Budweiser Rocket

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It was William A. Ward who once said, “Adversity causes some men to break, others to break records.” There was no notable adversity that drove Stan Barrett to break the sound barrier on land that cold December morning in 1979—just the dream that was carried by both the man and the owner of the vehicle that propelled him to glory

Budweiser Rocket breaking the sound barrier on land c. 1979

Budweiser Rocket breaking the sound barrier on land c. 1979

It was William A. Ward who once said, “Adversity causes some men to break, others to break records.” There was no notable adversity that drove Stan Barrett to break the sound barrier on land that cold December morning in 1979—just the dream that was carried by both the man and the owner of the vehicle that propelled him to glory, Hal Needham. However, what neither may have been able to predict was the adversity that followed his seemingly incredible feat; a controversy that still lives on, to this day.

While thereʼs no question that what Barrett did at Edwardʼs Air Force Base took guts, the validity of his claims and those of witnesses and officials was riddled with so many questions that many refuse to credit the man with his alleged record of traveling an astounding 739.666 miles per hour, breaking the speed of sound.

Barrett was a Hollywood stunt man for celebrities such as Paul Newman, and he had worked with Needham, who has films like Smokey and the Bandit to his directorial credit. The vehicle used was named the Budweiser Rocket, as it was sponsored by the beer company and was built for optimum speed. Those might be the only facts that all can agree upon. There were a number of components missing from the claims that Barrett had, indeed, achieved Mach 1.01 out there in the Mojave Desert. In an article written by Don Baumea a number of inconsistencies are pointed out.

“Hal Needham and the team must have reckoned that the rules for land speed racing were in fact obsolete and did not apply to their project,” Baumea chastised, going on to list that the equipment used to test the speed was faulty, as it somehow recorded a nearby truck that was going under 40 m.p.h. rather than the Rocket. (However, he fails to mention that both the Air Force and Chuck Yeager confirmed the reported speed, adding more fire to this heated debate.) Also, as opposed to having the traditional “impartial officials” review the final speed, an entire team named Project S.O.S. and the International Hot Rod Association gave the final review, neither being known for having “the ability to independently set up the necessary timing and recording equipment, collect, calculate and interpret the raw data for a supersonic aerodynamic event.” No one present heard a sonic boom, either. Important documents were never made public, and retesting never occurred.

Paul Newman was reported to have told Barrett, “Thatʼs the first time in fifty years that Iʼve prayed,” but no amount of prayers could help them to officially hold the record. What quickly became the most controversial record to have ever been reportedly set in the world of speed has now been overshadowed by more well-documented records. While many questions still linger in regards to Barrettʼs feat, one thing remains clear: record or no, history was, indeed, made.

Article appeared in our 31-1 Issue – April 2014

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