The quest for the land speed record in the 1960s and the epic rivalry between two dynamic American drivers, Art Arfons and Craig Breedlove.
"Interesting and complex. . . .The best job I've seen done on the subject so far."
-- Craig Breedlove
Until the 1950s, the land speed record (LSR) was held by a series of European gentlemen racers such as British driver John Cobb, who hit 394 miles per hour in 1947. That record held for more than a decade, until the car culture swept the U.S.
Hot-rodders and drag racers built and souped up racers using car engines, piston aircraft engines and, eventually, jet engines. For this determined and dedicated group, the LSR was no longer an honor to be held by rich aristocrats with industrial backing -- it was brought stateside.
In the summer of 1960, the contest moved into overdrive, with eight men contending for the record on Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats. Some men died in horrific crashes, others prudently retired, and by mid-decade only two men were left driving: Art Arfons and Craig Breedlove. By 1965, Arfons and Breedlove had walked away from some of the most spectacular wipeouts in motor sport history and pushed the record up to 400, then 500, then 600 miles per hour. Speed Duel is the fast-paced history of their rivalry.
Despite the abundant heart-stopping action, Speed Duel is foremost a human drama. Says author Samuel Hawley, "It is a quintessential American tale in the tradition of The Right Stuff, except that it is not about extraordinary men doing great things in a huge government program. It's about ordinary men doing extraordinary things in their back yards."
Samuel Hawley studied history at Queen's University and is the author of The Imjin War: Japan's Sixteenth-Century Invasion of Korea and Attempt to Conquer China. He lives in Kingston, Ontario.
Hawley weaves a great tale, which basically begins in 1960 when eight different American gearheads [began] the journey to bring the Land Speed Record back to America... Hawley really captures the drama of the race to the LSR, which included multiple sub plots wrought with tragedy...hope, innovative engineering, high finance...and more. He also gives real insight into the motivation of the key players, especially Arfons and Breedlove, creating dramatic tension that non-fiction books often lack... I guarantee you'll be captivated by the book.
[Speed Duel] is written in an easy, but informative style which focuses on the personalities of the story, and the LSR attempts [Hawley] writes about only provides the backdrop for the struggle of those who wanted to do more than anyone else... There is plenty of drama in Hawley's book. "It's a quintessential American tale in the tradition of The Right Stuff," he said, "except that it is not about extraordinary men doing great things in a huge government program. It's about ordinary men doing extraordinary things in their backyards." Speed Duel is 360 pages in length, illustrated and would make a worthwhile present for that motorhead on your Christmas list.
(4/4 stars) Hawley, a Canadian historian, brings the highest standards to bear on the often-told but still inspiring story of the land speed record battles of the 1960s. The focus is on Craig Breedlove and Art Arfons as the record advances past 400, 500 and 600 mph.
Even readers who don't know a spark plug from a gear shift will be transfixed by Hawley's white-knuckled account of the ever-escalating competition to hold the Land Speed Record in the '60s and early '70s. Drawing from countless articles, profiles, documentaries, and interviews with the men and women who were there, Hawley traces the sport's evolution from its first four-wheeled record of 39mph in 1898, to today's jet-propelled 700mph-plus, recounting the creation, testing, and repair of legendary cars like the humble Green Monster and the charismatic Spirit of America. Deft reporting and an eye for detail put readers in the cockpit when drivers like Art Arfons hit 600mph and on the sidelines when Glenn Leasher's crew helplessly watches him crash at 400mph... Gearheads will likely devour this book, but anyone who's ever sat behind a wheel and wondered what it would feel like to floor it will find this cinematic account difficult to put down.
[starred review] In the 1960s, young American hot-rodders, working in garages and backyards, mounted a challenge to the World Land Speed Record (LSR) long held by gentlemen British racers like Malcolm Campbell and John Cobb. Best known among them was Craig Breedlove, a movie-star-handsome young Californian with his "Spirit of America" jet-powered car. Chief challenger was Art Arfons, a drag racer from rural Ohio in his "Green Monster." Also in pursuit of the record were Walt Arfons, Art's estranged brother; Athol Graham in his homemade "City of Salt Lake"; and Nathan Ostich, a doctor who designed and drove his "Flying Caduceus" as a hobby. Hawley captures the seat-of-the-pants excitement and terror of crashes at 600 mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats. This well-told overview of the car culture of the 1960s, with photos of the legends of the LSR, is a gripping read that will provide a jet-fueled adrenaline rush to racing fans and readers who enjoy social history in the style of Mark Kurlansky and Erik Larson.