Gary Gabelich (Croatian Gabelič) (August 29, 1940 – January 26, 1984) was an American race car driver of Croatian ancestry, his parents migrating from Split in the Former Yugoslavia. Gabelich set the land speed record with his rocket-powered vehicle "Blue Flame" on October 23, 1970, on a dry lake bed at Bonneville Salt Flats in Wendover, Utah.
Gary set the FIA world record for the flying mile at 622.407 mph (1,001.667 km/h) and the flying kilometer at 630.388 mph (1,014.511 km/h). The thrust used during this attempt was between 13,000 pounds (5,900 kilograms) and 15,000 pounds (6,800 kilograms). and a peak speed of approximately 650 mph (1,050 km/h) was momentarily attained.
According to the worldwide rules that govern land speed records, a land speed mark is recognized only after two runs through the flying kilometer and measured mile clocks and both runs must be made within one hour. The record speed is then calculated by averaging the average speeds over the measured mile and kilometer in the two runs.
Gabelich averaged 629.412 mph (1,013 km/h) on his first pass and 631.367 mph (1,016 km/h) on his second for an official mark of 630.388 mph (1,015 km/h) for the flying kilometer. The mile record was the first exceeding 1,000 km/h (621 mph) and remained unbeaten until 1983, when Richard Noble broke it driving Thrust 2, but the faster kilometer record stood for 27 years until ThrustSSC went supersonic in 1997.
Gabelich was seriously injured in the crash of an experimental 4 wheel drive Funny Car in 1972 that careered out of control at 180 mph (290 km/h) during a quarter mile run almost severing his left forearm and broke his left leg so severely that more than a year later he still wore a cast. This incident ended his racing career and he never raced again, concentrating instead on a new supersonic vehicle.
In the early 1980s he established the "Rocketman Corporation" with Tom Daniel. The objective was to design and build a vehicle capable of reaching speeds in the 800 mph (1,287 km/h) range. This conceptual vehicle was named "American Way" but the project was cut short by his untimely death in January 1984 in a motorcycle crash.
Gary was a delivery driver in his younger days for Vermillion's Drug store driving a split window 1960 era VW kombi delivery van. He lived at that time in Bixby Knolls area of Long Beach, CA. with his parents. Following this, Gary served as an Apollo test astronaut in 1968-1969 as stated on the plaque his family dedicated to him in 2001. He went to work for North American Aviation, which merged with Rockwell-Standard in 1967 to become North American Rockwell. Starting out in the mail room, Gary ended up staying for 9 years in various positions from staff assistant before becoming a part-time test subject for Project Apollo in the years 1968 & 1969.
Unlike the actual astronauts, he was not flying the capsules, but testing their long-term viability in weightless conditions, their tolerance and performance under conditions of extreme lateral forces and, though they seldom spoke of it on televised moon shots, the toilet facilities. Gabelich was Mercury Seven astronaut Wally Schirra's exact size and he did a lot of space checkout for him and testing of capsules and equipment before they were man-rated for operational use. Project Mercury ended in the early 1960s and Wally Schirra went on to become commander of Apollo 7
Gary Gabelich was part of the cast in the 1977 movie "Joyride to nowhere" and he made a documentary,"One Second from Eternity: The History of the Land Speed Record" in 1971. Gary and his family appeared on the Family Feud with Richard Dawson, where he presented the key to the city of Long Beach, California. to Mr Dawson.
In 2008 Gary was inducted into the Long Beach Motorsports Walk of Fame in front of the Convention Center on Pine Avenue. He was represented at the ceremony by his wife Rae, a Long Beach City Councilwoman who retired in 2012 after 8 years service.
- Matt Stone; Preston Lerner (2012). History's Greatest Automotive Mysteries, Myths, and Rumors Revealed. MotorBooks International. ISBN 161058659X.