One of my childhood heroes was Gary Gabelich and I always wanted to know more about him. So, I decided to finally get around to this project and to post the results of my research.
Gary Gabelich was born on August 29, 1940 in San Pedro, California although he was of Croatian descent. He began drag racing in his father’s Pontiac in 1957 while still in high school, winning the stock eliminator drag racing class at Santa Ana, California in his first competition. This was shortly followed by winning the world’s first side-by-side jet dragster race, at over 250 mph. Allegedly, at just nineteen he reached a speed of 356 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah while operating a jet car, probably a record for a teenager.
During this period of his life, Gary was a delivery driver for Vermillion’s Drug Store, driving a split window 1960s-era VW Kombi delivery van. He lived at that time in the Bixby Knolls area of Long Beach, California with his parents. Following the job as a delivery driver, he went to work for North American Aviation in Downey, California (later to merge with Rockwell-Standard in 1967 and become North American Rockwell), starting out in the mail room. Gary ended up staying with North American Rockwell for 9 years in various positions from staff assistant to part-time test subject for the Apollo program—not flying the capsules, but testing their long-term liveability in a weightless condition, their tolerance to and performance under conditions of extreme yaw and, though they seldom spoke of it on televised moon shots, the toilet facilities. Although I have been unable to verify this information, I have seen several sources mention that Gary started working his way up the ladder at North American Rockwell when he volunteered to perform the free falls from 30,000 feet needed to film some of the early Apollo space capsule landing trials – makes sense if you consider his personality as a lover of high speeds and dangerous challenges.
During his tenure at North American Rockwell, Gary Gabelich established a name for himself at drag strips across Southern California (Winning the first United Drag Racing Association in 1963 and being the first man to break into drag racing’s seven second bracket, driving a Double A Fuel dragster at 7.05 seconds, in 1967. In 1969, he drove the Beach City Chevrolet Corvette funny car to speeds over 200 mph, a first for a Chevrolet funny car). Many racers and race fans, in fact, worked day jobs at aerospace companies across Southern California. However, Gary’s employers at North American Rockwell, fearing the investment of too much time and unique training in a research subject who, it seemed to them, was laying his life and the continuity of their research on the starting line every weekend, gave him the ultimatum: “Cease this foolhardy diversion or forfeit your job.” There was never really any question about the response. The choice was made for him by his dedication to the world he loved and his desire to prevail in it.
It was a crucial moment in the life of Gary Gabelich as he would move on to greater glory for which he became a household name – fastest man in the world. A claim he was able to make by setting the land speed record with his rocket-powered vehicle “Blue Flame” on October 23, 1970, achieving an average speed of 622.287 mph (1,001.474 km/h). And a peak speed of 650 mph (1,050 km/h) was momentarily attained (record speed was 622.407 mph (1,001.667 km/h) on a dry lake bed at Bonneville Salt Flats in Wendover, Utah. This record was the first over 1,000 km/h (621 mph) and remained unbeaten until 1983, when Richard Noble broke it driving Thrust 2.
It was a rather lucky turn of events that handed this opportunity to Gary…
Reaction Dynamics, Inc., a company formed by Pete Farnsworth, Ray Dausman and Dick Keller who had developed hydrogen peroxide rocket dragsters, was looking for a driver about that time for the Blue Flame, a 37-foot-long, 4,950-pound vehicle powered by a liquid natural gas-hydrogen peroxide rocket engine. Constructed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin the Blue Flame was sponsored by the American Gas Association, with technical assistance from the Institute of Gas Technology of Des Plaines, Illinois. Craig Breedlove, holder of the land speed record at the time, wanted too much money. And a drag racer, named Chuck Suba, came to terms with Reaction Dynamics but was killed in a racing accident shortly thereafter. Gabelich was the third choice, and he jumped at the chance.
The Blue Flame’s run for the land speed record at Bonneville was originally scheduled for September of 1969, but it was then postponed indefinitely. The first attempt finally took place a year later, on September 22, 1970. It was a dismal failure, reaching a speed of only 426 mph compared to Craig Breedlove’s five-year-old record of 600.601 mph. A lot of tinkering and testing was to follow.
Gabelich hit 609 mph on the first of two mandatory runs on October 15, but a mechanical problem prevented the required return run. The same thing happened on October 23, when the first run reached 621 mph. Finally, on October 28, Gabelich and the Blue Flame averaged 617.602 mph on the first run and 627.207 on the second for a new land speed record of 622.407 mph.
Here’s a video of Gary’s record run:
He said afterward that he thought the Blue Flame might be able to reach 750 mph, beyond the sound barrier. But Reaction Dynamics had no more plans for the Blue Flame and Gabelich went back to drag racing.
Gary Gabelich’s right hand was severed in a racing accident ( in an experimental 4WD Funny Car) early in 1972, but it was able to be reattached. I have seen it reported that this accident ruined his professional racing prospects, but he still was able to take second place in Mickey Thompson’s off-road race at Riverside, California in 1975; first place in the Toyota Charity Slalom at the Rose Bowl in 1979 and second place in the Toyota Pro Challenge Race at the Michigan International Speedway in July, 1980.
