Posts Tagged ‘Bonneville’

HESITATION KILLS (West Los Angeles, 1996)

November 3, 2008

“Hesitation kills,” Cuz’n Roy said, and laughed.

It’s a Friday afternoon in Los Angeles; we are weaving through stop-and-go traffic on the San Bernardino Freeway and at that moment I negotiate a ‘71 Grand Prix through carnage comprised of upscale Westsiders in Lexuses, various sport utility vehicles and mini-vans, all of which had been snagged in a collision with a freaked and crying gaggle of immigrants in a chipped, varicose blue 1982 Toyota Corolla.

I see the pileup continue to metastasize so I punch the throttle, aiming the massive 2-ton projectile of Detroit steel bang on into the center of the chaos, which now resembles the entrance to a dark star. The eyelids on all four barrels of the carburetor open like the mouth on a porn queen and begin guzzling gasoline faster than a desert dog. Sundry automobiles continue careening and fishtailing, orbiting away from the spinning Toyota and its initial point of commotion as if by centrifugal force, creating a hole the size of a small crater that is plenty big enough for us to pass through unscathed.

In our wake I see disturbed yuppies already on cell phones to their insurers, lawyers and Immigration, speed dialing before their vehicles had fully reached a dead stop. Airbags distend like bulbous pimples and car alarms cycle in a discordant and paranoid arpeggio. Stalled automobiles point in five directions, the petals of a broken flower. Pieces of steel, plastic and colored glass litter the interstate and I keep the hammer down, with twin puffs of burnt blackie carbon punctuating our exit from the scene of this massive pileup.

“Man, this is like a bad day at a stock car race. Shouldn’t we stop?” Cuz’n Roy half-chortles.

We both know the question is rhetorical. “What?” I reply. “And get caught up in that bureaucratic nightmare? Is that what Junior Johnson would’ve done at Daytona?”

We are en route to speed trials in the Black Rock desert, northeast of Reno. With that freakshow behind us, we can concentrate on the prodigious amount of ground we are to cover on this eve. Along the way, we will partially retrace the steps of one Craig Breedlove, a land speed racer who had built the first Spirit of America jet car in his dad’s backyard in Venice in 1961. In the 1960s, Breedlove became the first guy to officially go 400, then 500, and finally 600 mph. These speeds were verified by stiff suits from a French organization, whose job description is to sign off on such esoterica. Now Breedlove was out at Black Rock, trying to reclaim the Land Speed Record from some Brits, who had held the title for over a decade. It feels right and patriotic to travel the roads Craig had taken to Bonneville in 1963, when he first achieved international notoriety and fame, stunning the motorazzi and the world at large with the first official 400 mph clockings. His goal is now 700 mph and beyond, ultimately puncturing the sound barrier itself. Mach 1. The Speed of Sound. There is no time for dicking around with cops, lawyers and insurers.

“Punch through the turbulence,” Cuz’n Roy acknowledges. “It is the right course of action at the first sign of trouble. Otherwise you’ll spill your beer.”

Punching through the turbulence. It is a time honored approach to overcoming the pitch, roll and yaw of any journey with a potential for doom and immolation. Become at one with outrageous, incomprehensible velocity and use it as your guide. Once upon a time around 50 years ago, in pursuit of Mach 1, ace fighter pilot after ace fighter pilot lost control and stuffed sophisticated military airplanes into oblivion in the Mojave desert; conversely, Chuck Yeager commandeered a Bell X-1 rocket airplane and kicked in the joystick towards the first successful supersonic flight (which is to say, he lived) by this approach: when things get weird and jittery, yank on the go-faster for more thrust. Damn the demons of chaos and instability. If you don’t you are a footnote to history and mere allegory; if you do, you bask in glory…

“Hesitation kills,” I repeat to myself. In an age of the neurotic, the paranoid and the self-absorbed, now more than ever definitive action and decisiveness are the only methods towards glory. Cuz’n Roy and I are on our way to see a guy attempt to turn Mach 1. In a car.

