Article Thumbnail

Fiending for Flow State at 700 MPH

They’re going faster than anyone’s ever gone in a car. It might earn them fame, a place in history and an unparalleled high — but it’s not great for their insurance

When David Tremayne walked away from his battered jet-car, having scraped it on its side along an airfield runway at 250 miles an hour, before rolling to a bouncing halt, the first thing he did was call his wife. He said, “Hey, I’m okay, if you hear anything. Um… Now you’ve got to ask me my speed…” 

He told her that before he’d lost control he’d run an average of 275 miles through the measured half-kilometer stretch, just 30 mph short of the British land-speed record — which to be official is averaged over two successive 500-meter runs through the time-traps, and has stood at 301 mph since 2006. In response, “she said something which was really interesting,” says Tremayne: “‘At least you’ve got that, even if you never get to have another go.’ Even then I knew that wasn’t going to be enough.”

That was in August 2017, and Tremayne and his Stay Gold team are planning another attempt this year. So far he’s made just two runs since he bought the four-wheeled jet dragster in 2009, explaining that “the interruptions are either because of technical problems or money problems, and the fact that we’ve all got jobs to actually earn our living — this is all done on a voluntary basis.”

He fully admits that his compulsion to get back in the cockpit, despite the close shave with 420 meters of concrete (literally — he scraped his finger) on his most recent drive, could be termed an obsession. “I know that I’m prepared to die every time I get in that car. Which sounds dramatic but it’s true,” he says. “It’s interesting when you’re actually upside down. While it’s happening you kind of think, ‘Hmm, okay. Well, I never thought you’d do this to me, but we’re going to be okay.’”

For many of us slow-pokes content to stick to the speed limit, jet-car drivers’ dogged pursuit of land-speed records seems the most baffling of human urges. It’s massively dangerous, it’s blisteringly expensive, and while it may be the ultimate speed rush, it’s also the most transitory of over-in-an-instant thrills. All in all, it seems to amount to a heady cocktail of “why bother?” So what is it about it that entices people like Tremayne to dedicate so much of their time and resources into two flash-by minutes that might easily kill them?

Tremayne himself is uniquely placed to assess this — in his day job, he’s a noted motorsports journalist who publishes an e-magazine for the world Grand Prix circuit; he’s also a leading authority on the history of land-speed records, and a tireless chronicler of people who like to go very, very, insanely fast in vastly impractical cars. According to Tremayne, “the coolest man in the universe” is Felix Baumgartner — the Austrian aeronaut with stratospheric cojones who broke the highest-altitude free-fall record in 2012, also breaking the sound barrier on his way down. 

But he believes that the more terrestrial accolade of “coolest man on Earth” goes to the veteran American land-speed record-setter Craig Breedlove. Now 83, Breedlove held the record five times in the 1960s, and became the first driver to break both the 500-mph and 600-mph barriers. In the course of zipping past the first of those milestones, on Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah in 1964, the parachutes failed on his jet-powered Spirit of America car just after he’d clocked 526 mph, and Breedlove lost control. “He cuts down a telegraph pole in this three-wheeled car,” marvels Tremayne, “goes over a bank, nose-dives into a brine lake, and then swims ashore and stands on the bank, and everyone’s running up to him… And he puts his arms in the air and says, ‘For my next trick, I’ll set myself afire!’ And you think, ‘That guy’s cool.’ Then he went away, built another car and went quicker still — because I guess that’s what those people do.”

Could it be some kind of death-wish, then? Or the Russian roulette-style thrill of occasionally indulging in a potentially lethal gamble? Over the decades, land-speed record attempts have claimed an awful lot of lives, the acknowledged first being Welshman John Godfrey Parry-Thomas in 1927. He has been followed by an alarming number of his fellow high-speed travelers. According to a memorial website dedicated to land-speed drivers, 53 more have been killed in the decades since (not including Donald Campbell, son of the British land-speed legend Malcolm who famously died in an attempt on the water-speed record in Bluebird K7 in 1967) — with 14 deaths in the last 20 years alone. Last August, horribly, the pursuit claimed Jessi Combs, the 39-year-old MythBusters host and holder of the women’s four-wheel speed record, when a wheel failed on her in Alvord Desert, Oregon.

