Here is the
transcript of my first interview with Craig Breedlove, July 21, 2009.
ask about what his
step-dad Ken Bowman did when Craig was growing up.]
was involved in ornamental horticulture at UCLA. Later in his life he
language professor at Pepperdine
University in Malibu.
But during the time I was growing up he worked for the ornamental
division, and he also worked at a place, his employment before UCLA, he
for a nursery in Inglewood,
which was Inglewood
Nurseries. He worked there and then he got a job at UCLA. And then
later my mom
and he had a business in Malibu.
They sold African violets. And then when he retired from that he went
for Pepperdine, I think teaching Spanish.
understand that your real dad, Norman,
was a cameraman
before going into special effects. Do you remember, growing up, any of
movies he worked on?
did a lot of the John Wayne movies, with Glenn Ford, and they did a lot
Tarzan movies. I used to like to go over to the sets in Culver City
because I got to play with Cheetah--who recently I saw on television
was still alive, which blew me away. [Laughs] But
anyway, that was fun as a kid. Then over at Fox he did one movie about
They used to have a big tank over there with all of the water front, of
done in miniature, and they had ships and stuff like that and I used to
swim in the tank.
Was that what he was, a cameraman, a
he did that and—most of his time at the studio, when I went with him,
he was in
special effects. He actually tried to get me a job as an assistant
during the time I worked for Douglas Aircraft. He and I lived together
period of time in a little house in Culver City. And anyway, he had some
friends and he was
trying to get me in as an assistant cameraman. At the time I was
Material and Processing at Douglas.
[the cameraman job] didn’t work out. I moved my family to a home I
bought in Costa Mesa,
applied for the fire department and passed the test and got hired. So
year or so I worked as a fireman for the city of Costa Mesa, just prior to the time I
building the first land speed car.
mom told me that when you were a kid
you went through a wrestling stage and for a time wanted to be Gorgeous
yeah. Bill Moore and I, the guy that helped me with the artwork and
that, he was the Golden Terror and I was Courageous Craig. We had a
ring in the back yard. Jimmy Lennon the announcer—I went to school with
Lennon. I don’t know if you’ve heard of Jimmy Lennon [a top wrestling
boxing announcer back in the day; wore a tuxedo]. Jimmy Lennon Jr. is a
prominent announcer now in the fight game. Anyway, his father, Jimmy
Sr., was Michael’s father, who I went to school with. Friday nights
visitation nights for Jimmy. Jimmy was divorced from Michael’s mother.
Friday night was his time to come and pick Michael up and spend some
his son, and Michael would always want to bring me with him to the
Arena where Jimmy announced the wrestling matches on Friday nights. So
we got really into the wrestlers.
old would you have been?
I was going to grammar school, probably nine or ten.
ask about a mention in an old LA Times
sports column about Craig being involved in “bootleg races” back in the
and read the quote: “Craig also won a few uncertified events, like at 2
morning on Culver Blvd., where first you had to eliminate the
then, the cops. On one of these impromptu races, Craig left the car
and came down like an incomplete pass on the pavement. It ended his
the bootleg tracks and very nearly his career, period. It was several
before he could part his hair without saying ‘ouch.’” I ask Craig if
I flipped a ’32 coupe on Culver
Boulevard. It was not my car. It belonged to
Burnelay [?]. Stan wanted me to test his car. I had done some of the
work for him, a flathead, and so he wanted me to race it. That was the
pastime at the Clock Drive-in, was to race on Culver Blvd. So anyway, he asked
would drive his car and race this other guy and I did. And sadly, he
neglected to put shock absorbers on the front of the car and when I hit
tracks at well over a hundred, the thing went right out from under me.
up in a flip crash and came through the soft top, you know the ’32
the soft patch in the center, and I was thrown out of there. It had a
steering wheel that I wrapped into kind of a pretzel design as I
vehicle. It knocked me out of my shoes and split my head wide open, and
broke my neck. I didn’t find out about the neck fracture until years
I started having trouble with it. But anyway, my step-dad Ken got me
out of the
hospital. They stitched up my head but figured I was okay and kicked me
butt and put me back on the road again.
old would you have been?
would have been 16.
your step-dad pretty pissed off at you?
