Thrust SSC - Supersonic Race Update

Issue 202 Lead Article - 30th October 1997


by Jeremy Davey, ThrustSSC Webmaster and Satellite Communications Manager

Endex? Hasn't he used that title for an article before? Not quite.

The last time was at the end of the Jordan1 Campaign - one of the lowest points of the project - when the Jafr Desert flooded in the dry season and the ThrustSSC Team were forced to return home. We'd achieved a peak speed of only 331mph in 5 weeks. Martyn Davidson wrote that article, taking the title from the military term for "End of exercise". It's a term that has a lot of meaning for me: back in my University days I was an officer cadet in the Royal Engineer wing of the Officer Training Corps. I loved blowing things up and building bridges, but my feelings at the end of a long exercise depended very much on what had taken place. It would vary from an awful time on Dartmoor, outdoors for days in incessant rain that penetrated every inadequate waterproof, to a fantastic weekend on Salisbury Plain in glorious sunshine. 'Endex' would bring mixed feelings - gladness that rest had finally come, to sadness that a fun time was over. Very apposite.

This has never been a backward-looking project, and it is a strange feeling to sit at the keyboard writing a Lead Article for the last time, knowing that it must be, at least in part, a retrospective look at the incredible experience that was the ThrustSSC Project. Two years. Two long years? Two short ones? I don't know - I've never had a good feel for the passage of time - but I do know that we have achieved something extraordinary, something easily summarised:

15th October 1997 - Black Rock Desert Nevada
Driver: Andy Green - Car: ThrustSSC
763.035mph - Mach 1.020
The first ever Supersonic World Land Speed Record

That's all I want to say about the engineering side of things. There are two other equally fascinating stories to this: the story of the people, and the story of the Web Site.

The last two years have been spent with the most incredible mix of personalities, each an expert in his or her field, each doing his or her utmost to make the project succeed. It has been an incredibly intense environment at times - a fact indicated only too well by the Team's ability to out-party anyone and everyone when the pressure has been off - and it has been one that has fundamentally changed all of us, in every case I believe for the better.

A few years ago the athletics coach, Frank Dick, told me about his philosophy on people. He divided them into Mountain People and Valley People. The Mountain People would see a mountain and set out to climb it, while the Valley People would look up at them from below and say: "I wish I could do that." Frank's philosophy in this respect tallies almost perfectly with my own, although I could never have put it so succinctly.

I was planning to write a long piece as the Web Site sign-off, thanking the individual team members in turn for their contributions, for their friendship, and for their selfless giving of their talents. Indeed, with the team members have to be included all the stalwarts from the Mach 1 Club who played an equal part in making all this possible. I found I couldn't do it - every time I sat down to write it I found myself becoming far too introspective. Besides nothing expresses what I want to say more than simply: "Thank-you for taking me up your mountain with you."

One of the most charismatic of those individuals, Richard Noble, has a number of deeply held opinions. One is a belief in the Internet as a communications channel - you only have to hear him speak at a Mach 1 Club Open Day to realise that. In his final update for this Web Site he briefly touches on it, and it is a point I'd like to cover in more detail.

The regular readers of this Web Site will already have realised that we broke the mould in the most spectacular way. In the same way that ThrustSSC achieved a World First on the ground, the Web Site achieved a World First in cyberspace. For the first time, people around the world were able to feel a part of a project that was tackling the most fundamental of milestones. We deliberately set out to help them do that - recognising that not everyone was in a position to become a part of the ThrustSSC Team or an active member of the Mach 1 Club, we did our utmost to involve as many people as possible through the Internet.

Technology has played a major part in getting a story to the world in near real-time since the invention of the printing press. That enabled the publication of newspapers, and was followed in turn by radio and then television. Now we have satellites extending the range of those media. But there has always been a fundamental problem with the conventional channels - the stories they tell are not always accurate, and their relative importance has always been a judgement of the publisher, not the subject. In recent months a debate has raged in Great Britain about public interest and the rights of the private citizen - a debate which has been fuelled by tragedy. For years now people have criticised the power of the magnates who own - and control - vast portions of the opinion-forming media. The greatest power the consumer has is to change his or her news provider - buy a different newspaper or watch a different channel - but the choice of providers has diminished as empires have grown.

The Internet has thrown a huge spanner in the works - or at least it can do. Instead of being reliant on the conventional media for news of ThrustSSC's progress - and even then it would often be inaccurate or incomplete - the readers of the Web Site have been able to get the inside facts day after day. What they read is what they have chosen to read, not what they have been told to read. I remember a conversation I had with a journalist writing for a major British broadsheet newspaper while we were in the States. His articles had been inaccurate all week, getting such basic facts wrong as the type of engines - which were described as 'rockets'. I pointed this out to him, and was told that he couldn't help what happened to his copy after it had been submitted. If they chose to edit it back home, that wasn't his fault.

This cavalier treatment of the truth absolutely appalled me. Every time I wrote an article for the 'net I would make damned sure of my facts before I published. Many times I could have just uploaded the story and got on with something more relaxing, but I didn't. I checked my facts with the relevant authority: Ron would make sure I didn't get aerodynamics or performance wrong; Glynne would check my engineering details; Andy would comment on the reports of the runs; Jerry Bliss would ensure that the facts as I told them matched the data.

This failure to put in the effort to get the facts right wasn't confined to just one newspaper. It wasn't for lack of time, either - the amount of beer consumed by some in the Black Rock Saloon was a testament to that! And it wasn't just the newspapers - the television would regularly get their facts wrong too. During the early days of testing the SSC on the runway at Farnborough, I remember one report on the main evening news referring to "Thrust2" getting a puncture. I'd spent all day with that film crew - they'd had plenty of chance to get the name of the car right!

