Posts Tagged ‘hot rod magazine’


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.

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.


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.



November 3, 2008

Working out of a school bus in Twentynine Palms, CA, Jocko Johnson is feverishly sorting out the prototype of something he calls the PoweRRing 3-cycle, an engine which has very few moving parts, a remarkably petite cubic inch displacement and, according to Jocko, is capable of both serious power and tremendous fuel economy. It is completely revolutionary and the size of a crock pot.

It is nanotechnology as applied to an internal combustion engine. It could change the automobile as we know it.

Twice I attempt to interview Jocko for a feature article I was doing on him for HOT ROD Magazine; the first time the ’71 Grand Prix overheats while stuck in a traffic jam just west of Pomona. I am forced to use the pay phone from a hamburger stand on Foothill Boulevard as I sheepishly explain to Jocko why I couldn’t make it to his shop in Twentynine Palms, California. Here he was, building an experimental radial motor with very few moving parts (no crankshaft, no connecting rods, no pushrods) and I was pulled over on the side of the surface street with a temperature gauge cooked to 12 o clock and steam pouring out of the radiator’s catch can.

(In a V-8 engine, Jocko tells me later, one cylinder does work, while the other 7 work against it. No wonder it overheats… )

The next week, before traffic gets bad, I try again.

The dirt roads to Jocko’s crib in the desert are wide open vistas, the kind of roads that seem to confirm the existence of the mysteries and magnetism of the desert. Even the paved roads have very few motorists, and even fewer state troopers. The kind of road the clears the mind and senses of any sclerotic gunk. Invigoration.

I pass a couple of county highways that ultimately shadow the perimeter of the Twentynine Palms Marine Base. On the northern border of the Marine Base, a couple or three coyote howls from Jocko’s digs, a cat named George Van Tassel built — “through the guidance of other worlders” — the “Integratron,” a high energy electrostatic machine designed to recharge the DNA of a person (i.e. stop the aging process). The local Chamber of Commerce describes it as a “time machine for research on rejuvenation, anti-gravity and time travel.” The structure is four stories high and 55 feet in diameter and is thought by some to be “a very powerful vortex for physical and spiritual healing.” From the 1950s to the 70s, the Integratron was the site of an annual “Interplanetary Spacecraft Convention” and became famous as the site of Van Tassel’s “Spaceport Earth.”

As I kick up some dust on a dirt road on the perimeter of the military base, I think to myself that out on the perimeter of hell’s half-acre, there is certainly ample room to stretch out and improvise. I was then buzzed by a below-the-radar F-4 Fighter. FFFFFWHHOOOSSSHHH!!! I haven’t even arrived at the mad alchemists and my senses are already overwhelmed by free-form Teutonic theater in the desert.

Jocko shows me the mock up of his new streamliner, the Spirit of 29 Palms, a name he had just come up with. “This town needs some local pride,” he says.

The mock-up is a set of contoured bulbs with a needle-thin fuselage bridging the two sections. I point at one end. “The driver goes here?” I ask. “NO, the engine goes there,” he says. We walk to the other end. “The driver goes here, then?” “Exactly,” Jocko answers with pride. “C’mon, let me show you the PoweRRing.”

We migrate towards a school bus.

“Current engine design,” he says as we walk towards the bus, “derives from a steam engine built in 1705; it was the first engine to use a crankshaft to convert reciprocal motion into rotary motion and pass it along through various gearboxes and transfer devices.” I nod my head. “This system is obsolete in light of new knowledge.” I cock an eyebrow. “Since high torque is inherent in my three-cycle engine design, the engine would be placed right next to the wheel, with no gear reduction except for a reverser. This engine is very compact, shaped like a wheel and no wider than a standard auto wheel. It leaves a lot of space inside a car for other things.”

Jocko’s PoweRRing 3 Cycle has eighteen small cylinders arranged around a twelve-lobe cam wheel. Combustion occurs in one set of six cylinders after another, with the pistons exerting force on the cam-wheel, causing it to move. For every 360 degrees of rotation, there are 216 ignition firings, with six cylinders firing simultaneously every ten degrees of rotation.

