Is Infinity at the Beginning or the
By Phil R. Elliott
is not often I attend functions filled with such an eclectic grouping.
Oh sure, I would be the first to state that the
dragracing stream flows with doctors and derelicts and everything between.
But the gathering to celebrate the birth of Cole Coonce's latest
project, Infinity over Zero, went far beyond the norm – whatever
Cole is a writer that has expanded raceminds beyond
jetting, performances, indexes and politics. His style has been to explore
elements of the acceleration persona that transcend space available in
mere magazines. The first Coonce stories I read were always two-parters
– there was certainly an editorial fear that readers' minds would
either freeze or explode given a dosage too high. They were also some of
the first dragrace stories in years I wished I'd written.
Over the previous year or so, I knew Cole was working
hard toward completion of a book on the Land Speed Record, a history piece
I was told by racers. I smiled, knowing that there was no way he could
simply put a few "ands" and "thes" between dry stats
the way too many similar subjects are handled. Not the Cole Coonce I know.
Not the Cole Coonce of Nitronic Research and Header Flames.
My good friend Tom West, with whom I visited the Infinity
over Zero book release party, describes Cole's particular writing
approach as, "gonzo journalism, in the style of Hunter S.
Thompson." I don't disagree.
I see Cole Coonce as one of a group of born-too-late
folk that would be fully accepted in the more acceptable Bohemian
groupings of the 40s and 50s. I hear him as a performing poet in one of
those coffee houses frequented by the "beat" generation that
evolved from a need by putting so many artistically minded folk in close
proximity. They were called "beatniks" by those outside their
cliques, a derogatory description in the same vein as the way the term
"hippy" was used to describe a somewhat larger group a decade
To me, "Bohemian Society" and "Beat
Generation" are terms that I aspire to be considered a part –
complimentary in total.
OK, so I'm not close to Cole. Yes, there is the
camaraderie of dragrace journalists, and of SS&DI alums. There
have been conversations, via phones and emails over the years. But I never
hung out with Cole at the barbershop, or in any garage that I remember --
just lots of dusty, noisy dragstrips. I truly hope that changes in the
Since I was invited, I went. The scene was at The Echo,
an aging dance club in Hollywood that has certainly seen its share of
parties. It is undoubtedly one of those places where you mentally wish the
walls could talk or at least show video snippets.
Before entering the Echo, Tom and I had a quick bite in
a Mexican restaurant where the wall-mounted menu had few recognizable
items and none of the staff spoke even American. I also met and carried on
an interesting conversation with a very attractive transvestite. He/she
had an enlightening view on his/her environment which included dating and
dancing. For those still romantically entrenched with Hollywood the area
as opposed to Hollywood the myth have obviously not walked the sidewalks
Inside, there was a sound check going on by a band right
out of the steel era of the 1950s and a few early arrivals exchanging verbal
jabs. Tom and I chatted with Bob Smith, known better by his "Jetcar
Bob" moniker. Soon the room began to fill with the eclectic grouping
I mentioned earlier.
There were the kids described as punks and Goths. There
were writers, photographers, and artists from every other discipline.
There were race drivers and mechanics from various venues. And there was
Cole with a couple cardboard boxes full of a greenish-colored paperback
and a Sharpie.
If the scene had been stick and ball oriented, there
would have been dozens of high-fives, chest thumps, and head butts.
Instead, Cole wandered among his peers and thanked us all for coming.
As the evening progressed, I sat and caught up with
another SS&DI alum -- one-time art director Todd Westover. There were
other nice moments with Darr Hawthorne and Chris Martin. The band played
loud so conversation was somewhat brief. Cole bravely read passages from
his book during musical interludes causing an even greater perception of
those long-gone coffee shops. When he finished, I was urged to do finger
snaps but applauded instead.
Soon it was all over, the party broke up and I was left
alone with an autographed copy of Infinity over Zero.
