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Motorsports: Watkins Glen Racing Center hosts land speed record talk

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Motorsports journalist George Webster spoke at the International Motor Racing Research Center in Watkins Glen, NY on Saturday, March 22, as part of the Center's ongoing "Conversation" series. Webster talked about the competition for the land speed record in the 1960s.

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Using slides, photos, and archival film footage of the attempts, Webster showed the audience how eight men, using the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah in the United States and the Lake Eyre flats area of Australia, egged each other on to set the land speed record higher and higher, especially in an effort to beat the long-standing record British driver John Cobb set in 1947 at 394 mph.

Mr. Webster made clear that record-setting "rules" were problematic for drivers making speed attempts at the time. The FIA, the international sanctioning body for motor sports, sanctions such things as world records for land speed, but it has its own set of rules, such as power source and number of wheels, for a speed to be recognized as "official."

The FIM, the international sanctioning body for motorcycles, has a different set of rules for land speed records. This distinction made a difference at the time, since a four-wheeled vehicle was required for a land speed record (LSR) sanctioned by the FIA, but three wheels were acceptable to claim a record under the auspices of the FIM. Several of the attempts made in the 1960s were made with different configurations of three wheels.

Americans, Webster (who is Canadian) pointed out, did not necessarily see the need to abide by a European-based sanctioning body's rules to claim the records they believed they were setting on the Utah salt flats. The speeds and attempts kept growing with jet engines coming into the mix competing with wheel power. In time, the FIA moved to add a special category to its rules that would allow builders and drivers of the vehicles being constructed and tested on the flats to set officially sanctioned records.

Using jet-powered vehicles, American Craig Breedlove became the first person to beat 400, 500, and 600 mph in land speed. He did so while nearly losing his life more than once. Other drivers in the 1960s out making attempts on the flats were not as lucky.

According to the FIA, the sound barrier was broken some time ago now. The current land speed record sanctioned by the governing body is 763.035 mph set on October 15, 1997 by British driver Andy Green at Black Rock Desert, USA.

After the formal talk, conversations continued, accompanied by refreshments, at the Racing Center, where Webster's collection of model land speed cars was on display, and more archival films were shown.

For more information about the International Motor Racing Research Center's mission and programs, see its website.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Connie Ann Kirk, Ph.D. has been credentialed by the FIA to write about Formula 1, NASCAR to write about that series and various historic/vintage racing events. With a historic racer from upstate New York, she is working on a book about racers and racing. Check out her blog at "Motor Sport Muse."

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