Thrust SSC - Supersonic Race Update

Richard Noble's November 1997 Update

We Did It - And We Did It Together!

Richard Noble

What a tremendous experience! Those of you who like Jack Frank who came to join us at Black Rock will know what I mean. This was the great moment when all six years of meticulous work, all the preparation, came together and that gave us the World's First Supersonic World Land Speed Record which was ratified by the FIA earlier this week.

The six week campaign at Black Rock was seriously tough - very few people had as much as an hour to themselves and the organisation hung together really well. Out front was the operational team running SSC, but the whole project depended on those generous people behind the scenes who kept the infrastructure running. The Mach 1 members like Mike Dempsey who put in long days on the desert security duty - an often thankless task which never gave a good view of the SSC runs. The sandwich team who must have produced around 4,000 lunchtime sandwiches, the merchandise team who sold vast quantities of merchandise to all the watchers on the hillsides - and anyone with a spare dollar or two. No sandwiches or no security or no merchandise would have meant no SSC runs. There was no fat anywhere - we all lived for our project and everyone was essential.

Even the media started to behave better and enjoy the experience without always having to have the best position and the earliest interview. In fact Paul Remfry, alias "Blackadder", really turned the screws on the security and frankly over the last weeks the whole machinery ran really smoothly. We had a set to with a gentlemen from the Daily Telegraph who thoughtlessly decided to drive across the desert when the SSC was running - at one stroke invalidating all our safety procedures and putting our operational permit in jeopardy. The Judge was not amused and removed his licence. Surprisingly his response was to write a particularly poisonous story in the Telegraph the next day, which both revealed a great deal more about him and reduced the Nevada Telegraph readership to zero. It seemed a really sad way to end the Telegraph relationship which had brought so much help and support to the project from such a great collection of readers.

You probably know all about the furry dice - these are the two black dice which are awarded to the perpetrator of the greatest project cockup of the day. Since the awardee has to wear the dice at all times there is a huge incentive to find the next candidate - quickly! My own contribution just about brought the entire project to a halt. As usual there was no time and I found that I had to reposition an ITN cameraman at short notice. I bundled cameraman, camera and tripod into the little rented blue Neon and reversed out. There was a sickening crunch. I had reversed over my flight case - and the Digital VP laptop which runs the entire project. And I had not backed up for three weeks! The laptop was reduced to electronic crumbs and we were in very deep trouble. After the ThrustSSC run we were able to extract the Hard Disk Drive which (thank everyone's God) ran well. I now had to find another candidate for the dice - quickly!

My own impressions of the supersonic runs were a mixture of awe and downright fear. Seeing the ThrustSSC approach in absolute silence and accelerating faster than you can imagine is just mind-blowing. Then there is a slight "boom-boom" as the car passes the pit pen and disappears to the far end of the track and safety.

Down in the town if Gerlach things are very different: the boom shook the school and caused the sprinkler covers to fly off. Pictures fell off dressers and walls, and the postmistress nearly had a heart attack. I hadn't taken out supersonic insurance, but fortunately there were no claims.

As you see all this happen, you know two things that those around you are unaware. Nick Dove has already said that the SSC is good for another 3-4 runs and then must come in for a major strip down and check - and you know that the team are getting really tired. People are moving around like robots and there is talk of looking forward to going home.

If we could just get the team and the car to peak in the next few days, then we could make it. If the project were to drag on much longer we would lose critical team members and the rest would not be able to carry the additional workload. And the SSC rebuild must take the better part of a week. So it had to happen that week.

Fortunately, as you know it all came together on the 15th and there were two perfect supersonic runs. In fact although it all looked stable and routine, this was far from reality, with Andy and the SSC up to 60ft out of line at times - and then running across the measured mile surfing on the shockwaves and tearing up a great strip of desert 12feet wide with shockwaves extending 150ft on either side. A quick ride in one of the Pegasus microlights tells you all: not one of Andy's tracks is straight, he has had to fight the SSC through every subsonic and supersonic mile. This is a huge personal achievement. Not like T2 which went reasonably straight above 350.

Never a great one for emotion, Andy allowed himself one telling comment in his last run report:
"Subjective feeling that rear-wheel steering should be limited to forklift trucks in future."

My own thoughts had been much deeper: if we are not careful we are going to have a God-awful accident. How do I make a balanced decision here, how long can we go on like this? Have we built up an organisation which will resist pressure to stop and will just run on remorselessly until we have that accident?

