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Bloodhound delay brings a harsh reminder of the funding challenges for land-speed record attempts

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“It will be a sorry day when we no longer do something for the hell of it,” Donald Campbell said as he eyed another run at the world land-speed record in 1960. Then again, Campbell had the backing of Rubery Owen and BP at the time, and as the Bloodhound SSC team’s recent announcement of a delay in its own land-speed record attempt shows, it often takes a steady supply of funds to do something for the hell of it.

As Richard Noble, the director of the Bloodhound project, noted in his team’s announcement that the first runs for the Bloodhound would be delayed until 2018, “our pace of development has to be pegged to the flow of funding.” The BBC more bluntly described the cause of the delay as “short-term cash flow problems.”

Funding any land-speed record project, let alone one projected to exceed 1,000 MPH, requires sponsorship. Finding the right sponsors, however, has bedeviled land-speed racers for decades, as Ed Shadle, project director for the North American Eagle land-speed record effort, pointed out.

“You have to show value to the companies that are willing to help,” Shadle said. “You have to articulate what’s in it for a sponsor, what are the benefits of giving something to us.”

Shadle, who first envisioned going after the world land-speed record in 1999, said he’s nickle-and-dimed the effort all along, from starting with a junkyard F-104 Starfighter jet to more recently borrowing $25,000 for a Bureau of Land Management permit to make test runs later this year. “Somehow I have to figure out how to pay that back,” he said.

Still, he’s convinced several sponsors – from sensor manufacturer Piezotronics to software giant Microsoft – to donate technology necessary for developing, building, and testing the streamliner. And just as importantly, he’s convinced a team of 30 to 35 volunteers to commit their own time and resources toward the project. But that elusive major sponsor – the one that would guarantee good locations, that would cover the cost of fuel and other expenses, and that would allow for quick turnaround times after each testing session – has yet to show up on Shadle’s doorstep.

“If we had the right kind of marketing people, we’d have hit pay dirt,” he said, estimating that he’d be five to six years ahead of his current status with a major sponsor. “But we’re just a bunch of engineers.”

Getting a major sponsor, however, has proven difficult for even some of the world’s most celebrated land-speed racers. As Samuel Hawley wrote in “Speed Duel: The Inside Story of the Land Speed Record in the Sixties,” Mickey Thompson essentially quit land-speed racing not because of the proven successes of jet- and rocket-powered cars, but because he saw no way to find sponsors for those cars. As Fritz Voigt told Hawley:

…he was already set up for (a rocket-powered car) just the same. But then he couldn’t get a sponsor. Who the hell cares if you got a rocket? Pontiac, if you got Pontiac engines, would be happy. But not with a rocket.

Likewise, losing a major sponsor can scuttle even the best-laid plans for continued racing. Goodyear proved reluctant to continue sponsoring Craig Breedlove following his 600 MPH record and, combined with a run of bad luck, the loss of that major sponsor kept him from re-setting his record or challenging Gary Gabelich’s subsequent record of 633 MPH. “As long as Craig held the record, there was no compelling reason for Goodyear to back him for a return to the salt flats,” Hawley wrote. And as George Klass told Hawley:

When Craig set his last record, Goodyear ran these full-page ads in magazines like Life and Look that said, “We test our tires at 600 so yours will be safe at 60.” That’s how they wanted to promote it. What are they going to do with a new record, say “We test our tires at 630 so you will be safe at 63? I mean, it’s just pragmatic. The idea of going 630 MPH or whatever had no benefit to them.

Indeed, it doesn’t even take the loss of a sponsor to derail a land-speed effort. Rosco McGlashan’s Aussie Invader effort nearly folded recently after a dispute with the Australian Taxation Office over a tax incentive of $180,000.

According to Noble’s statement, at least two major sponsors – “a global IT company and a leading fashion brand” – recently agreed to partnerships with the Bloodhound effort, and the timing of their partnership caused the cash flow interruption. However, the Bloodhound effort has also secured sponsorships from Jaguar, Chinese carmaker Geely, Rolls-Royce, Castrol, STP, and literally hundreds others.

The Bloodhound team, which has yet to field test the fully assembled car, now aims to begin testing at Hakskeen Pan in South Africa in the summer of 2018 with record attempts following in the latter half of the year.

The North American Eagle team, according to Shadle, aims to run in the 500 and 600 MPH ranges this summer at the Alvord Desert in southeastern Oregon before attempting a run at the 800 MPH mark next year, permits and weather permitting, at Diamond Valley in Nevada. Shadle’s fastest run in the North American Eagle to date was 515 MPH.

The Aussie Invader team has yet to release a timeline for its attempt to surpass 1,000 MPH.

The current land-speed record, set by Andy Green in the Thrust SSC at the Black Rock Desert in Nevada in 1997, stands at 763.035 over the flying mile.