Take Risk! book review: behind the extreme scenes with Richard Noble

Published: 29 May 2020

Speed record legend's new book reviewed
The partnerships and sponsors behind the schemes
Thrust 2, Thrust SSC and Bloodhound SSC examined

Long acceptance speeches at awards ceremonies are usually a very good reason to nip off to the bar, confident that you won’t be missing anything interesting, even if you’re the recipient’s mother, agent or indeed God. But although Richard Noble’s new book Take Risk! is in essence a ‘…without whom…’ speech spread over 264 pages, it’s a fascinating read. That gin and tonic can wait.

Its readability is in large part down to the personality of its author, the man behind the jet-propelled Thrust 2 (which he drove to a 633.468mph record that stood from 1983 to 1987), Thrust SSC (which Andy Green drove through the sound barrier in 1997) and Bloodhound SSC (now in other hands). He’s forthright, punchy, witty, occasionally bitter, rarely vengeful and always engaging. He never loses sight of the fact that he’s spent decades living out a swashbuckling adolescent fantasy.

It’s all backed up by the credibility that comes from being one of life’s doers. His perspective may at times seem a little skewed – he just doesn’t get normal – but he really has moved the dial, more than once.

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Take Risk! is the story of the sponsorship deals and engineering partnerships that made those record attempts possible (and other less successful projects), and it could have been a horribly dry litany of profit and loss, interest rates and bridging loans. Or it could have been a super-niche how-to manual. Or a motivational guide for entrepreneurs. It’s all of those things to a small extent, but mostly it’s the behind-the-scenes story of Noble’s land-speed record attempts, and his aircraft and marine ventures, told anew from a slightly different perspective.

Underlying it all is Noble’s life-long fascination with speed records, which dates back to first-hand experience as a schoolboy.

‘I had seen John Cobb’s innovative jet boat Crusader on Loch Ness as he headed for 250mph on water in 1952,’ he writes. ‘I had been present at the Farnborough Air Show and seen the Lightning fighters head for the sky at 50,000ft a minute in full afterburner and with a massive roar that echoed around the surrounding hills.’

He wants to pass that enthusiasm on to new generations – enthusiasm not just for daredevil record breakers, but for engineering, for innovation and for thinking the unthinkable.

bloodhound ssc

It all makes sense when he stages some Bloodhound demo runs for schoolkids at Newquay airport: ‘And then I realised what this was all about. The kids were the product of the screen age: they had never had a real experience like seeing a close-up Bloodhound SSC run. There is a suspicion that almost everything they see on their screens is over-hyped or fake. Bloodhound SSC brought them face to face with huge excitement and absolute reality. This is what education should be about… A land speed record with its life-or-death implications is as close as you can probably come to extreme reality.’

He’s not shy of admitting how close many of his schemes came to never getting off the ground. Here he’s describing the early days of Thrust 2: ‘Lunch cost the project £65. The TI team had eaten the project’s entire working capital but we had a designer, an engine, a supporters’ club of hundreds, massive PR and a huge spaceframe to be built by the best frame man in the country, the legendary Ken Sprayson.’

And he’s frank about the peril that’s never far away. At Bonneville with Thurst 2, the amateurishness is close to lethal. But Noble out-does even the Daily Mail in his disdain for health and safety and bureaucracy, and sees no contradiction in simultaneously asking for public money.

At times you do sympathise with sponsors who get cold feet when the day of reckoning nears, and they have visions of their corporate logo being associated for ever more with a damp squib or spectacular catastrophe.

But of course you have to take the rough with the smooth with beasts as rare as Noble – a bloke who makes things happen. A galvaniser. A firestarter. (He talks of British engineers being great innovators but sometimes bad at following through. That sounds like he’s describing himself.)

His seems to be a world of absolutes and superlatives and adjectives… so many adjectives. You’re never far from a ‘massive’, a ‘best’, a ‘legendary’ –sometimes all in the same sentence.

It’s all a bit Wacky Races. And it’s a world of blokes; if he’s a mix of Prof Pat Pending and Dick Dastardly, then Wing Commander Andy Green must be Peter Perfect, but there’s no sniff of a Penelope Pitstop. There’s one unintentionally comic moment when he hosts a flying day for the supporters’ club during his Farnborough Aircraft air-taxi scheme, and he notices that a young woman seems to have a gift for flying. ‘I wrote to her parents explaining that their daughter had an incredible talent and co-ordination that made her a very rare natural, and encouraged them to give her every support. Sadly I never got a reply, so I had to assume my letter was unwelcome.’ Mmm, can’t think why.

Take Risk! by Richard Noble is published by Evro

By Colin Overland

CAR's managing editor: wordsmith, critic, purveyor of fine captions