And, although he was best known for his land speed exploits, Gary was also into going fast on water. Gabelich won both the American Power Boat Association Blown Fuel and Gas National Drag Boat Championship (1968) and was the first person to win them both in the same year. He was also the first person to surpass 200 mph in a drag boat – a feat accomplished in 1969. In 1975 at Turlock Lake in California, a drag boat piloted by Gary Gabelich disintegrated at 180 mph.
After twice narrowly escaping death in dragster and boat accidents, Gary Gabelich tragically died in a motorcycle accident in Long Beach, California on January 26th, 1984. According to the police, Gabelich was riding his motorcycle “at a high rate of speed” when he ran into the right side of a truck. Gabelich died nearly three hours later at San Pedro Hospital of injuries suffered in the accident, the police said.
Gabelich, who was 43-years-old at the time of his death, had his land speed record mark stand for 13 years before Richard Noble hurtled his Thrust 2 up to 633.407 mph on the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada on October 4, 1983. Just two months later Gary Gabelich was fatally injured in his motorcycle accident and never had the chance to reply to Noble’s heroics.
In 1985 the Long Beach City Council named a park in his memory, Gabelich Park.
Below is a collection of some of the memories of Gary from Blue Flame crew member, Paul Stringer, as well as a profile published in Sports Illustrated. I think they provide a great insight into the spirit and character of Gary Gabelich:
Blue Flame crew member, Paul Stringer:
“Gary was very upset when the car [Blue Flame] was sold because he wanted to attempt a sound barrier run with the car. In 1970 when they raced it, they had many mishaps. The most damning was they burned out the retro in the rocket and had to get a loaner or a gift motor to finish. As I remember the original rocket had about 40,000 pounds of thrust and the actual motor they used to set the record had about 14,000. That would lead you to believe that the car could go much faster given the space limitations of the Salt Flats, and the ground effects of going supersonic.
I can’t even describe how many hours we spent talking about where the air goes (under the car). Would the air flip the car when supersonic “splits the air?” They talked at great length about lengthening the rod on the front tip of the car to split the air farther out in front to prevent any negative effects. Craig Breedlove was a very close friend of Gary’s and he as well was always helpful in helping Gary advance his efforts. Craig and Gary where from the same town in California and I met Craig in 1966 on a water skiing trip. Most would think that they would be strange bedfellows when Gary got picked to drive the car, but Craig was one of his biggest supporters and fans.
Gary was trying to figure out how to stop the new car going supersonic also.
The problems are: no air for chutes and brakes won’t work over 400MPH. He was working on a splitting tail like the Space Shuttle and body panels that popped out. Of course, he never considered running anywhere but the flats.
Gary’s feelings about the car being sold was this: the car was owned by the Natural Gas Association as a publicity stunt. When the car got the record, they received millions of dollars in promotion which they never could have bought. They never saw it as a race car and felt that a return to the flats and the risk of an accident would become negative publicity. Hence, the car was sold.
Gary even pursued contacting the new car owner about another run. Apparently, the car had been dropped while being off loaded from a ship when it left the country and there was some tweaking of the frame and that ended his interest.
Gary then began trying to raise sponsors for a new car he’d named The American Way. While he raised some eyebrows at the time, he raised no money for the project as interest in the LSR had waned by then. This was in 1979 nine years after the last true attempt and he wasn’t breaking another guy‘s record; he would only be raising his mark and sponsors wondered how much interest this would raise. To raise the interest, he and Craig Breedlove stated they’d create some new interest by building two cars and they’d “drag race” for the record on the flats. Wow, a 700MPH drag race! Of course, Craig would have to change his thinking to a rocket as a Jet vs. Rocket race would be no race in a drag event the best I can remember is something like 0 to 500 in 10 seconds (more than a few G forces).
One of the reasons Gary was chosen to drive the car (Blue Flame) was because his full time job was he worked for Rockwell International in Downey, California as a “Test Astronaut.” He tested all the space suits for the Apollo space missions. This is a glorious title to say he was the guy going around in the centrifuge. He was used to a lot of G forces, they were always concerned that the driver would blackout during acceleration.
As far as Gary’s life being cut short, while we all miss him lots, few of us could picture him dying an old man. Gary’s life was lived on the edge from the time he was 15 years old. Gary started racing by cleaning up the grease/oil mess for some kids in his neighborhood who had a drag car. He did this for a few years on the promise that someday they‘d let him drive it at the drag strip. That day came when he was 15, on the first pass he went faster than any run ever in the car. One year later, he had his own car and became a legend in California drag racing. He was the ultimate crowd-pleaser being a lot “nuts & wild” and being easy to spot as he always wore an ostrich plume on the top of his helmet. He’d love to taunt his competitors on the starting line by shaking his fist and sometimes getting out of his car to yell something. Of course, it was all in good fun and I never met another racer who didn’t love his magnetic personality.
