Posts Tagged ‘Green Monster’

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.

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500 MPH (Bonneville, 1964)

November 3, 2008

In October of ’64, Walt Arfons makes his presence felt at the Salt Flats with his Wingfoot Express. With Tom Green pushing the pedals and pulling the parachutes, this bulbous, bulky flounder of a ‘liner reels off a new record of 413.2 mph at Bonneville… three days later Art Arfons and the Green Monster turns 434 mph … Breedlove clocks 468 … and so it goes, a month long game of ping pong with a target speed of 500 mph.

Walt Arfons makes the mod to his wienie roaster (now dubbed Wingfoot Express II), modifying the thrust from his jet engine with JATO (jet assisted takeoff) rockets. The car is now denied sanction by United States Auto Club timing, the American sub-contractor and corollary to the FIA, because of the alteration. Just as the jets had initially caught the powers that be off guard, so had the rockets. The technology was ahead of the intellectual capabilities of the sanctioning bodies…

On the 15th, Breedlove strikes paydirt – and a telephone pole. After bursting through the 500 mph barrier on the first lap, Craig turns his SOA around and is chewing up black line in supreme fashion, easily generating enough thrust to backup his provisional record run. Through the speed trap, however, chaos envelopes the vehicle: At 539 mph the parachutes shred like CIA phone records and, like a domino, Breedlove’s brakes melt into goo-goo muck. The barreling machine is vacuuming up salt like June Cleaver on benzedrine, and begins swerving off axis from the infinite black stripe burnt into the salt and continues barreling towards an imminent peril. After the rampaging bull of a streamliner snaps a telephone pole into kindling, it hits an embankment which launches the race car and dunks ‘er into a brackish brine canal. Breedlove swims to the surface and climbs onto the stabilizing fin at the stern of his streamliner, the only portion of the vehicle not completely submerged. “For my next act, I will set myself a-fire,” a wet but euphoric Breedlove tells stunned camera crews. His two-way average speed is 526.61 mph.

BAD FOR BUSINESS

November 3, 2008

”… the professional hot-rodders — such as the Petersen magazine syndicate (Hot Rod Magazine and many others) and the National Hot Rod Association — have gone to great lengths to obliterate the memory of the gamey hot-rod days, and they try to give everybody in the field transfusions of Halazone so that the public will look at hot-rodders as nice boys with short-sleeved sport shirts just back from the laundry and a chemistry set, such an interesting hobby…“ — Tom Wolfe, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, 1963.

“So tell me about this Infinity,” BZ asks again, no doubt as a ploy to distract himself from worrying about the Batmobile overheating again.

I didn’t know what to tell him or where to start, except at the beginning, which was 1962 or so. I begin a rambling monologue on how the Infinity Land Speed Record project arose out of the success of the Untouchable (a jet dragster cum high velocity daredevil act that stunned the drag strip crowd) and featured many of the same players: Glen Leasher, a Type A type driver weaned on jalopies in Wichita, Kansas; “Dago,” a welder who worked out of the Oakland Airport and whose christened name was Romeo Palamides; Harry Burgdt, the track operator at Vacaville Raceway (a podunk strip out among the pastures and stockyards northwest of Sacramento… Vacaville translates to “Cow Town”); and a young, fast, scientific type named Vic Elisher, a Hungarian kid who, when not wrenching on deconstructed jet engines, was dabbling in academia and beatnikdom at Berkeley…

The partnership thrived on appearance money accumulated with the Untouchable as it toured the race tracks of California and the Pacific Northwest. San Gabriel. Fontana Drag City. Bakersfield. Half Moon Bay. Vacaville. Fremont. Kingdon. Cotati. Medford. Portland. Puyallup, Washington.

