Posts Tagged ‘Brent Fanning’


November 3, 2008

You got Gabelich hired as a driver and I assume…

PETE: He was hired by the gas industry, we didn’t hire him. He had his own deal with the gas industry which was fine with us because we didn’t have anymore in our account.

When you say “the gas industry” you mean… ?

PETE: The Institute of Gas Technology, which was the research and development arm of the American Gas Association at that time, was overseeing the project for the American Gas Association. It was a promotion of the safety and usefulness of liquefied natural gas. They were trying to promote it as a hypersonic fuel for aircraft and, of course, I think they probably succeeded in that now, but you know in certain areas, they were pushing at it.

LEAH: And the gas industry as a whole was trying to push natural gas as a modern fuel, and they were looking for something that would spark an interest in the younger people in gas.

How did you incorporate LNG with the hydrogen peroxide?

PETE: It was the fuel. Hydrogen peroxide created the oxygen. We added the liquefied natural gas to the engine as a fuel to burn and then we ignited it.

So the hydrogen peroxide was the oxidizer and LNG was the fuel, but with the X-1 car, what was…?

PETE: There was no fuel, it was just peroxide, forced through a catalyst pack at a 600 to 1 liquid to gas ratio and creating about a 1300 degree temperatured mixture of oxygen and water vapor.


PETE: Um hmm.

The catalyst pack was?

PETE: Silver. Silver screen, chemically treated and it had nickel for port screens.

So as you guys got to Bonneville, it’s like 1970 I think, and…

PETE: Dick went out there in 1969 when Mickey Thompson was running the Autolite Streamliner. He hired a survey crew out there and we did a full length survey of the course: how flat it really was, you know, how much of a dip and what sort of undulation the surface had, (there is) so much suspension travel we had to figure on at speed. So he was out there when Mickey was running and got the survey confirmation which we then sent to the engineers at the Illinois Institute of Technology; they were nine graduate engineers working on masters degrees for theses on various aspects of the design of the Blue Flame: structures, dynamics, aerodynamics, wheel design, all sorts of things.

I was the liaison between our company and my title was Manager of Vehicle Engineering, that’s what it was.

So this was not a couple of hot rodders building something in their backyard.

LEAH: The X-1 was. We built the X-1 during the week in our family garage – we parked it on the street. (!)

So anyway, you’re acting as a liaison between Reaction Dynamics and the Illinois Institute of Technology and so you got a bunch of…

PETE: Our company presented the basic layout of what we wanted to do and then they would work on refining those ideas: location of center of gravity and how it worked with the aerodynamics. We worked back and forth between the engineering students and the engineering staff at IIT…

(stop tape)

… I’m not sure I got this on tape, I want to be sure I’m hearing this, you said there was some scale wind tunnel testing, subsonic wind tunnel testing…

PETE: Supersonic.

And which wind tunnel was this?

PETE: It was Ohio State University. We paid them to build the wind tunnel model to the aerodynamic specs and wind tunnel tested up to Mach 1.120. 1.15 I believe. It was around 850 miles an hour that they wind tunnel tested it to and structurally it was built to hit a half-inch steep bump at 1000 miles an hour. There was nothing out on the Salt Flats that high, although there were deviations and dips which we thought maybe would be a problem, but as it turned out the 350 pounds of nitrogen pressure in the tires, the tire moved itself out of the way, it just made ruts.

So the tires were 350 pounds per square inch and they were filled with nitrogen?

PETE: Yeah, they were built by Goodyear, designed by Mike Hopkins.

Now I got the impression that at some point Firestone originally was interested in this car, and uh, they were never in the loop with this?

PETE: They were interested in our 1/4 mile car, the X-1.

Right, but then they pulled out.

PETE: Humpy Wheeler, who is a big deal in stock car racing now with tracks, worked for Firestone at that time and we had contacted them. They provided tires for the X-1 to start with, then later on when we became associated with Goodyear. Goodyear gave us tires for the car, the X-1.

Okay, so basically, as I understood it, Firestone pulled out of the “tire wars” altogether and nobody saw it coming.

PETE: So we went to Goodyear and Goodyear supplied us with tires. And with that, we got the letter of intent that Goodyear would be making us these tires and went to the Gas Industry and they then signed the contract to let us build the car, once they were assured that we could get tires. It wasn’t until afterwards that we found out it would be three years before we would get the tires.


PETE: We already signed all the contracts and everything and we were too much of novices to nail down all the specifics in the contract, we were just young people at the time and didn’t have any business experience as far as contracts. So we learned.

Do you think that partially because Firestone pulled out and so Goodyear has no real incentive?

PETE: They already have the record.

(With) Breedlove’s Sonic 1 car.

PETE: But, uh, they were not interested in having their record broken by someone else so they decided – they didn’t help us financially at all. They built the tires and provided us twelve tires tested and did the balancing on them and Cragar Industries built the wheels. Did just a beautiful design, we designed the wheel, they manufactured them and just did a super job on them, they made 12 wheels and Goodyear mounted them, spun test them on Walt Arfons’ spin testing machine and while they were spin testing it, they had the machine break while it was going 850 miles an hour with a tire up there.

