Mankind’s great quest to move faster, to shorten the time between distant points, is one of the pillars of progress. It’s also a huge rush. Pushing the limit can be fraught with danger, too, which is why we honor those brave pioneers who have expanded the boundaries of automotive speed. The climb up our collective speedometer has been a huge technical challenge, and so we highlight the innovations that have aided our pursuit. Naturally, we touch down at the great racetracks, where driving fast is elevated to an art form. We also take an insider’s tour of Bonneville, America’s bright white temple of speed. And then there are the cars. We chose a handful for their significance in advancing the cause of speed, no easy choice given the automobile’s 100-plus-year history. Finally, what’s it like to drive mph? Ride along with the man who’s done it in more cars than just about anyone.
OLD DOG, NEW TRICKS
> Henry Ford
Henry Ford was an unheralded middle-aged mechanic who was so new to racing that he took a driving lesson immediately before squaring off against the heavily favored Alexander Winton on a one-mile dirt track near Detroit. The date was October 10, 1901, and at that point, Ford had neither the money nor the backing to start the Ford Motor Company. Reluctantly driving a 26-hp race car of his own design, Ford whipped Winton in the ten-mile sprint, winning $1000 and earning some much-needed credibility. Racing would become a critical part of Ford’s corporate DNA.
> Frank Lockhart
Elbows outside the cockpit, the numeral two on his coveralls and the side of his Perfect Circle Miller racing car, Frank Lockhart was a fury in 1927. Abetted by his own invention – the intercooler, which made the supercharger more effective – he clocked a sensational 144.2-mph lap at Culver City. The 1926 Indy 500 trophy, the Muroc dry lake measured-mile record of 171 mph, and eight of twenty-two board-track races he entered were in his pocket when he died on Daytona‘s sands in 1928, already a legend at the age of 25.
Fourteen years after Gustave Eiffel’s tower was completed, the noted French engineer found an excellent use for the structure. Shortly before the Wright brothers’ first flight in 1903, Eiffel began quantifying the drag of experimental airfoils by measuring their rate of fall from his second-level laboratory with a vertical guy wire guiding descent. To extend the time available for testing, Eiffel constructed two wind tunnels next to his tower in 1909 and ’12. Evaluating the same shapes he had previously dropped, Eiffel proved that air moving around a stationary body duplicates the drag of a body moving through still air.
After Karl Benz got the movement going with his single-piston motorcar in 1886, other inventors chipped in more cylinders. Gottlieb Daimler doubled the count in 1889, followed by Maudslay Motors’ three-cylinder cars in 1902. Napier pioneered the four-cylinder engine in 1900 and also the first six in 1904. While both Adams in England and Antoinette in France toyed with V-8s as early as 1906, French maker De Dion-Bouton deserves credit for initiating V-8 production in 1910. Although Sunbeam began racing V-12-powered cars in 1913, Packard beat them to a dozen-cylinder production car in 1915. Cadillac‘s gift to speed was its 1930 V-16. Later gap-fillers included Mercedes-Benz with a five-cylinder diesel in 1975, followed by Dodge‘s mighty V-10 for the .
Swiss engineer Alfred Büchi suggested using exhaust energy to drive a supercharger in 1906. Frenchman Auguste Rateau thought that a turbo-supercharger, or turbocharger, would be ideal for maintaining an aircraft engine’s power at altitude, and General Electric’s Sanford Moss proved him right with tests conducted on a Liberty V-12 atop Pikes Peak in 1918. More than ,000 GE turbos were manufactured during World War II for use on bombers and fighters. The Chevrolet Corvair Monza Spyder and the Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire, both launched in 1962, were the first turbocharged production cars.
TWIN CAMS, FOUR VALVES
Four valves per cylinder operated by double overhead camshafts are now respected as the most efficient path to piston-engine power, but they were radical concepts when designer Ernest Henry proposed them in 1912. After Peugeot racers proved that Henry’s invention was valid with several grand prix and Indy 500 wins, the French firm Ballot et Cie hired him to design engines for racing and road use. The world’s first production car powered by a DOHC four-valve engine was the 1921 Ballot 2LS (2.0 liter Sport, above), which provided 72 hp and cost a dear $8750. About 100 of the cars were built, one of which finished third in a 1921 French grand prix race.
