Stunt Man Stan Barrett Breaks the On-Land Sound Barrier But, Fortunately, Nothing Else

updated 01/07/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/07/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

"I'm just so glad God made mountains and areas to be explored and barriers to be broken," Stan Barrett says with tears in his eyes. His wife, Penny, has a different reaction: "I hope he doesn't have to do it again." On December 17 Barrett drove the missile-shaped Budweiser Rocket down a dry lake bed at Edwards AFB in California at 739.666 miles per hour and became the first human to break the sound barrier on land.

Barrett, 36, is by profession a movie and TV stunt man (as was Hal Needham, the movie director, who owns the Rocket). Yet he seems ideal for piloting high-powered cars. "Racing experience doesn't apply here," says the Rockets designer, Bill Fredrick. "The most important things are Stan's quickness and unbelievable reactions." His size (5'9", 147 lbs.) also helps: the car seat is only 20 inches wide. "Not even enough room to sweat," Barrett jokes.

Born in St. Louis (his father was a chiropractor, preacher and railroad engineer), Stan recalls, "I could drive when I was 6 or 7." He was undefeated lightweight Golden Gloves champion at 15, but his father bribed him away from boxing with a new Corvette.

After high school Barrett spent four years in the Air Force teaching pilots to cope with altitude stress and dive pressure in simulators. (Experience there helped him withstand the 6.6 Gs exerted by the Rocket's speed.) Barrett planned to enroll in premed studies until he landed a bit part in Shenandoah in 1966 through friends on the crew. For the first time he watched stunt men at work. "There were guys falling from horses and walking away," he recalls. "I said to myself, 'Holy cow, what a way to make a living.' "

Paul Newman, for whom he stunted in Sometimes a Great Notion in 1971, introduced Barrett to auto racing. Director Needham, who used Stan in Burt Reynolds' TV series Hawk and film Hooper, recruited the stunt man to drive the Rocket late in 1978. Last September he broke the nine-year-old world land speed, zooming across the Bonneville salt flats in Utah at 638 mph.

To prepare himself for that attempt, Barrett, who had never driven faster than 175, gave up stunt work last summer to train at his home in Bishop, Calif. He ran 10 miles and did 500 sit-ups a day to toughen himself for the physical strain, and bounced a medicine ball on his abdomen to simulate the wallop of acceleration. "I didn't enjoy the training," he admits. "It's hard to run in 104 degrees."

Estimating he's now worth $300,000 in endorsements, Barrett says he will quit both racing and stunt work soon to open a religious children's camp. A born-again Christian, he has been known to refuse jobs on movies he considers immoral. But his skill is what directors care about. "I've done my share of carousing," says Needham. "Stan doesn't get on my case, I don't get on his."

Wife Penny, a former national slalom champ (as Penny McCoy), says she understands Barrett's daring "because I was a ski racer. I had my thrills too." Nevertheless, they and their three children often prayed together during Stan's high-speed runs. The family is accustomed to Dad taking a beating in his stunt work. He's had six operations on his knees, two on his back. He also needed nose surgery once when a horse stepped on his face.

That hardly compared to what he faced in the Rocket. During an early run the canopy blew off as he was decelerating at 400 mph, and one of his two braking parachutes failed. His handlers decided to move the sound-barrier attempt from Utah to Edwards when a wheel of the car left the bumpy salt flats for up to 95 feet at a stretch, endangering Barrett's control. (Incredibly, it turned out that at supersonic speed both rear wheels left the ground for 800 feet.)

Now the car is going on a promotion tour and Needham will return to directing the sequel to Smokey and the Bandit. Barrett? "I think," he grins wearily, "I'll just go and watch Hal make movies."

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