So the tire took it, but the machine didn’t ?!

PETE: I think there was a four-inch shaft driving that thing and the shaft snapped. They said there will be tire marks in that test cell that will be there forever.

Okay and just to wrap this part of it up – Goodyear developed tires, specifically for this project…

PETE: They were going to and when they couldn’t deliver them soon enough we ended up using the front tires off Breedlove’s Sonic 1 car, only they were re-engineered for our car – same molds, but the insides were quite different and they’d come up with new fibers and double the bead wire and had changed the internal construction using the same molds as the front tires on the Sonic 1. Those were 35 inch diameter and because of it the car grew a third in size and tripled and cost and we lost the vehicle to the Gas Industry because we immediately overspent.


LEAH: Also our original contract with the Gas Industry called for them making payments here, here, here, and here. Those payments were contingent on the fact that we had this much work done before each payment by a date and we had to prove we could do it – well we were doing fine until there was a national steel strike, you cannot build if you don’t have steel. Finally they settled, and it was just going to be touch and go for us to possibly make the next point and the truckers were waiting for the steel strike to get over. When the steel strike was over, the truckers shut down and said, “now it’s our turn” and we had no steel, and we couldn’t build, the fellas went back looking for other part time work, no paychecks, there was nothing.

PETE: Six months nothing happened on the car.

LEAH: The Gas Industry said we’re taking our car, they took the car and they left and we were sitting there devastated. No work…

PETE: The car went to Chicago, got put in a shed and it was on the wheels by that time, but the propulsion system wasn’t finished, it hadn’t been tested.

LEAH: It was no longer our car, according to the contract we didn’t own it.

PETE: We lost the ownership of the car, because initially it was going to be our car.

LEAH: It was a very hard time, that was during the time when Ray Dausman said his part of the work was done. He had developed this propulsion system, he had seen it through, he didn’t walk out on the company, he saw through everything that was his part, but he couldn’t deal with this devastating loss and saw no need for his talents to stay there. So he sold his share of the company and got on with his life basically and the rest of us twirled until we could re-negotiate.

That’s brutal.

LEAH: It was brutal, you know we think of it very sadly. It was out of our hands, the Gas Industry knew that we weren’t just scuffing around with the thing. “Well, send us more money, we’ll build it,” you know, they were aware of the steel strike and the trucker’s strike, but there was nothing we could do, so then we re-negotiated and…

PETE: They ended up owning the car and they agreed to pay us to finish the car, and because they had twice the money, more than twice the money of the original contract and just to finish it, get it to the testing point, and of course it cost a lot more to run it.

So the last part of the car as far as buttoning it up finally was you guys were kind of out of the loop at that point or you were just hired employees?

PETE: We were basically hired employees.

So Reaction Dynamics was still involved with the car?

PETE: Oh yeah, we were doing all the work, but we were doing it for the Gas Industry.

Was there a positive out of that, were you like, getting a paycheck at least?

PETE: Once we started working on it again, then everybody went back to collecting paychecks and you know everything was basically the same except that we didn’t get the car.

LEAH: It wouldn’t be our car and we spent about a week as a family agonizing over what this was going to mean, but you don’t meet too many people with the determination of Pete and he was going to have that car finished. If we didn’t have it, we didn’t have it, but he had said it would be done, he’d given his word, he signed the papers and…

PETE: We decided that it still needed to be done, I mean it wasn’t for nothing that we did it. We wished we’d been able to go back.

(tape rolls out)

How much would you say was LNG and how much would you say was hydrogen peroxide? 50/50? 90/10?

PETE: I’d say when we finally ended up running it, well, we had, it jetted so that the flow 25% of what the full flow of the engine would be and we flowed in 25 % by volume of LNG, no wait a minute – yeah it was about 25%. 30 gallons of LNG and 160-something gallons of hydrogen peroxide.

What was remarkable about this car was that it was really the last hurrah for the rocket guys, I mean Bill Fredrick was trying something similar, but by that time it was so hard to get fuel in the US, hydrogen peroxide, you know?

PETE: I guess you can get it, but whether or not they would allow you to import that much into the country I don’t know.

Well, (drag racer) Brent Fanning was telling me that there was one manufacturer left in Europe that would manufacturer at a percentage that a decent rocket, which I think is above 85%.

PETE: Yeah, it will run about 70% but it’s very poorly, it runs poorly and very inefficiently, 90% and above is better, 98% is better yet.

Spoken like a true drag racer.

PETE: 98% is military. That’s torpedo fuel.