During World War II, the German Luftwaffe injected nitrous oxide into its aircraft engines to boost power. The primary benefit comes from the fact that N2O contains 36 percent oxygen by weight versus air’s 21 percent. Also, the cooling effect associated with N2O’s liquid-to-gas change in state increases the incoming charge’s density. Racers began legal and illegal use of nitrous some thirty years ago to gain up to 100 hp. At the 1976 Daytona 500, the qualifying times posted by both A. J. Foyt and Darrell Waltrip were thrown out after officials discovered their hidden nitrous systems.
Gottlieb Daimler earned the German patent for supercharging in 1885, eight years after Nicolaus Otto patented the four-stroke engine and a few months before Karl Benz rolled forth his three-wheeled car. Pennsylvanian Lee Chadwick was the first to exploit this technology. The racer he constructed for the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup competition had an eight-inch fan, driven at five times crankshaft speed, providing pressurized air for the engine. The following year, Len Zengle won the inaugural ten-mile race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a Chadwick, demonstrating what reporters called hair-raising performance. Mercedes offered the first supercharged production models in 1921 with 60 percent more power than the cars’ normally aspirated counterparts.
INDIANAPOLIS MOTOR SPEEDWAY
If you want to sound like an insider, you don’t call it Indy; you call it the Speedway, without specifying which one. Indianapolis has been the Promised Land – and the Valley of Death, on dozens of occasions – for American racers ever since the first 500 was staged in 1911. The 2.5-mile rectangle is the world’s oldest racetrack in continuous use (aside from hiatuses during World Wars I and II). Nowadays, it hosts races for stock cars, Formula 1 (maybe), and even motorcycles and balloons. But the Indy 500, a.k.a. The Greatest Spectacle in Racing, remains the largest single-day sporting event in the world.
> Harry Miller
The passion for precision drove Harry Miller, whose legacy extends throughout the automotive realm. It comprises the cars of the board tracks, the dirt, the paved ovals, and, of course, the dry lakes (and their offshoot, the street-rod scene). He experimented with dual-overhead cams, supercharging, front- and four-wheel drive, and aerodynamic design. He used alloyed metals for carburetors and pistons, formed aluminum panels into streamlined body shapes, and inevitably bested Duesenberg’s straight-eight designs and set new standards. Miller was the comprehensive genius of the American custom automotive scene.
ITALIAN SOUND, ITALIAN LEGEND
> Vittorio Jano
Like American race car builder Harry Miller, Vittorio Jano was a soup-to-nuts race car designer who developed engines, chassis, and everything in between. During his remarkable career, he was credited with the revolutionary Fiat 805; the Alfa Romeo P2, which dominated GP racing in the mid-’20s; Alfa’s P3, which did the same through the mid-’30s; the Tipo 158 Alfetta, the greatest monoposto of the postwar era; and the Lancia D50, the most intriguing F1 car of the mid-’50s. But that’s not all. He also was responsible for the glorious Alfa Romeo 8C 2900 (Le Mans, right), the Lancia Aurelia, and the V-6 engines found in various Ferrari road cars.
> Board Tracks
Imagine an average lap speed of 147.2 mph. Now imagine it being turned by a racing car with a 1.5-liter engine. Now imagine it being turned back in 1927, on a high-banked oval fashioned out of a million board-feet of lumber. Is it any wonder that author Griff Borgeson dubbed the age of the board tracks “The Golden Age of the American Racing Car”?
Inspired by cycling velodromes, bowl-shaped board tracks dominated the American landscape and the national championship racing schedule during the sunny years after World War I. The big attraction was turns banked as steeply as 45 degrees, which allowed drivers to flatfoot it around the entire track. Driving supercharged, straight-eight Millers and Duesenbergs during the Roaring Twenties, daredevils such as Frank Lockhart and Tommy Milton clocked speeds that wouldn’t be eclipsed at Indy until the 1950s.
Altogether, twenty-four board tracks operated between 1910 and 1931 in locales as distant and diverse as Brooklyn and Beverly Hills. Fatalities were so common that, when the circular Playa del Rey facility burned to the ground in 1913, sportswriter Damon Runyon acidly commented that it occasioned “a great savings of lives.” True, but the racing world was duller for the passing of these wooden wonders.
Fritz von Opel was the first to use airfoils to help keep his racers in touch with terra firma. Seven rockets shot the Opel RAK 1 (below) to 68 mph in 1928. Later that year, the RAK 2 achieved 147 mph with twenty-four solid-fuel rockets spitting flames. The RAK 3, a railway car propelled by thirty rockets, lacked both a driver and wings for downforce. That machine achieved 157 mph on its maiden run but veered out of control and crashed during a 250-mph attempt.
