PART THREE: PUSHING THE ENVELOPE
PART THREE: PUSHING THE ENVELOPE
“For most of its runs, the SMI Motivator/Budweiser Rocket car ran on a hydrogen peroxide monopropellant motor developing 5,000 to 6,000 pounds thrust. At Edwards, this motor was replaced with a peroxide/polybutydiene (synthetic rubber) hybrid motor developing roughly 9,000 pounds of thrust (maybe at the most 11,000 pounds). The best electric eye clock speed run using only the hybrid motor was 677 mph. When the hybrid motor proved insufficient, it was supplemented with a sparrow air-to-air solid fuel missile motor developing an average thrust of about 5,000 pounds for 5 seconds. The best electric eye clock speed ran using the hybrid motor/sparrow combination was 692 mph.” – Franklin Ratliff, previously unpublished.
The most abject comment and manipulation on the American Dream of going Mach 1 comes not from the military-industrial complex, but from Hollywood… One of Tinseltown’s movers and shakers, Hal Needham, a stuntman-cum-producer/director (and whose greatest claim to fame was gracing the world with Burt Reynold’s cornpone movies), purchases the SMI Motivator rocket dragster, retrofits ‘er with a hybrid liquid/solid-fuel rocket engine, hires Courage of Australia mastermind Bill Fredrick to turn the wrenches, re-badges the machine Speed of Sound (nee Budweiser Rocket) and hauls the operation out to Edwards AFB…
“The thing about the car you have to realize is that it did not have enough fuel on board to make a full land speed record run,” Breedlove states. “They applied to have the rules changed so they could make one run (timed) over 1/100th of mile – instead of a mile.” With clocks installed by a drag racing organization over a timing trap of 52 feet – instead of the traditional measured mile – Needham points driver (and fellow stuntman) Stan Barrett at the timing cones and lights the fuse.
Needham proffers as evidence of a Mach 1 clocking the data from a handheld radar gun. Why radar instead of the drag strip clocks? The rocket car ran out of fuel before it reached the timing traps!
The whole misadventure is documented by CBS Sports Spectacular and is passed off as authentic, with additional corroboration by Chuck Yeager who writes in a letter that, “Having been involved in supersonic research since the days of the XS -1 rocket plane, which I flew on the first supersonic flight on October 14, 1947, there is no doubt in my mind that the rocket car exceeded the speed of sound on its run on December 17, 1979.”
The jet set sees this as poppycock – Chuck Yeager or no Chuck Yeager. “It degraded the whole Land Speed Record business. It took a wrong turn,” says Richard Noble. “The most outrageous thing about that whole project was that they wasted the time giving Chuck Yeager a ride in it the next day when they could have done it again (properly).”
Breedlove debunks the Needham claim this way: “There was a water truck that was driving in the background,” he said in reference to the corruption in the radar gun’s data. “On this specific run, when the operator was hand-tracking the car, the range finder targeted the water truck because it was a bigger target. They had no actual third data point,” Breedlove postulates in reference to co-ordinates of speed, range and angle needed to gather data via radar. “The following day, they had the car drive down the course and then took the data from the range of the other vehicle and substituted that into the calculations and then extrapolated data in that manner. It is just so unbelievably flawed; the manufacturer of the radar says it’s not even calibrated to do that. You’ve got an uncalibrated radar – hand operated – with the third leg of the data being substituted. Can you imagine a guy trying to claim a drag racing record that way?”
Indeed, this, umm, whole stunt attempt is fraught with arrogance, ambiguity and unresolved issues. Hooray for Hollywood.
But conversely somebody did run a solid fuel engine and that was Needham?
CRAIG BREEDLOVE: No, that was a peroxide car. The thing about that car that you have to understand is it did not have enough fuel on board to make a full Land Speed Run. They applied to have the rules changed with FIA and FIM – it was a three-wheeled vehicle – to make a one-way run over 1/100th of a mile and that was denied by FIM.
It made a run at Edwards and was clocked at 666 mph on Earl Flanders clocks – a 52 foot trap.
I spoke with Earl in 1983 and I asked him what was the circumstance around the supersonic claim that was made by the Budweiser effort. And he said, “All I can tell you is that the car went 666.” And I said, “You mean you clocked the car on the run,” and he said, “Yes I did.” He said he was under strict contract to Hal Needham and the Speed of Sound group not to divulge anything. I said what was the deal with this 739 and he just rolled his eyes and said, “It didn’t happen.”