To put the exploits of the Untouchable jet car in context, I tell BZ that this all happened in an era when the “official” movers and shakers of drag racing were trying to shed the unkempt, greasy image of drag racers as hot rod hoodlums hell-bent on chemical anarchy… If drag racing could clean up its act, its leading sanctioning body, National Hot Rod Association, could cozy up to the deep pockets of the Automotive Power Structure in Detroit, who had no use for home-built cars with aircraft engines stealing the thunder and the headlines from the accomplishments of real automobiles on the drag strip proving grounds…

It would be quid pro quo: The Big Three, General Motors, Ford and Mopar, could market, advertise and exploit its performance and accomplishments on the official proving grounds sanctioned by the NHRA… in exchange, the Detroit’s purse strings loosened and cash began to trickle its way into the NHRA’s coffers…

Jet cars were not only unsafe, they were bad for business. In 1961 they were banned by the National Hot Rod Association.

No matter. Up and down the Left Coast the yokels paid their money to see the Untouchable jet car badda-bing, badda-boom down the drag strip, reaching seemingly unfathomable speeds approaching 220 mph. In comparison, in those days the AA/Fuel Dragsters cackled mightily and would clock speeds of 190 or so, but it was like they were standing still compared to the sturm und drang of the rolling pyrotechnics display wot was the hermaphroditic jet car as it went BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! loud as the Wrath of God and then whooshed down the drag strip quicker and faster than anything else on wheels. Each pass was a supreme test of a man who dared to test fate on a 1/4 mile slab of asphalt. The paying customers ate it up like saltwater taffy.

How could they not? It was righteous entertainment. It was loud. It was dangerous. It was dirty and noisy. And it was officially verboten by the NHRA…

The strips that hosted these exhibitions — Kingdon Air & Drag Strip near Sacramento, as an example — were, often as not, rinky dink and unsafe… at Kingdon the Chrondek timing lights were portable and during the course of the speed meet had to be wheeled off the runway to accommodate the occasional aircraft seeking to land there… There weren’t any grandstands, so spectators lined the strip and eased up as close as they dared to the fire-breathing machinery, and whenever a car got loose the spectators would scatter like rabbits…

It was under conditions such as these that Palamides and cohorts made their dough. Beyond pocketing a little coin for living expenses, the money from the Untouchable was funneled into the construction of Infinity, a much more sophisticated jet car with a target speed of 500 mph, speeds sufficient to take away John Cobb’s Land Speed Record, set in 1947. Speeds twice as fast as those reached in the Untouchable

So yeah, at its most innocuous, the Untouchable and its Midwestern counterparts, Walt Arfons’ Green Monster and Art Arfons’ Cyclops, were drag strip curiosities showcasing brutal and brazen shards of fiery horsepower that melted the mental faculties of those assembled and frustrated the Powers-That-Be and their attempts to bolster drag racing’s reputation as a test bed for automotive technology as well as a marketing tool (‘Win on Sunday, Sell On Monday!’) for this year’s model…

I am trying to explain all of this to BZ, but he kept interrupting with questions about the junk yards in Arizona where Romeo Palamides and Vic Elisher got the J47s for Untouchable and Infinity

“Yeah, I’ll get to that. Really though, you gotta’ take the taxonomy of this whole Infinity quest back to Bakersfield in 1962 and the Smokers Meet. I maintain that Glen Leasher never would have died in a jet car on the Salt Flats if he hadn’t been jobbed at the final round of Top Fuel that year — after that he quit the Gotelli Speed Shop Top Fuel car and began driving the Untouchable. After that, Infinity…”

“JET CAR” IS MY NAME

November 2, 2008

His first pass in a real race car was in the Master & Richter Olds-powered gasser at Fremont Raceway, back in the days of flag starts. (“Still have my Fremont 132 mph card from that pass,” Smith mused. “Beat a Willys pickup.”) And although the man who would come to be known as “Jet Car Bob” Smith promptly graduated into stabbing and steering blown railjobs on nitro, even that treacherous form of pavement pounding was baby food compared to his preferred from of propulsion: A military jet engine with an afterburner. Pure thrust, baby, with no power wasted on something as quaintly passe as burning rubber…

Ahhh, take a humble drag racer from San Jose, strap him into a raw, jet-powered fuselage on wheels, light some kerosene and pressurized air and Voila! Your Humble Working Class Drag Racer is now an instant Meta-Deity of Thunder and Fire! It was “Lock up your children, corral the animals or pay the man at the ticket booth! You can’t have it both ways.” And more often than not, the race fans and the curiosity seekers parted with their hard-earned entertainment dollar to see “Jet Car Bob,” the Superhero/Anti-Hero burn down plywood fences and blast off into oblivion 1/4 mile from where he launched.

