Have you ever temporarily loaned someone your car, had them keep it for 50 years, cut it in half, weld it back together and then force you to take it back? Yeah, me neither. Which is why the tale of American Land Speed pioneer Craig Breedlove and his famed “Spirit of America” is so bizarre.
In order to fully appreciate this strange tale, we need to go back to 1959. From 1959 to 1963 Craig Breedlove worked on the construction of a jet-powered car that he intended to use to break the Land Speed Record. Working out of a laughably tiny, single-car garage behind his father’s Culver City, California home, Breedlove designed and built the 47-foot-long land-based missile, which was powered by a surplus J47 jet engine that Breedlove purchased for the lofty sum of $500! Yet, as improbable as it may seem considering such humble beginnings, Breedlove and his Spirit of America turned up at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1963, where Breedlove became the first human to break the 400 mph barrier on land. Then, the following year, Breedlove returned and pushed that mark to an even more astonishing 526 mph—but not without consequences. Finishing a run at more than 560 mph, Breedlove deployed his parachutes only to have the primary chute immediately torn away, which in turn sucked the backup chute away with it! With no way to stop the Spirit of America, Breedlove raced across the salt until he came to a series of shallow evaporation ponds at the end of the course. The rocket car skipped once like a stone over the water before burying itself nose first. When rescue crews arrived on the scene, they found a very wet Breedlove standing by the side of the pond. Before they could ask how he was Breedlove uttered the now famous line, “…and now for my next trick, I’ll light myself on fire!”
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