Gary Gabelich, a Croatian-American, was born in San Pedro, California. At high school he started racing hot rods, winning the stock eliminator class at Santa Ana, California when he was just 16. The following year, 1959, he won the world’s first side-by-side jet dragster race, at over 250 mph.
At nineteen he reached a speed of 356 mph at the Bonneville, UT, Salt Flats in a jet car, probably a record for a teenager. He then went to work in the mail room at North American Rockwell. While there, he volunteered to do some sky diving from 30,000 feet to film some of the early Apollo space capsule landing trials, eventually joining their astronaut programme.
When budget cuts put an end to any thouhts of space, he decided to get back into racing, both on land and water. He won the American Power Boat Association fuel hydro championship in 1968, set a National Drag Boat Association record of 200.44 mph in 1969, and also raced go-karts and automobiles.
Reaction Dynamics, Inc., was looking for a driver about that time for the Blue Flame, a 37-foot-long, 4,950-pound vehicle powered by a liquid natural gas-hydrogen peroxide rocket engine. Chuck Suba, a drag racer, was hired but unfortunately he was killed in a racing accident shortly after. Gabelich was interviewed along with several other candidates, including Don Garlits and Craig Breedlove. Reaction Dynamics eventually reached an agreement with Don Garlits however he changed his mind due to family pressures and Gabelich was thus offered the drive.
The Blue Flame's run for the land speed record at Bonneville was scheduled for September of 1969 however the first attempt finally took place a year later, on September 22, 1970. It was a dismal failure, reaching a speed of only 426 mph compared to Breedlove's five-year-old record of 600.601 mph. A lot of tinkering and testing took place.
Gabelich then hit 609 mph on October 15, but a mechanical problem prevented the neccessary return run. The same thing happened on October 23, when the first run reached 621 mph. Finally, on October 28, Gabelich and the Blue Flame averaged 617.602 mph on the first run and 627.207 on the second for a new land speed record of 622.407 (1001.452863 km/h).
This record was the first record over 1000 km/h and it remained unbeaten until 1983, when Richard Noble broke it driving Thrust 2.
He said afterward that he thought the Blue Flame might be able to reach 750 mph, beyond the sound barrier. But Reaction Dynamics had no more plans for the Blue Flame and Gabelich turned to drag racing. His right hand was severed in an accident early in 1972.
Gabelich also took second place in Mickey Thompson’s off-road race at Riverside, California in 1975; first place in the Toyota Charity Slalom at the Rose Bowl in 1979 and second place in the Toyota Pro Challenge Race at the Michigan International Speedway in July, 1980. Twice narrowly escaping death in dragster and boat accidents, Gabelich ironically died in an motorcyle accident in Long Beach, California in January, 1984.