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Speed Duel: The Inside Story of the Land Speed Record in the Sixties [Paperback]

Samuel Hawley

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Book Description

Sept. 16 2010

The quest for the land speed record in the 1960s and the epic rivalry between two dynamic American drivers, Art Arfons and Craig Breedlove.

"Interesting and complex. . . .The best job I've seen done on the subject so far."
-- Craig Breedlove

Until the 1950s, the land speed record (LSR) was held by a series of European gentlemen racers such as British driver John Cobb, who hit 394 miles per hour in 1947. That record held for more than a decade, until the car culture swept the U.S.

Hot-rodders and drag racers built and souped up racers using car engines, piston aircraft engines and, eventually, jet engines. For this determined and dedicated group, the LSR was no longer an honor to be held by rich aristocrats with industrial backing -- it was brought stateside.

In the summer of 1960, the contest moved into overdrive, with eight men contending for the record on Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats. Some men died in horrific crashes, others prudently retired, and by mid-decade only two men were left driving: Art Arfons and Craig Breedlove. By 1965, Arfons and Breedlove had walked away from some of the most spectacular wipeouts in motor sport history and pushed the record up to 400, then 500, then 600 miles per hour. Speed Duel is the fast-paced history of their rivalry.

Despite the abundant heart-stopping action, Speed Duel is foremost a human drama. Says author Samuel Hawley, "It is a quintessential American tale in the tradition of The Right Stuff, except that it is not about extraordinary men doing great things in a huge government program. It's about ordinary men doing extraordinary things in their back yards."

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 360 pages
  • Publisher: Firefly Books (Sept. 16 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1554076331
  • ISBN-13: 978-1554076338
  • Product Dimensions: 23.2 x 15.4 x 2.7 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 771 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #410,459 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


Hawley weaves a great tale, which basically begins in 1960 when eight different American gearheads [began] the journey to bring the Land Speed Record back to America... Hawley really captures the drama of the race to the LSR, which included multiple sub plots wrought with tragedy...hope, innovative engineering, high finance...and more. He also gives real insight into the motivation of the key players, especially Arfons and Breedlove, creating dramatic tension that non-fiction books often lack... I guarantee you'll be captivated by the book. (Canadian Hot Rods 2010-10-07)

(4/4 stars) Hawley, a Canadian historian, brings the highest standards to bear on the often-told but still inspiring story of the land speed record battles of the 1960s. The focus is on Craig Breedlove and Art Arfons as the record advances past 400, 500 and 600 mph. (Kevin A. Wilson AutoWeek 2010-11-22)

[Speed Duel] is written in an easy, but informative style which focuses on the personalities of the story, and the LSR attempts [Hawley] writes about only provides the backdrop for the struggle of those who wanted to do more than anyone else... There is plenty of drama in Hawley's book. "It's a quintessential American tale in the tradition of The Right Stuff," he said, "except that it is not about extraordinary men doing great things in a huge government program. It's about ordinary men doing extraordinary things in their backyards." Speed Duel is 360 pages in length, illustrated and would make a worthwhile present for that motorhead on your Christmas list. (Tim Miller Hamilton Spectator 2010-11-27)

[starred review] In the 1960s, young American hot-rodders, working in garages and backyards, mounted a challenge to the World Land Speed Record (LSR) long held by gentlemen British racers like Malcolm Campbell and John Cobb. Best known among them was Craig Breedlove, a movie-star-handsome young Californian with his "Spirit of America" jet-powered car. Chief challenger was Art Arfons, a drag racer from rural Ohio in his "Green Monster." Also in pursuit of the record were Walt Arfons, Art's estranged brother; Athol Graham in his homemade "City of Salt Lake"; and Nathan Ostich, a doctor who designed and drove his "Flying Caduceus" as a hobby. Hawley captures the seat-of-the-pants excitement and terror of crashes at 600 mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats. This well-told overview of the car culture of the 1960s, with photos of the legends of the LSR, is a gripping read that will provide a jet-fueled adrenaline rush to racing fans and readers who enjoy social history in the style of Mark Kurlansky and Erik Larson. (Susan Belsky Library Journal 2010-11-15)

Even readers who don't know a spark plug from a gear shift will be transfixed by Hawley's white-knuckled account of the ever-escalating competition to hold the Land Speed Record in the '60s and early '70s. Drawing from countless articles, profiles, documentaries, and interviews with the men and women who were there, Hawley traces the sport's evolution from its first four-wheeled record of 39mph in 1898, to today's jet-propelled 700mph-plus, recounting the creation, testing, and repair of legendary cars like the humble Green Monster and the charismatic Spirit of America. Deft reporting and an eye for detail put readers in the cockpit when drivers like Art Arfons hit 600mph and on the sidelines when Glenn Leasher's crew helplessly watches him crash at 400mph... Gearheads will likely devour this book, but anyone who's ever sat behind a wheel and wondered what it would feel like to floor it will find this cinematic account difficult to put down. (Publishers Weekly 2010-12-01)

About the Author

Samuel Hawley studied history at Queen's University and is the author of The Imjin War: Japan's Sixteenth-Century Invasion of Korea and Attempt to Conquer China. He lives in Kingston, Ontario.

