Desert Lightning

updated 09/29/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/29/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

IN AUGUST 1963, WHEN JFK WAS IN THE WHITE House and the Mercury astronauts had taken their first baby steps into space, a skinny 26-year-old daredevil named Craig Breedlove climbed into a car called Spirit of America and, blasting along at 407.4 mph, broke the world land speed record. Now 60, at an age when most people are driving more safely and sanely—just ask your insurance company—Breedlove hopes to break it again. During increasingly speedy runs over Nevada's Black Rock Desert, he hopes this week to become the first man on land ever to exceed 700 mph—633.5 mph is the current record, held by Richard Noble of Great Britain—and then burst through the sound barrier of 760. "It's what I do," he says. "I find it incredibly fascinating."

So fascinating that, though he stopped driving professionally in 1976 and began a lucrative career in real estate, his lust for speed has never been quenched. He has had four marriages, three children and five grandchildren, but his heart belongs to his new Spirit of America, which he has been building and fine-tuning in a Rio Vista, Calif., garage for the past four years. "This is the most powerful car ever built," he says lovingly.

Car? Spirit may run on the same Shell premium gasoline as your father's Oldsmobile, but, powered by an F4 Phantom jet fighter engine, it's more like an earthbound missile. A narrow cockpit in the tip is just large enough to accommodate Breedlove, who at 5'8½" still weighs the same 150 pounds he did more than 30 years ago. "It's just your ass and 100 gallons of gasoline," he says, laughing. "It has one goal—to go faster than any vehicle over the surface of the earth."

This is Breedlove's second attempt in a year to break Noble's record. Last October, as he pushed Spirit of America to an unofficial 675 mph, it got caught in a crosswind and veered off the track at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Since then, Spirit has been redesigned to make it more aerodynamically stable.

The new assault on the record has an added measure of drama: Thrust SSC, designed by Noble and driven by compatriot Andrew Green, will be running on alternate days with Breedlove. "We're very good friends," says Noble, downplaying the high-stakes rivalry between the men—and their sponsors. "He's the greatest land speed record holder of all time."

Driving the world's fastest land vehicle has been Breedlove's consuming goal since he was a kid at Venice High School in California. The son of a Hollywood special-effects engineer married to a dancer working with Fred Astaire (they divorced when Breedlove was 7), he began tinkering with hot rods at 13. By 17, Breedlove was competing in races—and crashing; he still suffers back pain from a 120-mph wipeout in a friend's 1932 Chevy in which he was thrown through the cloth roof.

By 21, married and the father of three—Chris, now 41; Norman, 40; and Dawn, 39—he was looking for a way to make a living. He found work as a mechanic and a fireman but never abandoned his dreams of pure speed. With the financial backing of a machine tool company, he cobbled together the original Spirit of America and finally made his first record run. In 1964, while setting a new record at over 500 mph, Spirit of America became airborne, smashed through a telephone pole—Breedlove was billed $200 by the local power company—and came to rest in an 18-foot-deep pond. Breedlove swam to shore unscathed. "He's very laid-back, very calm," says William A. Moore, an industrial designer who has known Breedlove since grammar school. "You can't panic at those kinds of speeds."

He set his last land speed record, 600.6 mph, in 1965. Then, when Goodyear, his sponsor, lost interest in funding him, he sent his cars to museums and went into other ventures. Not that he quit chasing records. In 1973 he set a new mark for acceleration, using a rocket-powered dragster. Shortly thereafter, while trying to better that record, he flipped at 420 mph—and again escaped injury. "I feel very blessed," he says.

In 1976, his speed demons apparently put to rest, Breedlove turned his energies to selling real estate and renovating two old beach cottages in California. But in 1993 he began investing a million dollars he'd made from real estate in his new car and persuading Shell Oil, among others, to sponsor him. "Craig always had the ability to spark the drive and interest of other people to go after a goal," says Moore. "The intensity is always there."

Should Breedlove succeed this time, what might be out there for a 60-year-old grandfather who can drive faster than anyone else on earth?

Breedlove knows the answer to that. "I'm going to build a boat," he says, "for the water speed record."

MICHAEL NEILL
LAIRD HARRISON in Rio Vista

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