Chronologically speaking, the torch for bleeding-edge-jet-technology-as-applied-to-the-drag-strip was lit when Akron Ohio’s Walt Arfons unveiled his massive, $2000 (cheap!) J46 Westinghouse-powered Green Monster at Union Grove, Wisconsin in the summer of 1960, but it was carried by Smith and his partner, fabricator Romeo Palamides, as much as anybody. Their cars, dubbed the Untouchable, were sleek, minimalist projectiles primarily propelled by military surplus General Electric J47 engines and anchored by 4 Firestone road race tires, replete with tread. Smith hung fore of the front axle in a bullet shaped capsule, naked and vulnerable to drag strip ack-ack-ack.

(And what chariots the Untouchables were! 12,000 horsepower, 27′ long, fire-breathing uber-dildos inspired by the excess and omnidirectional audacity and verve of the Jet Age. Or “the Big Zippo,” as Jet Car himself put it.)

Originally the Untouchable was shoed by Archie Liederbrand who soon gave up the seat to Glen Leasher. When Leasher was cruelly snuffed, Smith assumed the hot seat in the Untouchable and began making history as an outlaw drag racer in a machine that, due to its aerospace propulsion system, the High Sheriffs of drag racing, as well as most of the hitter competitors, considered an unsavory, incorrigible idea.

Because of this stigma, both Smith and his race car became audacious, successful commodities. “If you just booked in one jet car,” Smith quantified, “you were guaranteed a crowd.” No doubt, but the Untouchable in specific was truly on a roll: four days after Drag News created an Unlimited Dragster class in its official “Standard 1320 Records“ listings, Smith rode Untouchable to a 6.87/240 mph clocking at Erie, PA, a record that stood until 1967, when the records were no longer recognized by the trade papers.

Since Palamides preferred the relative calm of his Oakland Airport shop to the turbulence of traveling, “Jet Car Bob” became a veritable troubadour for the jet set, and once on the road he was more or less a one man band with the whirligig glissando of his turbine engine functioning as a melodic element of his Teutonic folk anthem and the pop! pop! POW! of the J47’s afterburner acting as the rhythm section. Like so much sturm und drang during this era, the exploits of Bob Smith were completely over-the-top, a career as pushed and absurdist as the contours of the rolling mutant monstrosities that carried him to fame, glory, acclaim — and a couple of emergency wards…

The hospital visits just add to the legend but the truth is this: “Jet Car” was a friggin’ rock star-cum-carny sideshow, barnstorming to and fro across the benighted, backwooded nether regions of America, the Outback of the Breadbasket and beyond, in a quest to show to local yokels what an honest bunch of California hot rodders can do when given access to the same glorious shards of thermodynamic technology that was normally set aside for the military-industrial complex and its corporate welfare mothers.

Ay, after Palamides and Elischer had scoured the scrap yards of the Southwestern Desert in search of military table scraps and the crumbs dropped from the gilded spoons of the techno-industrial banquets before welding them into Frankensteinian mega-machines, Smith would roll onto the starting line of a drag strip and begin spinning the turbines and applying voltage and jet fuel to the engine’s compressor and combustion chamber while the natives would cloister around the clumps of fire ejaculating out of the massive fuselage, like pygmies around a cauldron. It was ungodly; it was pagan. It was a ritual and a seance that nobody had experienced before but each paying customers felt deep in the marrow of their bones that there was something primal and good in the fire that smelled sweet and sour.

But the warmth and the comfort of the cabalistic pyromania had a flip side. On more than one occasion, the propulsion machine catapulted the fearless “Jet Car Bob,” half driver, half shaman, to doom and calamity.

