Jul 212016


Today is one of those dates where two allied anniversaries coincide – perhaps deliberately. On this date in 1904 Louis Rigolly, from France, became the first person to break the 100 mph (161 km/h) barrier on land, and on the same date in 1925 Sir Malcolm Campbell, from England, became the first man to break the 150 mph (241 km/h) land barrier. These, and similar “barriers” are pretty much a function of the metrics you use. 100 mph has a nice ring to it (we used to call it “the ton”), because 100 is a nice round number in the decimal system. But it’s only significant if you measure distance in miles. In kilometers per hour 100 mph is 160.934 – ugh. It’s round enough, I suppose (if you knock off the decimals), but lacks the nice ring that 100 has. It’s the same with 100 degrees Fahrenheit. When the weather hits 100 degrees everyone comments, even though 99 is bloody hot. On the other hand 37.777 Celsius is just as hot, but there’s nothing remarkable about the number. Numbers are magical.

Louis Rigolly, set a land speed record of 103.561 mph (166.665 km/h) on a beach at Ostend in Belgium on 21 July 1904, driving a 13.5 litre Gobron-Brillié racing car. He covered a 1 kilometer course in 21.6 seconds, beating Belgian Pierre de Caters mark of 97.25 mph (156.51 km/h), set the previous May over the same course.


Back in the early 20th century things were fairly straightforward. To create a land speed record you rode in a wheel-driven car. That’s what was available, and the records were an extension of the giddiness that pushed Industrial-Revolution era scientists and engineers of the 19th century to new heights. That giddiness was still around, but fading, when I lived in South Australia in the 1960s and Donald Campbell, son of Malcolm, came to Lake Eyre with the latest version of Bluebird. He established a new land speed record for a wheel-driven car of 403.1 mph in 1964, but by then jet and rocket propelled vehicles had entered the race and quickly went on to supersede wheel-driven vehicles. Besides, the race to the moon and other adventures had stolen the thunder of land speedsters.


Nowadays the absolute land speed record is held by Andy Green a wing commander in the RAF. On 25 September 1997 in ThrustSSC he beat the previous record in Black Rock Desert, USA, reaching a speed of 714.144 mph (1,149.303 km/h). On October 15, 1997, 50 years and 1 day after the sound barrier was broken in aerial flight by Chuck Yeager, Green reached 763.035 miles per hour (1,227.986 km/h), the first supersonic land speed record (Mach 1.016).


Maybe I’m not macho enough, but speed records have never excited me. I don’t especially like driving fast, although I have done the ton a few times in my youth. I think of speed as a disease of the modern era. Fast food can be a particular species of this general malady, but it doesn’t have to be. There are obviously a number of fast food joints that I cannot stomach (literally), and they are deservedly derided as peddlers of junk food. To produce a hamburger in under a minute you have to cut corners. But not all food is bad simply because you make it quickly. Some commercial fast foods can be quite decent. I’ve been a lifelong fan of Cincinnati chili which is served in a flash. The 3-way is the standard, chili over spaghetti and topped with cheese. I always go for a bowl of plain myself – chile and nothing else.  I love the taste and texture of the chili, and cannot for the life of me replicat