Posts Tagged ‘jet car’

INFINITY OVER ZERO by Cole Coonce: PART TWO: PICK YOUR PART

November 3, 2008
Bob's Pawn Shop (photo by Cole Coonce)

Bob's Pawn Shop (photo by Cole Coonce)

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CLASSIFIED JET ENGINE (YOU CAN’T HAVE IT) (Akron, Ohio, 1964)

November 3, 2008

“He even tests that jet engine in the backyard. You can’t conceive of it unless you’ve seen him do it. At first, he’d strap it to two big trees. He burned a 60-foot channel in his woods that way, and he blew a chicken house right off the face of the earth. He’s the coolest guy I’ve ever seen in my life. When he’s got that engine going on afterburner and I’m 50 feet away, I’m scared to death that it’s going to blow to pieces — they do sometimes, you know — and he’s right alongside it making adjustments.” Firestone tire rep Harold “Humpy” Wheeler, “Enemy in Speedland,” Sports Illustrated, 1965.

After Gorman the Batmobile begins to overheat again. We drive 90 mph over the entire Ridge Route, my rationalization being that the faster we drive, the less time the motor has to warp. We crest the Grapevine, begin our descent into the oil fields of Kern County and the temperature gauge finally calms down. A little.

Even though the biggest load on the motor was behind us, BZ still looks disturbed and squinches his eyebrows in disapproval.

“You know I won’t be able to pull a pair of cylinder heads for you now.” He wipes his brow with an oily rag.

I nod. I had used him as a source for various generic parts to replace broken or stolen pieces for the Grand Prix — an electric rear window from a ‘72 Monte Carlo, a headlamp fixture and a carburetor from a ‘73 Bonneville station wagon. I’d request what I wanted and he’d toss the pieces over the fence, to the bewilderment of the portly Mexican gal who ran the taco truck. Those day were over now that BZ lost his job.

Reminiscing about pilfered parts pitched under chain link fences reminded me of an anecdote about Art Arfons. I tell BZ about a phone conversation I once had with Art concerning the time he had scored a classified fighter plane engine from a military surplus boneyard in 1964…

Art Arfons told me that he knew back in 1964 that there was only one piece of hardware that would have enabled him to satisfy his jones for unbridled adrenaline and also reclaim the LSR from Craig Breedlove — a General Electric J79 jet engine from a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. He acquired his for $625. “I got it when it was still classified,” he said. “It had been scrapped because of foreign object damage. I had hit all the scrap yards and said, ‘If you ever get a ’79, I want it.’ So a guy called from Miami and he said, ‘I got one.’”

Arfons then called GE and asked for an owner’s manual, in essence sending a smoke signal to a GE whistleblower. With something rotten in the Rubber City, a colonel from the military paid Arfons a visit. “He said, ‘That’s a classified engine, you’re not allowed to have it,’” Arfons remembers. “And I said, ‘Well, here’s my piece of paper (receipt). I bought it after you threw it away.’ I said, ‘You can’t have it.’ Two years later, they declassified it.”

As I replayed the phone conversation back in my mind, I visualized how Arfons chained his military surplus monstrosity to a tree in his back yard and — to the horror of his neighbors — began purging the afterburners, searching for harmonic imbalances. “There was a special wrench to take them apart,” he had said. “I knew a man who worked at Wright Patterson (AFB) and he got me the tool I needed to fix it. He would sign it out and drop it by the fence for me. He’d check it out in the morning and I’d get it back before he had to turn it in that evening. I had to do that to take it apart and I had to do that to put it together. The blades were all damaged, so I just removed every third one. Never did balance the thing. I just put it back together that way and it ran fine. It had all the power I needed.”

“He was armed with the biggest gun in town once he got that J79,” Craig Breedlove told me in 1997 at Black Rock, laughing. Breedlove was just as smitten with the concept of thrust unlimited as his compatriot from Ohio. Cheap, abundant jet power enabled both Arfons and Breedlove to dominate the Land Speed Record scene throughout most of the 1960s. Others didn’t fare so well…

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…”

CLOUDS OF STAR FIRE (Bonneville, 1962)

November 2, 2008

“I remember
When I was a star
In the night
A moving, burning ember
Amid the bright Clouds of star fire
Going deathward To the womb”
—“Star,” Jack Parsons

September 10, 1962. It is a hot, gloomy Monday morning with a mercury sky. Everything is the color of a bleached and buried coin. Or a bullet left in the sun. During the past few days the Infinity team had been chipping away at various stress and leak tests, ensuring that the sleek machine that resembled nothing if not an avant-garde Russian MIG fighter plane was in superlative condition to claim the Land Speed Record. Many teams had espoused the notion that surpassing the 396 mph mark set in 1949 by Englishman John Cobb was a matter of patriotic pride, as for once the Americans would showcase their Yankee Ingenuity as well as its hearty guts and determination in a manner arguably not showcased since Henry Ford.

It had been such a bizarre trajectory to this moment, from “Dago” Palamides’ shop on the outskirts of the Oakland Airport to the boneyards of Tucson (Vic Elischer remembers the liberation of a J47-33 out of an F86D Fighter/Interceptor while Che Guevara scavenged for spare parts for a “Globemaster” cargo plane for use in the overthrow of the Batista government in Cuba — this is a year before the Bay of Pigs!) to Boeing Field in Seattle to the Bonneville Salt Flats…

The Untouchable had barnstormed up and down the West Coast with a coterie of drivers, first with Archie Liederbrand, next with Glen Leasher, who was fresh out of the cockpit of “Terrible Ted’s” Gotelli Speed Shop Special, Chrysler-powered fueler.

