When Jessi Combs set the women’s land speed record in October, she represented a team of volunteers who fought the odds to turn a junked fighter jet built in 1957 into a record-setting vehicle. The Combs car broke the women’s land-speed record of 308.506 mph set by Lee Breedlove in 1965. The current ultimate vehicle land speed record is 763.035 mph (1227.986 kph; the first supersonic land vehicle record). It was set in 1997 by Andy Green driving the Thrust SSC.
The North American Eagle (NAE) team is headed by a race driver whose ultimate goal is to wrest the men’s speed from a British team, bringing the record back to America.
“When the British set the record, it inspired me to think that I could win it back,” said Ed Shadle, North American Eagle’s owner.
That goal looks more achievable now that Combs holds the women’s land speed record with a peak of 440.79 mph and an average of 392.54 mph. A former welder who is now a TV host who has been a regular on Mythbusters, she broke a record set by Lee Breedlove in 1965.
That victory highlights a long, winding path for the NAE team. Shadle, who has raced on the Bonneville Salt Flats since the 1980s, began thinking about regaining the record after a British team won the land speed record in 1983. The former Air Force pilot decided that a jet fuselage would be the ideal racer since it was built to travel at high speeds, so he bought a junked Lockheed F-104 jet in 1999.
He began refurbishing it using his own funds. Early on, Shadle converted his horse trailer into a mobile machine shop. Today, he’s supported by about 35 team members who gather at the Shady Acres airport near Seattle every weekend. Many members are from Boeing, though there are also high-school students and others. The team now has some corporate sponsors, but most of the funding comes from team members. For the most recent racing session, when Combs set the record, he cashed in a life insurance policy and sold his school bus to cover expenses.
NAE’s limited interactions with sponsors highlights how far the team has come over the last decade. When Dassault became one of the first sponsors, Shadle was unable to run its product life-cycle management software. “I told them it wouldn’t run on my typewriter. We didn’t have a computer,” he said.
Lenovo and Intel have joined as sponsors, so computing power isn’t a challenge. The five-wheeled racer also has its share of electronics. Eighteen air pressure sensors gather input, as do 36 strain gauges. A precise GPS system lets the team pinpoint the vehicle’s location to within 0.02 in (0.5 mm) even when it’s going 1000 km/h (621 mph).