well did you get along with your
really well, because he had absolutely no mechanical intuition or
anything whatsoever. Pretty much he was kind of an intellectual kind of
mean he played nothing but classical music. To be really honest, when
a home with a step-father and he’s married to the mother and he has his
child by the mother—you know, I was sleeping in the den and kind of
felt like a
third wheel there. That’s kind of why I got into hot rods. I sort of
gravitated to the older kids who lived across the street who had a
bunch of hot
rods and stuff. I used to go over there and hang out because I really
have any companionship, you know, basically I didn’t have a male role
model in the
home so I sort of hung out with these older guys across the street with
rods and that’s what kind of got me interested in it.
ask about his earliest conception of the
land speed car.] Was it something involving an Allison engine?
that time there were a lot of war surplus military hardware places in Los Angeles down
on Alameda Boulevard.
There were a number of them down there. There was a big Pally Surplus
Airmotive Equipment company. So anyway, they had some V-12 Allison
WW2 vintage. And right at the end of the Korean War they had a bunch of
jet engines that started hitting the market. Basically we bought
tanks to make belly-tank lakesters out of. And they had all kinds of
nuts and bolts, surplus aircraft safety belts, just all kinds of stuff.
that’s where we used to buy parts cheap to build hot rods out of.
it be correct to say that your first
conception of the land speed car arose from what you were seeing in the
shops that you could buy for cheap?
basically that’s—excuse me for one second. [He answers his cell phone.
wife. He tells her he’ll call her back when he’s done with me.]
Schapel told me that when you first came
to him you had this model of the car, a supersonic thing with a pointed
he told you, “I’ll help you build the car, but not that one.”
I think that’s a pretty accurate assessment.
were your feelings about the
steering-with-rear-brakes idea he came up with?
seemed like a very strange concept to me, but at the time Rod was a
mentor to me. I really looked up to Rod. Rod had done some other
streamliner projects. He’d done the wind tunnel testing. Essentially I
to get through some wind tunnel testing and I needed some expert advice
to do certain things that were basically above my pay grade at that
so I looked Rod up because I was aware of his background with the Chet
streamliner that he had done the wind tunnel work on. So I called him
up and he
agreed to meet with me and I brought the concept model, the one that
seen with the pointy rear fairings and stuff, that was the
that point that we’d worked to. But I knew I needed some more expertise
respected Rod from the work he’d done for Chet Herbert. They’d done
magazine articles on it when they wind tunnel tested those cars. I
Rod and I called him up out of the blue and told him what I was trying
and he agreed to meet with me and I met with him at his home.
got pretty far into the project before Rod actually settled on that
thing. The first part of it was basically—Art Russell and I built the
tunnel model. Rod took the concept of the car, which he liked, he liked
outboard wheel thing and stuff. But for the speed range we were looking
record was just under 400 mph, and so Rod thought the aerodynamics
more sub-sonic. And that was correct. That was a professional
That’s the reason I sought him out, because I needed that kind of input
Art Russell and I built the wind tunnel model and we did a really nice
it. Both of us are really good with our hands. We built that, built all
ground plane, the instrumentation pieces, everything that was necessary
tunnel. When we had things done we would take them to Rod or he would
and check on how we were doing and if we needed to do something
would say, “No, no, do it this way,” or something. So anyway, we
learned a lot
building that. Rod was able to arrange to use the wind tunnel at the Naval Post-Graduate
School up in Monterey, California.
We could use it on weekends by paying the technicians that normally
the tunnel basically spare money. The navy was okay with them kind of
gee-jobbing on the weekends to make some extra money. Rod’s company,
Corporation that he worked for, did a lot of work on that particular
also built the tunnel instrumentation, the balance system that measured
the loads on the model, so Rod was very familiar with the tunnel and
workings. He had spent months and months in Monterey working on that project for
company. So it really worked out well. And Stan Goldstein had gone into
military at that point and he was stationed in Monterey,
working out of Fort
So Stan was there to
help out on the weekends and he got to know Ron Burthoff who was the
there. So anyway we went up there numerous weekends doing wind tunnel
the car and we made different configurations or fairings and noses and
like that to test in the tunnel and that’s how we refined the
[Continues to talk about tunnel testing.]
