LOS ANGELES -- Gary Gabelich, who traveled a record-setting 622.407 mph in a rocket car, has died of injuries suffered Thursday when his motorcycle slammed into a truck, police said. He was 43.
Gabelich, who became the fastest man on earth when he smashed the world land speed record, suffered massive injuries when his motorcycle hit a truck in the harbor area, Officer Jack Drey said. Gabelich died at 4:22 p.m. PST, nearly three hours after the accident.
Drey said Gabelich was travelling at a high rate of speed when he hit the truck, driven by Ricky Snell, 23, of Long Beach. The truck was in the process of making a left turn.
In 1970, Gabelich reached 622.407 mph when he fired his missile-shaped rocket car across the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. He also clocked 630.388 mph through the flying kilometer, a speed 30 mph faster than the record established in 1965 by Craig Breedlove.
Richard Noble of England eclipsed Gabelich's record last year in a jet car, going 633.468 mph at a Gerlach, Nev., dry lakebed.
'He's been sort of marking time until he could get sponsors together for both land speed and water records,' said Deke Holgate, a friend.
Gabelich, a carpenter of Yugoslavian-Mexican descent, was driving hot rods and racing professionally before graduating from high school in 1959. He worked for North American Rockwell for 9 years in various positions from mailboy to part-time test subject for the Apollo program.
It took Gabelich years of patience to challenge Breedlove's record.
'We're not going to make any kamikaze runs,' he said during his bid. 'I want to take the record, but I want to be around to enjoy it.'
The Los Angeles native made his triumphant ride in a rocket car called 'The Blue Flame.' Gabelich revealed that the 6,500-pound car had actually coasted to the record.
'We only had enough fuel to get us about halfway through the run, so we had to coast,' he said.
The world land speed record is determined from the average of two runs through the mile course.
Asked three years later, Gabelich said: 'Racing is really boss, man. If you like to go fast, that's all there is.'
Holgate said Gabelich had barely survived two smashups -- one in a drag racing boat and another in an auto dragster -- that nearly killed him.
Gabelich is survived by a wife, Rae, and 18-month-old son, Guy.