In fact, “Jet Car’s” career crashed to a denouement as precipitously as it began. It ended with him declared dead in Milan, Michigan in 1964. But the proclamation of his demise was greatly exaggerated and ergo salutations are in order: After relegation to near-obscurity, driver “Jet Car Bob” Smith and his bossman and car builder, Romeo Palamides, have been inducted into Don Garlits’ International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 1999, a perch in a pantheon that will ensure they will never be forgotten. In Palamides’s instance, who ultimately constructed six Untouchable jet dragsters, as well as five jet funny cars, the award was posthumous. No matter; in the case of both men the honor could not have been more righteous. But in specific, the acclaim for the man known to his friends as “Jet Car” is particularly poignant… Nobody — and I mean NOBODY — has suffered more for their art (and lived) than Smith…

So “Jet Car,” how did you get tagged with the name “Jet Car”?

JET CAR: We were at Dragway 42 for the Drag News Invitational, back at the hotel. I’m in the room, trying to make some dates for down the road and I’m talking to this guy on the phone from Ohio, “Hot Rod Harry” Williams, that was the way he answered the phone. All I had (written down) was “Harry Williams, ” duh, duh, duh, “phone number, ” duh, duh, duh, “Exeter Drag Strip or something.” I dialed the number and he picked up and he comes on saying, “THIS IS HOT ROD HARRY WILLIAMS” and something just clicks and I go, “Yeah, well THIS IS JET CAR BOB SMITH.” I was having dinner with Al Caldwell, Romeo and Doris (Herbert, Drag News editor) and I told them this story, I’m still laughing about the way this guy’s answered the phone, “THIS IS HOT ROD HARRY WILLIAMS.” But I’ve been “Jet Car Bob” ever since.

So it’s pretty sweet that you and Palamides are inducted in the Drag Racing Hall of Fame. You had to be excited about that…

JET CAR: It’s the greatest thing that ever happened to me, I gotta’ tell you. In 1995 they inducted me into the Jet Car Hall of Fame — which is an honor also — but to us old time racers, this is the one. When I got the letter it put me right down in my chair.

You didn’t know it was coming?

JET CAR: I had no idea. I was at work when my wife got the letter and she called me saying, “You got a registered letter. I don’t normally do this, but I had to open it. It’s from the Don Garlits Museum.” I just went, “uhhhuuhhcckk.” It took me a few minutes to compose myself then she read it to me.

You were driving for Romeo Palamides starting in 1962?

JET CAR: 1962, yeah. I started driving for Romeo after Glen Leasher got killed. Glen got killed on the Salt Flats in Romeo’s Bonneville car, the Infinity.

I’ll tell you a little story: I had driven for Romeo before, in a Top Fuel car. When I heard on the radio that there was a crash up there (in Bonneville) I called the airport on the chance that he would be there — and he was. I offered my condolences on the crash and the loss of Glen and wondered if there was anything I could do for him. “Yeah,” he says,“I got to go to San Gabriel this weekend (for a match race); the track is supposed to find me a driver. If you could ride along and help me stay awake, maybe share the driving.” I said, “Sure, no problem.” I went to the airport and we loaded the jet car up and headed for San Gabriel. We started up the grapevine and the conversation came up as to who was going to drive the (race) car. Before we topped the grapevine and went over the other side, I was going to be the new driver. It took me about five seconds to say, “yes.”

Just like that.

JET CAR: At that time I was driving a Top Fuel car, and of course a week before I figured I could beat “that” car. Everybody did. Everybody figured they could beat that jet car. They figured they could leave on it, but nobody added up that, “Okay, this car is running in the 6s; we’re running in the 8s.” Nobody wanted to think about that. At that time the car always started from behind the starting line and slid. Then they’d fire the afterburner and the car would haul ass. Everybody figured that the car was rolling the lights and the elapsed times weren’t really right — me along with everybody else. But when Romeo said, “You did okay driving my fuel dragster, do you want to drive the Untouchable?” I’m like, “Y-E-A-H.”

I busted my balls running Sid (Waterman’s) Top Fuel car and we’re running 8.0 or 7.90 at 190. This car was going to run 6s at 220 or 230 mph. Who in their right mind wouldn’t jump into a jet? If nothing else to say okay, “I ran 230 mph.”