I need not have worried: the team seemed to all share the same worry and by the time I brought the media to the Pit Station after the supersonic record runs, Andy had done the job for all of us: he simply told everyone that he had finished.

The relief was huge - suddenly the project was finished, everyone's deep personal concerns over their responsibilities evaporated - the entire 6 year project had been finished in the best possible way. But one or two were not so sure. Rod Barker who works for the Met Flight at Farnborough was very concerned.

"Richard we have not taken it to 850mph - we are still at 760. We should change the engines to the 205's and push on."

I explained that the team was seriously tired, that the data was showing another huge drag wall past Mach 1 and that the SSC needed a complete overhaul. On top of all that we were seriously compromised on fuel capacity - years ago at the design stage I had stood out for 300 gallons, and even that was not enough. I explained my fears of a major accident which would effectively destroy everything we had achieved. "It's best to call it a day now, Rod, believe me. We have a good result, we have achieved a World First, nobody has been hurt and we are all safe."

Rod wasn't so sure, but later in the Black Rock Saloon he explained that he had come to terms with the decision.

So then a massive tidy up and return to Reno for the Antonov. The entire camp was cleared away in 24 hours - so well that you could not find the spot on the desert where it had been. We sold the Spirit team 100 Fechers for their desert markings and moved the huge convoy back to Reno to await the Antonov. The BLM were pleased and gave us their award for responsible desert management.

Andrew Noble had done a tremendous deal with the Peppermill Casino, which meant that the SSC could go on show there and the entire team could stay in the hotel. Tom Reviglio of Western Nevada Supplies provided a week's worth of entertainment and everyone settled in for a well deserved rest-and-recovery session. The workload of clearing up and paying all the bills was so great that I ran out of time. In celebration I had meant to go to the Reno guitar shop and buy an American Standard Fender Stratocaster guitar - a lifelong ambition since I was a teenager. Rob Hemper, our ace country-style musician saved me: "Don't worry, I'll do that. Red one you want isn't it?"

The next objective was to get the Antonov into Reno. We had planned on the 25th, but such is the demand for these aircraft that it wasnt possible until the 29th. Brian Palmer had the Antonov loading under control in Reno and many of the Spirit of America team came to help also. Back in the UK there was tremendous interest. The live television on Sky, CNN and ITN had generated huge interest - and there was considerable public annoyance that the event had been given insufficient coverage.

Back in the UK we had another sort of problem - money! We had left owing money and in particular Ron and Glynne had not been paid for literally years. We owed serious money to HeavyLift and to Castrol, whose money we had borrowed at the last minute to get to the US. Merchandise sales in the US had been healthy and we had managed to complete the entire US project 7% under budget. But now, tired after 6 weeks of high tension, we had to graft again to get the balance sheet right.

The reality is that had we come back from the US with a poor result, we would have been bust. It was going to be difficult enough to pay those huge bills, but imagine how difficult it would be if the project was seen to be a failure. Nobody wants to know you in those circumstances - I've been there!!

So instead of a couple of months of rest which we had promised ourselves, it was back to grind big-time to try and tidy the project balance sheet by Christmas.

Andy was the immediate hero, but being Andy he didn't provide the media with the stereotype they expected. His chat show answers were always precise and his wit faster than the interviewer. The Antonov made it into Stansted on the 29th, while Andy and Jayne were in New York appearing on the David Letterman show live across the US - which apparently went extremely well. The arrival at Stansted was a great moment - this was the moment that the project finally finished, the last risk was getting the team back to the UK in one piece. Moet provide two huge flagons of champagne and much was drunk and sprayed. Dave and Sherrie Hackette and Jack and Linda Frank had also flown - Jack having somehow overcome a major fear of flying which he put down to the Antonov Experience.

Now we had to clear up the project. We had discussed the situation in the US and everyone knew that we could only keep two or three of the team on to clear up. I have never known anything like the situation we met: the phones and faxes run all day, each time you put down the phone it rings again, with people you have never met becoming angry that you wont do the deals they expect. The correspondence is literally frightening - huge piles of beautifully written letters. many with donations, and every one must be answered.

One of the most moving was from His Majesty King Hussein of Jordan. It started: "Dear Richard" and ended "I am your sincere friend." What a wonderful letter to receive.

There was also a letter from Dennis Bancroft, the designer of the Miles M52 aircraft which with the first ever afterburning Whittle jet engine should have gone supersonic before the Bell X-1 but was mysteriously cancelled by the UK Government. He was thrilled with the result.