we got down to where we were actually building the car and we still
up with a design to steer the front wheel. And I remember the first
this thing with the rear brakes came up, the car was well under
my dad’s garage behind the house in West LA
and I visited Rod at his house and he said, “You know, I really haven’t
able to come up with a suitable way to steer the front wheel. It’s
to be a complex mechanical problem to solve. I’ve been giving this
thought and I really think we ought to steer the car with a fin and
the wheels in a fixed, rigid position and steer it with the rear brakes
we’re up to speed.” And God, it seemed like really a far-out kind of
And I really looked up to Rod and his expertise. He’s a real sharp guy.
just sort of acquiesced to that. I said, “Well, I don’t know, Rod. I’ve
obviously never driven anything like that. I’ll just accept your word
is gonna work like this and this is gonna work like this.” [Laughs]
it didn’t. We had a lot of problems. It was kind of a brilliant
concept. There was really nothing wrong with it. It’s just that to get
it all working
in a short period of time, and there were some absolute complications,
then—You get up there under pressure and you’ve got huge companies,
and Goodyear and all of this stuff and you’ve got a lot of pressure to
And Rod had a lot of his personal reputation at stake—at least he
that way—in this system working. The big problem was that there were
sub-systems that were not functioning properly. We had some spherical
that held the wheel yoke that we didn’t have restrained adequately
within the housing. These were just development bugs and stuff. They
actually sliding inside the housing and the damn car was sort of
on its own. It was going different places because unbeknownst to us
bearings were moving in—and they had broken their restraints because we
adequately secured them for the loads that were being placed on them.
that was moving around. And then another mistake that was made was
the rush to get everything ready to go and loaded, whoever on the crew
replaced the steering linkage up to the fin had put it at its absolute
ratio in the bellcrank system that provided adjustable steering ratios
the fin, and the damn fin was moving through like a quarter of an inch
right and a quarter of an inch to the left. And so we were not getting
aerodynamic steering that was supposed to be happening and I’m in there
300 mph trying to steer right and steer left and I turn right and the
left. It seemed to have its own mind where it wants to go and it was
then Rod for some reason started it as a personal affront to his
a system to steer the car. And his system was fine. But the mechanics
the car, and everybody got so emotionally involved that no one was
basics like how, far was the fin moving? Stuff like that. And it just
this horrible conflict within the
crew and the sponsors and we were burning money like it was bad toast.
then on the very absolute last day Quinn Epperly and Nye found where
steering linkage was. And I came out, it was literally at sunset,
the car and made a run and got the fin to work. It was our last day on
at about 8:15 pm. I made a run and actually got the thing to steer with
fin. But we were out of time and we had to leave. And of course by then
everybody emotionally was in a shambles.
so we got back and Shell’s position was: Wait a minute. We need to pull
Let’s get some consultant engineers in here and see what the hell is
So that’s what happened. We ended up adding the tail fin to the car. It
that Rod’s system couldn’t be made workable, but for the sake of having
something we absolutely knew worked. We had one engineer who came on
one of the consultants from Hughes, a guy named Bob Heacock, who was
with designing helicopter controls, and he said, “Well, it’s real easy
the front wheel steer. Why don’t you just put it in on a focusing
everybody in the room turned around and looked at each other and said,
a focusing link?” And he said, “Oh, this,” and he sketched it on a
paper and it was this brilliant solution that was just slam-dunk
Something that I guess Rod wasn’t familiar with. And so we ended up
front wheel steer along with making the fin turn, and the next year
went on to
take the record. And so everything worked fine.
then, sadly, Schapel sued me.
wanted to ask you about that lawsuit. What
was Schapel’s beef, his complaint?
the complaint was that Rod—in the beginning of course we had no money.
I was on unemployment when I first sought out Rod’s help. And he very
benevolently agreed to help us out, you know, after work and on a
basis, as a hot rod hobby. I mean, hot rodding is an amateur thing that
do as a hobby. Basically no one ever gets paid. Rod knew that. But he
for the time he had put into the car prior to us getting sponsored.
