GERLACH, NEV.---There's not much to do in Gerlach. There's no store, no church, and the nearest movie theater is 105 miles south, in Reno. Yet lately, the action has been right here. For the past six weeks, American and British racing drivers have thundered across this desert plain, attempting to prove that humans can break the sound barrier on land (760 mph) without lifting off the ground or being blown apart by the shock waves. British Royal Air Force pilot Andy Green came within seconds of it last Tuesday, crossing the 13-mile course at 750 miles an hour-an unofficial record-in a car powered by twin Rolls-Royce jet engines. American driver Craig Breedlove, whose car runs on a Phantom jet engine, has yet to top 531 mph this year. The world's fastest drivers have come to this sleepy town because it is located near an ancient lake bed that (in the dry months of September and October) is perhaps Earth's smoothest, flattest surface-a natural speed course.
Something else about Gerlach drew Bruno Selmi, who arrived 51 years ago from Lucca, Italy. "Here you can be your own boss," says Selmi, who now owns the busiest of Gerlach's five bars, the only gas station, the only motel, and a restaurant. "Nobody bothers you out here." Nobody, that was, until Gerlach became a magnet for speed fanatics and for thousands of New Agers, who have gathered here every Labor Day since 1990 for the Burning Man Festival.
The influx brings Selmi plenty of business. His 40-room motel has been booked for weeks, and the restaurant's 60 seats are rarely empty at breakfast, where the wait staff make no land-speed-record attempts of their own. But elsewhere in Gerlach (population 350), the latest visitors-perhaps a hundred fans and reporters-are getting on people's nerves. "Everyone wants them to leave already," says Deputy Sheriff Milt Perry. "We live here because it's quiet."
Not these days. Outside town, on a bluff overlooking the playa, about 50 racing devotees from as far away as England have perched for six weeks with their binoculars, waiting for action. Every few days, a roar sounds across the hills, and a car rockets across the vista. For Ron Bloomquist, who drove nine hours from Elk, Calif., in his cow-patterned Volkswagen van, a high point has been volunteering to collect debris from the British team's course. "It's a chance to witness history," he says.
But history might have to wait. Desert winds have already thwarted the drivers. And a cold front approaching last week signaled the start of the two-month rainy season. Although Green has set a new official land-speed record of 714.144 mph, drivers are likely to return home by November with the sound barrier intact. Still, both teams say they're already plotting next year's return and are trying to lure sponsors (Breedlove's team alone is spending about $5 million this year) with visions of supersonic land travel. Back at Bruno's, Selmi has plans, too. "It's time to expand the motel," he says. "I got the land, and it looks like we need more rooms."-Vivienne Walt