One of the last outings we had as a team was to march in the Lord Mayor's Procession through the City of London. We lined up with the Pit Station, ThrustSSC on its trailer, the Firechase Jaguar and the Supacats, with the team marching. The procession was made up of floats from the big financial institutions and huge companies like British Airways - and plenty of marching military who seemed to take great delight in issuing orders to the civilians. Whenever the military lost control, they would shout at us to speed up. We would shout back at them to regain control and slow everyone down. Always remember that the military man is programmed to respond to orders! As we progressed through the streets the Thrust group was met with huge cheers and much shouting from the 500,000 crowd. Later we were told that the military and institutional floats passed the crowds in silence and the crowds only responded to Thrust. It was a tremendously and deeply thrilling experience to get this kind of huge spontaneous public response.

Shortly after we returned Tony Green, Andy's father, was very keen to bring ThrustSSC to their home town Norwich. The local council would only go ahead and arrange the reception if Tony paid, which seemed a bit tough. Andy and a crowd of ThrustSSC team made it to Norwich where the SSC was put on display in a hangar at the airport - over 9,000 people came to see the car and meet Andy. The roads were jammed and appeals went out on local radio to stay away. The council charged two pounds a head and made a vast profit - and the Thrust team ran out of merchandise and was reduced to taking orders on scraps of paper.

Back at Farnborough we started on the huge backlog of merchandise orders - Sally, Suzy and Ninetta soon had the machinery up and running, but it took time to realise that they were being hopelessly outclassed by the continuous flow of orders which if anything was growing strongly. Soon we were moving 1000 new Lledo ThrustSSC models a week and still not matching demand. It was quite clear that we were faced with something quite new: a huge public response which is still growing.

A Formula 1 team wanted to use ThrustSSC to launch their new car and livery in 1998. I explained that we did not want ThrustSSC used in this way and we were having nothing to do with tobacco - this caused them to try coercion through our sponsors which was quickly and stoutly repelled.

The first of the Thrust videos was produced, which was the ITN Productions/Castrol video. We sat down to view it and were not excited. The whole project appeared to have been reduced to a semi-scientific documentary. Watch out for Bill Grist's BBC production that is going to be a masterpiece and will be screened next year!

On the book front we have signed with Transworld to produce a huge book of in excess of 100,000 words. This has to be completed early in the new year and is being written by our old friend Dave Tremayne.

But back to the money. A quick solution to all this might be to hold an auction and sell everything except the SSC, the Pit Station and the 205 engines. Robert Brooks rang from Geneva and immediately agreed to go ahead - and on the 29th we are expecting 600 people to attend in Farnborough. It should be extremely exciting and hopefully will make a sizable crater in the debt mountain.

One of the saddest occasions of all is saying goodbye to our Mach 1 members. With nearly 5,000 there is no way we can continue to service and support the club, now that the project is complete. So we decided on the holding three huge Mach 1 days at Farnborough to report back and to thank them. The first was held last weekend and around 250 came, they listened to everything in silence which was broken when we screened the BBC footage with the supersonic bangs. I was really sorry to say goodbye, but the only alternative would be to turn it into some kind of backward-looking society. Many told us that they had really enjoyed the project and that it had become a part of their lives - which was a huge compliment.

This last week we had the British Racing Drivers Club annual ball attended by 1000 in Grosvenor House, Park Lane. Many of the well known drivers did not show up for their awards, but Andy and two tables of ThrustSSC team were present to see him given his BRDC Gold Star and also the wonderful John Cobb Trophy for the best performance anywhere by a British Driver in a British car. It was one hell of an evening and many a Thrust team member was still revelling at 4am.

What have we learned from all this?

I think there are four main points:

  1. If you do your research well, establish a highly professional organisation, and work tirelessly and remorseless towards your objective you can get there - even if the corporate establishment is not on your side.
  2. If you can establish and maintain a flat pyramid management structure based on mutual trust and real responsibility and authority, the team will outclass any organisation ten times its size. But the secret is delegation and absolute trust.
  3. If you can establish a culture of professionalism and communication which never shirks the difficult questions and takes a great deal of convincing, this multiplies the teamwork performance very substantially.
  4. The Internet is the most powerful communication known to man - without this the project would have undoubtedly failed.

And now there is a surprising and new development. After years of inaction the dreaded Budweiser Rocket story emerges again with new, presumably Budweiser-funded, energy. Full page ads appear in the US media which basically state that the BR was first through Mach 1. This is being reinforced with a series of articles which are appearing in the UK motoring press, and presumably overseas as well as the mighty Budweiser revisionist machine starts to roll and to try to convince the next generation of Stan Barrett's rightful place in history.