So the jet cars were sliding through the starting line?

JET CAR: Yeah. I cut some little wooden blocks out and stuck them behind the rear tires. I told Romeo, “You know the car hunches when it leaves.” It would pick up and be impossible to stage. These little one-inch blocks were enough to hold it so we could stage the car.

Tell me about the first night at San Gabriel.

JET CAR: Gary Gabelich made a pass right away, then Romeo put me in the car. I wanted to go fast right away. The first run was motor only (no afterburner) and I said, “No, I want to go faster.” There were a lot of switches to turn on (laughs), but I still wanted to go faster. So on the next run he let me turn on the afterburner, but he didn’t tell me the whole story. I made the run and it covered the track in so much kerosene that it killed mosquitoes for thirty square miles.

Weren’t you considered a turncoat by the wheel-driven community?

JET CAR: Yeah, yeah. But I was still looking at them and saying, “Hey! I’m going 230 and you’re going 190, pal.”

The Untouchable was quite a hot property. Did you have problems getting paid at some of these strips?

JET CAR: When we set the record up at Kingdon it went out UPI and AP, all over the world. I knew we went fast because on that particular run the ass of that car picked up off the ground (immediately) whereas it usually just slid then went “Boom“ and then picked up speed and by the time it reached the 1/8th mile you knew it was hauling ass. However, on that particular run I felt the back of the car just pick up and nail me to the seat. After that run the phones started ringing.

So I got a listing of drag strips and I talked to (dragster drivers) (Art) Malone and (Chris) Karamesines and I asked them who the good guys were and who the bad guys were. The bad guys didn’t pay you; the good guys were like slot machines: You went in and put on a show for ‘em and they paid you. But there were questionables in there: they paid you but you had to be hard nosed at the pay shack. Like (“Broadway Bob”) Metzler at Union Grove.

You could get money out of Metzler one of two ways: You stick a .45 up against his head and go, “Click. Pay me,” and have the look in your eyes that you were going to blow his brains out, even then it was nip and tuck — he’s a pretty good poker player, let’s put it that way; or you give him two more dates, usually holidays. This is an hour, hour and a half in the pay shack. You walk out going, “Well, we got our money,” then you go, “Oh shit, we just sold our two best dates of the year…”

There were times you really had to get mean. The second Drag News Invitational was at — I can’t even remember the name of that piece of shit drag strip — it was out by Mt. Clemens in Michigan. Doris (Herbert, of Drag News) had cut a deal with the owner. It was a signed contract. The only problem was that his guy had a drag strip that was about as wide as my living room. The week before he laid down the asphalt, and he went El Cheapo on the asphalt. We go there and the left lane of the drag strip — you couldn’t run on it. No way. It was soft, squishy. But what are you gonna’ do? You’re gonna’ race. Then it rained and everybody disappeared. Doris disappeared, the track owner disappeared. Everybody disappeared. Vaporized. There were a bunch of cars, most of ‘em were depending on gas money to get home. Everybody was getting nervous, “How am I going to get home?“ But I knew when I got to the motel that night I was going to have my money. When one of the lackeys gave the ol’, “Ahh, get out of here,” I said, “Okay, we’ll do it my way.” I backed the friggin’ jet car right up against the tower and I said, “Get these people back here or I’m burning the tower down.” We plugged that baby in and “wwwhhhoooo,” it started whirring. They showed up and bagged the money. It paid off like a slot machine.

What was Romeo like?

JET CAR: A super guy. A piss poor business man but a hell of a racer. The more he made, the more he spent.

He wasn’t unique then, as least as far as drag racers go. It is ironic that you could have problems making ends meet with what has been considered “cheap horsepower.”

JET CAR: You could build a jet car cheaper than you could build a Top Fuel car. The motors were very cheap at that time, all you had to do was go to Tucson and get them out of an aerospace boneyard over there. Then you had to have the ingenuity to bolt them into the car and make them work. There weren’t too many people who were motivated to do that because this was around the time that the NHRA said, “Errmp, you’re out of here.” I chased (NHRA Competition Director) Bernie Partridge all down the West Coast trying to convince him that the car was safe — they kept saying the engines were going to blow up. Which could happen, but under a lot of other circumstances beyond the way we were running the car. But when the NHRA gets their mind made up about something, nothing is going to change it.