THE ROAD TO BURNING MAN (Black Rock, 1996)

November 3, 2008

“For my next act, I will set myself a-fire,”Craig Breedlove, moments after nearly drowning in a brine pond in Bonneville while becoming the first man to travel 500 mph.

Picture this: a transmigration towards the center of being, the Pauite Spirit Land where, according to Injun’ tradition, white and red brothers had been separated at creation, Black Rock, Nevada.

Picture this: a Blind Hippie and three compatriots on the road to the Burning Man festival there, a sort of free-form techno-pagan celebration with colors and music and a giant, sky-scraping wooden effigy of a stick man set on fire as a sort of act of atonement for the sins of post-industrial America.

If the culture is to seek penance, the Black Rock desert is as good a place as any. Injun’ Conflict and conflagration, war games, amateur rocket launches and sundry manifestations of tweaked machismo have been perpetrated on this very chunk of longitude and latitude. Atonement is a nice gesture, but it’s really to ease the soul of those still breathing, as those who have vanished and vanquished have been incorporated into a landscape whose scale and magnitude renders such gestures superfluous and futile.

Still they come: in vans, cars and caravans.

Roving bands of naked percussionists – Marching Drug and Bong Corps, if you will – jammin’ on high and so blissfully oblivious to their own arrhythmia that it eventually becomes a rhythm, snake through various camps of pierced performance artists and tattooed torture artists, Fuller-ites with portable Geodesic domes (!), etc., etc.

The Burning Man. It resembles a star-shaped power line stand that supports the high tension lines cutting across the Mojave between LA and Vegas. The resurrection of a skeletal Trojan Human with nothing hidden, its structure as blank as the desert that houses it, its message empty excepting whatever meaning any one of the gatherers wants to foist upon it. And with that done, the whole thing will be set on fire, of course. These projections, like the edifice itself, which will be consumed by fire at the culmination of the festival. Woodstock meets the World’s Fair, whose finale is Jimi Hendrix electronically vomiting out the “Star Spangled Banner” while the Hindenburg immolates. Or something.

The festival is held on the Black Rock dry lake bed, a location with serious overtones of ancient civilizations of Pauite Indians and genocide, and WW II war games.

This dry lake bed is a flat ball of string with the triumphs and transgressions of Western Man and the Noble Savage he supplanted all intertwined. The spiritual, the cosmic and Western Man’s “fucked male energy” are all there… it is the only logical place to set the Man on fire and attempt to purge the sins of Modern Life and some how get right with nature.

Beyond its status as a pagan festival, Burning Man is a gesture. It is a metaphor. A reactionary statement about life at the ass end of the 20th century, whereupon technology has taken a strange turn.

The whole gag was form over function. A bio-mechanoidal convergence. The least functioning the sculpture the better. Technology is inextricably intertwined with our lives, nay, our very central nervous system(s). Thematically, Burning Man is a commentary on technology gone awry, a re-enactment of 2001, when the mainframe computer on the space station in 2001 went haywire and makes a cognitive decision to lock the pod bay doors in an attempt to deprive the astronauts of their oxygen. The astronauts were in a battle of wits with the computer and the computer was kickin’ some serious Homo Sapien ass. So anyway, Burning Man is/was a contrived attempt to dis-empower technology, to relegate it to its proper status as a tool and not the command center.

Technology is an extension of humanity, and takes the Venn Diagram one step further, it is an extension of nature. Burning Man was a contrived and somewhat precious attempt to detune technology to the basics: punch cards, strobe lights and pulse jet go-karts…

All of which is sheer spectacle and an exercise in entropy and pointlessness.

The festival ends with thousands of post-modern hippies, punk rockers and other bohemian-types wiped out on the dry lake bed. They were drugged out, drunked out, fucked out. The Man is cinders, caught in the ethereal, basso profundo winds that blow across a desert bed that one sci-fi writer referred to as “the afterlife.”

There was nothing left to burn.

The only thing left was to “pack it out.” Dutifully, the Blind Hippie begins to help clean up the trash. The next year he returns. And stays.