I don't mean by this to say that all reporting on ThrustSSC was inaccurate. Far from it - just to give one example, Bill Grist's work for the BBC has been quite superb. His material is carefully researched, checked and re-checked. I have absolutely no doubt that his documentary, when it comes out in the New Year, will be simply stunning. So it isn't just me that can do it. There can be no excuse for misleading the public in a serious journal or on mainstream television for want of a little effort.

In the same way that the printing press made the dissemination of information possible, it also produced the method by which the true facts could be recorded for posterity. It has always been possible to write a book after the event and to make an in-depth, considered, accurate study of what really happened. But a book isn't near real-time, and this is where the Internet really scores - for the first time it is possible to tell your story to the world as quickly - if not more so - than the newspapers or the major television channels. And it can be done cheaply - cheaply enough to be afforded by just about any project.

Test firing the Abort Motor at Farnborough
(Test firing the Abort Motor at Farnborough. Photo: Jeremy Davey.)

We set out to tell the truth, however badly we were doing, and reading the tens of thousands of emails we have received congratulating us on the record, and thanking us for the Web Site, we believe that that philosophy was both understood and appreciated. We almost never kept anything from you - and when we did it was for a good reason. One example was the abort motor - an inverted ejector-seat motor in the nose of the car. In the event of the nose lifting from the ground, it would be fired by the computers, keeping the nose down just long enough for the rear end active suspension to lift the tail and create more downforce. It was one of the few aerodynamic secrets we had - and in the event we found it was unnecessary. The picture of the test firing earlier this year at Farnborough is too good not to share it now.

At the peak of this Web Site we were receiving access rates in excess of 3 million a day - that's a huge readership by any standards. The book will be coming out, and will include material that the Web Site never did. It will draw conclusions that the Web Site never did, conclusions that can only be reached after long and careful consideration. The simple fact that it is being written by David Tremayne gives me huge confidence that it will be one hell of a good read.

That's the book - but what we did was to make sure that the truth was available in real time. We let people say to themselves "I was there", we took them down with us through the emotional lows of Jordan 1 and Boscombe Down, and lifted them up with us on the emotional highs of the Black Rock Campaign. I wasn't sure if we'd really achieved that until today, when a Mach 1 Club member came up to me and told me that for him the high points of the Web Site had been the reports of the two records. Not because of what had been achieved, but because "I felt the emotions leaping out of the page at me". It made my day.

The spinoffs from such a unique offering to the public have taken us quite by surprise. In simple financial terms the Web Site saved the project on a number of occasions - witness the runaway success of the idea of getting the readership to buy the Antonov fuel to get to America. The intangible benefits have been just as great - the return on investment that exposure on the Web Site has been able to offer sponsors (who are frequently staggered when they compare our access rates to those of their corporate sites), the ability to prove global interest in the project, the professional image that it portrayed of the project.

One aspect of this that really took me by surprise was the attitude of the spectators at Black Rock. Think about it for a moment - here was a British team, flying into the heart of the Wild West in a Russian cargo plane, to take on an all-time American hero on his own turf. To us the objective was a World First, something that nationalities have nothing to do with - but we couldn't expect everyone to take that view. Time after time, though, I would chat with a spectator and he or she would come out with same line: "We're cheering Craig, of course, because we're Americans, but we wish you the very best. We've followed you closely on the Internet and we admire what you've achieved and how you've gone about it. Good luck." It didn't matter what anyone else said about Brits vs. Americans, they saw this as a World First too. Technology is shrinking the globe.

Excellence is bred by competition. I would be deeply unhappy if the Web Site had been the only means by which people could follow our progress - for then they would have had nothing to compare it to, no means of reaching a conclusion as to its validity. To have been the only source of information would have left us open to a criticism of monopoly, that we only told the story the way we wanted it to be told. It is my hope that more projects, more teams, more public figures see what we did as a way to tell their side of the story. That's one of the reasons we're turning the Web Site into a CD-ROM - to preserve it as an example of how we think it should be done. And it is my hope that in doing so the mass media are compelled to look again at the job they do. As I said, excellence is bred by competition.

At all times 'professionalism' has been a byword of this project - whether on the operations side or in support of it. What we did on the Web was just so much common sense. But if our Web Site was done by amateurs working in their own time, what could full-time professionals have achieved? So many Web Sites out there are obviously built by qualified marketing professionals who have failed to grasp the power of the medium - so maybe the answer is: "Not a lot"?

Whatever, we've proved that even in a desert miles from any large centre of population, you can involve the world in what you are doing. We've proved that the truth can be told for those who want to read it. And we've proved that the Sound Barrier can be broken safely on land.

The last word on the project has to be a comment from Ron Ayers - a highly intelligent, gentle and considerate man for whom we have all developed an enormous respect. On the subject of our famous World First he says: "ThrustSSC pioneered the route into supersonic territory. Anyone who follows is purely a tourist." Amen.

It is only left for me to thank some very special people. The ThrustSSC Team - no individuals singled out - for making this all possible, and for giving me a fantastic two years. The Internet Team - Barbie, Duncan, Matt and Nick - for your fantastic work on the Web Site. The great guys at Digital - for your support, encouragement, vision, and tenacity - we couldn't have done it without you. The sponsors - especially those people at Hughes, Fuji, Microplex and Microsoft with whom I have worked so closely. My colleagues at Sterling Software - for giving me the flexibility to do this in the first place, and for doing my work when I wasn't there. My family - for your encouragement, and for knowing when not to pay a visit. And my friends outside the project - for remembering who I am.

Above all, I want to thank you, the readers - especially those with whom I have corresponded by email throughout all this. Thank-you for your interest, your encouragement, your support, and your suggestions. Goodbye - until we meet again?

Jeremy Davey
ThrustSSC Webmaster

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