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.”