He says he like the idea of a radial engines because it would have the lightest weight per cubic inch and they are easiest engines to cool. (“Amen to that,” I think to myself.) Capitalizing on the concept of circular ignition, Jocko’s engine is a radial, but with a cam operating the pistons and minus any connecting rods or crankshaft.

As we talk a military helicopter on maneuvers flies over us with two or three guys in uniform hanging on a ladder. SCHUTTT-SCHUTTT-SCHUTTT-SCHUTTT-SCHUTTT-SCHUTTT... Jocko doesn’t even look up.


November 2, 2008

“The writing’s on the wall: The day of the backyard mechanic is over.” – overheard in Bruno’s Coffee Shop, September 1997.

“I just got this nutty fax from Jocko.” On my phone machine is a message from the editor of HOT ROD Magazine. Jocko’s fax said the magazine did not have his permission to run the feature on him, which he likened to “pulp fiction.” If it ran, he would sue Petersen Publishing.

One of Jocko’s many complaints was that I had referenced one of his neighbors in the story, an outside thinker and engineer named George Van Tassel, who had built a time machine known as the Integratron at a place he called Spaceport Earth. “Everyone knows Van Tassel is a kook,” Jocko said.

They run the story anyway.


November 2, 2008

The phone call comes from Shell Oil’s media power center in West Los Angeles. It is the day after Labor Day, 1997. The voice on the other end, an oil company’s flak who apparently had drawn Craig Breedlove as his assignment, is clueing me in as to how, beginning tomorrow and after a year long hiatus following the 675 mph mishap, the speed trials are back on for the Spirit of America at the parched alkali of Black Rock, Nevada. It is official, the first proper supersonic Land Speed Record attempts are a green light. I am to get credentialed tomorrow at a hotel in Reno, NV, whereupon Craig Breedlove will rendezvous with the press and lead a caravan out to the desert like some latter-day man-machine Mohammed. At the press conference he will explain the modifications and improvements administered to a land speed machine that had become unstable and crashed at transonic speeds.

In the days following Breedlove’s 1996 near-calamitous daredevil act – near the speed clocks, Breedlove got out of the groove and began bicycling his sleek J79 jet engine-powered manned missile like a circus act, the 5-wheeled vehicle riding on the front tire and one rear wheel rolling and yawing off course until it made an abrupt right hand turn and was aimed at some Snowbird-types in an RV (by the grace of the All-Knowing, by a whisker had Breedlove missed torpedoing these senior citizen motorheads who had hoped to witness history, not aware that unwittingly they had almost become new members of the Good Sam’s Club in the Sky) – the more dubious members of the motorsports press had surmised that Breedlove’s speed was closer to 475 mph.

“Performance incentive clauses” was the phrase bandied about by these cynics, in reference to the reality that Craig would need beaucoup greenbacks from his sponsors to repair his exotic race car. The only confirmation of the actual speed of the vehicle as it became unstable came from the Spirit of America itself. (Breedlove showed data from the run which corroborated his speed, apparently.)

Whether the streamliner was traveling at 475 mph or 675 mph was rather moot; the Spirit of America had failed to reach its objective of reclaiming the Land Speed Record from the clutches of the British in general and Richard Noble, Order of the British Empire in specific. The recent improvements to the race car’s contour promised to render ‘er even sleeker than last year’s model, a design which already resembled an arrow from the quill of the Pauites.

There were also conflicting reports about whether Craig intends to crack the sound barrier or if his intent is to get the car up to trans- and sub-sonic speeds, and then remove himself out of the hot seat, install a remote controlled drone system and then go supersonic.

In other words, there was a chance that when the Spirit of America went Mach 1, it may not have a driver.

To get the skinny, the publicist tells me, I have to be at the Reno press conference by noon tomorrow. The flak kindly asks me to be sure to include references to Shell Oil in the article on Breedlove I was to pen for HOT ROD Magazine. I assume he means in relation to its continued patronage of Breedlove’s increasingly-streamlined fuselage, a relation that dated back to 1962, and not its recent alleged complicity in the political assassination of Ken Saro Wiwa and genocide in Nigeria, when some of the locals were less than happy with what they considered exploitation… Ultimately, notions of tyranny and subterfuge in the Third World are now dormant in my mind. The important thing is that the Grunions are Go! The Land Speed Record is about to be raised…

The hour is late… I have just enough time for loading a camera bag with lenses and a half dozen plastic canisters of Ilford, cramming some clothing and toiletries into a shoulder bag, brewing up a thermos of Cafe Bustello, jumping in the Batmobile so’s to make time to the Burbank Airport, throw a credit card down on an airline counter and catch a plane to Reno.