But they were even down on the Allison-powered cars. The resented anything that came from aviation.

JET CAR: True. But if we had an off weekend and there was an NHRA race nearby, I’d tow into the pits and immediately there was a thousand people around the jet car. But it took a lot of years before they came around and let us make even exhibition runs…

They are afraid of progress sometimes.

JET CAR: The next couple of three years when all the crashes started didn’t help either.

“BAN THE JETS!” You guys were pretty much outlaws.

JET CAR: Pretty much. There were other associations around, plus there were a lot of outlaw strips that didn’t have any banners hanging up. They had their own insurance — I think they had insurance. They paid their bills, let’s put it that way.

You guys were really threatening the status quo. All of a sudden the diggers (Top Fuel dragsters) weren’t necessarily the headliners anymore.

JET CAR: Right. We could draw a crowd if just a jet car showed up for an exhibition. But when we ran (top fuel racer)Tommy Ivo in a match race — that lit it off. I must say I had to go in the tank on that one.

Really?

JET CAR: Well, what would have happened if I had blown him in the weeds three runs in a row? It would have been over.

How many rounds did he win?

JET CAR: He won two, we won one.

That’s harsh.

JET CAR: We came back a few weeks later and I blew him in the weeds two-out-of-three and I let him win one. From then on, I would let the dragster win one and then I’d win two.

Rope-a-dope.

JET CAR: Hey! I knew when it started that we had a commodity and if it worked right we had a saleable item. We were putting on a show — we were showmen, that was the bottom line. What NHRA forced us to do was be showmen. Back east, there weren’t that many jet cars so we’d race the favorite dragster in town, their local hero. I let him win a race so he’d look good.

And this was all on some rather dicey tracks.

JET CAR: Oh, oh, some of the tracks were shaky — in fact, a lot of them were shaky. There were very few that weren’t… Union Grove (WI) was a pretty big track at that time, but you’d go through the lights and after 100 feet you’d go straight down hill. Then you’d run out to a county road that would go right across the end of the drag strip. The road was about six feet higher than the level spot right before you got there. You’d go down a hill, you go across a flat spot then you’d go up to get on the road.

You had one of your worst crashes at Union Grove.

JET CAR: I crashed the first car in town.

In town?

JET CAR: At the circle track. I put it up in the grandstands and totaled it. The second car was the one that Romeo built for (Jack) Birdwell. We sort of leased it to finish our tour — and I crashed it. That was at Union Grove. There is a bump in the track in the right lane at about 1000′, and we hit the bump and that kicked the chutes out — I didn’t even know that they came out. I go through the lights and hit the chutes; no chutes. I went off the end and when I got to the road I was launched 10 feet, 12 feet in the air, I guess. I cleared the road — almost. There was a big old bathtub modeled Nash Rambler there with some guys in it who had just left the races. They were going to watch Karamesines and me make the last run from over the hill. I came over the hill with no chutes and I was back-and-forth, back-and-forth trying to make three miles out of a half mile. I got to the road and there was no place to go. I hit a telephone pole and cut it in three pieces before it hit the ground, I went up in the air and came down on the Nash Rambler. There were three kids; two of ‘em ran, one of ‘em jumped in the car.

Oh no.

JET CAR: It came down and went “kuh-wish” and flipped it around. I went into the ditch on the other side. I broke one finger, broke my nose again, cut my lip and scraped the grafts off because I was still wrapped up because of the burns the time before. I got out of that one without much, uhh, well I killed another car so that wasn’t good.

Yeah. And you say there was a kid in the Rambler? How did he fare?

JET CAR: He broke a collarbone. The real bad part was the ambulance ride to the hospital. Union Grove’s ambulance was a ‘36 Chevy panel truck. Even worse, they put the kid in the same hospital room with me. There were all these parents there and everything… oh, man. I’m laying there — I didn’t even want to go to the hospital, but “No, you gotta’ go to the hospital overnight” — and who do they wheel in but this kid. I go, “Oh shit, how can I escape from this?” If they hadn’t taken my clothes away I would have ran.

