Northern Cape to host attempt on world land speed record
The land of Mier in the remote Kalahari, where life unfolds at the creaking pace of a donkey cart, plans to go down in history as the place where speed was redefined.
In under 18 months, it is due to host an attempt on the mother of all land-speed records - a breathtaking 1000 miles per hour.
That is 1600km/h, or 1.4 times the speed of sound, and the best place in the world to drive that fast is on Hakskeenpan, a vast, bleak stretch of dried Mier mud so forbidding that even goats die of hunger there.
The car in question is the Bloodhound, a futuristic R46-million vehicle now being built in the UK that boasts a rocket, a jet from a fighter aircraft and the engine of an F1 racing machine.
"We're setting out to build the ultimate speed vehicle," said the man behind the project, land-speed-record legend Richard Noble. "We're pioneering, we're going to discover things that nobody ever knew about. It's an engineering adventure."
Noble led the team that set the current world land speed record of 1228km/h, a feat achieved in 1997 by former Royal Air Force pilot Andy Green behind the wheel of a car called ThrustSSC. Green will also drive the Bloodhound when it fires up its three engines in the winter of 2012.
The thrust for the car will be delivered by the rocket and the jet engine - the V12 racing car power plant is there only as a fuel pump for the rocket.
Until now, the location of choice for land-speed records has been Black Rock Desert in Nevada, but circumstances conspired to land the Bloodhound project in the lap of the people of Mier, descendants of the region's original San hunter-gatherers.
First the rains failed in Nevada, so there was not enough water to wash the surface flat; then the desert became the site of the Burning Man festival, a celebration of performance art and an excuse for frenzied partying that left deep scuff marks in the ground.
Scuff marks are exactly what you don't need when you are driving an unpredictable 6.4-ton vehicle at supersonic speeds. So Noble and his team consulted Google Earth and, after eliminating a dozen other contenders, found Hakskeenpan.
"Hakskeenpan, we've discovered, is about the flattest place on God's earth, so it's all going to work really rather well," Noble said. "I think this is going to be absolutely brilliant. It's a completely fresh change from running in the US."
He praised the support given to the project by the Northern Cape government, which is hoping to use it to boost the province as an extreme sport destination.
This week, Northern Cape premier Hazel Jenkins officially launched a key part of the project - the clearing of millions of pebbles from the track surface by 300 people from nearby settlements.
The man in charge of track preparation, Rudi Riek, said the work was being carried out with rakes, brooms, spades and wheelbarrows.
"The community is very excited. You can feel the vibe," said Riek. "It means 300 families are going to have money for Christmas."
The team is preparing a 500m central track that runs the full 20km length of the pan, and two 500m-wide safety zones on either side. It is also repairing the fence around the pan to prevent stray goats from becoming spectacular Bloodhound road kill.
"Local farmers are happy about the fence," Riek said. "At the moment a lot of their animals are straying onto the pan. They can't find their way back and they die."
The Bloodhound, with the equivalent horsepower of 180 Formula One racing cars, is designed to cover 16km in less than two minutes and blast from zero to 1600km/h in 42 seconds.
"It's not like conventional circuit racing or Formula One, where you just pop a driver in the car," Noble said. "The driver is part of the car's systems, and must understand every single bit of it."
Would-be drivers clamour at Noble's door for the Bloodhound job, but he turns them away. "You can't possibly entertain those requests. It's not a driving job as the population might see it; it's the role of a test pilot."
Noble himself has driven an earlier land-speed-record vehicle at just over 1000km/h and calls the experience "incredible, extraordinary".
"At 650mph (1040km/h), your mental processes speed up so you see every single detail on the track come right up and go under the car."
The driver has the help of painted lanes - biodegradable vegetable dye will be used at Hakskeenpan - to help him stick to a straight line.
"You can only see about 2.5 miles (4km) ahead because of the curvature of the earth," Noble said. "What you tend to do is focus on the point where the line meets the horizon."
Doesn't everything happen too fast at supersonic speed for a flesh-and-blood driver to maintain control?
"The funny thing is that it doesn't," he said. "You get an enormous release of adrenaline; it speeds up your mental processes so that you are thinking very, very fast indeed. What you're doing is slowing everything else up ... everything seems to happen in slow motion."
The 12.8m-long vehicle will undergo initial tests at an airstrip in the UK next year before being flown to Upington for the attempt on the record.
"When we get to Hakskeenpan, we'll probably do 25 to 30 runs with the car before we're anywhere near the 1000mph mark. The weather window is about eight months. This is great because it takes some of the pressure off."
Noble was prompted to launch the Bloodhound project in 2005 when a rival team in the US, led by adventurer Steve Fossett, threatened to break Green's 1997 record.
Fossett was later killed in a plane crash, derailing the US challenge, but Noble forged ahead regardless.
Apart from a love of speed and breaking records, Noble is pursuing the project to inspire young people to study science, mathematics and engineering.
"There's a serious education problem ... (teachers) say it's a nightmare because there's nothing exciting going on in Britain. The kids are all wound up about video games ... by comparison, engineering is incredibly boring. We need a live project."
He said the project's website, www.bloodhoundssc.com, had followers in more than 200 countries. "All the design data from the car and all the performance data will go out on the web each time we run the car at Hakskeenpan, so people can follow that."
Noble will be hoping to do better than the previous land-speed-record attempt hosted in South Africa.
In 1929, Malcolm Campbell, driving Bluebird, failed to break the then record of 370km/h at Verneukpan.