Because of the haste and my appearance, I would fit the profile of a terrorist: unshaven, jittery, amped on caffeine, paying with a credit card and demanding to be put on an airplane that was just about to taxi… but that routine would be repeated often during the next six weeks or so and was part and parcel of chasing the Land Speed Record, I would find out that Richard Noble’s adage about “Going fast is slow business,” is not accurate: it is slow business with a co-efficient of chasing airplanes.

My journey would only take a few hours. In Newtonian terms, the Land Speed bunch had taken an eternity to arrive at this moment; in four-dimensional respects, an infinity.


November 2, 2008

I am waiting to make a phone call to the editor of HOT ROD Magazine. I wait outside the booth as Richard Noble is fumbling for the proper change to dial out, and I notice all he can summon is lint and some British coins.

Here he is, Richard Noble, the fastest man on the planet, desperately trying to make lodging arrangements in the middle of the American Outback, the weight of an entire LSR operation on his shoulders. The SSC’ers got no rooms and their leader can’t even make a fucking phone call.

The Brits are boycotting that turncoat opportunist Bruno. They adjourn to the bar next door, “Bev’s Miners’ Club,” and discuss Plan B. After enjoining Bev the barkeep to “Give us a fag, wouldya’ love?” (Loosely translated, “I’d like to purchase a package of cigarettes”), the affable Brits begin making friends with the locals, particularly Bev.

So picture this: Richard Noble and his lads (twenty-odd clamoring Brits clad in matching RAF-khaki) are hoisting Coors in a dusty, desert Dew-Do-Drop-Inn (this about as bizarre as it gets, in my book) when one of Noble’s crew members shushes the entire bar. The local teevee news is reporting on that morning’s press conference (“Going 700 mph does not interest us. We are here to go Mach 1”) at the casino in Reno. Suddenly the videotape cuts to the chipper studio humanoid broadcaster who closes the report with this coda, “Noble and his team are taking Saturday off in observance of Princess Di’s funeral.”

Simultaneously Richard Noble, OBE does a “say wot??” double take while his overworked and underpaid entourage cheer and Bev pours more drinks and opens more cans of beer.

They didn’t get the day off. Nor did they care, really. All of which underscores this question: What is it about Noble that inspires his troops, his lads to persevere in high-desert heat to erect a portable self-contained military-industrial complex that meets the criteria for the digital era’s standard for data gathering, all on a dry lake bed that time forgot?

(The massive amounts of hardware assembled by the SSC to facilitate the penetration of this phantom waveform amounted to nothing short of a hi-tech paramilitary invasion of a forgotten lake bed that – excepting for the war games and impromptu fighter plane dogfights staged sporadically by the military back in WW II and the alterno-tech paganism of the annual Burning Man Festival – had more or less been bypassed by the techno-industrial revolution of the 20th Century and had never seen electricity, much less microwave satellite uplinks, portable airsheltas, rescue vehicles, hundreds of channels of real time telemetry and supersonic motorcars.)

The answer is not explainable by the notion of “technological enthusiasm,” a phrase that has recently come to explain everything from hot rodding to the Apollo moonshot. The answer is deeper, more atavistic and completely primeval. The answer has roots which extend into the quintessence of matter: The universe is expanding. By extrapolation, consciousness is expanding, constantly encroaching into realms of the unknown. The technological enthusiast must go THERE, the technological enthusiast will devour and outmaneuver whatever is in his or her way: Pauites, the laws of aerodynamics, Newtonian physics, whatever.

Thus you have some of the finest minds of our lifetime sleeping on other people’s couches, on their hands and knees picking up pebbles off the desert floor (to keep them from getting Hoover’d into the jet engines intake), all so they can have their moonshot.