While setting the LSR made Gary infamous, many of his friends consider it a high point in his life that made the rest of his life chasing a dream. After the record, he didn’t know if he was a career LSR car driver or needed to return to his career in Drag Racing. Before his death, he nearly lost his life four times to my count. He flipped a drag boat @ 200MPH and as he went in the water the motor hit him in the back, nearly killing him. His kidneys were badly damaged and he was on dialysis for two years. He had two accidents in the same Funny Car (Beach City Corvette). Once, he lost the chutes and ended up on fire on a freeway and the second accident, the car caught on fire during a run and burned to the ground (he jumped out at over 100MPH). That accident burned holes clear through his goggles and helmet but he had only minor burns to his face and head. The fourth accident was a crash in his own Funny Car. It had 4 wheel drive which made it very fast off the line. On a photo shoot for a magazine, the throttle locked down during a “burn out” and he lost control. At about 160MPH it went through a guard rail twice and flipped end over end.
Gary had one of his hands cut off to the outside skin, one leg was behind his head and one was wrapped around the steering wheel. That leg became the problem. While his hand was re-attached and the leg behind him was dislocated, the surgeons wanted to remove the other leg as it was nothing but shattered bone from the ankle. Gary would not let them remove the leg, so they inserted a long rod to replace the bone. He adapted to the handicap, but spent about a year trying to get rid of gangrene.”
Sports Illustrated Profile:
The last time anyone paid any special note to the world of absolute speed it was 1970 and Gary Gabelich was going 622.407 miles an hour across Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats in a rocket car called The Blue Flame
Gary (Rocket Man) Gabelich. You know, the world’s fastest man.
Listening to Gary Gabelich one gets the impression that asking why is what’s really absurd. “Racing is really boss, man. If you like to go fast, that’s all there is.” The idea of the danger involved in traveling 750 miles an hour bubbles up and rolls away from his mind like droplets of water off a fresh coat of Simoniz. “Driving the car is a piece of cake,” he says. “You could do it; almost anyone could. It’s putting the whole project together that’s tough, raising the $1 million we figure it will cost, and then converting it into a car and a team that we know can break the barrier.” He speaks of his team so frequently that he begins to sound like the self-effacing player of the week in a postgame interview or the blushing astronauts giving all the credit for their being on the moon to the technicians of Houston. It is as if strapping his body in a supersonic rocket were no more a commitment and courageous act than trying out the air-conditioned fossil burners in Detroit’s new fall line.
Gabelich is totally into whatever he is doing.
Gabelich’s new sound-barrier car, which is being built in Long Beach, will be 44 feet long, eight feet longer than the current Blue Flame record car, which was sponsored by The Natural Gas Industry. The tail fin will be cut down, the rear wheels set farther back and wider apart, and the underside of the body will be V-shaped. This latter touch is an engineer’s dream: when supercar breaks the sound barrier on land, the shock waves will go off the car at a 45-degree angle downward, hit the ground and bounce away from the car instead of bouncing back up to blow the thing off the ground.
On the wall of Gary’s office there is a cartoon clipped from a newspaper and presented by his girl friend Linda. It shows Hazel, the maid, casing the family’s preadolescent heir standing on a pair of water skis in the backyard plastic wading pool, holding onto a rope attached to the rear bumper of a car. “Have you thought this thing through?” Hazel asks. Gabelich has thought his project through, and his proposed new attempt at the sound barrier, like his previous record runs, is no mere display of mindless fortitude.
A year ago last spring at Orange County International Raceway, Gabelich did get into a car that had not been thoroughly thought through—and the result was a crash that almost ripped off his left forearm and broke his left leg so severely that more than a year later he still wore a cast. “We had rushed the project, and I had bad vibes about it,” he says now. The car was a four-wheel-drive experimental “funny car” (a dragster with the facsimile body of a regular Detroit car), and it careened out of control at 180 miles an hour during a quarter-mile run. “Being in the hospital gave me time to think,” Gabelich says, “and what I thought about mostly was getting back in shape to work on the sound-barrier project.”
Gabelich wants to win at whatever he does. Thus, when he began racing motorcycles he raced under the improbable pseudonym of Orval Volotch. “As holder of the land speed record I’d be expected to win, but I really didn’t know much about that kind of racing. So when I used another name it took all that pressure off and I could have fun.” Still, he finished first among the “pie plates,” the unrated amateurs, in his first desert run.
For Gary Gabelich everything is right now. He is almost totally without introspection and obsessed with doing well, whether water skiing, driving The Blue Flame at more than 600 miles an hour, talking to promoters and potential sponsors or making one of the endless public relations tours for the American Gas Association. “Sometimes I think I’d rather be somewhere else,” he says, “but since I’ve got to be wherever I am, I figure I might as well make a good job of it. I want to be a winner.”
A large part of the pleasure Gabelich takes in his work is directed at firing the enthusiasm of those around him. He frequently begins the day, particularly before a speed-record attempt, by playing Isaac Hayes music to his crew. “It gets everybody in a really good mood and sets up good vibes for what we’ve got to do,” he says.