FAUSTIAN BARGAINS IN THE ROCKET AGE: SUMMONING PAN AS A MEANS TO TEUTONIC ENDS AND JET ASSISTED TAKE OFF (1939-1965)

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“I figured that if the car went half as fast as his mouth, I was in trouble.” — Craig Breedlove, in reference to Bobby Tatroe and the Wingfoot Express II rocket car.

Neptune was actually the second rocket car built by Walt Arfons. The first was the Wingfoot Express II, a moniker originally hung on completely different set of hardware, a J46 powered jet car that set a LSR of 413 mph in 1964, (numbers surpassing Breedlove’s mark of 407 mph). The second Wingfoot Express was the first land speed car to use rockets and the only car to ever use JATO (jet assisted take off) bottles. Each ‘bottle’ was actually a solid fuel rocket and could only be used once at a cost of $1,000 each. Arfons started out with 15 mounted in the back, but that wasn’t enough thrust and Arfons installed an additional ten bottles. Officially, the car reached a speed of 476.6 mph one way in October of 1965.

The car was built sturdy enough to break the sound barrier — its ultimate goal — but the weight penalty of the structural reinforcement necessary to withstand supersonic pressure waves became its Achilles’ heel, as it tipped the scales at 6,500 lbs. On the run of 476 mph, driver Bobby Tatroe reported seeing 605 mph on the speedometer once, but this was in the middle of the run and by the time the Wingfoot Express entered the measured mile its rocket fuel was spent and it coasted impotently through the timing traps.

Fascinating was the taxonomy of the solid fuel rocket bottles themselves. These devices were originally the property of Aerojet-General Corp and were developed in the 40s by the notorious ‘Suicide Squad’ of Pasadena, a motley quartet of rocket scientists, whose members were linked to Guggenheim and Cal Tech. The chief engineer and designer of the solid fuel JATO system was the man who was the most infamous of the group, Jack (nee John) Parsons, a disciple of black magick, pagan practices and deviant sexuality, all of which were used as devices wired into his summoning of ‘Universal Knowledge.’ This supernatural wisdom was then harnessed and focused into test sessions at the The Devil’s Gate, a small rustic canyon adjacent to what is now the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

In its original application, the JATO system was instrumental in generating enough lift to propel Allied bombers and hefty cargo planes into hostile skies, and was in fact crucial in hoisting the Army Air Corp — and by extension, the Allied Forces — to triumph in both the European and Pacific Theaters.

On the Salt Flats of Bonneville, Walt Arfons had no such luck with the Aerojet devices, however, and was never able to generate enough thrust to overcome the heft of his endeavors; he failed to claim the LSR with the JATO system; conversely, in an ironic twist of fate after his exile from the rocket science community, Parson was blown to molecular molasses in his home when he dropped a vial of hypergolic chemicals in 1952.

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