In 2006, another TV host, Richard Hammond of the car-cult British franchise Top Gear, was in a two-week coma, then reportedly lost a year’s worth of memory to amnesia, after he rolled the U.K. record-breaking car Vampire at 288 mph while filming a segment for the show. In footage of an earlier, successful run, Hammond can be seen, fists clenched in exhilaration, saying, “I’m full of adrenaline! Oh yes! I’m so alive! I’m so alive,” shortly before launching into another ride, this one ending in disaster. 

The Speed of Thought

When it comes to the average hotrodder, comparisons can indeed be drawn between gambling and death-defying acceleration. According to psychologist Alex Blaszczynski, who directs the Gambling Treatment & Research Clinic at the University of Sydney, Australia, “There are a lot of similarities between them.” Though the stakes are very different, both speeding and gambling stimulate the brain’s reward systems associated with the production of adrenaline. Consequently, both tend to suffer the effects of “habituation, where people get used to an increase in tolerance for that particular activity, and they keep trying to push the limits.”

What differentiates the professional speedsters from your run-of-the-mill road-racing thrill-seekers, says Blaszczynski, is their relationship to the risks involved. While for a joyrider, transgressing speed limits and safety norms “can almost be addictive itself,” any excitement a serious driver feels is unlikely to come from living dangerously. In fact, much of their efforts are spent trying to banish hazard from the equation. “When you get to that level of professionalism with record-breaking, there’s a team around people to minimize as much as possible the potential risk. And the last thing you think about is the negative consequences, because otherwise your performance would clearly be impaired — you’d be too cautious and more likely to make mistakes.” In the orbit of speed records, “when you talk to these thrill-seekers, they rarely focus on the negative outcomes — they’re always focusing on the positive side of things: ‘I’m going to beat this; I’m going to win…’” For them, he says, “They get that sense of thrill out of achieving a particular goal.”

Adrenaline kicks might be one source of the pleasure people get from hurtling at 200-plus mph, but according to Tremayne, it’s not the only one. In his own jet-car-racing circle, one of his friends, a 50-year-old woman who’s been driving for 15 years, reports that she still gets an adrenaline rush. But among his other co-speedsters one, who is a licensed pilot, says, “‘No, I don’t get the adrenaline buzz.’” And nor does Tremayne himself. He recalls a medic advising him immediately after his accident, “You need to sit down — you’re going to have a huge adrenaline rush… You’re probably even having it now; you just don’t realize it” — but that surge never came. “I just don’t get an adrenaline rush,” he says. “I was calmer driving the car and having the accident than I was driving the trailer through the rain and from York city to the airfield where we crashed.”

An alternative source of high-octane pleasure might well be the experience of flow — the state of heightened awareness and time-lapsed consciousness that occurs when you’re fully engrossed in a task you enjoy (whose weird properties we’ve looked at before). “It’s like that lap that [Ayrton] Senna did at Monaco in 1988 where he was talking about having an out-of-body experience because he was so in the zone,” agrees Tremayne.

It’s a condition Tremayne has had some familiarity with, particularly when he’s felt the “slow-motion effect” following the initial burst of acceleration, and when it’s suddenly game-on for the record: “You get into the bit between the two markers for the entry and the exit, and suddenly everything’s kind of slowed down. And you’re just going, ‘Come on, come on, come on!’ — like you’re not going fast enough — which is odd.”

The sublime pleasure associated with flow-states has been observed by researchers who study the psychology of fast driving. Richard Stephens of Keele University in the U.K., for example, has looked into it in his exploration of why breaking the speed limit feels like a lot of fun for many offenders. “Perhaps people speed in order to increase the challenge of the task,” he suggests, “and make the experience of driving a more flowing experience.”