When a racetrack is nicknamed The Green Hell, it ought to be diabolical, and the Nordschleife, or North Loop, of the Nürburgring doesn’t disappoint. Built as a German make-work project, the Nordschleife winds through – and up and down – some fourteen miles and nearly 100 turns in the Eifel Mountains. The original ‘Ring hosted the German Grand Prix from 1927 until 1976, when reigning world champion Niki Lauda was nearly incinerated there. But the circuit is still used for sports car racing, and for about $25 a lap, any wanker can drive in the tire tracks of Rudolf Caracciola, Hans Stuck, and other titans of old.
HITLER’S POSTER CHILD
> Bernd Rosemeyer
Der Führer succinctly summed it up: “Absolute world records on water and on land – that suits our propaganda.”
Bernd Rosemeyer was Hitler’s Aryan poster child – a blonde-haired, blue-eyed champion and the husband of another German celebrity, Elly Beinhorn, the first woman to circumnavigate the earth in an aircraft.
With hopes of eventually seizing the land speed record from the British, Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz began attacking class records in 1934 before and after the grand prix racing season. Rosemeyer’s shot at glory came in ’37. Whizzing along a closed half of the Frankfurt-Darmstadt autobahn in June, he broke seven records with a maximum speed of 242 mph for the flying mile. That set the stage for October’s official record week.
Fully enclosed bodywork was the order of the day, both for the Formula Libre race at Avus, where Rosemeyer had lapped at just under 173 mph, and for the fall record runs. Arriving with four 1937 victories under his belt, Rosemeyer drove a 6.3-liter V-16 making 545 hp and had Ferdinand Porsche to wave off his runs. Mercedes driver Rudolf Caracciola countered with a 736-hp, 5.6-liter V-12 and one major impediment: bodywork that lifted his front wheels off the ground above 237 mph, a phenomenon drivers called “aviating.” Both streamliners wore swastikas.
Rosemeyer won the race to 250 mph, setting two world and thirteen class records with three Auto Unions, but it was no cakewalk. On the second day of runs, exhaust fumes infiltrated his cockpit and he nearly passed out. Describing the sensation of rifling through underpasses on 25-foot-wide pavement, Rosemeyer reported, “The side blasts of air [I] felt when going through the bridges demand instant reactions . . . The strain of a ten-mile attempt is, therefore, greater than that of a grand prix, even though it only lasts about two minutes and forty seconds.”
THE GOOD DOCTOR
> Ferdinand Porsche
An accomplished tinkerer during his youth, Prof. Dr. Ing. h.c. Ferdinand Porsche served several automakers as an engineer and was instrumental in the designs of the Mercedes-Benz S and SSK models. In 1931, he set up his own Stuttgart design firm and soon landed the commission for the thundering Auto Union grand prix cars. Also in that decade, he adapted his own prototype to run with an aerodynamic coupe body, an exercise that, after World War II, resulted in the Porsche 356 and its enduring progeny, the . His son Ferry Porsche continued the company’s development in the postwar era.
Demonstrating that he was up to the task of replacing Ferdinand Porsche as Auto Union’s development director at the end of the 1937 racing season, Professor Eberan von Eberhorst advanced the team’s aerodynamics prowess. To boost Bernd Rosemeyer’s streamliner beyond the 252 mph already achieved, von Eberhorst added front wheel fairings, wheel-arch connectors, side skirts, and odd-looking ductwork below the streamliner’s tail. Rosemeyer clocked 276 mph while warming up, but a rogue gust of wind blew him off course during the record run, and he perished in the ensuing crash. The ground-effects technology von Eberhorst had invented was forgotten for three decades.
SPEED ABOVE ALL ELSE
> Enzo Ferrari
Dark glasses, white hair, and a suit and tie – that was Il Commendatore in later years, a fixture at test sessions but never attending races. As a young man, Enzo Ferrari had been a racing driver himself. Later, he managed Alfa Romeo‘s race team, and in 1940, he built his first automobile – a race car, naturally. Eventually, he became the world’s premier manufacturer of supercars. But Ferrari – a drama king worthy of a Verdi opera – never cared much about road cars or the beautiful people who bought them. For him, street machines existed merely to support his passion for racing.
There are plenty of 24-hour races, but there’s only one Le Mans, a twice-around-the-clock carnival of speed that usually plays out like the world’s fastest soap opera. Not only is the 24 Heures du Mans the granddaddy of all endurance races, it’s also, to automakers, the most highly coveted prize in motorsports. The race has been contested on various iterations of the Circuit de la Sarthe – essentially public roads closed for the occasion – since 1923. Until two chicanes were added in 1990, the 3.5-mile-long, white-knuckle blast along the Mulsanne straight produced the highest speeds achieved on any closed course in the world.