Once we got
sponsored he was paid very well. But in the initial work, when we did
initial wind tunnel tests and what have you, and I paid for all the
and stuff to Rod, and Rod volunteered his time. He didn’t charge me for
hourly work on the car. The problem was that it was a substantial sum.
trying to remember, it was so many years ago, I think the lawsuit was
$350,000 or something, and also 30 percent of my income for the rest of
life. That was on the theory that he had taught me things that, without
mentoring, I would never have been smart enough to design the Sonic 1
which is probably true. I mean everybody goes to school, everybody
somebody. We’re not born with the knowledge.
you think this suit arose because you and
Rod had a set-to on the salt in 1962?
Well yeah. I
mean, yeah, that was there. And the other thing
was that because of the record there was a lot of publicity and a lot
notoriety from it. And I think frankly there was a certain amount of
from Rod’s point of view that he had contributed to this thing, and
that as the
driver I was getting a lot of accolades for this record and I think he
was not receiving the credit he deserved for the design work on the
car. But I
mean, in everything we publicized, everything always referred to Rod.
jury that we went to, they didn’t agree with Rod’s position. I think
voted—there’s 13 people on a jury or something like that?—anyway, one
agreed with Rod and the other 12 agreed with us.
mention that Art
Russell told me he testified on Craig’s behalf at the trial.]
interfaced—well, most of the guys, we all
interfaced together. It’s just that after the problems we had with the
steering, that was kind of like gonna be Rod’s fifteen minutes of fame
whatever, because he designed this revolutionary steering system for
vehicle. And then the fact that Shell brought in all these consultant
engineers, Bob Heacock with the focusing link deal and Bernie Pershing
a PhD aerodynamicist at Aerospace Corporation, he calculated the
the car and pretty decisively substantiated that for safety purposes it
a tailfin on it. Those were things that basically I guess diminished
ultimate authority over the design of the car. I mean Rod was a young
a young engineer, and he was learning like we were learning. But
he just really got his dander up and that’s what caused the suit. He
get Walt Sheehan to join him in a suit against me and Walt basically
“Rod, this is total nonsense. We all knew when we got involved in this
that it was a volunteer deal. Craig didn’t have a quarter.” So Walt
participate with him.
Rod’s a very
independent guy. He’s a very bright guy, and
very talented. But he has a very strong ego and it’s just his
had him do work for me since then. I mean, it just was what it was.
suit was over we talked about it and he said, you know, “I’ve just
about that a long time ago.” I even wrote him a letter of endorsement
company he was trying to get a job with. I mean, I like Rod. He’s a
He’s a little headstrong, that’s just his nature.
model that you
initially took to Rod, was this the same model that you took to Shell
them to sponsor you?
The first model was that kind of pointy one. Art did almost all the
that. I probably helped him a little bit, but not much. Art had won
Fischer Body Craftsman thing. He was an excellent model maker. That
being his career. The wind tunnel model I ended up participating in a
you made a second model for the wind
That one had air ducts that went through it. After we finished doing
wind tunnel work Art and I painted that model and built the lacquered
case that it went in. Looking back on it now, I think Art painted it
most of the work on the case. Together we built the model for the wind
and afterwards I had him paint it for a presentation model which I took
married Lee just before you went to
Bonneville in 1962. Is that right?
I think so. I was given an ultimatum by Shell Oil Company. I either had
marry her or get rid of her.
wanted to ask you about that, if there had
been any pressure.
[Laughing] It wasn’t very subtle either.
thought that you got married in Arizona, down on the
border. Is that right?
we did. We went to Yuma,
was a quick run from LA. Lawler,
who was in charge of the project for Shell, called me down to his
office and he
said, “Look, that babe you’re shacked up with. Here’s the deal. Either
her or get rid of her. I want it resolved by tomorrow morning.”
Lawler was the general manager of the
project in ’62.
When this thing started with Schapel and Schapel started to really
run rough-shod over me—Bill was an ex-Marine major [Laughs]. You know,
lot more mellow than Bill. And Bill just wasn’t going to put up it. He
kept Rod on the project, but he said
we’re getting some consultants in, and that’s what’s going to happen.
you returned to Bonneville in ’63 and
set the record, was Bill Lawler still overseeing things?
was there, yeah. He was there right to the end.
’64 and ’65 as well?
he wasn’t there. In 1963, when we set the record, Bill was promoted to
marketing manager for Shell Oil Company in the United States.
