If you came of age as a car enthusiast in the 1960s, you certainly know who Norman Craig Breedlove was, and about his towering accomplishments in a wild, back-and-forth contest for the world Land Speed Record at the Bonneville Salt Flats. A pioneering California hot rodder who had been setting speed records on the salt since he took his 1934 Ford coupe down the course in 1955, Breedlove passed away Thursday at the age of 86. His exit concludes a life marked by one of the most memorable, and dangerous, one-on-one contests for supremacy in the history of world motorsport.
Inspired by John F. Kennedy’s speech telling Americans to ask what they can do for their country, Breedlove was inspired to seek the LSR, designing and building the first of two jet-powered record cars that led to a protracted contest for the title of fastest man on earth. After deep-sixing his first car when a parachute failed, Breedlove built a second Spirit of America jet in which he captured the record, at more than 600 MPH, in a titanic contest with another jet car driven by Art Arfons. The record changed hands several times from 1963 through 1965, and Breedlove’s record-setting car was immortalized in the title of a Beach Boys song. When he first captured the record in late 1963, Breedlove upended the record of Briton Sir John Cobb that had stood since the 1940s, and became the first American to hold the mark since Ray Keech set the record on the sands at Daytona Beach in 1928. The all-or-nothing battle between Breedlove and Arfons remains the subject of motorsport legend, earning Breedlove induction into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, where yours truly is one of the electors, here in Daytona Beach.