The magic number is 763, Keith Zanghi explains, sitting in a small hangar on a rural airstrip in western Washington state. In 1997, Andy Green, a former British Royal Air Force pilot, careened across Nevada’s Black Rock Desert in a vehicle resembling a black rocket to set the current world land-speed record at 763 miles per hour.
Zanghi and his partner Ed Shadle think they can beat it – with a “pile of junk” that used to be a jet fighter.
“The British have held the records since 1983 [when Richard Noble powered across the desert floor at 633 miles per hour],” Zanghi says. “We think it’s time to bring the record home to America.”
Shadle and Zanghi didn’t have careers as aeronautics engineers, and they don’t hold Ph.D.s in physics. But they do both love to go fast. “We both come from a background of mischievous little boys,” Shadle, now 71, confesses.
Shadle grew up on an American Indian reservation in northern Washington. His dad, a fan of stock car racing, introduced him to speed sports. In 1954, Shadle built his first car — for a soap box derby. But he yearned to go faster. “I wanted to be the next Chuck Yeager,” Shadle says, referring to the first person to break the sound barrier.
After learning to fly and spending a stint in the Air Force, Shadle settled into project management at IBM, but he didn’t give up his love for speed. He started racing horses and motorcycles, and in the ’80s finally made a trip to the Bonneville Salt Flats, a desert in northern Utah where several land-speed records have been set. Being around the massive engines and fellow speed demons there planted an idea in Shadle’s head: “I decided I wanted to break world speed records.”
Shadle began working with a team that was making such attempts, and it was there that he met Zanghi, now 58. While Zanghi was growing up in a small city south of Seattle, his mom, who deserves some of the credit for what is now his obsession, would take him and his brother to a race track and let them hang out with the drivers and their muscle cars.
“My mom had kind of a lead foot,” he says. Once, on the way home, he remembers, she gunned her car across a set of railroad tracks and caught air. By the time Zanghi was 18, he and his brother had amassed a collection of about 17 motorcycles.
The team through which Shadle and Zanghi met eventually fell apart, so in 1998 they decided to strike out on their own. This time, though, they considered a different tack: Rather than building a car from the ground up, they thought, why not strip the wings off a jet and see how it does? “By July of 1999, we had this pile of junk to work with,” Shadle says.
That “pile of junk” was a 1956 Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. Shadle has a picture of it arriving in their hangar, covered in graffiti. But to them it was the beginning of something big. The tail number of their jet was 0763 — the same number as the current speed record. “We think there could be some divine intervention,” Shadle says. They named it North American Eagle.
Zanghi and Shadle put their management skills to work (Zanghi still works in customer service delivery management with Boeing). They started recruiting engineers and designers — all volunteers — to help turn the jet into a sleek, red, 56-foot-long car with a bald eagle painted along the side. They added computers to track data from runs, a magnetic braking system and aluminum wheels to deal with the high speeds, and more and more sponsor logos. They depend on those sponsors to keep the project funded.
Along the way, Shadle and Zanghi have had a chance to meet other lions of the speed-freak world, including Shadle’s inspiration, Chuck Yeager. They’ve chatted with the likes of Neil Armstrong and Jay Leno. “We just get to meet so many neat people,” Shadle says.
After more than a decade of work, they plan to take a crack at some of the secondary speed records, including the fastest land-speed record for a female driver.
And the big one, that 763? They hope to see that record fall by the end of 2013. Zanghi is convinced that if they can just jump through all the bureaucratic hoops required to even make an attempt on that speed, it will happen.
But if it doesn’t — if something happens and they fall short of their dream — was it all worth it? Shadle doesn’t skip a beat: “Oh yeah.”