Fred Marriott and the Stanley Steamer. Yes, the Stanley Steamer.
After five score and three years of holding the land speed record for a steam-powered vehicle, the dusty crown of the honorable Fred Marriott has been handed over to Charles Burnett III, whose vehicle tore across the California desert at 139 miles per hour. Burnett and his team spent a full decade working on “the fastest kettle in the world,” a project that was essentially designed to provide Burnett with the most awesome 30 seconds of his life.
In an interview with the BBC, Burnett described the car as “very stable.” Immediately following that claim – and without any sense of irony – he explained that the car was “fading back and forth probably two to three feet in either direction” while he was going over 150 miles and hour (the speed record is an average over a mile, the car actually goes faster than 139). Charles Burnett III, I bow to your adventuring might. Swaying back and forth two to three feet at 150 miles an hour would leave me with very, very wet pants – not to say that I wouldn’t give it a shot. According to Burnett, “the key there is not to try and drive the car, but let the car do what it wants, because once you start trying to control the car, you put yourself in danger of overcontrolling it and throwing it sideways.” I think I’m going to start applying that rule to every aspect of my life.
If it weren’t for a tiny bump in the road, Fred Marriott might still hold the record. A year after setting the first record in a Stanley Steamer, Marriott brought an even faster steam-powered car to the flats. But this time, fate did not turn his vehicle into a legend, but rather into a billion tiny bits. Marriott hit a depression in the flats, and “it was just like running into a curbstone. The car went up like a kite, sailed through the air for about 100 feet and broke in half when it landed.” Ouch. Seriously injured, he survived, but the experience took the adventure right out of him. He lived to the ripe age of 83 without trying to set a steam-speed record again.