Within a day or so, I began to read the contents,
picking sporadic pages totally out of context. I then laid the book down
for a period of two months in favor of other projects.
When I finally gave Cole Coonce's, Infinity my
full concentration, I was upset with myself for having delayed. It was
something I had trouble laying down.
I had better state here that when I began reading Hot
Rod, the magazine was giving pretty heavy coverage to Bonneville. A
year or so later came the tremendous LSR race between Craig Breedlove and
Walt and Art Arfons (as well as several other lesser characters). As a
highly influence-able youngster, I sucked it all in like the proverbial
human vacuum. When I could, I borrowed older magazines and read about the
exploits of Mickey Thompson, Athol Graham, and others matching the efforts
of highly funded, even government backed, foreigners like Malcolm and
Donald Campbell and John Cobb. It seemed unbelievable that hot rodders
could take war surplus engines and a few 3-ton truck bits and run over
400mph but they did and it excited me. It must have had similar effect on
Infinity over Zero helped me
relive many of those feelings. Coonce describes the salt and speed
happenings of the mid 60s in some detail. He also gives tremendous
personal insight to the jetcar buildups that ran on the dragstrips of the
time, including rarely heard anecdotes from some of the land-locked
pilots. The mishaps of Jetcar Bob are possibly worth the cost of the book.
But Infinity over Zero is not a historical
overview of some period of land speed racing. It is rather better
described as what its subhead implies – "Meditations on Maximum
Velocity." It is instead a verbal vortex of the emotions Cole Coonce
encountered while a variety of men gave their all in pursuit of dreams.
And it is certainly not for me, you, or Cole to decide for others that
their dreams are too costly in lives or dollars spent.
From start to end, Infinity over Zero covers the
most recent race to the speed of sound where Breedlove battled with
(seemingly) the combined might of the British military.
While not as intimate with this historically significant
happening, I considered this fight of immensely lopsided proportions. Over
the years, I've spent time with Mr. Breedlove and he always seemed full
of passion for one thing, surpassing the speed of sound on the ground. He
has set and reset overall speed records many times – first to hold
records over 400, 500 and 600mph -- and my perception was that he had a
been-there-done-that attitude for just retaking the LSR. It was all or
But his choice of tools for the job at hand seemed even
lesser at the task than the sling and pebbles David carried into battle.
His 9,000-pound, single-engine, 24,000hp "Sonic Arrow" seemed
downright feeble in comparison to the nearly 20-ton, 111,000hp twinjet
Thrust SSC ante the Brits had up their sleeves.
It was the same in the mind of Richard Noble, an English
gentleman who had grabbed the LSR back in 1983 with a blast of over 633mph
across Black Rock Desert in Nevada.
And though Infinity over Zero covers the
thoughts, mindsets and activities of dozens of players, the script really
revolves around that Anglo-American match race that culminated in October
of 1997. Once again, it was an under-funded hot-rodder against the
onslaught of a nation, at least in the minds of many. Had Breedlove the
backing of Boeing, the U.S. Air Force and NASA, the fight would have been
fair. Infinity takes you through it all.
Do I recommend Infinity over Zero? Absolutely,
with a caveat or two. If your reading and comprehension level is not above
primers or National Dragster, you may not enjoy the entire book.
There is a great deal of intellectual vocab between individuals that may
not be on your wavelength. You may have bouts of frustration and lay the
book down. But don't, because if you have even a flickering desire to
find out what is the underlying passion of LSR, I guarantee you will enjoy
Infinity over Zero. And, just like what I said about Cole Coonce's
magazine articles, I wish I'd written it.
BTW, I recommend that you have a picture book on LSR
near you while reading Infinity over Zero, such as Peter Holthusen's
The Fastest Men on Earth, 100 Years of the Land Speed Record. Why?
Because there are only a few minuscule photos to help you picture what is
being discussed. And, once you get interested in LSR, there are
innumerable pieces in and out of print, as well as on the Web.
Infinity over Zero is
available through www.kerosenebomb.com.
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