The state of deep immersion might also explain how elite drivers cope psychologically with the incredible risks they’re taking each time they get behind the wheel. “Many of these activities look irrational,” says Blaszczynski, who confesses to being a bit of a speed freak himself, having enjoyed putting go-karts and touring cars through their paces in his time. “I was watching some of the Red Bull aerobatic planes that fly under bridges; from the outside you think, this is complete stupidity. But for the person doing it, it’s controlled; they understand what they’re doing.”

Your sense of control is a vital element in the psychology of speed, he says. “If I’m a passenger in a vehicle and someone else is driving the vehicle fast, I tend to be highly anxious, because I’m not in control. But if I’m driving, I know exactly what I’m doing; I feel I can handle any particular situation that arises.” With his rational, objective visor down, he says that this necessarily involves “a bit of denial, because anything can happen — you can blow a tire or there might be some mechanical failure. But out there, you’re working on the assumption that everything will function properly.”

It’s a virtuoso display of control that makes current world record holder Andy Green, for Tremayne, “without question the best land-speed driver there’s ever been.” Wing Commander Green, a former British Royal Air Force fighter pilot, set today’s record way back in 1997, when he took the Thrust SSC car through the sound barrier in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert to set the first supersonic land-speed record at 763 mph. “It was a strange car,” says Tremayne, “because it had two front wheels that didn’t steer and two rear wheels that did. So it was like a supermarket cart.” 

In one of the test runs leading up to its historic drive, the sensitive car had “flicked sideways at 630 miles an hour; Andy had to control it, ride it out and then it stabilized again.” It was a crunch moment for the whole project. “Most other people I know would have crashed the car, whereas Andy was prepared,” says Tremayne, who puts its survival down to Green’s military discipline and a superhuman cognitive capacity for error-correction. “It’s just that hyper-calm, computer-like processing that his brain’s capable of that made such a huge difference. Without Andy in the cockpit, I honestly don’t believe that car would have achieved what it did.”

But, Honestly, What’s the Point?

Thrust SSC itself was co-designed and developed by yet another record-breaking Brit, Richard Noble, who had taken the title 14 years prior to Green’s record, with his Thrust 2 car, but subsequently opted to take a back seat for future speedy ventures. In the past 50 years, in fact, the official record has only been surpassed three times, each with Noble steering the attempt in some way — either from the driver’s seat or as the guy behind the guy behind the wheel. Does the fact that the rate of record-taking has slowed, and that the current one has now been in place for 23 years, signal a loss of appetite for the speed-king crown?

“A hundred percent of that is just how expensive these projects are,” says Tremayne. “In relative terms, land-speed racing is a lot cheaper than Formula One. But now that it’s supersonic, you’ve got to be very careful with airflows and everything else — so there’s an awful lot of research involved. And then trying to do a jump from 750 to 850 mph, maybe even 1,000 miles an hour, which would only be done incrementally, requires even greater research, hence the huge amount of expense.”

It’s illustrative that the current leading contenders are Bloodhound LSR, another collaboration between Richard Noble and Andy Green — not to mention the sizable team of engineers, mechanics, PR people and all the other back-room staff needed to keep the speed-show on the road. Achieving their stated ambition of breaking the 1,000 mph barrier has proven a mammoth undertaking that’s already gone into administration once, in 2018, when a funding gap of around $30 million was bridged by new ownership. And in mid-March of this year, the team announced that the project had stalled again, with a further investment of $10 million needed if they’re to make an attempt on the record any time soon.

Financially, if nothing else, speed records aren’t for the faint-hearted. There’s no prize money involved, although the FIA (the governing body for Formula One, as well as land-speed records) does award you with a shiny trophy — “big deal,” says Tremayne. Even before the era of online crowd-funding, the 1997 record relied heavily on donations from the public to meet its budget. And, as in the IndyCar Series and Formula One, corporate sponsors are the teams’ go-to source of revenue — although it might be that in land-speed, the sponsors are getting the better end of the deal: “If you think how long Thrust SSC’s record has lasted, then all those sponsors that were involved, like Castrol, get to advertise over 20-odd years. The car ends up in a museum — like the last two Thrust cars — people go visit them regularly and your logos are on the side of them forever.”

