Craig Breedlove, 86, Once the Fastest Man on Earth, Dies

Craig Breedlove, the first person to set land-speed records at 400, 500 and 600 miles per hour, died on Tuesday at his home in Rio Vista, Calif. He was 86.

The cause was cancer, his wife, Yadira Breedlove, said.

Mr. Breedlove was something of a cross between Neil Armstrong and Evel Knievel — an American folk hero of the 1960s known as both an explorer and a daredevil.

He made the land-speed record a major cultural phenomenon in 1963, and when new challengers appeared, he beat them back, setting records again in 1964 and 1965.

He was a former fireman whose boyhood love of cars inspired him to make a breakthrough in land racing. He took the lead designing a vehicle whose three wheels, jet engine, missile shape and rear fin made it resemble not a car so much as a wingless fighter plane.

His record-breaking vehicles all had the same name: Spirit of America.

That became the title of a 1963 pop music ode to Mr. Breedlove by the Beach Boys, who mythologized him as a “daring young man” playing a “dangerous game.”

Mr. Breedlove seemed destined for the part. He was born in Los Angeles to a Hollywood studio executive and a showgirl, and he was often pictured wearing a crew cut and an earnest smile. He was both the impresario of a new show and its star performer.

He first won the national spotlight on Aug. 5, 1963, in Bonneville, Utah, whose miles of salt flats, the deposits of an ancient sea, provide a natural track for high-speed driving. Mr. Breedlove’s first jet-powered vehicle weighed three tons and cost $250,000 to build, yet it was essentially handmade, with tools like files and screwdrivers. He aimed to beat the record of 394 m.p.h. set by John Cobb of Britain in 1947.

At 6:25 a.m., he took a final sip of his ice water breakfast, stuffed cotton in his ears, donned a helmet and wraparound glasses and climbed into his cockpit. “She’s all clear,” called out a racing official.

“The Spirit of America inched forward, its jet engine shrieking,” Sports Illustrated reported that month. “Soon it was a speck, seemingly headed straight through the orange sun to the southeast. Then it disappeared.”

Abiding by a rule to perform two runs in the opposite directions to avoid a wind advantage, Mr. Breedlove went 388 m.p.h. in one direction and 428 m.p.h. heading back, achieving an average of 407.45.

He grinned for the first time that day. “I don’t think the limit has been reached yet,” he told Sports Illustrated. “I think I can go faster.”

Mr. Breedlove was not the only one with that idea. The next year, Bonneville became the scene of a showdown between Mr. Breedlove and two brothers, Walt and Art Arfons, all of them driving jet cars. The trio traded the record among themselves, with Mr. Breedlove the first to crack an average of 500 m.p.h. On his return run, Spirit of America jumped an embankment and ran into a brine lake, with Mr. Breedlove barely escaping the vehicle.

The next year, he was back with a new four-wheeled rocket car: Spirit of America Sonic I. It used parachutes similar to those found on a spacecraft. On Nov. 15, he clocked a speed of 600.601 m.p.h.

It was not just the world record. It was, for years, the end of the sport itself.

Craig Norman Breedlove was born on March 23, 1937, to Norman and Portia (Champion) Breedlove. He grew up in Los Angeles.

At 13, he convinced his parents to buy him a 1934 Ford coupe for $75. He fixed it up at a local body shop.

In his teenage years, Craig married Margaret Kastler, and the couple quickly had three children. He graduated from Venice High School and found work as a welder and firefighter.

By the age of 21, he had already begun towing tricked-out cars to the Bonneville Salt Flats. He worked on the first Spirit of America in his father’s garage. He and Margaret divorced in their early 20s, which he attributed to his obsessive quest to break land-speed records. He filled his front yard with afterburners, power tools and spare car parts.

His ambitions came to seem more realistic when he approached Goodyear and Shell in 1961 and convinced them to back him.

At the height of his fame, he was a household name making $100,000 annually from sponsorships and speaking engagements. But he experienced a downfall just as quickly as he had experienced his rise.

A number of business ventures failed. A flood ruined about $100,000 of auto parts and machinery. He fought with prospective sponsors, insisting that he retain control over the designs of his cars. Even worse, for a while he had no one to compete against, sapping drama from the race for the land-speed record.

By 1970, Sports Illustrated reported, Mr. Breedlove was living above his garage and driving a battered 1956 Buick he had bought for $100. He felt it was unsafe to drive it more than 50 m.p.h.

“That Buick doesn’t do much for a guy’s morale, let me tell you,” he said.

Gary Gabelich broke Mr. Breedlove’s record with a land speed of 627 m.p.h. in 1970. Mr. Breedlove pursued a career in real estate, but he periodically got back into racing as a driver or as the organizer of a team. One of his goals, to break the sound barrier, was finally achieved by the British driver Andy Green in 1997.

Mr. Breedlove was married six times, but his final marriage lasted 20 years.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by two children from his first marriage, Norman and Dawn Breedlove; a half sister, Cindy Bowman; five grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren. Another child from his first marriage, Christine Breedlove, died of cancer about 10 years ago, Yadira Breedlove said.

Mr. Breedlove often spoke about being inspired by John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration address and the president’s exhortation that citizens ask what they could do for the United States.

“In a way it was sort of a naïve time for the country as well, but a very optimistic time,” he said in “The Spirit of America,” a 2004 documentary. “We kind of thought we could do anything.”

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