ZARATHUSTRA POSTSCRIPT

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”… supposedly when I lifted off the throttle, that was one fuel shut off device and when I popped the chute it was supposedly another one. Well, none of the fuel shut off devices worked so both chutes pulled off the car because it wasn’t very firmly anchored to the chassis and off I went, till I ran out of fuel. When I got down to the end, there were two guys waiting to pick up the chute and help me get off of the track. Well, here they start walking out in my lane, I‘m in the left lane, I mean, I knew I was in trouble, but they didn‘t realize that the chutes came off and then I steered the car — not knowing the chutes came off — I pulled over to the right and that aimed me, fortunately down a dirt road, when I went through a 14 foot cattle gate and missed a chain link fence. Otherwise I would have impaled myself right through the fence… I went up a hill and I don‘t remember anything else, I remember seeing blue, then that‘s the last thing I remember…“ — Paula Murphy, on her crash in the ”Miss STP“ rocket dragster when she set both a local speed and an altitude record in a race car.

Chuck Suba’s 5.41 second run remained drag racing’s all-time Low E.T. until November 11, 1971 when Vic Wilson clocked a 5.10 pass at 311 mph in the second hydrogen peroxide rocket dragster, Bill Fredrick’s Courage of Australia. This transpired during private testing at Orange County International Raceway in Southern California.

Despite the reluctance (actually, refusal) of the NHRA to sanction the rockets as a real class (the NHRA remains the de facto arbiters of all things drag racing and they refused to acknowledge or publish any jet car “records” as the cars were relegated to the “exhibition class” status (or “exploding clowns” as the dragster crowd sniffed)), the rocket car scene flourished like a comet. Its luminescence was just as brief. The triumphs, mishaps and tragedy left in its wake were legion and belie the brevity of the rocket car’s moment in the sun. To wit:

1972: Craig Breedlove crashed his English Leather Spl. (nee Screaming Yellow Zonkers) while testing an experimental aero package (sans wheel fairings); in her first (and only) pass in a rocket car, Paula “Miss STP” Murphy breaks her neck while setting both velocity and altitude records in Sonoma, California when the parachutes are ripped from the car’s chassis, and the car subsequently launches up and over the rolling hills of Wine Country…

1973: John Paxson tests a new motor in the Courage of Australia, and after a parachute failure, drives through the sand traps, pole vaults and lands upside down on the vehicle’s vertical stabilizer. Paxson was uninjured…

1974: Dave Anderson crashes in the Pollution Packer in Charlotte, North Carolina… Anderson’s chute doesn’t deploy and the dragster first slides into a parked race car at the end of the course — killing two crewmen — then impacts a retaining wall and nearly bends in half, killing Anderson…

1975: Upon impact, Russel Mendez frees his spirit and is beheaded by an aluminum guardrail in Gainesville, Florida as his body ejects from the Free Spirit

1976: “Fearless Fred” Goeske wrecks his Chicago Patrol rocket at a speed of 275 mph and merely bruises his collar bones from the shoulder harness…

1977: Stunt woman Kitty O’Neil rips a 3.72 at a crushing 412 mph in Bill Fredrick’s Rocket Kat dragster… Jerry Hehn is killed in his American Dream while doing thrust tests in a gravel pit; Hehn is strapped in with the vehicle anchored down, when the car breaks loose of its restraints and impales the side of a hill…

1981: Among the most bizarre of all rocket cars is the Vulcan Shuttle, a Volkswagen Bug dissected with a solid fuel rocket stuffed through the middle of the passenger compartment, which, unfortunately for driver Raul Cabrera is not throttleable. His destiny was the same as that of Mendez: Garish, ghastly and gruesome. The demise of both car and driver transpired while testing at an airport…

1994: The last hurrah for the rocket went down on an abandoned Royal Air Force air base in England. “Slammin’ Sammy” Miller stopped the clocks at mind-warping 3.58 seconds at 386 mph in the Vanishing Point rocket funny car. Miller, who had his crotch burned off in a nitro funny car fire in the early 70s, routinely kept his foot in the throttle until he would pass out (!) from the excessive g-forces, which was usually 660 feet into the run. According to crewmembers, Miller routinely got his thrills from waking up in the car after the car stopped accelerating, coasting through the speed clocks at nearly 400 mph.

(As an addendum, “Slammin’ Sammy” Miller possesses the only 1 second ET on a time slip; circa 1980, at an 1/8th mile drag strip in Holland, he actually tripped the clocks 1.60 at 307 mph. He was relegated to Europe after an NHRA blacklisting… )

Brent Fanning explained Miller’s method cum madness thusly: “He had the brake handle rigged with a brass knuckles-type grip (a push brake) so his hand would stay on the brake should he black out when the car ran out of fuel, which it had been calculated to do, at just past the 1/8th mile. Then the deceleration would move his arm and brake handle forward applying the brakes and also releasing the chutes which were attached to the brake handle in some manner. Thus slowing the car until he regained consciousness.”

Military grade hydrogen peroxide is getting used up. As with hydrazine, because of environmental concerns, no more will be doled out to those rocket car renegades. Even if the private sector could summon any more of it, the drag racing authorities and their insurers had no interest in sanctioning what they considered to be hyper-speed death traps.

But even Fanning alluded to a problem with the rockets; an actual lack of sturm und drang. Not enough noise, not enough walla-walla… “We always felt the fans wasn’t gettin’ their money’s worth, so we rigged up a little act to go along with the rocket car,” Fanning smirks through a cigar chewed to cud. “We’d tell the ambulance drivers to be ready because we had something special to race against the rocket car. We’d put my brother in the other lane with a firesuit on, strap a fire extinguisher on his back like he was Roger Ramjet — it wasn’t nuthin’ but baking soda packed into the extinguisher, y’ know, and we’d line him up against the rocket. The light would go green and the rocket would take off and my brother would pull the lever on the fire extinguisher and all that pressurized powder would begin spraying all over and my brother would begin runnin’ around in circles; he’d spin around like he was out of control, then bang into the guardrail, and flip over it. The ambulance would come down from the finish line with the bubblegum machines on and the siren blaring. That was nuttier than the rocket.”

1995: the Vanishing Point car is seen by the author parked at an auto repair shop in a bad neighborhood in Los Angeles (on Fairfax, two blocks south of Washington). Its tires are flat.

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2 Responses to “ZARATHUSTRA POSTSCRIPT”

  1. John Paxson Says:

    Enjoyed reading about all the rockets and there problems and about gary gabelich,and thats how i came to drive the courage of Australia which gary was to drive when it came back to the USA after vic drove it in Australia. Gary had that terable accedent at orange county. Gary told me to go see Bill Fredrick and the reast is history. The Armor All car was the most sucsesfull car for me. (while doing ALL the testing of the final sponsor Budwiser LSR vehicle of Bill Fredrick)
    Now engoying Bonneville allthough no at rocket speeds,Have been driving fore Bill Ward. And now a @ Club member.

    John Paxson

    P.S. The Armor All rocket is restored to how it was and is in the Wally Parks museum.

  2. Walter rodriguez Says:

    Roul Cabrera didn’t die in the vulcan shuttle the original one his friend died but the 2nd one worked. He Roul died in 2014 of a heart attack. Please fix this

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