Craig Breedlove, who set land-speed records by topping 400, 500 and 600 mph in jet-powered cars nicknamed Spirit of America, has died. He was 86.
Breedlove died at his home in Rio Vista, California, on April 4. His wife, Yadira Breedlove, said the cause of death was cancer.
Breedlove battled Tom Green and Art Arfons on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah to set and then break each other’s speed records during the freewheeling 1960s, a golden era of American motorsports. Breedlove’s final speed record was 600.6 mph (966.5 km/h) in 1965.
The mark has been topped since, with the current record sitting at 760.3 mph (1,223.6 km/h) – faster than the speed of sound – but Breedlove helped make the land-speed mark a cultural phenomenon beginning in 1963.
He was an American hero to some and was even immortalized in the Beach Boys’ song “Spirit of America,” which refers to him as a “daring young man” playing a “dangerous game.”
Born March 23, 1937, Breedlove was a firefighter whose childhood love of cars inspired him to race. He also worked at Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica as a technician in structural engineering, a background that helped fuel his work with jet-powered cars.
His early designs included a missile-shaped vehicle with three wheels, a jet engine and a rear fin; it was more fighter plane than passenger car.
In Spirit of America, Breedlove clocked 407 mph at Bonneville to set a new land-speed record on Aug. 5, 1963. The record changed hands eight times in the next two-plus years, culminating with Breedlove’s final mark set on Nov. 15, 1965.
During one of Breedlove’s record-breaking runs, he lost his brakes and his parachutes. Unable to stop for more than a mile, his car slammed into telephone poles before landing in a salt pond. Breedlove escaped unscathed.
Breedlove planned to try to break the land-speed record of 633 mph in 1996, but he crashed and had to abandon the endeavor.
Breedlove was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1993, the Dry Lakes Racing hall of Fame in 1995, International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2000, and the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2009.
He was married six times, with his final one lasting 20 years. In addition to his wife, he is survived by two children from his first marriage, a half-sister, five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
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