The Fast and the Curious
By Eli Saslow
Steve Fossett wanted to experiment with endurance, so he ran 100 miles through the Rocky Mountains and swam across the English Channel. He wanted to explore dangerous extremes, so he circumnavigated the globe in a sailboat, a jet-engine plane and a giant balloon. For the better part of 63 years, he sought out adventures that nobody ever had accomplished and then checked them off, building a legacy that included 115 world records and yet still left him wanting.
Until he came here.
In the months before his plane disappeared on a routine pleasure flight over western Nevada, Fossett often traveled to a corporate warehouse on the outskirts of Reno to prepare for an assault on a record more prominent than any he owned. He wanted to move faster than anyone ever had across land, but that was only the beginning of it. While visiting this gigantic garage, Fossett imagined setting a land speed record so extraordinary that it would become a benchmark in human innovation. A sign leaning against a wall in the front office of the warehouse betrayed his aspirations. Speed Limit: 1,000 mph.
Every few weeks, Fossett flew here from his home in Beaver Creek, Colo., to visit the jet-engine car he purchased and the team he assembled to refine it. The machine's white-paneled body extended 48 feet and weighed almost 10,000 pounds. To first-time visitors, it looked like a missile lying flat on its stomach -- a comparison that only hinted at its power.
When Fossett came to Sparks, he often changed into a one-piece black racing suit and put on a helmet. He contorted his body and sucked in his stomach so he could fit into a cockpit no bigger than a coffin, elevated only 10 inches off the ground. Two crew members strapped Fossett into a nine-point harness, and he stared out through the car's half-inch-thick windshield. Fossett sometimes sat there for hours and imagined sparking a 30-foot flame by firing the ignition, covering a mile in four seconds and then slowing down by releasing parachutes manufactured for nuclear weapons.
He believed it would be the most dangerous adventure of his life, because history held no precedent for what such speed entailed. Would the driver experience tunnel vision akin to temporary blindness? Could a quarter-size rock on the race course knock the car off-balance? Would the human body withstand the G-forces of accelerating at 40 mph each second?
As he prepared to confront the unknown, Fossett agreed to be featured in a series of Washington Post articles about the nature of competition. During a succession of e-mail and telephone conversations for the piece, he discussed goals and fears that were fatefully intertwined. Fossett's crew already had identified seven mechanical flaws that would have killed him. They delayed three speed trials last summer because the car remained too hazardous to drive.
In August, Fossett made a final visit to the warehouse to talk with the crew and check the car's condition. He had tired of scheduling test sessions only to cancel them a few weeks later, so Fossett implored his crew chief to finish the car before winter weather made driving impossible and delayed the project for another six months. Fossett left Sparks intent on taking the car outside in late September or early October.
"There's nothing I can do but be patient," Fossett said in one interview last summer. "But the longer I wait, the more excited and eager I am to really experience this and drive. Imagination can only take you so far."
Fossett said his greatest achievements still waited ahead, but he conceded that they would have to be different in scope. His hair had thinned and turned gray, and time had rounded out his face and midsection. He spoke in quiet, measured sentences and cocked his head sideways while listening. Late in his life, Fossett looked less like an athlete than a retired stock trader. No longer could he cross-country ski for 20 hours without stopping or go three consecutive nights without sleep. So, in the twilight of his career, Fossett searched for a new kind of challenge.
He never had considered retiring altogether. Without a major goal, Fossett asked, what else would occupy him? His life had unfolded for so long in a series of sporting exploits that Fossett and his achievements had fused together, a life story told in records and numbers.
On their second date, Fossett asked his eventual wife of 39 years to ride in his plane while he competed in an air show. He swam to Alcatraz in college, climbed the highest peak on six continents and finished the Ironman triathlon. In between adventures, he graduated from Stanford and started his own business. After making a personal fortune as a financial trader, he retired in 1990 and moved to Beaver Creek, where he could focus on setting records full-time.
For most of his adventures, Fossett learned a new sport, studied it to become an expert and then procured the best equipment possible. Fossett watched the Iditarod for five years before deciding to buy 27 dogs in 1992. He lived in Fairbanks, Alaska, to train for several months and eventually finished that year's race.
When Fossett became interested in speed sailing, he built a world-class boat and set 23 records from 1993 to 2004, including the circumnavigation of the world in just more than 58 days. He spent $17 million on a Cessna Citation X jet and flew across the United States, from San Diego to South Carolina, in less than three hours. In a glider plane, he climbed to 50,727 feet -- an absolute-altitude record, even though Fossett momentarily passed out when his oxygen mask malfunctioned.