We Won’t Drive 55
Think 65 mph is a low speed limit? If history repeats itself, Americans may soon be traveling even slower on highways, due to the correlation between lawful speed and energy consumption. Connecticut became the first state to establish automobile speed limits in 1901 (only 12 mph within city limits and 15 mph on rural roads), after which it was determined that each state would set its own speed limits. But when energy concerns became a priority during World War II, the U.S. government stepped in to create national speed limits. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the speed limit was set at a paltry 35 mph in an effort to reduce gasoline and rubber consumption. When the war ended, states were again free to set their own limits until 1974, when President Nixon signed the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act, which, says the U.S. Department of Transportation, “prohibited the Federal Highway Administration from approving [and funding] highway projects in any state having a maximum speed limit of over 55 mph.” The “drive 55” movement outraged car enthusiasts and escalated the battle between inveterate speeders and law enforcement that continues to this day, even though the law was modified in 1987 to allow 65-mph speed limits and was completely repealed in 1995.
> Colin Chapman
If the United Kingdom is the manufacturing capital of the formula car world, then Colin Chapman is its principal architect. Like Enzo Ferrari, Chapman built plenty of influential road cars, but his baby, Lotus, existed primarily for racing, and it shifted the focus of Formula 1 from the continent to merry olde England. The Lotus 25 established the mid-engine, monocoque template that’s used to this day. Along with wings, the Lotus 49 gave us an engine – the first Cosworth-Ford DFV – as an integral structural member of the chassis. The Lotus 72 (above) pioneered the wedge shape and side radiators. And the Lotus 78/79 advanced the ground-effects revolution.
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 , 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.
FROM SEA TO SHINING SEA, RAPIDLY
> Cannonball Run
The date: November 15, 1971.
The goal: to drive from New York, New York, to Redondo Beach, California, as quickly as possible.
The rules: none. The unofficial rally – a stiff middle finger in the face of the safety establishment – was the brainchild of Car and Driver’s Brock Yates and Steve Smith. Dubbed the Cannonball Run, it was also meant to honor Cannon Ball Baker, who had set 143 distance records dating back to 1914 and who held the speed record for a coast-to-coast journey at 53 hours, 30 minutes in a 1933 Graham.
The first race drew eight entries, including a van driven by the Polish Racing Drivers of America – Oscar Kovaleski, Brad Niemcek, and Tony Adamowicz – and a motorhome. But Yates positioned himself in the odds-on favorite, a brand-new Ferrari Daytona squired mostly by everybody’s all-American racer, Dan Gurney. Despite snow in the Rockies, Gurney and Yates completed the run in 35 hours and 54 minutes, beating the PRDA van by less than an hour. Later, Gurney told the Los Angeles Times: “At no time did we exceed 175 mph.”
The rally was run on three more occasions, and Yates later developed the One Lap of America as a legitimate successor to the Cannonball. But even after he disavowed the concept, outlaw copycats continued to proliferate, much to his annoyance. Two years ago, New Yorker Alex Roy used an elaborate spotter system to set a new transcontinental record in a . But we’ll take Gurney and Yates in a Daytona.
150 OR BUST
In 1962, Parnelli Jones broke the 150-mph barrier at Indy in a Watson roadster. The following year, he drove the same car to victory in the 500, beating Jim Clark in a rear-engine Lotus.
It was, in effect, the end of the roadster era.
> Wally Parks
As one of the founders of the Southern California Timing Association in 1937, Wally Parks already had a history of hot-rodding by the time he served in the military during World War II. How natural, then, that he should have been known for driving the fastest jeep in the Pacific. After the war, he helped to arrange the SCTA’s use of the Bonneville Salt Flats. He cofounded the show that evolved into the SEMA extravaganza, edited Hot Rod at its launch in 1948, and cofounded the National Hot Rod Association in 1951. Genial and folksy, Parks was a visionary without being a tyrant.
Richie Ginther praised the speed and handling of his Ferrari 246SP Dino sports racer in 1961, but he was irritated by exhaust fumes migrating into the cockpit. To solve the problem, Ginther proposed adding a vertically oriented blocker panel to the car’s tail. Imagine his surprise when testing demonstrated that the new “spoiler,” as it was later called, improved rear-wheel grip and all-around stability, albeit at a slight top-speed penalty. A ducktailed Dino (left) won for the first time at the 1961 Targa Florio, with Wolfgang von Trips and Olivier Gendebien sharing the driving duties.
