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A chainsaw, a marriage, and lots of fiberglass: How Craig Breedlove cleared a path for the Spirit of America

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Craig in his dad’s garage with the Spirit of America mockup, holding his model of the car in its original configuration. Note that “Firestone” is painted on the front wheel. (That’s another story!) Images courtesy Samuel Hawley.

[Editor’s Note: A sort of follow-up to his excellent Speed Duel, Samuel Hawley’s latest book, Ultimate Speed: The Fast Life and Extreme Cars of Racing Legend Craig Breedlove chronicles the life and exploits of the land-speed racer. With the book’s release scheduled for Tuesday, Sam kindly provided this excerpt from it, in which Breedlove and his team move the Spirit of America out of Breedlove’s garage and get it ready for its public debut.]

Craig was faced with a bit of a problem. Spirit of America, roughly two-thirds complete, was trapped in the garage, its outrigger rear wheels too wide to fit down the driveway. He managed to clear an extra foot of space by taking a sledgehammer to the concrete steps at the side door of the house, but it wasn’t enough. Mr. Tuchen’s hedge on the other side of the driveway had to go too. And there wasn’t much chance of Mr. Tuchen giving permission to cut it down. Craig remembers Stan Goldstein turning to him and asking, “What are we going to do?”

“Well,” said Craig, “what we’re going to do is you’re going to go down to Sam’s U-Rent and get a chainsaw, and we’re going to fire that baby up and take the hedge down in one fell swoop before Mr. Tuchen can get outside.”
So that’s what they did.

Spirit of America being moved from the garage, Mr. Tuchen’s destroyed hedge on right.

“It took Mr. Tuchen a while to figure out what this new roar was coming from next door, but God, when he did he came flying down the stairs, screaming about his hedge, just as we were getting the last of it cut down. I said, ‘Mr. Tuchen, Mr. Tuchen, the car is going!’ That settled him down. ‘The car is going?’ ‘Yeah, yeah, the car is going. We’ll plant you a new hedge.’ And he said, ‘That’s good boys. Good boys.’ Poor Mr. Tuchen. He put up with a lot. But the car was gone.”

Bob Davids, the crew’s fiberglass guy, fooling around with project manager Bill Lawler on the first trip to Bonneville in August 1962.

After being manhandled down the driveway, Spirit was hauled to LA International Airport for its jet engine to be tested, then was taken to Quincy “Quin” Epperly’s cinder-block shop in a scruffy neighborhood in Gardena, where fabrication would be completed. Quin was one of the most experienced race car builders on the West Coast, in the business since 1938, but even he was taken aback by Spirit’s sheer size. “It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever seen,” he marveled as he took it all in. Quin and his full-time employee George Boskoff would play a key role in the racer’s fabrication. A scrappy Irishman named Don Henry who hung around the shop—Boskoff describes him as “kind of a USAC roustabout”—would also help out.

The unveiling of the just-completed Spirit at the Wilshire Country Club in LA, before the departure to the Salt in August 1962.

The plan was to unveil the car in late July 1962 and run it at Bonneville starting at the beginning of August. That meant Craig had scarcely five months to get everything done. He quickly made a production schedule and started hiring additional workers, mostly young guys already on board with the project: Nye Frank as chief mechanic, Allan Buskirk for electrical work, Bob Davids for fiberglass, Stan Goldstein for getting parts and supplies and running the office, “tin bender” Wayne Ewing to work with Quin and Boskoff in shaping Spirit’s aluminum skin. A total of fourteen guys would work on the car, six of them just on the aluminum body, an indication of how time-consuming “tin bending” was. Craig was in charge but in most things he deferred to Epperly. “Craig would never question Quincy,” says Bob Davids. “Everybody in the shop thought Quincy was like God. For critical welds, on the suspension and things, Craig insisted on him doing it. The master would come over. He was like an artist. I remember Craig saying, ‘My life is riding on every weld, and the weld I trust is Quincy’s.’”