So he got a huge promotion when I set the record.
was the Shell district manager before
that. What district was that?
Santa Monica. It
the way from Santa Barbara and I think
all the way down to San Diego.
So it was basically all of Southern California.
film and photos of you in 1963, when you
first set the record, you are wearing plain old sneakers. Later on you
nice lace-up boots. What’s the story there?
think probably in about ’62 I just found some boxing shoes and I
they looked more cool. And I just bought ‘em. We were in a sporting
or something and I saw ‘em and I thought, “Oh, those would be great to
the car.” You know, I probably was getting a little more appreciation
having the look, kind of professional. [Laughs] So anyway, I just
were some cool looking shoes and I bought ‘em.
know your dad Norm was on the salt with
you in ’64 and ’65. Was he there in ’62 and ’63 as well?
trying to remember...He might well have been. He probably was. I know
there in ’63 and he was there in ‘64.
heard from two or three people that Lee
had quite a temper. Was she a feisty woman?
She was half Indian. Her dad was full-blooded Cherokee. Nice guy. She
a real streak, boy.
was talking to Rod about ’62 and he seems to think that Lee was
somehow holding you back from going for it.
I don’t think so. The biggest thing holding us back in ’62 was that I
steer the car.
sure. But Rod doesn’t
accept that fact for some reason.
no. He’s still stuck on that. And I’m the first guy to tell you that
system can be made workable. I don’t think it’s the best
way to go, but I think that system can work—because I finally got it to work. But I’ll tell you, it
was 8:30 at night, the sun had gone down, and I made a pass in that car
about 360 and I was steering it with that damn fin, with no steering in
front end. It was working fine. The air was dead calm and I could steer
thing right, steer the thing left. In fact I almost went too far under
because I was having such a good time driving the thing with the fin
horrible ordeal that we’d been through. I told Rod, “That thing works.
working.” But we were out of time. Shell had pulled the plug earlier in
day, or I think even the day before, we were on our last day there. And
back, I told Bill, “This fin is working. I got it to work.” We had some
problems with it. I said, “We need to get back and regroup and pull
together.” I’ll tell you, we were coming apart at the seams from the
standpoint at that point and Shell had completely pulled the plug and
we were under orders to leave. So we had no options. But I got that
work after sundown, under dusk conditions, driving from west to east, I
pass in that thing and got that friggin’ fin to work at the last
ask about the experience of all the fame
and publicity after he broke the record in 1963.]
I’m kind of a shy person and I found it difficult. I mean, within 24
setting the record was in New York at the Americana Hotel having a press
for about 300 people from all over the press and they had me scheduled
on the "Tonight Show" with Carson
and a whole bunch of other stuff and I
mean, this was all foreign stuff to me.
that nerve-wracking, being on TV?
It made me really nervous. In high school I was the kind of guy that
even want to get up to give a book report.
read in your book that you lost a lot of
Yeah. First of all, they had me booked, in I think it was 36 cities, to
public appearances, basically all the major cities in the United States.
They would have advance teams that would go out and work in an area for
or four weeks lining stuff up before the day that I got there. I would
literally get off the plane and they would hand you a schedule that
early in the day into the midnight hours doing very functions and
whatever you can imagine, all the radio shows in the area and
stations and sports interviews.
Lee go with you on all this?
I went by myself.
did she take all this, you being away?
really well. It was difficult. I was literally taken out for a full
wasn’t even around. I didn’t even get to go home to be with the guys on
crew and stuff. For a full year—I mean I went to England, Australia.
They had me going all over the world making appearances. And so that
very new to me. I mean they just throw you in the fire and you got to
to swim. [Laughs] Obviously if you do it enough you get better at doing
you become more comfortable doing it.
it ever become something you enjoyed
really. I didn’t go set the land speed record with the intention of
celebrity. I was a hot rodder. I wanted to pursue setting the speed
That is an ego gratification to do that, to go to Bonneville and set a
or to go win a drag race or whatever you’re gonna do. So I had that
behind me to try and accomplish something.
I worked for the fire department for some reason I just started—Mickey
had run 400 mph in the Challenger, and Mickey as like an idol or
look up to, a male model or image or whatever.