GAS AND DUST, THE DEVIL AND DARK MATTER (1887-1912)

November 3, 2008

“The inertia of any system is the result of the interaction of that system with the rest of the universe. In other words, every particle in the universe ultimately has an effect on every other particle.” – Ernst Mach, Mach’s Principle of Inertia (1893)

You are in either Bonneville, Black Rock, or perhaps Al Jafr. Pick one. While meditating on the desolation, you assume that space is merely emptiness. An absolute void. The desert merely nods in the affirmative.

Your inference is wrong. The desert lies. You are not the first to be hornswoggled by such supposedly empirical observation…

Ernst Mach – the man who uncovered the mystery of the speed of sound – was an empiricist and a logician. A logical positivist. He presupposed that space is merely emptiness. The Void. The Quantum Vacuum. He was wrong.

Space is loaded with stuff that won’t glow in the dark in any way that astronomers can spot.

This stuff is loaded with a so much mass that its gravitational field tugs and affects the velocity of everything else in the universe (including Land Speed racers).

Even though the mathematics of the day insisted upon the presence of a form of mass that instruments could not and (cannot) detect, Mach insisted that space was empty. If you couldn’t see the matter within the space, nothing was there. (He also insisted that the atom existed only as an abstraction, but that is another riff altogether and tangential to this one … )

Space has to have mass for inertia to tug on heavenly bodies. It takes the form of dark matter. The Mach Principle states that inertia depends on the reciprocal interaction of bodies, however distant; in other words, a body in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted upon by another force.

Dark matter is stuff the cosmologists of Mach’s day could not see; suffice it to say there is enough gas and dust that the vacuum as a condition of complete and absolute void does not exist.

Despite what the physics and the math of the day indicated had to be there, Ernst Mach made no never mind for the stuff in between the heavenly bodies – a pretty big snafu, cosmologically speaking.

Not even Einstein was able to suss out the Laws that truly guide (and guide us through) the Cosmos…

Dark matter: The entropy and chaos of the cosmos… Its presence was undetected, yet its gravitational pull tugs on all things. It is entropy that guides us, and it is entropy that acts as a force that slows us down… entropy equals inertia, and entropy is a force that acts counter to the infinite… and yields the finite…

The devil lurks in the entropy that tugs on our every thought and action like so much dark matter; he lurks in the banality that is Life on Planet Earth.

Yes, “every particle in the universe ultimately has an effect on every other particle.”

Specks of dust and pockets of gas gravitate towards a darkness so black we cannot see it and whose magnitude is so massive we cannot come to terms with how to measure it. The stuff we cannot see and don’t know how to measure made Einstein blink and made Ernst Mach draw a line in the sands of epistemology.

Ernst Mach is synonymous with “inertia.” But his own tug and resistance was not gravitational, it was intellectual.

The desert bleaches everything white as stone. It is a blank slate, according to a friend of mine who used to work in a junkyard. What the empiricists call “tabla rasa.” On a meta-level, perhaps my friend is right. The desert rarely puts up an argument. But it ain’t empty. And it puts up more resistance to human endeavor than the pull of a dark star on a cosmic body or spaceship set on warp speed.

By extension, a blank slate is perfect tableaux upon which one can foist his dreams. It is the perfect setting for the Land Speed Record. It is also the perfect setting for failure.

THE OTHER X-1

November 3, 2008

July 23, 1966, Union Grove, Wisconsin. On this day, an afternoon as hot and as sticky as taffy, the Space Age comes to the local drag strip in the guise of a revolutionary new dragster concept. After three years of testing and two years of construction, the X-1 rocket car, built under the aegis of the Reaction Dynamics Corporation (basically a three-way partnership between a couple of shade tree propulsion experts as well as an expert fabricator and welder, all working out of a garage in Milwaukee), finally makes it maiden voyage down the pavement…

The X-1’s rocket engine has no moving parts and burns 9.5 gallons of hydrogen peroxide. By design, it shoooshes down the 1/4 mile pavement like a shot, and runs out of fuel 1000 feet into the run. Even after coasting for the length of a football field before entering the timing lights, the X-1 is still the quickest and fastest machine on a drag strip, effortlessly eclipsing the speeds and elapsed times of the state of the art nitro-burning dragsters that roar through the speed traps in full song, week after week across America.

