To set a new World Land Speed Record and go supersonic in ThrustSSC on the Black Rock Desert, Andy Green will have to make a 6 mile run-up, drive through a few-hundred-feet-wide gap between the timing lights, then make a 6-mile slow down. At any time he can see at most a couple of miles ahead as the track disappears over the horizon. Although ThrustSSC is remarkably stable, he still has to make continual steering inputs to keep the car on course - this is no country drive - so how does he keep the car on line for the measured mile?
The answer is to 'paint' white lines on the desert - each of them 13 miles long and dead straight. One for each of the twenty tracks makes a total of 260 miles of dead straight lines - more if more tracks are prepared. The 'paint' must be carefully chosen too - not only must it be a good track marker that Andy can easily see, it must be economical and easy to apply. Most important of all it must not harm the environmentally sensitive playa.
In Thrust2 days the lines that Richard Noble followed were the wheel tracks of their Jaguar Firechase which had been driven across the desert at high speed by Team Manager Ken Norris. In Jordan this team used the local 'jir' (lime) which was mixed with water in a barrel on the back of an old Land-Rover. A pipe from the barrel then trailed the mixture as the 'jalopy' was driven along the route of the racetracks. A similar solution was sought in Nevada - and proved to be right on the doorstep.
Much of the rock around Gerlach and the neighbouring town of Empire is gypsum. Indeed, Empire is a company town for the United States Gypsum company - the houses, churches, pool, sports facilities, airstrip, cable TV - all are provided by USG. It was only natural that the team should try their product as a line marker - it would have no environmental impact on the Black Rock Desert whatsoever.
The rock is quarried some 6 ½ miles from the Empire plant - 450,000 tons of it a year - before being brought down from the hills in huge trucks. The track up to the quarry must be just about the only place in the USA where everyone drives on the left- this isn't in deference to the visitors from Great Britain, but to help the drivers keep close to the edge when passing traffic coming in the opposite direction. (I admit it brought a smile to my face, though!) The landscape inside the quarry is incredible - with cliffs and shelves where the rock has been blasted and removed.
Elsewhere in the States gypsum is mined for pharmaceuticals, as a food additive, and for cement and plaster products - dating from 1923, the Empire quarry and plant produce powdered gypsum and Sheetrock plasterboard (or wallboard as our American cousins refer to it). The 10% that is bagged up in powder form is usually sold for soil improvement - as far as ThrustSSC is concerned it is perfect for our needs, and we are using quite a lot...
The operation is fascinating - with the crushers that reduce the rocks to 6" then 2" pieces before they are fed to the mill's pulveriser and rolled into dust. The powder is blown out of the pulveriser and collected - and once it has been bagged, it's ready for collection by "Trackmaster" Jack Franck's line-painting team. Most of it isn't bagged, but is turned into the area's biggest export - the plasterboard is sold throughout the western states of the USA and is shipped out in huge quantities by road and rail.
Once it reaches the desert it is used in an almost military operation, designed to achieve perfectly straight white line after perfectly straight white line. Devising a technique for drawing dead straight lines across a perfectly flat desert sounds like one of those initiative exercises you get set on staff training schemes. You know the sort - the ones that think being able to get a bucket of sand over a river without spilling it using two ropes and a scaffolding pole will make you a better manager...
Jack has hit on the perfect technique, however - the idea is to stand a line of people on the route that he must drive, each one half of a mile from the person in front of them. "Staker" - a title currently held by Carol Pearce - drives ahead and sets out the 'markers'. The head of the line crouches and Jack drives straight at him or her at some 30mph, keeping them directly in front of the person behind who remains standing tall. At the last minute he flashes his lights and the marker dives aside, with the new head-of-line assuming a crouch.
Sitting on the back of the Dodge pickup is John Lovatt who has the unenviable job of mixing the gypsum and water and keeping the powdered rock in suspension with his paddle. As the truck moves forward he regulates the flow to ensure an even stream falls on the desert.
Some two and a half miles down the track the barrel is exhausted, and standing 30 feet behind the last marker with arms stretched out to either side is "Staker". Jack must stop before he hits her. Following behind is the first marker, Jack's wife Linda, in their pickup with the gypsum supplies and faithful black labrador Sonny (or "Sonic" as he has become known). Linda collects the markers and brings them ahead for the next run. As "Staker" sets them out down the tracks again the barrel is replenished. The task continues whenever track accessibility and manpower permits. It is a testament to Jack's technique that Andy Green is delighted by the accuracy of the lines - and that at high speeds the car's narrow rear track often straddles the gypsum markings for mile after mile.
Once a track has been lined the work is not yet complete. "Fodmeister" Mike Hearn's team then steps into action, walking every inch of the 'lane' and picking up every stone, every piece of debris, and every round and shell casing - the Black Rock has been used as a naval gunnery range in its time. The ordnance ranges from hunting rounds of .223 calibre to .5-inch shells. Some of the rounds are unexploded and must be treated with extreme caution - but to leave them would be unacceptable.
Why pick up all the debris? ThrustSSC runs on solid aluminium wheels which are easily damaged, while anything sucked up by the engines can cause serious damage. The Spirit of America team have already had the misfortune to have to change their engine during this year's campaign after ingesting some 'fod' - the term comes from the expression "Foreign Object Damage". This exercise of picking up all the stones and other debris is commonly known as 'fodding' - and can be at once tremendously relaxing and incredibly tiring. At least in America the task is much easier than Jordan, when stone fields would reduce the pace to feet an hour, while here it is possible to clear many miles in a day.
With the surveying, lining and fodding completed, Andy Green is left with the task of following those lines as closely as possible - something he and ThrustSSC together have proved remarkably adept at doing. He is always the first to acknowledge the hours of work that go into preparing the tracks - each of which will take just over two minutes to use up...
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