We all know what it means to travel faster than the speed of sound…at least in theory. And most of us believe that it takes an airplane to accomplish that feat. That said, I wonder how Hollywood stuntman Stan Barrett felt when, on December 17, 1979, he blasted across a dry lakebed at California’s Edwards Air Force Base in a rocket and missile-powered car, becoming the first man to travel faster than the speed of sound on land. The reality is that there is no proof that he actually accomplished what he set out to do, which was to see if he could go faster than the speed of sound, because unfortunately, the radar scanner was acting up, and so Barrett’s top speed of 739.666 miles per hour by the most reliable measure, ended up being no more than an estimate. In addition, he only drove his rocket car across the lakebed once, while official record guidelines require that it be done twice. Also, none of the spectators heard a sonic boom as Barrett zoomed across the course. Nevertheless, it is believed that he did indeed break the sound barrier.
Barrett, who was a 36-year-old stuntman and ex-lightweight Golden Glove champion, was introduced to auto racing by Paul Newman in 1971. At the time, he was Newman’s stunt double for the film “Sometimes a Great Notion.” Barrett’s car, the $800,000 Budweiser Rocket, was owned by movie director, Hal Needham, who was himself a former racer. Needham had broken a nine-year-old world land-speed record on the Bonneville Salt Flats the previous September. The car he drove had a 48,000-horsepower rocket engine and, to give it a little extra kick, a 12,000-horsepower Sidewinder missile.
December 17th was a dry day with temperatures around 20° Fahrenheit. Because of the cold, Barrett would actually have to go faster than the 731.9 miles per hour required, in order to break the sound barrier under those conditions. He started the rocket engine and stepped on the gas. He counted to 12, pushed the button on his steering wheel to fire the Sidewinder, so he could go even faster. After he zoomed past a battery of timing devices, Barrett deployed a parachute to help him slow down. It took only a few seconds for Barrett to blast across the 5¾ mile long lakebed. Most of us would have a hard time wrapping our heads around that.
The run was perfect, but unfortunately, the radar speedometers on the ground malfunctioned. Instead of recording the Rocket’s speed, they captured the speed of a passing truck, which was only 38 miles per hour. They would have to look elsewhere for confirmation, and in the end, the speed estimate came from data by the Air Force, whose scanners seemed to indicate that the Rocket had “probably exceeded the speed of sound.” The controversy over how fast Barrett actually went is still disputed to this day. It took until October 1997 for another driver, in a British car called the Thrust SSC, to officially break the Mach 1 sound barrier.