So the tremendous costs don’t seem to recoup, but are there any practical benefits from the years of developing automobiles that can’t even corner properly? Tremayne cites the teams’ research methodology, which is necessarily about finding innovative solutions at the limits of human experience — such as the Bloodhound team trying to find the right shape for a wheel that will be rotating at 10,000 to 12,000 rpm (“which for a wheel is a huge amount”). “That sort of stuff, and the computational fluid dynamics at the level they’ve had to apply it — inevitably those things will be used in other engineering endeavors like designing buildings,” he says. “So in that sense, the research side of it is very important.” Otherwise, though, the practical applications of their frontier research are limited: “The aerodynamics are irrelevant to anything other than a land-based vehicle traveling at very, very high speed.”

Ratcheting up the rates at which wheels can spin might seem like the very definition of technological advancement, but in reality, it’s a type of progress that has very little to teach the world of commercial road-going automobiles, even in the realm of high-performance sports cars. The top speed of a Ferrari 488 is 205 mph — which would have taken the land-speed record from Henry Seagrave in 1927, but by 1963 had already been doubled by Craig Breedlove. In any case, what’s the point in running a vehicle that can go triple the speed limit of pretty much anywhere you’re likely to drive it? 

According to Tremayne, there are benefits beyond basic bragging rights, or as a palliative for a midlife-crisis: Of more practical importance, he says, “is the dynamic behavior of their chassis — the safety that confers, and also the fact that they will have acceleration to match that top speed. That’s the sort of stuff that can keep you out of trouble, if you’re a decent enough driver.”

But, at least from the point-of-view of Noble, there’s an important function for his Bloodhound project that justifies its place beyond securing that coveted Wikipedia entry — and, for want of a better word, it’s pretty noble. “The fundamental problem is that the country is simply running out of engineers,” he told a BBC reporter in 2010, “and that’s very bad news for the future of our economy.” In explaining why the Bloodhound research team wasn’t patenting but publishing its innovations, he went on: “This is a project about education, about inspiring a new generation of engineers.”

Which points to a deeper motivation for land-speed driving that isn’t often talked about, but begins to make a lot more sense of why people like Noble, Green, Combs, Breedlove and Parry-Thomas have been willing to throw everything, including themselves, into the rifle barrel. Breedlove achieved his records in cars he named Spirit of America, and he was reportedly inspired to race in the first place by Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you” inauguration speech of 1961. And as Tremayne recalls: “When Noble did his record in 1983, he was asked why he’d done it, and he said, ‘For Britain, and for the hell of it.’ People do it for different reasons, but Richard’s reason was a sort of nationalistic, adventurous spirit.”

With its rockets and deafening roars and images of Star-Spangled tailfins searing across the desert, land-speed does seem reminiscent of another era — like Cold War nostalgia or Top Gun-to-Jerry Maguire era Tom Cruise movies. And as the age of health-and-safety converges with the advent of self-driving automobiles, Tremayne ruefully concedes that “the love affair with the car is in its twilight years, I suspect.” But even if the FIA starts recording autonomous speed records in driverless cars, he insists this can never compete with the enduring daredevil paradigm: “It’s the man or woman that’s at the center of every land-speed record. That’s the whole point — it’s a human effort and a human endeavor. It would be like sending a robot up the hardest face of Everest. So what?”

As for why the headlong rush is so intoxicating, it might be that it’s impossible to understand it without experiencing it for yourself. When you’re streaking toward the horizon and all your focus is engaged, says Tremayne, “all the romance of speed and all that bullshit, you don’t even think twice about any of that. That’s the sort of thing writers like to put in, but the people who do it don’t think of it in that way at all. I don’t give a damn what other people think about it — I’d just like to prove something to myself.”