With Liederbrand driving, the Untouchable debuted in April, 1962 at Fontana and goes 209 mph, a track record. But this vehicle was really just a rolling test stand for the team. The real glory, prestige and payoff was at Bonneville, all they needed was another race car designed specifically for that task, as well as fresh bullet.

While fabricating the race car at Boeing Field in Seattle, Palamides and Leasher continued to match race the jet car and generate cash. Concurrently, airplane mechanics Loyd Osterberg and Jeri Sorm shaped and riveted the aluminum bodywork around the clock in attempt to have the car ready for Speed Week at Bonneville at the end of August.

One of the locals who grew up around Boeing Field tells me that Sorm is “a master tin man and aeronautics wizard. He grew up in Czechoslovakia before WW II and lived there during the war and when the Nazis held the country. When the Communists were in power, he escaped in the mid 50s — he flew out in a stolen plane.

“Jeri told me once, that anybody who had any complaints about this country should try living in a dictatorship, then under the Nazis – and then the Communists… he told me that ever since he came to this country he went out side every morning when he woke up and kissed the ground. He said we don’t appreciate what we’ve got.”

Sorm had no interest in race cars per se, but took on the project as an employee of Osterberg. Many nights one or the other would fall asleep in the fuselage of the unfinished vehicle only to be awakened by the other guy’s hammering or riveting.

Finally, Infinity is out on the Salt Flats. Breedlove is also there with his high-dollar operation, but cannot make anything work properly. Breedlove goes home.

Meanwhile Infinity, the intersection of hot rodding and aerospace, continues to ramp up its speeds during test runs. There is a disagreement about how much more r&d is needed, and unbeknownst to the other partners, Palamides and Leasher apparently conspire to make a record run on this morning.

As the car enters the measured mile, the left front wheel bearing seizes and locks, pulling the car off course. Then there is an explosion from an inlet/compressor stall in the jet engine, most likely the result of excessive yaw, at which point the car high sides. Then it rips into shrapnel, a torn metallic curtain… it is as if a piece of the sky folds into itself and then implodes like a dark star.

Glen Leasher was looking for Infinity. He found it — in an instant.

The biggest piece of his remains was his boot.

IT WAS IN THE BAG (2000)

November 2, 2008

The following is from a phone interview with Vic Elisher. It was a cold call, and he was watching a women’s soccer match, which I could hear in the background for the duration of our conversation.

Why Infinity?

VIC ELISHER: Tom Fukuya and I tossed around some names and came up with it. At the time there was only Breedlove’s car and his was much heavier and powered by a GE J33 with no afterburner out of a Lockheed F-80. Max Thrust around 5000 Lbs. We had a much lighter car, 4800 lbs. And we had an engine from a North American F86D with an afterburner and we could get over 10,000 lbs of thrust out of it for short periods. So our thinking at the time was that we had the most powerful car in the world. And it was true for about two years. Breedlove had a lot of money but we had a lot more ingenuity and a better car. We did run 385 without the afterburners on an early tune up run. And we only used a 5/8ths mile runup.

We routinely ran over 270MPH in the 1/4 mile with the earlier car (the Untouchable) in around 6 seconds in demonstrations at 1/4 mile drag strips around the country. That was all in 1960-61.

Did Infinity utilize ground effects?

VE: It was slightly curved, slightly raked. It had a slight down angle, a few degrees. The engine actually pushed it down too. Plus there was a vacuum created out of the back end. It was very stable, we never had any trouble with it, in terms of all the other runs. He just ran it off the course. He might have had a little crosswind. By the way, it was the same direction that Breedlove ran his car into the lake.

Glen had a background as a dragster driver and a jalopy racer. Is that the right background for an LSR attempt?

VE: This idea that you can drive out of it like a roadster or racing car, it’s just not that way.

If you think that it is a situation where there is crosswind that is throwing… He had plenty of time to pull the chutes. It would have absolutely straightened it right out, but it would have thrown him against the harness and knocked the wind out of him. At those speeds, it will definitely do that.

He cut power once he got off the course. That probably made it worse, because he didn’t have the down thrust to keep the force. I would guess that whenever you make… You don’t do anything quickly except throw the chutes and that has a stabilizing effect, right? They are way out behind the car and that straightens out the car.

What else can you tell me about the attempt?

VE: It was such a lost opportunity. The loss of life was the greatest shock. Afterwards, the lost opportunity. We were so close. We had run within a few miles per hour of the Land Speed Record. And that was without the afterburner! We had no problem at all. At that time Breedlove didn’t have an afterburner engine, neither did Arfons. They were both running J33s. We were the only ones with an afterburner.

The first time we were up there, we ran 385. We were so elated. It was in the bag. We hadn’t even run the afterburners, there was no way we weren’t going to run 409 mph. No way. It was really in the bag. I should have insisted on driving.

When we were doing it, it was the American kind of individuals. Now it’s about corporations. The fact that we didn’t make it wasn’t indicative of us not having the right stuff; it was indicative of us missing one piece — the psychological piece.