The troubled land-speed-record car broke the 500-mph barrier this week.
This week brought an important update on the Bloodhound LSR car, which broke 500 miles per hour (mph) on a test track in Africa on Wednesday, according to Ars Technica. The Bloodhound’s owners will continue escalating test speeds until they reach the car’s planned 1,000 mph in 2020. The tests are being conducted on a specially prepared series of straightaways on a dry lakebed in South Africa.
This test is satisfying for the Bloodhound team as well as its followers, because the project has been plagued with problems for almost its entire lifetime. Modern land-speed cars are already arguably more like fighter jets than automobiles, with giant jet engines fitted to streamlined bodies with wings. The Bloodhound has “forged aerospace aluminum” tires to try to partly combat the generation of artificial microgravity by how fast the tires are spinning. It’s also being piloted—er, driven—by Royal Air Force Wing Commander Andy Green.
With jet engines, wings, and speeds over 500 mph, land-speed cars are tempting fate from their very inception. Green worked on the direct predecessor to the Bloodhound, the Thrust SSC, which broke the land-speed record and the sound barrier in 1997.
In 2009, Popular Mechanics talked with Green and the Thrust-Bloodhound team to explain their then-new Bloodhound SSC project. After breaking the sound barrier, what more were they trying to do? The ceiling on speed seemed to be right there. “Even the low-level air-speed record, which is no longer contested, stands at 994 mph,” we reported back then. How could they go faster than that on land?
In 2014, English caught up with the Bloodhound gang again for a Pop Mech cover story. They said they were on schedule and under budget, with necessary changes like front-wheel steering instead of the wild rear-wheel steering that almost thwarted the Thrust’s record run. Among other things, this showed that the Bloodhound was truly a new design.
Driving these cars is massively dangerous—women’s land speed record holder Jessi Combs was killed just this year, and the Vampire jet car was totaled in a near-death crash with Top Gear’s Richard Hammond behind the wheel at “just” 288 mph in 2006. The difference between wrestling with rear-wheel steering versus the control of front-wheel steering could be life and death, let alone the record itself.
In 2014, Bloodhound SSC mentioned employing people to move 6,000 tons of rock off the area of the track. By 2018, mounting costs had drained Bloodhound coffers and forced them to put the entire project up for sale. “Perhaps some plutocrat with dollars to burn and dancing visions of breaking records will swoop in to fund Green and company,” we wrote at the time.
Months later, like manna from heaven, a wealthy entrepreneur arrived to save Bloodhound. Renamed Bloodhound LSR (land speed record), this revived team got back to work, including finalizing plans to test at 500 mph this month.
All their careful planning and materials testing has paid off so far. Green told Ars Technica that at “slow speed” (below 200 mph) the car handles like a regular car on a snowy road, and above that, it’s like “an ice rink.” That’s under ideal conditions with the best and most advanced tires, the front-wheel steering Green insisted on, and the track made surreally smooth by people removing rocks by hand. With his previous, still-standing record in hand, Green seems as ready as he’ll ever be.
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