Bill Lawler called Craig into his office just as work was getting underway. It was about Lee, who Bill had met on a visit to Craig’s house the previous day. “Look,” he said, using the tact he had learned in the Marine Corps. “About that babe you’re shacked up with, here’s the deal. Either marry her or move her out of your house. I want you back in here with a resolution on Monday morning.” Shell, Lawler went on to explain, was a conservative company and did not want someone representing it in the public eye living in sin.

Craig and Lee Breedlove on the first trip to Bonneville, August ’62, shortly after getting married.

There was no way Craig was going to kick Lee out of the house, not after all the help she had given him, letting him move in with her when he needed a place to stay and putting in all those hours of work on the car. But he wasn’t going to lose his Shell sponsorship either. And so, even though he wasn’t eager to get married again, he popped the question that weekend. Lee said “Yes.”

“So we drove straight through to Yuma and got married on Sunday evening,” says Craig, “then we drove all night long to get back home. I dropped Lee off at the house on Monday morning and went right in to Bill Lawler’s office and put my marriage license on his desk. He was really surprised. ‘Well, okay,’ he says. ‘I really thought you’d go the other way and move her out. But okay, fine. Congratulations!’”

Back at Epperly’s shop work had kicked into high gear on the car. As the weeks ticked down and the inevitable complications and hold-ups occurred, it became clear that the team wasn’t going to make the July deadline. They started working 18 and 20 hours a day, seven days a week, food being brought into the shop to save time. “We didn’t stop,” Craig wrote in his autobiography in 1971, “and some of the guys would work until they dropped. Then they would sleep on the floor. It was a complete, all-out crash program.” And then another problem: the $30,000 sponsorship from Shell was being burned through far more quickly than Craig had imagined, everything costing more than he had budgeted for because it had to be done at top speed. He had to go to Lawler and ask for more money. Lawler smiled and, to Craig’s enormous relief, explained that Shell had discounted his original estimate right from the start. The Spirit of America project had been budgeted for the seemingly impossible sum of $100,000.

A sheet from the flip chart Craig used to pitch Bill Lawler and win sponsorship from Shell.

It was now the middle of July. Crunch time. The unveiling was pushed back a week, then another, and the time-consuming job of skinning Spirit’s rear wheel fairings in aluminum hadn’t even been started. It was at this point that 19-year-old Bob Davids, the youngest member of the crew, came to the rescue, convincing Epperly to let him do the fairings in fiberglass instead. Bob ended up making the nose cone and the steering fin out of fiberglass too, plus 32 disposable covers for the parachute compartment. “It’s duck soup, man,” Bob brashly said, selling Quin on how quick and easy fiberglassing would be. Just like a surfboard. And it was…until he started on the underside of the fairings.

Bob was still slaving away on the right fairing one day when the rest of the crew went out to lunch. Don Henry, an old-timer with little regard for fiberglass on race cars, stayed behind to watch. “So it’s a hot day in July,” Bob remembers, “and I’m soaking this 40-ounce cloth in resin and trying to laminate the underside of the fairing. The cloth is heavy, I’d never used it before, and I’d put too much catalyst in the resin, so it’s not sticking. I got resin all over my hands and running down my arms and it’s going down my neck and it’s burning me, and the cloth is sagging, it’s not sticking, and Don Henry is sitting there watching me and puffing on his cigar, and I’m going, ‘Holy shit, I’m stuck. How do I save this?’ So I’m struggling and struggling, the cloth is falling off and I’m trying to press it back on just as it’s starting to get tacky. And finally Don gets up to leave and he says, ‘You know, kid, money can’t buy the experience you’re getting right here.’”

Craig with Spirit on the Salt, August 1962. In its original configuration the car had a massive nose fin, no tail, and a steering system that used the brakes. All of this would change in 1963. Photo by Tom Carroll.

[Samuel Hawley’s Ultimate Speed: The Fast Life and Extreme Cars of Racing Legend Craig Breedlove is available through Amazon or Barnes and Noble.]