Radar-detector builders and leadfoots everywhere owe a huge debt of gratitude to one man. Dale Smith, an electronics expert from Dayton, Ohio, invented the first commercial radar detector in 1968. As the story goes, Smith had been unfairly ticketed for speeding. So to avoid any future problems with the law, he created a small device that detected police radio waves from a distance of one mile or more. As his first “Fuzzbuster” detector picked up such waves, it emitted a high-pitched noise and flashed a small light, warning the driver of what lay ahead. After the Fuzzbuster I’s debut, radar detectors evolved with each advancement in law-enforcement technology and eventually were able to detect radio waves for X-, K-, and Ka-bands. Modern radar detectors, such as the Valentine One and various Escort units, are also expected to recognize pulsed, infrared laser beams and even signals from the Ku-band, which is being used by traffic police in Europe but not in the United States – yet.
250 OR BUST
Porsche 917s had exceeded 240 mph at Le Mans in the early ’70s, but it remained for the tiny French manufacturer WM, with fearless driver Roger Dorchy, to surpass 250 mph in 1988 with a turbocharged Peugeot and bodywork trimmed for terminal velocity.
The Chaparral Show
He came from Texas oil money and attended Caltech, so it should come as no surprise that Jim Hall thought big and outside the box. His white Chaparrals – built in the remote oil town of Midland, Texas, with covert support from General Motors R&D and tested on Hall’s private Rattlesnake Raceway – were the most inventive road-racing cars of the ’60s. With these cars, Hall pioneered the development of monocoque construction, composite structures, semiautomatic transmissions, a crude form of ground effects, and, most significant of all, gigantic wings that brought aerodynamics to the forefront of automotive design.
200 OR BUST
> Buddy Baker
In 1970, when the Formula 1 lap record stood at 152 mph and nobody had gone faster than 171 mph at Indianapolis, Buddy Baker zoomed to 200 mph and change at Talladega Superspeedway in a Daytona fitted with a 426-cubic-inch Hemi and a UFO-style rear wing.
MODERN RACING AERODYNAMICS
Using old tools and textbooks, clever racers periodically reinvent mislaid technologies. During the 1960s and early ’70s, Jim Hall advanced from spoilers, to adjustable spoilers, to adjustable wings, to full ground effects on his innovative Chaparral Can-Am racers. Hall’s success was noticed by Formula 1 teams, especially Lotus boss Colin Chapman. Starting with small front wings in 1968, F1 aero tech quickly stepped to massive wings attached directly to the rear wheel hubs. In 1977, Chapman configured the entire tub of his Lotus 78 (right) as a wing running in ground effect. Most of this technology has been banned, inspiring racing engineers to battle the wind in new ways.
NASCAR’S BIG BILL
> Bill France
He stood six feet, five inches tall, but that wasn’t the only reason they called him Big Bill France. Already a towering figure on the Daytona Beach scene, France had the foresight to turn a Southern confederation of jalopy racers into NASCAR in 1948, and he eventually forged it into a national obsession. He completed Daytona International in ’59 and the even-faster, higher-banked Talladega in ’69. When drivers threatened to boycott the first race because ‘Dega seemed unsafe, France donned a helmet and turned laps at 176 mph.
DAYTONA INTERNATIONAL SPEEDWAY
Land speed record runs were made on the sand of Daytona Beach when the automobile was still in its infancy, and stock car races were held there well into the ’50s. But it was Daytona International Speedway, with its towering 31-degree banking and tri-oval layout, that inaugurated the superspeedway concept in 1959 and put NASCAR on the map. Daytona was where Junior Johnson became a legend and where Dale Earnhardt passed into legend. The Rolex 24 at Daytona is one of the world’s premier sports car enduros, but the Daytona 500, with its garish colors and gaudy patriotism, is The Great American Race.
300 OR BUST
> Part I
It took a supercharged 2500-hp Rolls-Royce engine, but speed king Sir Malcolm Campbell smashed the 300-mph mark in the final iteration of his Blue Bird to set the ninth and last of his land speed records in 1935.
> Part II
Short of crashing, a Top Fuel dragster is the most violent ride in motorsports. In 1992, Kenny Bernstein took what was then the most violent ride in Top Fuel racing when he broke the elusive 300-mph barrier.
750 OR BUST
In 1997, British RAF fighter pilot Andy Green set a new land speed record with a boom – a sonic boom, that is – by going 763.7 mph in the Thrust SSC at Black Rock Desert in Nevada. No other car has ever broken the sound barrier.