Posts Tagged ‘Mickey Thompson’


November 3, 2008

You’re saying that The Gas Company people were in Oklahoma City in ‘68 when you guys set the drag strip record?

PETE FARNSWORTH: Right, and we signed a letter of intent with the natural gas company contingent upon the fact that we could get tires from Goodyear that were capable of very high speeds.

The Blue Flame was designed to go 1000 miles an hour structurally and aerodynamically, we thought. You know, that’s speculation…

You start getting into and beyond transonic and supersonic regions and all kinds of…

PETE: Well, we wind tunnel tested the model, at Ohio State University’s wind tunnel. (We did) subsonic, transonic, supersonic (tests). And uh, so anyway we signed this letter of intent. Suba was going to be the driver. He was a super personable guy, very knowledgeable, smart as a whip, this guy was General Manager of the repair department of the biggest Buick dealership in Evanston, Illinois when he was 19 years old. Really sharp.

But anyway, two weeks after he set the 1/4 mile ET record, he jumped into a friend of his top fuel car at Rockford Dragway, to try to figure out why they had a handling problem. They couldn’t straighten it out and he got out on the edge of the drag strip and they had a 55 gallon barrel marking the end of 1/4 mile – marking the edge of the track and he clipped that with the front wheel and then totaled it.

That’s asinine.

PETE: Asinine of him to run the car that way. He didn’t know, it was only a couple of days or weeks or so after that that we got the okay about the land speed record driving and he never knew about, I mean he knew about it, he was part of the idea but the fact that we had actually gotten it.

That is so brutal. So now, so now the search is on for somebody to shoe the car and you’re thinking target speed, 850 to 1000 miles an hour.

LEAH: And the gas industry at that time, when Chuck died they wanted to pick out a driver, someone who would do TV interviews and be Mr. Gas America, it had to be someone dynamic that was going to be in favor of, they really did cooperate in the search for someone else.

Okay, so Reaction Dynamics was kind of an umbrella corporation that would exempt you guys from liability if something weird happened with a car and also maybe tax reasons too…

PETE: Tax reasons too. But um…

So the search is on for a driver, how did that go?

PETE: Well, we Dick Keller and I, both knew (Top Fuel racer) Don Garlits real well. You couldn’t ask for someone who was more knowledgeable or observant of things that was going on with a car, so he was the first choice – he was the only choice at that time, we never even thought about anybody else and Don agreed to drive it, so months went by and we got further along with the design and we were going to have a press conference with the Gas Industry in Los Angeles for the announcement – the driver and the project – and just before that happened Don called us up and said he had to back out of the deal. He said he had sponsor pressures or something, that they didn’t want him to risk his life driving this car and he was making pretty good money at that time with his various sponsorship deals and as I remember it that was mostly why he had backed out if it.

So all of a sudden here we had the press conference scheduled and nobody to drive so we quick made up a list of people who we thought might be acceptable and Danny Ongais who raced for Mickey Thompson at that time was the first one that we thought of, he was pretty versatile and a nice guy. Art Malone was on the list and Craig Breedlove and we made up a list of ten, Gabelich who we had met because he flew out from Los Angeles, he wanted to run the X-1 rocket car, after we weren’t going to run it anymore.

After we interviewed him we realized he had done an awful lot as well and he explained he worked at North American Aviation as a test astronaut and had done high altitude sky diving with the power capsule, done all sorts of stunt stuff, you know diving off Hoover Dam. He was a genuine…

… Was diving off Hoover dam was that part of his duties with North American?

PETE: No, no that was strictly a…

He had a weekend off?


PETE: He was an adventurer. In fact he drove the Beach City Chevrolet funny car, (note: which burned to the ground.)

He drove the Valkyrie (jet dragster).

PETE: The Valkyrie. He had run the Moon Eyes Invader, I believe at that time, the Allison-powered car that belonged to that guy who could port headwork, Jocko’s Porting Service…

Jocko Johnson – yeah.

PETE: Yeah, he drove that car out on the Salt Flats. So he had this tremendous background of experience behind him and that tying in with the Space thing, he was (Mercury Seven astronaut) Wally Schirra’s exact size and he did a lot of space checkout for Wally Schirra.

It was explained to me by somebody basically that if Gabelich survived it then it was okay for the astronauts to try it. (laughter)

PETE: Well, that may have been.

I mean, you can’t have one of the Mercury Seven getting killed before lift off…

PETE: Gabelich was a very personable fellow. Good with people, likable and uh, not a bad looking guy either. He was on the Dating Game TV show, the kind that gets the girl and he did get the girl.

LEAH: He was his own product.

PETE: Later on he became the subject on the Dating Game and the girls vied for him. So he’s already in with the TV stuff and all that stuff. We personally went to Breedlove and figured he had the experience out there. He didn’t want anything to do with it because he didn’t build it and I’m the same way…

That’s just the confirmation I’m looking for because Craig told me that you guys went to him and somebody else said that he was not even in the loop.

PETE: Oh no, (after Garlits) he’s the first one we went to.

Excellent. So was his Goodyear sponsorship a conflict of interest?

PETE: Well, the way he explained it that he didn’t design and build the car, he didn’t want to drive it. And we had no idea what he would want in the way of money cause he had already been running you know, he had held the record at that time, why should he break his own record, you know there was all sorts of reasons.