November 3, 2008
Bob's Pawn Shop (photo by Cole Coonce)

Bob's Pawn Shop (photo by Cole Coonce)


November 2, 2008

As a totem, or a weapon, or a propulsion system — whither from Biblical times through the days of Mongol Invasions, beyond the Dark Ages into the bomb factories of Germany, from the launch pads of NASA and finally touching down onto the drag strips of 1970s’ America — the bark of a rocket has always been as fierce as its bite. It is the stuff of the physiological. It is the stuff of Ernst Mach — sensory and tactile and now hard-wired into our metaphysical fabric. It is the stuff of visionaries, daredevils and crackpots. It is also the stuff of dairy farmers moonlighting as rocket scientists…

“You couldn’t see the person next to you,” says Brent Fanning, aka “the Mad! Rocket Scientist.” Fanning is reminiscing about when he and and his wife Vicky ran the Outer Limits rocket funny car at drag strips across America to supplement their incomes as dairy farmers.

Outer Limits was supposedly a Corvette with a rocket engine, but by the time the Fannings were done deconstructing and reconstructing the fiberglass body by installing a series of colored bulbs they had bought at the hardware store and then wired in a hokey chase circuit, it was basically unrecognizable as anything off of a Detroit assembly line, much less of anything on this planet. If the no-budget sci-fi film Plan 9 From Outer Space needed a car as a prop, this was their interstellar baby…

Yes, at a Texas dairy farm whose barn is transformed into a garage for a rocket, the hydrogen-peroxide powered monolith known as Outer Limits would dwell silently and become quite the conversation starter for an agrarian culture not exactly known for its verbosity. The Fanning’s neighbors, most of whom were also farmers, would gather around the monolith and kick the tires, like goats looking at a watch. Brent would tell them the principles of running the rocket car, which he had researched over at Texas A&M, using the university’s networked computers as a font of knowledge and rocket science. He told them how the NHRA muckety-mucks had reluctantly attended a test of the rocket car way out in California and the men in suits were less than enthusiastic about even watching it run, much less signing off on a license for somebody who calls himself the “Mad! Rocket Scientist” racing something called “the Outer Limits.” Fanning told his buddies how they even had flown in a bonafide NASA engineer to supervise the test, who was actually kind of baffled about how Brent has put this particular system together.

While discussing rockets over a couple of beers one night, I tell Fanning that Craig Breedlove once said to me, “Everybody knows that anything under 70 percent hydrogen peroxide makes for a nearly useless rocket fuel.” Fanning couldn’t disagree more about watered-down hydrogen peroxide as a monopropellant.

“We used to dilute it with water so we could make more steam. I’d put Vicky in the stands while we made a run. After the car run, if she said she couldn’t see the person next to her, we considered the run a success, regardless of the speed.”

The speed. In those days, the rockets were running so much faster than the Top Fuel dragsters, track operators would lie about the elapsed time and terminal speeds so as not to upset the National Hot Rod Association and its insurers. This was an ironic about-face to the rather common practice of hyping “popcorn” times over the public address system and in the trades as a way of generating more interest in a given race track and its events.

Indeed, the same muckety-mucks who reluctantly oversaw the Fanning’s rocket test out in California, sent out threatening letters about revoking the licenses of drivers who went too quick and too fast. Philosophically and intellectually, the rockets were beyond what the Druids could process.

Fanning’s Outer Limits was the last vestige of the rocket car subculture, a once-burgeoning scene whistling across the drag strips: the names of the cars underscored a weird synthesis of nationalism, post-psychedelic individualism and futurism: the X-1, Vanishing Point, Miss STP, Stratosfear, Moon Shot, Screaming Yellow Zonkers, the Free Spirit, Spirit Of 76, Age of Aquarius, Captain America, the Pollution Packer, the American Dream, USA-1, the Conklin Comet, Concept 1, the Courage of Australia, etc…

The future was now for hot rodders across America, including Brent Fanning, who, due to the screwy economics of Jimmy Carter America, couldn’t afford a nitro Funny Car but could afford a rocket (!).

“I got to see a rocket car run and got to studyin’ ‘em and stuff. I thought, ‘Them things can’t tear up hardly,’ y’know? ‘We got to make money somehow, enough money to get a nitro Funny Car’ — that’s what I always wanted. So we ran a lot of match races with that rocket car. The first year we ran the (hydrogen) peroxide car, it would cost me $250 a run for fuel. When we quit four years later, it would cost $1200 a run. The last year we ran, I bought more hydrogen peroxide from FMC (Food Machinery Corporation, the manufacturer and distributor) than the U.S. Government. They had doubled the price. Basically, that put us out of business. It was only good for a flower pot so I gave it away and took a tax write-off.”

One of the finishing strokes for Brent’s career as a Mad! Rocket Scientist was when the NHRA tech daddies vetoed some of Brent’s ideas for propulsion enhancement. “Since I had a really weak rocket,” he clarifies, “I was actually going to try to inject a little nitro in it to increase the specific impulse on it — NHRA wouldn’t let ya’. I can’t blame them; it would have made it a little more… unstable.”


November 2, 2008

”… 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.