Posts Tagged ‘Courage of Australia’


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.


November 2, 2008


Pick Your Part

Pick Your Part


November 2, 2008


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?

LEAH: (laughs)

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.