He remained most proud of his records in ballooning, because they were the hardest to earn. It took Fossett six attempts to become the first person to circle the globe alone in a balloon, a 14-day journey during which he averaged three hours of sleep. One of Fossett's failed attempts ended when his balloon was caught in a storm at 29,000 feet and plummeted into the Coral Sea, where his capsule caught fire. He survived the fall and floated on a life raft in his long underwear for 23 hours during a thunderstorm. Finally, a sailor passed by and rescued him.
"I've learned that with the right preparation and response," Fossett once said, "you can survive almost anything."
Speed driving appealed to Fossett because it offered a plethora of numerical records, many of which had not been broken for a decade or longer. Even as he approached his mid-60s, Fossett said during a July phone conversation that he still could drive competitively for another 10 years. Age had robbed him of once-legendary endurance, but Fossett still felt capable of harnessing his effort in short, manic bursts. He could operate almost any machine for 30 minutes at a time, and speed records rarely required more.
Fossett had limited experience as a racecar driver, so he traveled to Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats in 2006 to test his aptitude. On a dry lake bed, Fossett borrowed a friend's modified car and pushed it faster than 300 mph on his second run. He climbed out of the cockpit, beaming, with the vague idea of breaking the 1997 land speed record of 763 mph.
He decided to pursue that mark officially a few months later. Craig Breedlove, a pioneer in land speed racing, had built a car that he planned to sell, and Fossett seized the opportunity. Breedlove had driven the jet-engine machine to 675 mph in 1996 before it skidded and flipped on its side. Miraculously, Breedlove had emerged unscathed, but the car had suffered considerable damage. With no sponsorship money to fix it, Breedlove eventually started to look for a buyer.
By the time Fossett showed interest, the machine had spent almost 10 years gathering rust in a moldy shop next to Breedlove's home in Rio Vista, Calif. Still, convinced of its potential, Fossett bought the car for an undisclosed amount and sought Breedlove's advice in assembling a team of technicians led by rocket scientist Eric Ahlstrom.
Fossett's friends lamented the purchase. He had built his reputation on records that measured in weeks, not seconds, and had survived by selecting adventures with limited risk. The land speed record was one of the world's most dangerous, credited with more accidents than successes. When he confided his plans to friend Richard Branson, the British tycoon warned that Fossett should author his autobiography first. Otherwise, he might not get the chance to write it.
It was a measured risk Fossett decided he could accept. He prided himself on his sporting versatility, with records set in five sports, and a driving record would further diversify his résumé. Plus, the land speed record came with more historical significance than any of Fossett's previous accomplishments. With one blistering race across the earth, he could fortify his legacy.
"With any undertaking as big as this, there is a significant measure of risk," Fossett said last summer. "But we are talking about holding one of the world's absolute records. That's a significant reward."
They never imagined the project would become so complicated. When Ahlstrom first visited Rio Vista and surveyed the car in Breedlove's shop, the scientist estimated it was already 75 percent ready to run. With six men and 12 months, Ahlstrom told Fossett, the car could be back in record-setting condition.
Ahlstrom, 46, moved the car into the warehouse near his house in Sparks, where he started to find problems faster than his team of welders and mechanics could fix them. He hired five people . . . then seven . . . then nine . . . then 12. They ordered a jet engine from a shop that was due in January, but the shop didn't finish it until April. Fuel leaked out of the 110-gallon gas tank. Tangled wires caused steering controls to malfunction.
Fossett sent daily e-mails to the warehouse and visited it about once every two weeks, but he largely entrusted the project to Ahlstrom. In a sport once dominated by hot rodders, scientists had engineered the last three land speed record cars, and Ahlstrom fit that qualification. His father had been a professor of aeronautics and an executive at Boeing, and Ahlstrom had worked on airplanes and other projects for the Department of Defense. He wore tight jeans and leather jackets. Sometimes, lost in thought, he drew mathematical equations on napkins or twirled a lug nut between his middle and forefinger like a cigarette.
"I despise being wrong," Ahlstrom said, "and I've been wrong a couple of times each week during this project. In everything we do, we have been willing to make a mistake and change direction. Nobody has written the guidebook on how to do this. We're the test monkeys."
Every problem Ahlstrom resolved led to five new ones. His team searched for a place to drive the car and eventually settled on a dry lake bed spanning 13 miles at the end of a dirt road in central Nevada. That meant a cook needed to be hired for Fossett and the team, because no restaurants or stores existed nearby. Two crew members spent six months building a custom-fitted trailer to transport the car. The trailer ended up weighing too much under Nevada highway restrictions, so another team member coordinated a special driving route with the help of state officials.