Reaction Dynamics’ goal is to design a supersonic vehicle with a target speed of 1000 mph. The first step is to use the drag strip as a means to shake down their ideas.

The throughline for this project goes back to Germany in the 20s. As a pup, Richard A. Keller (“Dick”) saw a photograph of Fritz von Opel’s rocket car, the black brautwurst-shaped roadster that exploded and killed Max Valier. Dick was smitten with the stark white lettering on the car, which spelled out “RAK,” short for “raketen” (Kraut fur “rocket”). It was an eponymous coincidence as RAK was young Keller’s initials also. Of such coinky-dinks, does the trajectory of history twist… Likewise, at a drag strip, the fortuitous meeting of Keller and Ray Dausman with Top Gas dragster racer Pete Farnsworth also tweaks the course of history.

August, 1967, U.S. 30 Drag Strip in Crown Point, Illinois. Chuck Suba, an All-American boy with a healthy sense of curiosity and a clean cut appearance not unlike that of Eisenhower’s favorite son, has been hired to pilot the X-1 rocket car.

This day is a day of destiny.

A gurgling sound bubbles out of the rocket’s decomposition chambers, like Frankenstein on day old pizza. DRAG RACING Magazine reports that Suba “holds the steering yoke vertically, 90 degrees off axis, and aims the front of the car between his third and fourth knuckle, like a sight on a revolver.

“The rocket engine’s exhaust is 4 times the speed of sound… a noise like an afterburner kicks in and suddenly he is off, riding on the head of a bullet.” The X-1 zips to a 5.41 second elapsed time – the quickest ever on a 1/4 mile drag strip. By a bunch.

Documentation of the X-1, and its follow-up, the Blue Flame (both being preeminent rocket cars in the history of maximum velocity) is rather sparse, as is accurate information about Reaction Dynamics, the small business that operated and designed these machines. I know they were based out of Milwaukee, but that is about all I know. So I fly out to Wisconsin on a whim. Once there, I cold call Reaction Dynamics co-founder Pete Farnsworth and arrange to meet him and his wife Leah for Chinese food.

It is thirty years after the Blue Flame set the Land Speed Record. Its driver, Gary Gabelich, might call this meeting of conversation and won ton ala Wisconsin “blenderized karma.” As the Farnsworths and I sit down in a restaurant whose decor can only be described as “cavalier and relaxed rusticana,” I take notice of Pete’s prosaic build and underspoken demeanor. There is absolutely nothing about this guy that says “I-was-part-of-the-intellect-behind-what-once-was-the-quickest-car-on-the-planet-and-I-still- have-a-rocket-dragster-in-my-barn-as-some-weird-totem-and-memento-to-the-days-when-I-set- the-world-on-fire.” Nothing. His accomplishments are absolutely hyper-intense, but the guy is more laid back than a back lot security guard. His wife Leah is small in stature, but there is nothing diminutive about her worldview and opinion. Both strike me as no nonsense. During the course of dinner I begin to understand something that I never knew: that holding the Land Speed Record could be as sweet and sour as any Chinese pork.

Between forkfuls as brackish as Bonneville, I masticate and ask Pete about his transition from Top Gas dragsters to the rockets:

But how did you go from reciprocating engine drag racing into the more, you know, thrust driven stuff?

PETE FARNSWORTH: It was a matter of necessity, really. I was working full time and racing full time and it just became a twenty four hour a day thing to try to maintain a fuel dragster and work 8 or 9 hour a day too, so I was looking for a way to build an exhibition car of some sort.

Um hmm, what, what year was this?

