Ed Shadle is not about to allow government bureaucracy, Burning Man hippies, money constraints, or time itself slow his pace. At age 75, he and his gonzo crew of North American hopefuls are hell-bent on taking back the world land speed record set at 763 mph by a British team (on U.S. soil, no less) in 1997. The retired IBM engineer and weekend drag racer converted an F-104 Lockheed Starfighter jet that he salvaged from an aircraft junk heap in 1998. He insists his American Eagle vehicle can top 800 mph — if only someone would grant Shadle a permit and enough space to lay down the longest skid marks in history.
The quest to be the fastest driver on terra firma dates back before the Model T. The French clocked an electric Jeantaud coupe at 57.6 mph in 1898. Since the early 1960s, jet and rocket propulsion pushed ground speeds well into the 600 mph range at sites like Bonneville Salt Flats and Black Rock Desert, where Burning Man is held. These campaigns are complex, expensive, and extremely dangerous, with over 35 driver deaths recorded since the first fatality in 1913.
Shadle considers himself an engineer first and then a driver, since steering is limited to a mere 1.3 degrees to the left or right. He and his team have run 53 practice rides to fine-tune the vehicle’s onboard sensors, aerodynamics, and, yes, parachutes. As soon as he finds the right track and gets the necessary approvals from the Bureau of Land Management, he’s ready to roll in a matter of months, he says — before some other young buck leaves him in the dust.
Your computer models indicate that your supersonic vehicle, the Eagle, is capable of doing ground speeds up to 835 miles an hour. Why not get that baby out on the road?
We have not found a track long enough to go that fast and be safe. The Alvord Desert in Oregon where we’ve done our testing is only around nine miles long, and when you’re pushing up into the 500s and 600s and beyond, that’s not long enough for the margin for error. It takes more than three miles just to stop at these rates of speed. Black Rock Desert in Nevada, where they ran the current record, has become so rough because of the Burning Man Festival. It’s created a safety problem. We’re currently seeking permission in Diamond Valley in Nevada, which is 15 miles long, and hope to get permits for 2017. But you need $25,000 to pay the Bureau of Land Management and another $30,000 for a bunch of guys to stand around with clipboards doing environment assessments. That’s before you’ve even turned a wheel.
So you need to be rich to drive this fast?
Everyone thinks you have to be a millionaire to do this, but you don’t. I started racing at the Bonneville Salt Flats in the 1980s, and when the Brits set the record. I thought, hey, I bet an average bunch of characters using brains and creative resources can make this happen, which is what we’re doing. I thought it was important from an engineering and patriotic perspective to get the record back. When I retired from 31 years as an engineer at IBM, I started a company servicing large computer systems that helped fund our efforts. We partnered with a great deal of companies that wanted to test technologies on the vehicle. We launched a Kickstarter campaign. Now it’s basically down to selling pencils on street corners. You can beat this record with less than $100,000.
Why has no one broken the record since 1997?
No one has been as stubborn as me and my team in taking on this monumental task. It takes a great deal of engineering, testing, and problem-solving. Every time we go to the desert, we have to get permits from the Bureau of Land Management and that costs money, plus the overall cost of the logistics surrounding such events. It is an all-volunteer project so my team members need to take time off work and that in itself places great burdens on their families.
Why not let someone else do the driving?
I’m the one with the passion to solve this difficult problem. I just feel compelled to be the “monkey in the seat” to drive the beast. It is very difficult for me to allow anyone other than myself to take the risk in my place until it is a proven concept.
How do you explain your need for speed?
For me it goes way back. I’m part Ojibwa Indian on my mother’s side, and I was the first generation raised partly off the reservation in north-central Washington. When my father and uncle got back from World War II, they got into stock-car racing and would take me along in their jalopies ripping along on those dirt tracks at 60, 70 miles an hour. At same time, my dad worked for a crop duster and he’d go up and do a barrel roll over our house, which got me really excited about flying. By the time I was a teenager, I was paying 50 cents to drag race all night at the local airport. I raced an old ’49 Ford and a ’51 Studebaker. Horribly dangerous, but if you did well, you’d drive around afterward picking up the chicks. The thrill kinda stuck from there.
You’ve been clocked at 515 miles an hour. What does it actually feel like to drive that fast?
A single mile at that speed takes about 7.5 seconds, so you’re definitely moving. The shock wave will pulverize dirt beneath the vehicle. It’s the rate of acceleration that you really feel but it’s not uncomfortable. We’re only talking about a couple of Gs. Unlike a dragster, which has a violent acceleration, this has a steady hard pull. It’s like an airplane taking off but multiply that by a bunch. It’s a pretty smooth ride, though. From an experience standpoint, it’s similar to when you’re skiing. The key is concentration. You have to stay way ahead of the game, focusing on where you’re going — and maybe glancing at the instrument panels — not where you’ve been.
You sound so calm about this. Anything you’re scared to do?
If you have confidence in your equipment it takes away the scare factor. But I wouldn’t want to be walking on steel beams on a building 80 stories high.
What does your family think about this?
They have mixed feelings, obviously. They want me to be safe but they support me 100 percent. My son is one of my assistant crew chiefs. My wife is always folding shirts and doing things out there to keep us happy at the lakebed when the whole circus is set up.
By the way, when was the last time you got a speeding ticket?
Oh, gee. Let me think. Probably about 20 years ago or more. I’ve learned how to temper my speed. You get your thrills where you can get them but you try not to be an idiot.