Meet Hollywood stuntman and former NASCAR driver Stan Barrett. Stan had a need for speed. Lots of speed. And he didn’t mind taking the occasional risk to get it. So, when acquaintance and famed movie director Hal Needham wanted somebody to drive his pet project, the now-famous ‘Budweiser Rocket’, in an attempt on the World Land Speed Record, he naturally offered Stan the job.
The problem was the car. It was originally powered by a standard jet engine, the kind you’d find on a jet fighter but, even with this enormously powerful engine, it never performed well enough to make an official LSR attempt viable. With that in mind, making an unofficial attempt to drive the car at supersonic speeds was back-up option. There was no way the car could break the record and stay within the strict rules laid down by world motorsport’s governing bodies the FIA (for cars) and FIM (for bikes).
The rules of FIA/FIM-sanctioned record attempts are very strict. The car has to make two runs over a measured mile and make them within one hour, allowing time for refueling and any little technical checks and running repairs necessary after the first run. FIA or FIM observers have to be present and certify that the average speed for the two runs sets a new record and they can only use FIA/FIM approved timing methods and equipment. A major part of the challenge is meeting the absolutely inflexible rules, never mind setting a new record. The ‘Budweiser Rocket’ attempt didn’t meet the specs, so Stan Barrett’s efforts have never been officially accepted. Even that he managed to drive at over Mach 1 is still hotly debated for a number of reasons. But drive he did.
So, given that the existing jet engine wasn’t powerful enough to break the then-current record of 622mph, how were ‘Project S.O.S’ (‘Speed Of Sound’) going to give it the extra push needed to break the sound barrier? How were they going to give their baby at least an extra 120mph to break the 743mph sound barrier? Well, they racked their brains and came up with an effective, if rather terrifying, answer.
A Sidewinder missile.
Yes, a Sidewinder. Normally you’d expect to find these nasty little devices being fired at each other by fighter pilots looking to up their score. Or if you should happen to fly to low and slow while attacking a ground target then the land-based version is very likely to ruin your day. But it worked and the US Navy were prepared to sell Needham six of them (minus warheads, naturally) so they simply bolted one in the tail, a few inches directly behind Stan’s head, and made a few test runs in the hope that nothing would go wrong.
LSR attempts are notoriously dangerous. Not as dangerous as the World Water Speed Record, very little is, but there’s plenty that can go very wrong very quickly. The rocket engine can malfunction, wheels can collapse, suspension can break, the braking parachutes might not deploy or simply fall off the back of the car and so on. Stan could have fired the Sidewinder, mounted above the existing jet engine with both working together for extra thrust, and the extra strain could have caused catastrophic mechanical failure. The extra speed could have almost instantly made the car uncontrollable. Or the missile could simply break its mountings and fire out through the cockpit windscreen, taking Stan’s head with it like an olive on a toothpick. This was not a car for the faint of heart.
Seeing as the usual locations, Nevada’s Black Rock Desert and Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats, were unsuitable for the expected speeds, Edwards Air Force Base provided a workable location. The base’s radars could also be used for timing and to calculate the top speed. Not FIA/FIM-approved, but certainly credible enough to generate interest. Even though there was no chance of officially setting a new record, there was still some chance of going perhaps one better and creating the first supersonic road vehicle in history.
December 17, 1979 dawned dry, warm and sunny. Conditions were almost perfect. The team were ready. The car was ready. Stan was as ready as anybody can be to strap a Sidewinder to his rear and light the candle. The radar operators at Edwards AFB were ready to plot the car’s speed over the main runway. The press were watching. And then it was time.
The run itself went as well as it could. Stan fired the jet engine and then the Sidewinder. Once he fired the Sidewinder he was clocked (according to Project S.O.S team members, anyway) as travelling at 739.666mph. Not much over the sound barrier, but enough. And therein lies the problem.
The attempt wasn’t run according to FIA/FIM criteria so neither of the governing bodies would acknowledge it. They still don’t. The radar equipment used at Edwards AFB malfunctioned at first and even the US Air Force has never officially acknowledged that the car went supersonic. No sonic boom was heard by anybody, although the combined noise of a jet engine and a solid-fuel missile engine could well have blanked it out. Citing data from the car’s own accelerometer as evidence of it breaking the record had never been done before and isn’t normally used to confirm speed in record attempts. In shot, while Stan’s nerve in actually driving the car at all is undoubted, his being the first supersonic driver in history is still openly questioned.
Press reaction, then and now, was conflicted. Some reporters accepted that the car had broken the record and some didn’t. Some were prepared to accept the ‘Project S.O.S’ data confirming that their car had gone supersonic. others, wanting independent verification, weren’t. All of which may well have been a mighty kick in the teeth for Stan. He’d just taken an enormous risk only to have his feat openly doubted within hours of climbing into the car.
So, we’ll probably never know for sure whether Thrust SSC was the first car to go supersonic or simply the first officially-recognised car to break the sound barrier. The US Air Force radar data has never been released to the public. The FIA and FIM still won’t acknowledge the record and still question the top speed. There are probably as many doubters as there are believers. But, while the achievement itself is still open to question, Stan Barrett’s nerve isn’t.