Sabotage is strongly suspected in the crash of Hal Needham's rocket powered, three-wheeled car two days before it was to make a televised attempt on the world land speed recored over Mud Dry Lake in Nevada. The second of two parachutes needed to brake the car proved to be useless when Needham deployed it during a high-speed practice run July 14.
The parachute had been eaten away by acid, according to press spokesman Dick Stahler in a telephone interview from his Chicago office. Criminal charges arising from the incident are likely, he said.
Stahler reported Needham had taken the two-ton car through two easy runs at 300 miles per hour. On the third run, he reached 548 miles per hour at the end of the measured mile and released the parachute designed to slow the car.
It was the chute used at medium speed that was damaged, Stahler said. "The car left the course at about 300 miles per hour and went over a slight rise alongside the track. It made two bounces, the first 60 feet and then 100 feet, but landed on its wheels.
"Hal got out with only a sprained ankle. The car suffered no visible damage, but parts must be tested and reprogrammed before another record attempt can be made."
The record attempt had been harried by legal action up to the day camp was set up in Nevada. Associates of Kitty O'Neil, who drove the car to a record for women last year, then was relieved as a driver. She brought suit to halt the attempt and restore her as a driver. The case was dismissed, reported Stahler.
Needham was slated to make a record try last year but never drove the car. O'Neil made a two-way run averaging 512.71 miles per hour for the female mark at the Alvord Desert in Oregon. Needham's target was the 630.38 miles per hour record set in 1970 by Gary Gabelich. He didn't make a run because of bad weather. O'Neil was ready to go but was taken out of the car because its owner and designer, William Frederick, had a contract requiring him to allow Needham to go after the major record.
This year Needham's teammate, Simone Boisseree, never drove the car. Stahler says a new attempt can be undertaken in "few weeks" if the car did not suffer serious damage.
They may return to Alvord, 140 miles west of Boise. Idaho, which has an 11-mile-long track, if not barred for environmental reasons, he said. These concerns, rejected as near-frivolous last year, involve noise, possible harm to fish life that exists only when the desert floods and worry that the two dozen people in the car's crew might distrub wildlife.
The Mud Dry Lake had a usable track of only 5.3 miles. When the team arrived July 10, its first task was to pick up by hand and with magnets millions of empty machine-gun casings left by aircraft target practice. "By the time the track was cleaned up, there was only a safety margin of 1,000 feet." said Stahler. "In other words, if all the chutes and brakes worked precisely, the car would stop 1,000 feet from the end of the track. That is almost too short a margin."
Frederick's car is designed to break the speed of sound, some 740 miles per hour, traveling on three steel wheels. Its rocket engine develops 48,000 horsepower. Needham reports it reaches maximum speed in 1 1/2 miles. Little more than a tube on wheels, the car's body is only 24 inches high and 20 inches wide.