Customer Reviews

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Amazon.com: 4.8 out of 5 stars  24 reviews
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great read about a fascinating era for the Land Speed Record Oct. 21 2010
By Rand Thompson - Published on Amazon.com
Speed Duel is an great book about what many consider the most fascinating era concerning the elusive Land Speed Record. The LSR had been owned by the British since the 30's, but as the 60's dawned, it had attracted the dreamers of the American Hot Rod world. The author does a great job of bringing the decade alive as the focus shifted from wheel driven cars powered by piston engines to the jet and rocket powered cars.

The book pays special attention to the years from 1962-66 when Craig Breedlove, the Californian with the Hollywood looks, battled the Arfons' brothers from Akron Ohio, with their backyard ingenuity. Breedlove and the Arfons traded the title back and forth between them several times as the record was increased from 400 mph to 600 mph in just a couple years. The book also covers those who tried and failed, sometimes while losing their lives in the process. Finally, the author attempts to discover what motivated these men to spend all the time, effort, and $$$ to attempt such a dangerous mission for frankly little financial gain.

I have been a racing enthusiast for many years, and while of course, I had heard about Art Arfons and Craig Breedlove, I really never was all that interested in the LSR before now. I decided to buy this book to learn more, and am glad I did as it gave me a strong admiration for these men and what they accomplished.

Great book and highly recommended.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Simply outstanding! Dec 13 2010
By Frederick P. Voegelin - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
To put it simply, this is a marvelous book. I purchased it because of my longstanding interest in the technology behind the land speed record. It covered that well, but then went far beyond a chronology of record runs. The author's portraits of the men (and women) who pursued the LSR are engaging. This human element makes this book one of the best motorsports titles I have read.

The contrast the author draws between the Hollywood flash of Craig Breedlove and the taciturn Arfons brothers from Ohio is fascinating -- as is his description of the complex relationship between the feuding brothers. While the exploits of the successful LSR racers are well known, the author also brings to light those who were not successful, including several who paid the ultimate price. Anyone who visits the Salt Flats after reading this book will feel the spirits of Athol Graham and Glenn Leasher.

Great storytelling about a great subject!
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Speed Duel review Oct. 29 2010
By Thomas in Ohio - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Samuel Hawley has done his homework well: researching, verifying with primary sources and with as many surviving witnesses as possible. The result is an accurate history of a special time that will never return. Unpublished photography and personal stories set this apart from all other land speed books. You will truly enjoy this book, and learn a few things in the process, even if you thought you knew it all.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An outstanding book Feb. 10 2012
By L. F. Smith - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is an outstanding book about an amazing era in motor sports. During the 1960s, a few American back-yard mechanics and hotrodders dominated what had been the preserve of British sportsman, the Land Speed Record. The book chronicles that time, focusing on the duel between Craig Breedlove and Art Arfons.

These two men were quite dissimilar in terms of personality and upbringing, but they were remarkably similar in one way: They were willing to sacrifice their financial well-being, their careers, and even their lives in pursuit of the LSR, a pursuit that killed a startling number of the competitors. And they did this for glory, since there really wasn't much money in it. Indeed, they were victimized by Goodyear and Firestone, the companies that provided most of what little sponsorship money that was available.

One of the most astonishing things about the story of this time is that the LSR competitors were literally cobbling together their machines in small shops and backyards, sometimes using junk parts. Unlike today's multimillion dollar, fully sponsored efforts, these were cars created by guys who wanted to go fast-- REALLY fast-- and figured out how to do it on their own. Think about it: Going 500 MPH in a homemade car with a jet engine the military had discarded.

The book is well balanced. There's enough technical information to satisfy most readers, but the focus is really on the people. By the end, you'll fee that you actually know these remarkable men. The book is also very well written. It's a you-are-there narrative with can't-put-it-down urgency.

This is an outstanding book, and I recommend it most highly.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Engaging Storytelling and Yet Still Interesting to Techie Types Jan. 31 2012
By mastermindquiet - Published on Amazon.com
An excellent telling of the history of the attempts on the Land Speed Record in the late 1950s and into the 1960s. The author's story telling style reminds me of "Seabiscuit" by Laura Hillenbrand, engaging and atmospheric, yet factual and detailed. Fans of the technical details of the vehicles might feel let down a bit as this is not the main focus of the book, but there is still a lot to enjoy even for them. For the general reader, the incredible struggles and sacrifices of those involved makes this book hard to put down. Plenty of photographs are included. Very highly recommended.

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