Toward a New Land Speed Record: A Day in the Life of the North American Eagle “Turbojet Car”

4/5/10

It was just after 10 a.m. on a hazy spring morning as Ed Shadle drove a trailer the size of a semi-truck to the far end of the Spanaway Airport, a quarter-mile active airstrip located 15 miles south of Tacoma, WA. A handful of his 44-person crew, which includes his son Cam and eight-year-old grandson Alex, had already arrived and were busy setting up for the day—a table of coffee and donut holes for the crew and onlookers, a Subaru converted into a mobile data acquisition center, and several barrels of fuel at the ready.

For Shadle, 68, and his partner and co-owner of the North American Eagle, Keith Zanghi, 55, the day’s engine test was just one stop along a more than 11-year journey to build the fastest land vehicle in the world. The goal: 800 miles per hour.

Shadle and his crew, all based in Washington state, were busy lowering the Eagle, a 56-foot-long tubular car forged out of the fuselage of a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, from the trailer. The nose and tail cones had been removed for transport, reducing the car to 48 feet in length—just short enough to fit inside the trailer. Other crew members busily prepared the steel cables that would anchor the car to two gravel-filled trucks, weighing 80,000 lbs in all, and to a nearby tree with deep roots—a “safety precaution,” the crew said. This setup procedure was nothing new for them.

“We’ve probably been out to this airport maybe 25 times, and we tie up to our favorite tree back there,” Zanghi said. “Luckily it’s not raining. It could be worse.”

For both Shadle and Zanghi, the thirst for speed was born out of a love of drag racing at an early age. And naturally, like any “typical teenager of that era,” as Shadle calls himself, drag racing led to more racing at higher speeds, and eventually, flight.

“For me, it started back when I was just a kid back in the late ‘40s, early ‘50s. My uncles were all back from World War II and they got into stock car racing—the old jalopies running on dirt tracks. And of course we used to go to the races, so I’d hang out in the pits and watch my hero uncles,” Shadle said. “My first drag race on a real strip was at an airport. We raced on Friday nights for 50 cents and you could race all night.” Later, in his 20s, Shadle joined the Air Force and developed his career as a pilot.

“Just like Ed, we all grew up with the space program. The Mercury astronauts were my heroes—the Gemini and Apollo [as well]. All I did was build model airplanes when I was a kid,” Zanghi said.

North American Eagle (photo by Thea Chard)

The shared passion for flight, speed, and all the machinery behind them brought Shadle and Zanghi together in the 1990s when they both found themselves on a team working to build a vehicle that could break the land speed record. They were beat out, however, by Great Britain’s Richard Noble and Andy Green, who in 1997 achieved the current record of 763.1 mph with the ThrustSSC.

“At that time, the record was 633 mph, which is about 140 mph below the speed of sound, so we were building a car that was designed to go sub-sonic.” Zanghi said. When the British team broke the record, their car went supersonic. “As soon as that happened, we knew our car was obsolete,” he said.

When their project folded, Shadle and Zanghi decided to team up on a brand new endeavor, and in 1999 they bought the Eagle’s junked F-104 fuselage, without wings, for $25,000. The single-engine supersonic interceptor had its heyday flying with the U.S Air Force from the late 1950s to the late 1960s.

According to Zanghi, the F-104 had the ideal shape for land speed racing. The body was … Next Page »

Thea Chard is a correspondent for Xconomy Seattle. You can e-mail her at theachard@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/theachard. Follow @

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