman Matthew Phenix David Yochum
Ian Dawson Getty Images IMS Photo
David Johnson

The Aztecs allegedly knew ways to manipulate natural rubber into useful items more than 3000 years ago, but for all intents, the tire clock started ticking in 1839 when Charles Goodyear discovered vulcanization... by accident. Building on that breakthrough, Scottish inventor Robert Thomson patented what he called the Aerial Wheel (pneumatic tire) in 1845.

Since Thompson was so far ahead of the transportation curve, another Scot, John Dunlop, had to reinvent the air-filled tire in 1888 for bicycle use. André and Edouard Michelin shrewdly applied what they'd learned from cycle-tire manufacturing to cars in 1895. Their descendants patented the first radial tire - called Michelin X - in 1946.

Stronger construction materials such as polyester and fiberglass arrived in the 1960s, along with the first low-profile tires, cleverly called Wide Ovals. In Europe, speed ratings were created, with S indicating standard, H for high, and V for very-high-speed applications.

Slick-tread tires, the ultimate in dry-pavement traction, were invented in the early 1950s by Marvin and Henry Rifchin of M&H Tires. Slicks migrated from the drag strip to Indy-car racing in the 1960s and to Formula 1 in 1970. The FIA banned their use in 1998 to curb speeds, but they're due to return next year.

> Craig Breedlove vs. The Arfon Brothers
Land speed record racing entered the jet age with several bangs, although not a sonic boom, with the ground-shaking battle between Craig Breedlove and the Arfon brothers, Walt and Art, at the Bonneville Salt Flats during the 1960s. Armed with streamliners packing military-surplus turbojet engines, they broke the record no fewer than eight times in thirteen months. By the time they were done, they'd raised the record by nearly 200 mph.

Walt Arfons's Wingfoot Express, driven by Tom Green, made it into the record book first, at 413.2 mph on October 5, 1964. Two days later, Art Arfons upped the ante with a run of 434.0 mph in the Green Monster. The next week, Breedlove drove his Spirit of America to a speed of 468.7 mph. The following month, Breedlove totaled his car, nearly drowning along the way, and Art Arfons ended up with the record at 536.7 mph.

The following November, they returned to Bonneville. This time, Art hit 576.6 mph. Three days later, Breedlove managed a run at 600.6 mph. Ten days after that, Arfons reportedly was doing 615 mph when he lost a wheel - and very nearly his life. The greatest LSR duel in postwar history was over.

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