Just when Ahlstrom thought, finally, that his team would be able to make the location work, he learned that 12 endangered snowy plover birds sometimes nested in the lake bed, which meant the car would only be allowed into the area during certain months. Also, Ahlstrom would have to find 10 people willing to spend two weeks clearing the surface of rocks and pebbles that posed a threat to the car. More officials would need to be hired later to certify the course and time record attempts.
Ahlstrom figured it would take between 50 and 70 practice runs to get the car in shape for a record attempt. He planned three week-long testing sessions with an idle month between each to make adjustments to the car. Fossett agreed to begin driving the car at about 200 mph and build steadily to 700 before attacking the record.
While he waited for his team to ready the car, Fossett kept himself busy with other pursuits. He traveled to four continents to fly his glider plane, chasing the best wind patterns. He bought a helicopter with his sights set on records for that aircraft, and he began conceiving a submarine capable of exploring undiscovered ocean depths. But Fossett also made it clear the car remained his priority. "As soon as it's ready to drive," he said during a telephone call in August, "I'll be there to drive it."
"More coordination and effort goes into this than you could ever imagine, and Steve was appreciative of that," Ahlstrom said. "Sometimes he got anxious. All of us did. But the last thing he wanted was to drive a car that wasn't ready. He would call and I would explain the setbacks, and he usually understood."
Ahlstrom was prepared for a similar conversation when one of Fossett's representatives called him on the first Tuesday of September. Instead, the scientist answered the phone in the Sparks warehouse and heard that his boss was missing. The details confounded Ahlstrom: One of the most decorated pilots in aviation history had disappeared shortly after taking off alone from a friend's ranch near Yerington, Nev. He had been flying no faster than 160 mph in a single-engine propeller plane on a clear day.
The next morning, Ahlstrom gathered three team members and went to Yerington to assist with the search. Like hundreds of other pilots, he flew across the high desert and scanned for plane wreckage among the Sierra Nevada mountains, boulder fields and playas strewn with sagebrush. Because Fossett had been flying a plane that was both fragile and flammable -- a craft made primarily from wood, cloth and aluminum tubing -- Ahlstrom searched the landscape for scattered remnants or burn marks.
After several days with little sleep and no results, Ahlstrom returned to Sparks and coordinated search tips sent in by e-mail. He received more than 200 messages each day from Internet users who scanned satellite images of Nevada for clues of Fossett's plane. In the first two weeks, the search effort located evidence of six previous plane crashes -- none of them Fossett's.
As the search dissipated, Ahlstrom told his team to maintain its regular schedule of 10-hour days spent working on the car.
"We're working for the world's greatest boy scout, so you never know if he's going to walk back in here," Ahlstrom told the crew. "We're going ahead with 100 percent effort until anybody tells us otherwise."
On the last Tuesday morning in November, Ahlstrom gathered his crew in the warehouse for a weekly meeting. Almost three months had passed since Fossett's disappearance, but little had changed in Sparks. The paneled exterior of the car sat in a heap on the concrete, exposing a turbine and afterburner that still required work. Eleven employees wore winter hats and jackets in the unheated garage. Many of them held coffee cups in one hand and mechanical tools in the other.
"Another busy week," Ahlstrom told the group. "Remember, we want to do our engine test about 10 days from now. There's a lot of work ahead of us, and we've got to be ready. I'm not going to waste your time. You know what you have to do."
The night before, Fossett's wife, Peggy, had asked the courts to declare her husband dead -- a development that fueled insecurity in Sparks. Some of Fossett's crew wondered how much longer they would have jobs. Peggy had continued to fund the team at her discretion, communicating with Ahlstrom through occasional e-mails. But Ahlstrom planned to search for outside sponsors who could contribute to the budget.
Ahlstrom had also begun a search for the next driver. He hoped to find a graduate of the Navy or Air Force test pilot school, someone with experience traveling at supersonic speeds. More than anything, Ahlstrom wanted a driver with experience working at the cutting edge of technology who would be willing to accept the risks inherent in discovery. When Ahlstrom explained the project to outsiders, he refused to refer to the car as a prototype.
"It's what scientists call a proof of concept," Ahlstrom said. "We still can't be sure what works until we drive it."
Ahlstrom had outlined a plan to begin testing the car in February, with a record attempt possible as early as July or August. In case potential drivers hesitated to stake their life to the project, Ahlstrom had roughly prepared a sales pitch:
Here, Ahlstrom believed, was a chance to move across the earth faster than any person in history, alone in the driver's seat on the last record Steve Fossett would ever help set.
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