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What Are Land Speed Records?

By Lori Kilchermann
Updated Jan 26, 2024
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The land speed records are speed runs for a measured distance to see and document who can go the fastest average speed when traveling down the course and back. Specially-prepared vehicles of all makes and styles operating on different fuels and with various-sized engines race against the clock on the salt surface, attempting to go faster than any other comparable vehicle has previously gone. In some instances, companies such as the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company® create special tires to assist vehicles in breaking the speed records while providing traction, safety and vehicle control.

When attempting to set land speed records, the area known as the Great Salt Flats of Utah in the western United States is the place to be. This area, often referred to as Bonneville or the Bonneville Flats, hosts the event to set land speed records yearly for nearly any type of engine-powered vehicle imaginable. The land speed records are divided into many different classes, from wheel-driven to rocket- or jet-powered as well as car and motorcycle groups; many sub-groups exist in each category. The vehicles are allowed to begin the speed attempt from a rolling start due, in part, to the inability of most tires to grip the salt when power is applied. Drivers must use extreme caution when attempting to set land speed records, and several drivers have been killed due to crashes while racing on the salt flats.

The official method of setting land speed records is to make two runs or passes down a measured speed course and average the total speed of both runs. Each run must be made without repairing the vehicle between runs, and the driver must complete the second pass within an hour of making the first pass. In order to officially qualify for setting land speed records, the average speed of the two passes must surpass the existing record run by 1 percent. The reason for running both ways on the racing course is to even out the advantage of driving with a tailwind.

The original land speed records were all set by wheel-driven vehicles until the early 1960s, when the three-wheeled Spirit of America, a rocket-propelled vehicle, created controversy by not being wheel-driven. Since that time, separate classes for wheel- and rocket- or jet-powered vehicles were created. Since the introduction of the class, the outright land speed records have been held by rocket or jet engine vehicles.

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Discussion Comments

By anon355156 — On Nov 13, 2013

Does anyone know how to find a land speed record non-motorized? such as a bike, skateboard, roller skates, etc.? I'm wanting to attempt to break it if so but have done much searching and attempts to contact Guinness have failed so looking for any knowledge or suggestions (I've hit 80mph on heelies), but don't want to continue practice and taking life threatening risks if no title is available. I'm open to any comments.

By kentuckycat — On Jul 04, 2011

@matthewc23 - I believe that they would actually want the tires to get the least grip possible. More grip would mean more friction with the ground, and if you are trying to set a world land speed record, you want to have the least amount of friction possible so that you can "glide" across the ground.

It does seem counter-intuitive, though.

By kilchermann — On Jul 03, 2011

The difficulty in the tires gripping the ground is that the salt is not a solid surface. The surface is easily peeled away as the powerful engine tries to spin the tires under acceleration. Unlike pavement where the tire can bite and take a firm grip, the salt is very difficult to even get started on, hence the use of push vehicles to aid the high horsepower, tall gear ratio equipped vehicles get rolling. Hope this helps some.

By matthewc23 — On Jul 03, 2011

Before reading this article, I never really thought about the number of people who have died trying to break speed records.

On a safer note, do they have competitions for other non-motorized vehicles? For example, how do they decide on the land speed record for a bicycle or skateboard?

The one thing I am confused about by this article is why the tires would have problems gripping the ground? Wouldn't the drivers want more grip since that would equal more power and speed?

By jcraig — On Jul 02, 2011

Very interesting article. What is the current world land speed record for a car? I was also wondering what the most common make of car was to compete for the record. Do companies like Ford and Chevy make special vehicles to try to get the fastest land speed record, or are most of the cars custom built by individuals?

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