There are strong rumours that journalists writing articles querying the BR performance are being threatened with law suits.

The storyline is best told in great detail in Harvey Shapiro's new book "Man against the Salt". Simply put, the Budweiser people sponsored a rocket car which claimed the LSR with a series of one-way self-timed runs over a 1/100th mile distance on Bonneville in 1979. Now the whole thing about a LSR is that the record must directly relate to something that has gone before and must be independently audited. Thus you can never compare a self-timed one-way run over such a short timed distance with an independently audited and sanctioned two-way mile or kilo LSR. Despite Budweiser's best efforts to claim a LSR, the resulting furore meant that they had to divert attention and so the decision was made to run at Edwards AFB for Mach 1. This would be a World First that would not suffer the embarrassment of being compared with existing records and standards of proof.

I wasn't there so I can't judge. Basically the BR engine was uprated and a small Sidewinder missile engine added as a booster. The run was tracked by a hand-panned USAF radar dish which was uncalibrated, and shortly after peaking the BR ran through a 1/100th mile time trap - where they recorded 666mph. Apparently short of scientific data they resorted to General Chuck Jeager who pronounced them supersonic because the rear wheels flew, indicating to him an established rear shock. They claimed Mach 1.01000 something.

The whole operation was steeped in secrecy, and this fits uncomfortably with the need to gain public acceptance. What seems to have happened is that Stan Barrett ran the most enormous personal risk, and through sheer indifference to public opinion the organisation failed to time him with an independent authority. He personally believes he went supersonic.

I remember a phone call I had with him shortly after we got the Thrust2 LSR. He complained that I had a record and he had nothing. I explained that all he had to do was to run the BR again and have it timed by a credible organisation such as USAC. If successful we would all cheer and support his claim to be the first through Mach 1 on wheels.

We did exactly the same with the ThrustSSC when we didn't get the official FIA record on October 13th 1997. We ran ThrustSSC through Mach 1 twice more on October 15th.

During an evening I spent with Craig Breedlove, he took me through his dossier on the Budweiser Rocket. It did not appear to be at all encouraging - Craig is not a believer.

Since 1979 apparently there have been strange and unexpected reactions:

This is the age of the Internet and global information and so with the huge volume of followers we have been lucky enough to amass, we can apply considerable energy to finding out the truth here, and I would like to ask you to help. We would like to take this opportunity to get to the truth once and for ever.

  1. Please acquire a copy of "Man against the Salt" and read the Budweiser Chapter.
    Published: Minerva Press, 195 Knightsbridge, London. SW7 1RE.
    ISBN 1 85863 898 4
  2. Write to August Busch, President Anheuser-Busch Inc, 1 Busch Place, St Louis, Missouri 63118 and ask him for his scientific justification for his corporation's claim. Also ask him whether he intends to run his ads in England and other countries.
  3. Write to the Chief Executive Officer, The Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC and ask why the Budweiser Rocket has never been given prominent display given its apparent pedigree.
  4. Write to the Secretary for Defence, The Pentagon, Washington DC and ask for their views on the use of Air Force equipment for the timing of the Budweiser Rocket and their level of endorsement.
  5. Write to Guinness Publishing, c/o Guinness Brewing, Park Royal, London and ask them for their views.
  6. Follow through any other avenues and particularly let us have letters if you are threatened with lawsuits.
  7. If you wish us to consider publishing your letter on this site, please e-mail us your letter and authority.

Personally I believe that had Barrett been verified as supersonic, the whole of America would have been wild with pride and delight and the BR would have pride of place at the Smithsonian and the history written up in greatest detail at Edwards. The Guinness Book of Records would have given it pages for years, and Stan Barrett would have been as famous as General Jeager. Many books will have been written.

And we would have had the greatest difficulty in funding or even building ThrustSSC because Mach 1 had already been achieved.

But that never happened and it's expensive to rewrite history.

Just because a large and wealthy multinational says it happened is just not acceptable as scientific proof these days, and their continuing promotion without clear proof is probably very damaging to the Budweiser brand. We need to put the burden of proof on Budweiser to prove that it did happen before we can accept their story and believe their advertising. Not the other way around.

Until that happens, Squadron Leader Andrew Green was the first person to drive through Mach 1 on land on October 13th 1997, and the first to achieve a supersonic two-way FIA record on October 15th 1997. The FIA supports the speed on October 13th, and the record on October 15th.

It's been one Hell of a six year effort!

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