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Drag Racing Story of the Day!

Is Infinity at the Beginning or the End?

By Phil R. Elliott

Infinity Over Zero by Cole CoonceIt 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 that is.

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 later.

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 future.

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 of late.

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 Cole Coonce.

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 nothing…

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.

Phil Elliott

Thanks for checking out the PhilZone portion of Draglist.com. If you have accolades, complaints, comments, questions, or if you want to share a story, please feel free to post it on the PhilZone Message Board. Phil

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