Spanaway jet car team closer to breaking world land-speed record

Staff writerNovember 7, 2013 

The Spanaway-based team trying to break the world land speed record hasn’t gone as fast as it wants, but it’s getting closer and says 2014 is the year.

The goal of the North American Eagle project: Bring the record back to the continent next year by driving the repurposed, jet-propelled racer faster than 763 miles per hour, the current record held by the ThrustSCC team of Great Britain.

Their pace so far: The team has made 44 test runs, the fastest clocked at about 515 mph last month at Oregon’s Alvord dry lake

bed. (A hose connected to the jet car’s airspeed indicator might have been leaking, so that’s a conservative measurement, the team says).

To put the speeds in perspective, the cruise speed for a Boeing 747 is 540 mph.

At the moment, the Eagle is the leading contender to break the record, says driver and co-owner Ed Shadle, but the clock is ticking. Teams from Australia and the United Kingdom could shatter that in coming years. One is aiming for 1,000 mph.

It’ll be a couple years before the competition does test runs, and that’s all the time the Eagle crew needs, Shadle said.

“We should be able to prove that this coming year,” he said. “We have to go out and tackle the record, and we’ll have to sit back and wait to see if they take the record back from us.”

16-year effort

Shadle and his colleagues have been chasing the land speed record for about 16 years.

“We’re kind of a bunch of hot rodders that have turned into science geeks,” he said.

The crew of about 40 gutted a junked Lockheed F-104A Starfighter in 2003, for the project, which they’d been working on for about seven years.

Today, asking the crew to explain the science behind their brainchild starts a conversation that requires diagrams, the explanation of multiple acronyms and a fundamental understanding of aerodynamics.

To squeeze more speed out of the car the team uses what’s knownas CFD — computational fluid dynamics. That is, a computer program shows how the air flows over a grid of 20-million cells on the car.

One thing they learned last year was that they needed to move the rear axle back several feet. Not an easy thing to hear.

“We were shaking our heads, going: ‘You’ve got to be kidding us,’” said Keith Zanghi, the team’s director of operations.

But like every other roadblock thus far, they figured it out.

Another software program helped them determine the perfect type of aluminum to use for the car’s five wheels. (Along the way they added two to the original three.)

“That car drives straight as an arrow,” Zanghi said.

Basically, it’s down to the fine tuning now.

What they really need to go for the record is more room and more money.

Where to race

The Eagle has been the Goldilocks of land speed racing when it comes to finding the right stretch of land long enough to allow the car to break the record. The team estimates it will need 15 miles of hard ground for the jet car to hit 763 mph.

“There’s really only a couple places on Earth to do it,” Zanghi said.

Under the rules of land speed racing, the competitor is timed making two runs within an hour over a one-mile course. The average speed of the two runs counts toward the record.

Last month, rain softened some of the lake bed at Alvord, giving the team only 7.5 miles to use. The Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, a longtime hot spot for land speed racing, also is too short. Dealing with the bureaucracy needed for a test at Edwards Air Force Base in California has become too much, Shadle said.

The Black Rock Desert north of Reno, Nev., is long enough, but the lake bed has been too torn up by the Burning Man Festival and other events for the team to feel safe running the car there again.

Nevada’s Diamond Valley would be perfect Except the federal government wants $37,000 each time the team goes there.

“We’re just regular working stiffs,” Shadle said. “This isn’t like we’re a couple of millionaires. We’re just guys who work for a living who are trying to do something extraordinary. We are 40 regular people doing an extraordinary feat.”

A feat that’s taken somewhere between $1 million and $2 million to date. That’s compared to the $50 million that’s gone into a government-supported United Kingdom project, Shadle said.

Much of the funding for the local project has come from the Eagle team’s own pockets. Figuring out how to make the $500 rent on the hangar, let alone the more than $100,000 they expect the certified, record-breaking run to cost, is tough. For one thing, the Eagle takes 220 gallons of kerosene per run, which costs about $700.

People learning of the project have cut them deals along the way, though, and some of their fancy technology is on loan.

Shadle doesn’t know how they’ll come up with the rest of the money needed, but says they always seem to figure it out.

He hopes a large sponsor will be attracted by the advertising that would come with the record run.

But until then, Shadle cashed in a $6,000 life insurance policy and sold a junked school bus to make the last test run happen.

And the team members largely pay their way to spend the couple weeks in the desert.

The ‘characters’

The Eagle team is a rag tag cast of experts in topics such as jet engines and hydraulics, and others who just love speed.

Shadle is a retired IBM computer technician. Some are Boeing workers.

“I do have a lot of characters on the team,” Shadle said with laugh. “There’s a lot of joking and sometimes a little horsing around. Throughout the years I was forced to have everyone initial a code of conduct. When you get a bunch of guys in the desert, they can get a little crazy.”

Everyone has a favorite type of beer to break out at the end of their Saturday work sessions at the Spanaway hangar.

“It’s the journey,” Zanghi said, as much as it is actually going for the record. “Life-long friends. People met along the way.”

Keeping the Pomeranian that has become a sort of team mascot out of harm’s way as they fire the engine has become a group effort. An annual Christmas breakfast involves a slide show and shared stories of the team’s work.

Plus there’s the Velvet Hammer Award, an honor bestowed upon the team member with the best whoopsie that year, such as accidentally setting a lawn on fire, scraping the trailer along a fence or burning a hole in the paint on the side of the car.

“They don’t want to let us fail,” Shadle said seriously about his crew. “We’re so close now to the finish line. You surround yourself with people like that, you’ll be successful.”

Then there’s Shadle himself.

“I guess for some people it would frighten the gee-whiz out of them; it’s not for everyone,” he said about being behind the wheel of a jet-powered car.

He says he’s not nervous, because he’s totally confident in his equipment and his team.

His son fastens him into the cockpit. His wife’s been apprehensive, but cheers him on.

“Behind the scenes,” he said, “I’ve heard her brag about the whole thing. I know she’s very supportive.”

As are his daughter and grandkids.

“No one’s tried to stop me anyway,” he said.

Friends of Leno

The Eagle has had some big name celebrities rooting for it through the years.

Jay Leno, the car buff who hosts “The Tonight Show,” hosted a few of the crew members on his show once. As an “honorary team member,” his name is listed on the side of the car. (Leno met Shadle as part of a different racing project, in which he took Leno for a high-speed spin).

Jessi Combs, who has been a cast member on Discovery Channel shows such as “Mythbusters” and “All Girls Garage,” has been driving the Eagle for some test runs.

The project itself has been featured by the Discovery Channel, The New York Times and industry publications.

Shadle and Zanghi even met Neil Armstrong in 2009.

Instead of talking to the famed astronaut about the Eagle, the lunar module he used in 1969 to become the first man to walk on the moon, they mostly chatted about the Eagle of Spanaway.

Armstrong likely piloted both.

During his time at Edwards Air Force Base there were only four of the warplanes the car is made out of assigned to the project Armstrong was on. Though Armstrong couldn’t say for sure he flew their plane, he probably did, and spoke with them about the flight patterns of the F104.

Armstrong, along with other former pilots of the aircraft (Scott Crossfield, Joe Engle and other big aerospace names), are listed on the side of the car.

Peeling through layers of paint, the crew recently found another piece of the plane’s history that they now proudly display: an old serial number ending in 763 — the current land speed record.

“Now we think there’s divine intervention involved,” Zanghi said. “There’s no way we won’t break the record.”

Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268

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