Book Review: Quest For Speed
If you're obsessed with land speed records, Quest For Speed is for you.
Quest For Speed perfectly chronicles the human speed saga, while reminding us all to keep chasing the impossible.
By Don Taylor
Sun, Feb 21, 2021 01:00 PM PST
Upon receiving this book, I immediately looked for just one name. As Barry John’s Quest For Speed promises to highlight the greatest land speed record vehicles and their drivers of all time, I had one person in mind that I hoped to see recognized. It must include him, right? Well, let’s see.
Author John’s work features 78 individual chapters on individual speed record setters thru the history of such attempts. Most are cars; some are motorcycles. Each has been given a two-page spread providing 8.5 x 23 inch horizontal canvas, and they take full advantage of it.
The foreword is written by veteran motorsports writer David Tremayne, who like the author, is a longtime land speed record fan. He describes the selection of vehicles and drivers in the book this way:
This is the story not just of official record holders but also of extraordinary human endeavor in pushing the frontiers of the unknown, including some who failed yet made great leaps in conceptual thought that also became woven into the fabric of the quest for speed.
What I noticed first, are the wonderful illustrations, on every single page. Beautifully rendered, all of the vehicles are shown in side view, very often complemented with sketches showing technical details, with the same technique used throughout. Many of these long, thistle-thin, land-bound-missiles extend across both pages of their layout, making full use of that available twenty-three inch landscape. Collectively these wonderful Illustrations would make a wall-worthy poster of record setters. They are reason enough to buy this book.
And…the illustrations are complimented with a well-written story on each vehicle, its record(s), its driver, and in some cases, its patron or designer. Those individuals are each represented with a miniature ‘head-shot’ portrait.
After digging into who did all of this artwork, I was pleased to discover that Barry Johns, in this first book of his, indeed did both the illustrations as well as the writing. After studying at London’s Harrow School of Art, he worked as a graphic designer. The speed record subject has been a life long passion for this Brit, preparing him for this moment. Now retired, he had time to put all of that together in this book of passion.
Each chapter being self-contained in its own two-page format makes for easy reading and reference. Thumb through this labor of love quickly, and it’s like seeing a flipbook animation on the history timeline of the land speed record holders. Starting with those having no thought given to aerodynamics, proceeding to the 1930’s -1940’s era Campbell Bluebirds, and Railton designs, on into the American hot-rodder era, first with wheel-driven, piston engine cars, then with jets, and finally with more current projects including the yet-to-fulfill-its-promise 1,000MPH Bloodhound.
We have all followed land speed record setting to one degree or another, and while we’ve seen jet/rocket power dominate attempts for breaking the sound barrier and taking aim for 1,000MPH, that’s not all there is. Land-bound jets and missiles provide thunder and excitement, but without being wheel-driven, this category takes something way from their connection to automobiles as we know them. It is the hundreds of wheel-driven vehicles that show up at Bonneville every year keeping that configuration alive, running in so many classes, and maintaining the roots and romance of the sport. That’s why it was reassuring for me to see recent wheel-driven, piston-engine-powered record setters well included in this book.
And this brings me back around to whom I was looking for when I first touched the handsome navy blue hardbound cover of Quest For Speed, cracked it open, and flipped thru its crisp, satiny finished pages. Would LA’s own, and our old buddy, Danny Thompson be in there with the Challenger 2? And yes, there he was!
Danny had worked extra hard to establish his racing career, lacking encouragement from his famous father, Mickey Thompson. But he did it, with success in a surprising variety of racing classes. And then, after his official retirement from racing in 1995, he reconsidered, and set out for several land speed records, and one, with a very special vehicle. It was to be with a car originally built by his dad, which never had a chance to show its true potential. Named Challenger 2, it was designed to exceed the 406 MPH record set by Mickey in Challenger I, and was targeted for 500mph, but circumstances never allowed an attempt. It was parked in the 1960’s.
Danny had seen the car in storage all his life, and wanted to race it. And in 2010 he started the project to do it. I say ‘project’, because it took much more than blowing the dust off to make it ready for Bonneville. It took years, much of Danny’s time and personal finances, and many volunteers to make it record ready. He made an attempt in 2016, only to be overcome with a series of mechanical and weather setbacks. But he’d be back.
Here’s how author John describes triumph at last, two years later:
Out of these misadventures, however, came a record of 448.757 set on 12 August 2018. Danny Thompson’s motivation to vindicate his father’s design was fulfilled as he made the 50-year-old car the fastest piston-powered vehicle on earth. And then walked away.
Would I have been as impressed with Quest For Speed, if written a few years earlier and it did not include Danny Thompson’s record? Definitely. Note, in that case it would show George Poteet, with partner Ron Main, who are also in the book, as still the record holders in that class with their super slick Speed Demon. Two more Southern California guys.
This book puts into perspective the speed achievements of so many SoCal speed demons, with their belly-tank cars, ’32 Ford variations, backyard-built jet cars, and the all-so-efficient beautiful streamliners. In this book, written far away in England, they take their rightful place in history alongside legendary European record holders and innovators like the Campbells, John Cobb, Seagrave, Andy Green, and Richard Noble. (See a previous LACar.com 2020 book review of Richard Noble’s book Take Risk!).
Being in the LA area, we are fortunate to have had first hand familiarity with so many of these record setters…at their unpretentious shops, at car shows, at a racecourse, or seeing them at a local Mexican restaurant. It’s just another reminder of LA’s number-one place, ground zero, in the wonderfully diverse automobile world. And, it continues to be LACar.com’s mission to cover that macrocosm of automotive passions and pursuits.
I congratulate Barry John on his fine work, and EVRO Publishing for making this high quality book possible. I highly recommend it. -DT
About The Author
Don Taylor formerly ran the NASCAR program for General Motors, worked as a car stylist at the Ford Motor Company, and as a National Tech Director for the NHRA. He currently serves as the Director of the Stand 21 Safety Foundation. Taylor also writes articles for the UK’s Racecar Engineering magazine. Don resides in Boston, but makes frequent trips to the west coast and still owns a home in Pasadena.