PETE: Probably about ‘63, ‘64, when the jet cars were just starting to tour the circuit. As I have mentioned, we know (amputee jet car driver) Doug Rose quite well and he was running for Walt Arfons at the time and broke away from Walt and started his own car, the Green Mamba (jet dragster) and uh, we figured “these guys have cars that will run all day long, they don’t have to do a massive amount of maintenance on them.” I thought the next step up from a jet car would be a rocket car – and I started looking around at propulsion systems that were available in the early 60s and there basically wasn’t any.

I was out at Oswego Dragway with a gas dragster and an acquaintance from out past in Chicago – we both grew up in Evanston (just north of Chicago) and Chuck Suba had run a shop there, building race cars and doing specialized tune ups and things like that, and he had one of his customers that, uh, I was an acquaintance with – his name was Dick Keller and um, Dick was out there and happened by our pit and recognized me, and we got to talking. He asked me what we were doing and I said, “You know, running a gas dragster now, but trying to put together a rocket car for exhibition.” He said, “Well, that’s funny, cause a friend of mine, Ray Dausman, and I had just finished building a twenty five pound thrust rocket engine.”

Um hmm.

LEAH: And they were both going to go to Chicago where, um…

PETE: … the Illinois Institute of Technology and uh, Dick worked part time as a research assistant into gas technology, which was the research arm of the American Gas Association. So that was our first tie-in with the gas association was the fact that Dick knew people in the industry.

So that connection was made even before you guys ran the X-1?

PETE: Yeah, he was working there at the time when we got together. We started out as DFK Enterprises, for Dausman, Farnsworth and Keller and um, I believe that was 1965. We formed that and this was after a discussion meeting about whether the 25 lb. thrust motor they had built was scalable for something usable for drag racing – and all indications it was so, I decided from what I had heard from all this that this was the way to go because it was throttle-able, it was a reasonably safe fuel to handle and uh, hydrogen peroxide didn’t have any possibilities of explosion, (it is) reusable safe to handle as long as you didn’t pour it into a pile of rags or something and it wasn’t going to spontaneously ignite…

Um hmm.

PETE: We were having truckers trying to drop off great big drums of nitromethane while – you were thinking about your kids taking a nap – that was what they did one day when I was at work and they came with a 55 gallon drum of 98 percent nitro next to benzol straight from California. The guy didn’t have a loading shoot, so we decided we were going to take the back off a semi trailer…

LEAH: Well, it was labeled as cleaning fluid…

PETE: Um hmm, “cleaning solvent.”

LEAH: Cleaning solvent, you know, “no problem, it’s just a solvent.”

PETE: Well, my wife panicked, went down to one of my garages and grabbed a bunch of old tires and they rolled in down and dropped it off onto the old tires. If it had gone off it would have leveled the neighborhood –

LEAH: See that’s why I’m so gray.
(laughter)

PETE: She’d had to cover for me a lot.

Was the design goal ultimately to go to Bonneville and take the LSR?

PETE: No no….

Exhibition money?

LEAH: Um hmm.

(discussion turns to Pete Farnsworth and Chuck Suba towing the X-1 to California in an effort to get the car approved by the National Hot Rod Association for exhibition runs at their tracks.)

PETE: My idea to start with was just to build and exhibition car and Dick and Ray had ideas of going to Bonneville for the Land Speed Record. They started to use it as a stepping stone and I wasn’t involved with the land speed record at all. At that time I had interest in it, but I was following it since I was a kid. You can’t help it if you’re in Hot Rodding to not read about Bonneville, but I had never been there.

HOT ROD did a nice article on it and then we went over to NHRA (in California) and uh, we had contacted them before that we were coming out, (because) we couldn’t even get anyone to come out into the parking lot and look at the car… Finally, I think it was Bernie Partridge came there and he took one look at it and he said, “No.” I explained the car to him, Chuck and I did, and he said well, “We’ll let you know.” So we went back in and in a while they came back out again, you know, didn’t invite us in at all.

(laughter)

PETE: In a while they came back out again and said, no we can’t do this – and explained that they were supported by the automotive industry and that the automotive industry would not want this sort of competition at the track, and from that standpoint I could see it, so they basically said, “No, we’re not going to let you run.”

