The World Land Speed and Water Speed Records in a Calendar Year
It was after his Lake Mead WSR success in 1955 that the seeds of Donald Campbell’s ambition to hold the Land Speed Record as well were planted. The following year, the serious planning was underway – to build a car to break the land speed record, which then stood at 394 mph (634 km/h) and had been set by John Cobb in 1947. The Norris brothers designed Bluebird-Proteus CN7 with 500 mph (800 km/h) in mind. The brothers were even more enthusiastic about the car than the boat and like all of his projects, Donald wanted Bluebird CN7, to be the best of its type, a showcase of British engineering skill. The British motor industry in the guise of Dunlop, BP, Smiths Industries and Lucas, as well as many others, became heavily involved in the project to build the most advanced car the world had yet seen. CN7 was powered by a specially modified Bristol-Siddeley Proteus free-turbine engine of 4,450 shp (3,320 kW). driving all four wheels. Bluebird CN7 was designed to achieve 475–500 mph and was completed by the spring of 1960.
Following low-speed tests conducted at the Goodwood motor racing circuit in Sussex, in July, the CN7 was taken to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, USA, scene of his father’s last LSR triumph, some 25 years earlier in September 1935. The trials initially went well, and various adjustments were made to the car. On the sixth run in CN7, Campbell lost control at over 360 mph and crashed. It was the car’s enormous structural integrity that saved his life. He was hospitalised with a fractured skull and a burst eardrum, as well as minor cuts and bruises.CN7 was a write off. Almost immediately, Campbell announced he was determined to have another go. Sir Alfred Owen, whose Rubery Owen industrial group had built CN7, offered to rebuild it for him. That single decision was to have a profound influence on the rest of Donald Campbell’s life. His original plan had been to break the LSR at over 400 mph in 1960, return to Bonneville the following year to really bump up the speed to something near to 500 mph, get his seventh WSR with K7 and then retire, as undisputed champion of speed and perhaps just as important, secure in the knowledge that he was worthy of his father’s legacy.
Campbell decided not to go back to Utah for the new trials. He felt the Bonneville course was too short at 11-mile (18 km) and the salt surface was in poor condition. BP offered to find another venue and eventually after a long search, Lake Eyre, in South Australia, was chosen. It hadn’t rained there for nine years and the vast dry bed of the salt lake offered a course of up to 20-mile (32 km). By the summer of 1962, Bluebird CN7 was rebuilt, some nine months later than Campbell had hoped. It was essentially the same car, but with the addition of a large stabilising tail fin and a reinforced fibreglass cockpit cover. At the end of 1962, CN7 was shipped out to Australia ready for the new attempt. Low-speed runs had just started when the rains came. The course was compromised and further rain meant, that by May 1963, Lake Eyre was flooded to a depth of 3 inches, causing the attempt to be abandoned. Donald was heavily criticised in the press for alleged time wasting and mismanagement of the project, despite the fact that he could hardly be held responsible for the unprecedented weather.
To make matters worse for Campbell, American Craig Breedlove drove his pure thrust jet car ‘Spirit of America’ to a speed of 407.45 miles per hour (655.73 km/h) at Bonneville in July 1963. Although the ‘car’ did not conform to FIA (Federation Internationale de L’Automobile) regulations, that stipulated it had to be wheel-driven and have a minimum of four wheels, in the eyes of the world, Breedlove was now the fastest man on earth.
Campbell returned to Australia in early spring 1964, but the Lake Eyre course failed to fulfil the early promise it had shown in 1962 and there were further spells of rain. BP pulled out as his main sponsor after a dispute, but he was able to secure backing from Australian oil company Ampol.
The track never properly dried out and Campbell was forced to make the best of the conditions. Finally, in July 1964, he was able to post some speeds that approached the record. On the 17th of that month, he took advantage of a break in the weather and made two courageous runs along the shortened and still damp track, posting a new LSR of 403.10 mph (648.73 km/h). Campbell was bitterly disappointed with the record as the vehicle had been designed for much higher speeds. CN7 covered the final third of the measured mile at an average of 429 mph (690 km/h), peaking as it left the measured distance at over 440 mph (710 km/h). He resented the fact that it had all been so difficult. ‘We’ve made it – we got the bastard at last,’ was his reaction to the success. Campbell’s 403.1 mph represented the official Land Speed Record.
Campbell now planned to go after the Water Speed Record one more time with Bluebird K7 – to do what he had aimed for so many years ago, during the initial planning stages of CN7 – break both records in the same year. After more delays, he finally achieved his seventh WSR at Lake Dumbleyung on the last day of 1964, at a speed of 276.33 mph (444.71 km/h). He had become the first, and so far only, person to set both land and water speed records in the same year. Campbell’s LSR was short-lived, because FIA rule changes meant that pure jet cars would begin be eligible to set records from October 1964. Campbell’s 429 mph (690 km/h) speed on his final Lake Eyre run remained the highest speed achieved by a wheel-driven car until 2001.
The History of Speed Records
An interesting speed record fact: There is an approximate fatality rate of 85% since 1940, making the water speed record one of the sporting world’s most hazardous competitions.
This fantastic video outlines the efforts made towards this record since 1910.