Craig Breedlove's 4 Most Impressive Land Speed Records

An American speed-chasing legend, Craig Breedlove sadly passed away on April 4, 2023, at 86. He was born in 1937 in Los Angeles, and quickly fell in love with the speed game. At 13, he purchased his first car, and at 16 began flirting with intense acceleration more substantially; piloting a 1943 Ford across the Mojave Desert at a speed of 154 miles per hour. Soon after, he was competing against the world's best to achieve ever-faster, record breaking speeds across a variety of platforms.

He is best known for the legendary chase of the land speed record against Art Arfons in the early and mid-1960s at the Bonneville Salt Flats. He achieved enormous top speed numbers, reaching for the first time up past both 500 and 600 miles per hour in his "Spirit of America" jet-propelled land racers.

That being said, Craig Breedlove is a record breaker in a variety of different racing categories, including ironically, the "world's longest skid marks" that resulted from the crash of his first Spirit racer. Including the jet cars that set the land speed record on fire, these are his most impressive speed records.

The first person to reach 500 miles per hour

In 1964, Craig Breedlove orchestrated a coup of sorts within the land speed record race. After dueling with the Arfons brothers for years, his "Spirit of America" vehicle broke this mythic barrier. Art Arfons took pole position once again, and then Breedlove was able to top his Herculean effort once more, reaching a speed of 526.277 miles per hour. In this attempt, Breedlove would nearly be killed in the stopping phase, with his parachutes and brakes failing to halt the massive momentum of the vehicle.

The vehicle was christened "Spirit of America" in a nod to President John F. Kennedy's momentous speech, in which he beckoned the American public to "ask what you can do for your country." In this vessel, Breedlove set out to challenge the existing land speed record for his nation, as well as his own personal sense of glory.

The "car" itself appears more like a fighter jet than a typical car. It was built on a budget of $250,000, and made use of a General Electric J47 turbojet engine that was repurposed from an F-86 Sabre, capable of producing 4,400 pound-force of thrust. It was enhanced for a pursuit of the speed record with the addition of a stabilizer and a basic steering capacity in the front wheel (of which there were three total, rather than four).

He was also the first 600-mile-per-hour breaker

In addition to Craig Breedlove's blistering first 500 mile per hour speed achievement, he also bested Art Arfons in 1965 in a back and forth that saw his new "Spirit of America – Sonic I" crack 600 miles per hour (600.601 mph, exactly).

This vessel took the jet profile to a whole new level. The Sonic I places a massive jet engine in the rear of the tubular design, just beneath a tail fin that completes a visual aesthetic that would look at home on a space shuttle. This vehicle was bigger and badder in every way when comparing it to the first rocket vessel piloted by Breedlove. 

The Sonic I utilized four wheels, and its General Electric J-79GE Turbine jet engine produced 14,980 pounds of thrust, dwarfing the installation in his previous model. This vehicle was also piloted by his wife, Lee Breedlove, to a women's land speed record of 308.56 miles per hour — after surprisingly, she had never driven a car more than 75.

The Class C 24-hour endurance speed record

After establishing a new threshold for speed at 600 miles per hour (a record that wouldn't be broken again for five years), Breedlove moved into endurance racing. In 1968, he worked with American Motors Corporation in developing and driving the AMX. Two specially-designed AMX models were driven at the Goodyear Test Track in San Angelo, Texas.

The cars were built to challenge the Class B and Class C endurance speed records over a 24-hour interval. The No. 2 car was a 290ci vehicle with an AMC V8 engine measuring a customized 304 cubic inch bore. The two cars together were run a month before hitting the Daytona circuit, and broke a combined 106 speed and endurance records. 

Breedlove, his wife, and Ron Dykes were able to pilot this vehicle to an average speed over the daylong exhibition of 140.790 miles per hour. This shattered the existing record of 102.310 miles per hour handily.

[Featured image by Champion Spark Plug via Wikimedia Commons | Cropped and scaled | Public Domain]

The AMX runs at Bonneville

In November of 1968, Craig Breedlove put on the "Javelin Speed Spectacular at Bonneville." Here, he raced three specially designed AMC Javelins across the Bonneville Salt Flats, with the second vehicle claiming a C/Production speed record of 161.733 miles per hour.

This record has since been broken, most recently in 2020 by Ed Voss, who drove a 1973 Mustang fastback, claiming a two-way average of 221.871 miles per hour. The AMC Javelins used here were enhanced for maximum performance, with input from Joe Mondello — a wizard under the hood who is famous for building high performing Oldsmobile V8 racers.

Even as Breedlove's records were set and then challenged by others pushing the envelope even further, the drive he held for continuously faster speeds in a wide range of driving conditions tells much of the story of his life. Breedlove was an innovator and daredevil who learned his aerodynamic engineering craft while working at Douglas Aircraft. 

His legacy lives on in the many racers who have squeezed increasingly more speed and power out of their own innovative designs in the years since his record breaking drives.