And one thing was that they said that the car was so fast that it would have too much kinetic energy if it got into the crowd. Well the top fuelers were much heavier and they were going proportionally pretty fast, they had more kinetic energy than we did, but they flat refused to consider it.

LEAH: That was a real heavy disappointment to send the car all the way out there and…

Sure, and you had to know in hindsight that they had their mind made up even before they saw it… then again, you guys were so far ahead of the curve that, whether it was collusion with the automotive industry or not they just couldn’t deal with it.

PETE: I think they saw that after we ran the car and we were the first to go below 6 seconds – we clocked a 5.90 in Oklahoma City and, uh, Labor Day weekend of 1968 – that was the last time the car ran and we went 6.03 and 5.90. Nobody ever recognized it except the Guinness Book of Records, which did recognize it and so we were in there as world 1/4 mile elapsed time record holders. We were two miles an hour short of what Art Arfons did with his J79 Green Monster Car. He had gone 267 mph and we went 265 but we weren’t even running all the way through to 1/4 mile with it (because of) the fuel tank’s capacity. We never had enough fuel to go all the way through and considering we were coasting going through the trap and we were running 265. We probably figured the terminal speed was probably 280, 285 something like that when we shut off and coasted. But uh, that was basically the end of the X-1, we ran it down at the meet at Oklahoma City. We had already started on our promotion with the Gas Industry people and they were there observing what we were doing the day we set the world record (for the drag strip).

Within a month we had signed a letter of intent with them to build the Blue Flame.

1960

November 3, 2008

“I don’t believe in boundaries.” – Ken Norris, co-designer of Donald Campbell’s Bluebird CN7 car.

The Great Confrontation at Bonneville: Thompson is back with Challenger I. Malcolm’s kid, Donald Campbell, unveils his own Bluebird, a turbine-powered machine five years and many millions of quid in the making… Out of a chicken feed mill in Akron, Ohio, Art Arfons is on the scene with the Anteater, an aardvark-shaped car with an Allison engine… Nathan Ostich debuts his Flying Caduceus, a turbo-jet on wheels… after five weeks of record runs Thompson turns a one-way speed of 406 mph in 1960, but fails to back it up nor break Cobb’s record, succumbing to a blown engine on his return run… Arfons breaks and splits… Ostich crashes and lives… Donald Campbell crashes and lives… Graham crashes and dies…

“I felt I knew enough about driving at very high speeds to tell that Graham, driving his car through only two wheels, could not hope to deliver enough horsepower to the Salt to go more than 355 MPH… I got up at the crack of dawn on August 1 and went out to have a look at the course. I had a spooky feeling that morning, which I explained to myself on the grounds that Graham was driving awfully fast for a man who had only made a couple of runs on the Salt… I headed down to the north end, where Graham’s pit was located, found him and spoke with him for the first time. I offered him any and all the help I could give… But he looked at me as though from a remote distance and said, ‘Look. I’ve gone 344. I don’t have anything to learn below that speed.’

“I tried to point out that he had changed the car radically since that time and that the surface of the Salt changes almost from hour to hour. But his mind was completely preoccupied… It was at this point that a heavy premonition settled upon me. I gave up talking and drove to where I knew it would happen and set up my movie camera… Graham took off at 11:02 that morning and 47 seconds later he was doing well over 300 MPH when he got sideways in front of my station. The tail section peeled away from his car; the car leaped high into the air, crashed upside down and then bounced and slid for a good half mile.

“I was one of the first to the wreck, hoping to reach Graham in time to do him so good. But it was too late. His roll bar had withstood the impacts but the upper tip of the firewall which was between his back and the engine somehow bent forward and had chopped his spine just under his crash helmet. I walked back in his tire tracks for a mile, analyzing what had happened. It was crystal clear. He had been accelerating very hard and his car had begun to drift off the black line. If he lifted his foot at all, he didn’t lift it very much. The tire tracks showed he just got farther and farther off course until he got sufficiently sideways to trip over his own wall of air.” – Mickey Thompson, CHALLENGER.