Were you getting stink-eye from the parents?

JET CAR: Oh, man! Oh! (Silence.) It was a bad evening…

So we’ve covered Untouchable’s 1 & 2. Tell me about number 3.

JET CAR: That’s the one I got hurt in the most.

Weren’t you in the hospital for almost six months?

JET CAR: That was a long one. Actually, what they called Untouchable IV was Untouchable III for me. III went to Birdwell; it was the one he renamed and put a little tail on the back and called it the Scorpion.

But (after the crash of Untouchable IV) they tagged my toe. I was in a coma. When you’re in a coma you hear things, but you can’t react to them. For some reason I’m laying there — and I know there is a lot of stuff going on around me but there is this heavy fog. The shit’s going on but you’re taking a nap. My sister was there, she’d flown in from Germany. She’s standing there with me and the doctors say, “Pffftt; ah, he’s gone.” They’re tagging the toe and putting the blanket over my face and she let out a giant scream. For some reason I just went “Whoa” and groaned and moved around a little bit. They went, “Hold it! Let’s check his beat again” and they started working on me. I started coming around and a few days later I came around some more. But at one time I was headed for the morgue…

The chute had torn off on that pass?

JET CAR: One of them came off and tore the mount off. Both (chutes) came right off the back of the car. That was not a long strip; there was a big ditch at the end of it. It nosed into the ditch which snapped the cockpit off. It came out of the ditch and just went endo six or eight times across this wheat field. The only thing holding the cage on (to the fuselage) was a throttle cable. It was like a rock on the end of a string — “whhipp, whhipp.” I was basically wearing the cage.

I was conscious when they got there. They sawed the cable off and put me and the cockpit in the back of this ambulance. At the hospital they cut me out — I was telling them where to cut in order to get me out of this thing. My legs were up around my head.

Jesus.

JET CAR: When they took me out of the ambulance, the nurses thought I was black. There was so much dust and dirt on me that they thought they were taking a black guy into the hospital.

“Bob Smith, the famous Negro jet car driver.” Unreal.

JET CAR: They put me in bed and set my legs; then I went into a coma. I had head injuries. For months after that there was no blue in my eyes, they were totally red. My eyeballs must’ve came clear out of my head. My eye sight sort of went bad after that…

You didn’t drive any more jets after that?

JET CAR: That was my last jet ride.

That was be quite an exclamation point. What did you turn on that run?

JET CAR: 230-235 mph. It was an average run. I don’t remember the run. I remember packing the chutes before the run — that’s all I remember.

Was Romeo touring with the car?

JET CAR: Romeo wasn’t there. I went out with the car quite a bit by myself; he was back here welding and running the shop. In fact, I didn’t even have anybody helping me. I picked some guy out of the crowd and said, “Hey, you want to help me pack a chute? Do you want to pump the kerosene?“ Somebody was always willing to do that, it was quite a charge for them.

So you drove diggers after that?

JET CAR: Yeah. I was in the hospital about six months then it was six months further down the road before I could really walk and talk and put enough weight back on to look human. It was a good year before I was really up and moving around and could get a job.

Did you like the dragsters better than the jets at this point?

JET CAR: At that point, yeah. (laughs) The jet was a show. There were things you had to do in driving a jet car, but it wasn’t anything like driving a digger. You didn’t have the wheels spinning, the car moving around underneath you and driving it by the seat of your pants.

You were more of a passenger?

JET CAR: You were. You lined the car up right and when you fired the afterburner you were going to go straight.

But then again you were describing wrestling it in the shutdown area. That had to quite an experience with all the weight on the ass end.

JET CAR: Oh yeah. It was like a Greyhound bus.

Did you do any racing at Bonneville?

JET CAR: No. I didn’t go with them when Glen got killed. Romeo and I talked about another car to go to Bonneville with. In the three or four year span that I drove for him in the jet car, we never made it long enough into the year to get there.