PORTLAND – If you wanted to go fast back in the middle of the 20th century – faster than anyone ever had before – you came to America. Specifically, you found your way to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.
These were the glory days of the internal-combustion engine, when few people had health concerns about vehicle-exhaust emissions and fewer still worried about the Arctic melting.
English auto racers George Eyston and John Rhodes Cobb, both Seagrave Trophy winners, started blasting across the salt flats in the 1930s. Their roaring sprints in custom-built, spaceshiplike race cars were a big deal, and so reporters from Portland trekked the 800 miles to the remote Utah desert to witness their efforts.
In the late summer of 1938, the friendly rivalry reached a peak as the two Cambridge University graduates traded the land-speed record back and forth in an ever-escalating contest.
First Eyston topped his own year-old mark with a 345.49 miles-per-hour average along the salt flats. (The record had been barely 200 mph just a decade earlier.) Two weeks later, Cobb managed to pull off a 350-mph dash, snatching the “Fastest Man Alive” moniker. The very next day, Eyston smashed the new mark, recording a speed of 357.5 mph.
“Cobb, a big, bluff and affable figure, was popular with American newsmen,” Oregon Journal columnist Marlowe Branagan wrote. “He was much more gracious than was Capt. George Eyston.”
So the assembled reporters must have been pleased in 1939 when, back in Utah’s great nothingness, Cobb stretched the record to 369.74 miles per hour, a new mark Eyston would never match.
Wrote Branagan years later:
“We recall the epoch-making event, as we were there, armed with a portable typewriter, a shirt which clung to our rotund frame as the white sun peeped above the horizon and the general idea a fellow with as much mazuma as John Cobb was slightly nuts for risking the state of his health just to see how fast he could push his [vehicle] across the gleaming sands.”
Shortly after Cobb set that record, Great Britain entered World War II, and Cobb joined the Royal Air Force. Eyman, an artilleryman in World War I, went to work for the ministry of production.
Then, once fascism had been defeated, it was back to the salt flats for Cobb. In 1947, he bested his own record again, with a 394.19 mph average jaunt. Eyston never attempted to go faster.
With the land-speed record secure for the time being, Cobb turned his attention to the world water speed record. In 1952, while going more than 200 miles per hour at Loch Ness in Scotland, Cobb’s speedboat broke up, killing him. He was 52. (Eyston, who was assisting Cobb in his attempt to set the water-speed mark, died in 1979 at 82.)
Cobb’s land-speed record stood until 1964, shortly before the “rocket-propulsion” era kicked off. The most recent land-speed mark set at the salt flats – 622 miles per hour – came in 1970. The record now stands at 763 miles per hour.