Subsequently, I looked for years to get a clocked speed of the car and finally somebody sent me a paper that was delivered to the AIAA convention (aerospace engineers) and on that paper it states very clearly that the electronic time of the Budweiser car was 666.234 mph. The claim that it had gone supersonic was made because of a radar tracking of the car when it was approaching. Now, typically you accelerate all the way to the traps. This is odd that the car would be going 740 and then go through the traps at 660. Then on further investigation, Dick Keller (of Blue Flame fame) contacted the radar company and the radar is not activated by the car. It is activated by an operator who tracks the car by hand. So the speed produced is not by the car, but by the operator. The operator then tracks the car on a television screen with crosshairs by swinging a tripod antenna or transmitter to track the car. Then when you look at the data, they simply average the three highest peaks in the data. Then they claimed that the Air Force sanctioned that. Dick Keller furnished me with a letter from the head of the Air Force stating they disavow any sanction whatsoever and they simply provided Speed of Sound with raw data and any interpretation of that data was purely Speed of Sound’s interpretation and not that of the Air Force. The Air Force disavows any sanctioning or underwriting or statement as to how fast the car went. There were two guys there – Pete Knight – who said he felt the Speed of Sound had reached their objective and General Yeager who said that in his opinion the car reached their objective. But if you look at the data, it doesn’t bear itself out. It is totally uncalibrated.
I’m told that the contract was written in such a way that they were to receive a million dollars upon a successful achievement of setting a new Land Speed Record and breaking the sound barrier. First of all, they could not qualify for the Land Speed Record because of the measured distance and the one-way run thing.
I understand that the (use of the) letters from Yeager and Pete Knight were trying to enhance the possibilities of getting the payment. I don’t know if the payments were made or not. I was told that it was, but I don’t have any way of knowing.
So, simply there are photographs of the car in the lights with the engine still on and the rear wheels off the ground. My question is if, in fact, the car is running out of fuel before it gets to lights, why don’t you go out the next day and move it a little closer to the lights? And get your supersonic time through the lights? They said they couldn’t afford to do it, yet they could afford to fuel the car up and have Chuck Yeager take a joy ride.
The point is the car has not set a World Land Speed Record. The car had no sanction and the Air Force has disavowed any underwriting or support of that data. In my judgment, a claim has been made, but no documentation has been furnished that makes me believe it went that fast. I have stated this before and every time I do Hal Needham threatens to sue me.
PICKING YOUR BRAINS
What’s your take on what Bill Fredrick did with the Courage of Australia and the Budweiser Rocket?
PETE FARNSWORTH: After we built the X-1 and I saw what the potential for the quarter mile rocket car was, I didn’t want anything more to do with it (rockets on the drag strip). I figured it was just a matter of you know, how big the guy’s balls were as to how fast you were gonna go and how quick you gonna go. I didn’t want anything more to do with it. I could just see the next step was going lighter and lighter and more power and there was no limit to it really.
But when Fredrick and those guys did their deal at Edwards, did that torque you a little bit?
PETE: More than a little. I admire the idea of them wanting to go fast. I had no problem with that. It’s just the fact that the car was never built for a Land Speed Record, that all it was was a publicity stunt uh, to try and break the speed of sound. They had no idea of turning it around within one hour; it was never designed to do that. It wasn’t an automobile in the first place, according to the records, it was a three wheeler and it was more the size of the vehicle that we had designed originally, but uh…
… but really, the fact that it wasn’t a measured mile, it was like 52 feet that they finally shrunk it down to…
PETE: Yeah, motorcycle trap or whatever it was I mean we, we’d have gone 660 if we’d done it that way.
Well, also it was hand tracked radar, um, the radar run with some guy holding it in his hand…
LEAH: The Blue Flame could have set a record the first week if all we had to do is just put together.
PETE: We worked up in speed. We worked up in 50 mile an hour increments.
LEAH: But we had to do a whole mile and turn it around.
PETE: Ours was never, it wasn’t a publicity stunt. It was designed to set the world’s speed record.
Even though the fuel didn’t allow the car to ever go through a whole mile, I give Barrett a heck of a lot of credit for the courage to ride that thing.