Sweat and $9/day for speed title

2013-03-15 09:43

Johannesburg - 300 labourers with wheelbarrows and basic tools have been sweating in the Kalahari for two years to clear 22 square kilometres of desert - for a 15-second speed record run.

Toiling with shovels and their bare hands they've removed 6000 tons of stones and other debris from a vast stretch of desert in a desolate corner of north-western South Africa so that a British-led team can take a jet car beyond 1600km/h. They've been been paid only R100 a day for the work - but could have the bonus of appearing in the Guinness Book of World Records.

"It will be a brisk ride," said Andy Green, the man who plans to break his own record in 2015 using a vehicle powered by rocket and warplane technology - but it was slow going for the labourers.

Green's goal? 1610km/h and another world land speed record - this one will break the sound barrier again.


The track of hard-packed earth at Hakskeen Pan, tucked between Namibia and Botswana, is 1100m wide and 20km long. It could rival Black Rock Desert in Nevada, where Green clocked 1228km/h and broke the sound barrier in 1997, and the Bonneville salt flats in Utah, as the world's premier Temple of Speed.

Clearing and scraping the track was a monumental task for the labourers, many of them Bushman descendants. They plan to contact the Guinness World Book of Records to have their their achievement recognised as the biggest area of land ever cleared by hand. They came from surrounding villages where unemployment is high and the Northern Cape provincial government paid most of the workers a R100 wage (about seven pounds or $11), normal for public works projects in the region.

High-tech lasers will be used to measure smoothness.

Peter McKuchane, head of business tourism for the province, said the goal after Green's record bid was to transform the track into a tourist site in an area where people barely get by on livestock farming. Already races have been held in the area.


Green said: "Flicking up a stone with the front wheels and hitting the rears would be like being shot with a supersonic bullet. That would be enough to punch a hole in pretty much anything so we could destroy the car just by hitting debris on the surface, never mind all the damage you would actually do to the wheels, rolling over."

Hakskeen Pan was chosen after a worldwide search: it is secure and accessible and the car's wheels are believed to perform better on the dried mud than on the salt flats of Bonneville while, Green says, the Black Rock surface has become rutted.

Speed is the ultimate measure of performance, and the quest to go faster than anyone is a fertile source of lore. Chuck Yeager was the first pilot to fly faster than sound, transforming him into a hero. Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt brought the house down at the London Olympics with his three gold medals.

As with many British adventurers, 50-year-old Green brings an understated eccentricity to this elite class of speed demons. A mathematician and former Royal Air Force pilot now endowed with the title of Officer of the Order of the British Empire, he mused about the possible impact of billowing shock waves from his very fast car.

"One of the problems is working out how far back you, the media, and the general public will need to be so that as the car goes rushing past we don't have people exploding in its wake. It's a nice problem to have," Green said in a news conference at the Johannesburg HQ of MTN, a sponsor.

Several teams on other continents are plotting to smash a record that the British have owned, off and on, for a century. Green has the edge in sponsorship backing. His project has raised $24-million so far, another $11-million might be needed.

His rivals are a flamboyant bunch.


"I'm probably a nutcase, I don't know," driver Rosco McGlashan said in a phone interview from Perth, Western Australia, where his self-described "speed freaks" are working on a nine-ton car, "Aussie Invader 5R", that was in the planning stage for a decade. They plan to test the rocket engine later this year and make a record attempt in 2014.

The North American Eagle team wants to restore the land speed crown to the US. The team cut the wings off a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter in the hope of turning it into the world's fastest car. The last American to set the record was Gary Gabelich at Bonneville in 1970.

Ed Shadle, North American Eagle driver, project manager and former IBM manager, wrote in an email: "I expect to be the one in the cockpit unless my team deems me insane, which my wife has already done." He said the project was fun but frustrating, slowed partly by funding challenges.

These thrill seekers are also thinkers, precise and patient.

At Black Rock 15 years ago Green drove Thrust SSC, a black, jet-propelled car that wedded Batmobile menace with space rocket chic. Today it sits in a museum. Technology has come a long way since then. Now he and his design team are working on the aluminum-wheeled Bloodhound SSC (SuperSonic Car) powered by a military jet engine used in the Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft along with a hybrid rocket motor to propel the engine to maximum speed.

The namesake of the slender vehicle is a British missile built in the 1950's.

The team plans to crack 1610km/h in 55 seconds, with another minute to slow down with parachutes and other deceleration systems. The extreme push and pull sends blood rushing from feet to head and back again. Veteran pilots have lost consciousness under such stress.


A long time ago the French monopolised land speed. Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat recorded a then-impressive 63.15km/h in a battery car near Paris in 1898. Then came steam power, the internal combustion engine and, later, jet propulsion and rockets.

A car seeking to break the speed record must have a driver and four or more wheels. The Paris-based FIA, the governing body of motor sport, oversees results.

The Bloodhound will carry 16 cameras, allowing the world to watch the event live.  treen saidThe aim, besides the thrill and the entry in the record books, was to encourage young people to becoming scientists and engineers .

"Impressing the 12-year-old girl about science and technology is not going to happen if we have a massive crash," Green said. "It'll get a lot of YouTube hits but it won't leave a legacy of 'Isn't science cool?' It will leave the legacy of, 'Aren't they stupid!'"

Do you think all this work is worth the time and money? Or that's fair the workers have to use their hands and wheelbarrows for something that will only last a few seconds? Email us and we'll publish your thoughts or use the Readers' Comments section below...