x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

For sale: Steve Fossett's jet car

The jet vehicle the late adventurer planned to breaks records with is now for sale. Georgia Lewis kicks the tyres.

The car has a design speed of 800 mph.
The car has a design speed of 800 mph.

"No, you won't be able to take it for a test drive," says Stuart Radnofsky with a laugh. "But you will be able to climb all over it and get inside the engine."

This may make him sound like a rather unreasonable seller of a used car, but the one Radnofsky, director of the adventure sports marketing company Project 100, has been given the task of selling is no ordinary second-hand banger. Potential buyers won't be taking this one for a spin around the block or kicking tyres for it is none other than the vehicle the late Steve Fossett was going to use to attempt to break the land speed record. Offers around the US$3 million (Dh11 million) mark will be seriously considered.

Fossett, a billionaire, made his fortune in financial services, but he was a renowned adventurer. He had broken records for solo round-the-world and transcontinental flights, held 10 gliding world records, 21 long distance sailing records and made six attempts to fly around the world in a hot air balloon. If it was at all dangerous and glorious, it seemed Fossett tried his hand at it.

But in September 2007, he mysteriously disappeared while scouting the Nevada desert in his light aeroplane for a suitable area for his speed-record attempt.

Radnofsky met Fossett in 1993 at Le Mans, where the billionaire was fulfilling his dream to compete in the famous 24 hour race, driving a Porsche for the Kremer Brothers.

"He was reading a biography of Einstein, which seemed pretty unusual for a racing driver," says Radnofsky of his first encounter. "I then found out he did a great deal more, but you had to draw it out of him, things like the Iditarod [a 1,920km dog sled race] or he was off to Switzerland to climb a couple of mountains; you know, as we all do."

Over the years, Fossett and Radnofsky worked together, with Project 100 taking care of marketing, promotions and sponsorship for projects such as the PlayStation-sponsored 125-foot catamaran that Fossett used to set a world record for a trans-Atlantic crossing.

The Fossett Absolute Land Speed Record (ALSR) car was acquired by the adventurer in 2006 from Craig Breedlove, the 73-year-old five-time land speed record holder, who had named the car Spirit of America - Sonic Arrow.

Breedlove had technical problems and an accident during his record attempt. After he sold the magnificent machine, Radnofky says "he was a gentleman about it" and was a consultant when Fossett started rebuilding the car with the intention of breaking the current land speed record of 763mph (1,220.8kph) set by Richard Noble's Thrust SSC in 1997.

Fossett's team redesigned the entire ALSR body so it would be more aerodynamic, fitted a longer wheelbase and modified the steering to prevent the oscillation that is believed to have caused the previous accident. Suck-in doors were added to improve acceleration, bearings were upgraded to withstand speeds of more than 1,000mph and a parachute system added.

It is powered by the same General Electric J79-GW turbojet engine that is used on the F4E Phantom and F-104 Starfighter aircraft.

Radnofsky recalls the car was "four or five weeks away from testing in the dry lakes of southern California and Nevada" when the project was tragically cut short.

"It was the second or third of September in 2007 when I got a call that Steve was missing," he says. He had spoken to Fossett only the day before.

"We quickly did some checking [on the land speed project] on the phone the day before and when I heard he was missing, I knew where he was," says Radnofsky. "He had been at the Hilton Ranch, a kind of country club for fliers in the Nevada desert and he was going to take his light aircraft out."

An extensive air and land search was carried out at the time but it wasn't until a year later that hikers found Fossett's wallet, debris and bones from the crash, confirming everyone's worst fears.

After the team did some static testing after Fossett's disappearance, the ALSR was put into storage and this year Peggy, Fossett's widow, decided to sell the car, assigning Radnofsky with the not inconsiderable task of overseeing the sale.

"We took out an ad in Auto Week, a full-page ad, and the phone rang off the hook," says Radnofsky. The car is now on display in a workshop in Reno, Nevada, so potential buyers can make an inspection.

While he is not at liberty to name those who have shown an interest in the ALSR, Radnofsky can confirm that he has received calls from America, Europe, China and the Gulf.

It is not a condition of sale for the buyer to use the car for a land speed record attempt. "Who knows, maybe someone just wants to have it and look at it?" Radnofsky quips. But he hopes that whoever does end up buying the ALSR revives Fossett's dream project.

"The people who have been involved are all still around and they can still be consulted by the new buyers.

"Hopefully, someone will take over the project and hopefully it can be tested in 2011 and it may even be ready for a record attempt in 2011 or 2012 which will put it ahead of the other [land speed record] competitors that are out there," says Radnofsky.

He describes the rivalry between the land speed record hopefuls as "friendly and useful".

"We need it - otherwise it's a bit like a basketball team having nobody to play against."

Radnofsky is quick to praise the other contenders. He describes Australia's Rosco McGlashan, who posted a 643mph speed and is currently working on the Aussie Invader 5R project as "a legend".

The North American Eagle project, which is being worked on by a combined American-Canadian team, is "pretty cool", according to Radnofsky. "It is basically an F1 with the wings off and extra wheels on."

But he still has high hopes for the ALSR and its future as a record-breaker. "I hope the car is bought by someone who understands its significance," he says. "We're not going to save the world with this, but it is still a great challenge."

 

The specs

Engine General Electric J79-GW turbojet engine

Length 14.63m

Width 3.20m

Weight (wet) 4,091kg

Estimated top speed 950mph+ (1,520kph)

Thrust 83.4kN

Construction Carbon / kevlar / glass fibre composite