But that was part of Shell Oil and Goodyear’s thing, too, you know “you’re the first to go 400, 500, 600 mph; you haven’t reaped the benefits of the 400, 500, 600 yet.” He explained to me it would be prudent for him, because he wanted to go Mach 1, his car was called Sonic One at the time and – it would be beneficial for him to have an adversary who took the record away – and then…

LEAH: He could get the sponsorship to come back with his own glory instead of ours…

PETE: So anyway he basically turned it down. Next we went to Mickey Thompson to talk to (funny car driver) Danny Ongais and uh, Mickey wouldn’t even let us talk to Danny.

“My guy.”

PETE: That’s right, he never contacted me, you know, that’s it – so we never did talk to Danny and so here we are, we’re out there in Los Angeles, no driver, so we called Gabelich. Gabelich was just tickled pink. He loved to do it. Didn’t take him long to accept and so we presented that to the Gas Industry and they met him. They decided yeah, this guy can handle the job as far as the p.r. end of it, from there we had our press conference and we all went back to work and Gary was our driver.

I remember the Purple Gang Top Fueler that he drove with the big purple plumes and kind of the feathers coming out of the crash helmet.


PETE: Say if you don’t mind I’m going take a couple of more pieces…



November 3, 2008

Breedlove begins construction of the Spirit of America streamliner in his parent’s backyard… At Bonneville, Athol Graham turns 344 mph in his homemade, Allison-powered Spirit of Salt Lake streamliner… garbed in black leather and an oxygen mask, California hot rodder Mickey Thompson makes some ramp-up laps in his Challenger I, a four-wheel drive streamliner, whose chassis consists of steel purchased from a junkyard and whose power comes from four Pontiac engines. Thompson reaches a peak of 363 mph.

The rains come.


November 3, 2008

“I don’t believe in boundaries.” – Ken Norris, co-designer of Donald Campbell’s Bluebird CN7 car.

The Great Confrontation at Bonneville: Thompson is back with Challenger I. Malcolm’s kid, Donald Campbell, unveils his own Bluebird, a turbine-powered machine five years and many millions of quid in the making… Out of a chicken feed mill in Akron, Ohio, Art Arfons is on the scene with the Anteater, an aardvark-shaped car with an Allison engine… Nathan Ostich debuts his Flying Caduceus, a turbo-jet on wheels… after five weeks of record runs Thompson turns a one-way speed of 406 mph in 1960, but fails to back it up nor break Cobb’s record, succumbing to a blown engine on his return run… Arfons breaks and splits… Ostich crashes and lives… Donald Campbell crashes and lives… Graham crashes and dies…

“I felt I knew enough about driving at very high speeds to tell that Graham, driving his car through only two wheels, could not hope to deliver enough horsepower to the Salt to go more than 355 MPH… I got up at the crack of dawn on August 1 and went out to have a look at the course. I had a spooky feeling that morning, which I explained to myself on the grounds that Graham was driving awfully fast for a man who had only made a couple of runs on the Salt… I headed down to the north end, where Graham’s pit was located, found him and spoke with him for the first time. I offered him any and all the help I could give… But he looked at me as though from a remote distance and said, ‘Look. I’ve gone 344. I don’t have anything to learn below that speed.’

“I tried to point out that he had changed the car radically since that time and that the surface of the Salt changes almost from hour to hour. But his mind was completely preoccupied… It was at this point that a heavy premonition settled upon me. I gave up talking and drove to where I knew it would happen and set up my movie camera… Graham took off at 11:02 that morning and 47 seconds later he was doing well over 300 MPH when he got sideways in front of my station. The tail section peeled away from his car; the car leaped high into the air, crashed upside down and then bounced and slid for a good half mile.

“I was one of the first to the wreck, hoping to reach Graham in time to do him so good. But it was too late. His roll bar had withstood the impacts but the upper tip of the firewall which was between his back and the engine somehow bent forward and had chopped his spine just under his crash helmet. I walked back in his tire tracks for a mile, analyzing what had happened. It was crystal clear. He had been accelerating very hard and his car had begun to drift off the black line. If he lifted his foot at all, he didn’t lift it very much. The tire tracks showed he just got farther and farther off course until he got sufficiently sideways to trip over his own wall of air.” – Mickey Thompson, CHALLENGER.


November 3, 2008

You got Gabelich hired as a driver and I assume…

PETE: He was hired by the gas industry, we didn’t hire him. He had his own deal with the gas industry which was fine with us because we didn’t have anymore in our account.

When you say “the gas industry” you mean… ?

PETE: The Institute of Gas Technology, which was the research and development arm of the American Gas Association at that time, was overseeing the project for the American Gas Association. It was a promotion of the safety and usefulness of liquefied natural gas. They were trying to promote it as a hypersonic fuel for aircraft and, of course, I think they probably succeeded in that now, but you know in certain areas, they were pushing at it.

LEAH: And the gas industry as a whole was trying to push natural gas as a modern fuel, and they were looking for something that would spark an interest in the younger people in gas.

How did you incorporate LNG with the hydrogen peroxide?

PETE: It was the fuel. Hydrogen peroxide created the oxygen. We added the liquefied natural gas to the engine as a fuel to burn and then we ignited it.

So the hydrogen peroxide was the oxidizer and LNG was the fuel, but with the X-1 car, what was…?

PETE: There was no fuel, it was just peroxide, forced through a catalyst pack at a 600 to 1 liquid to gas ratio and creating about a 1300 degree temperatured mixture of oxygen and water vapor.


PETE: Um hmm.

The catalyst pack was?

PETE: Silver. Silver screen, chemically treated and it had nickel for port screens.

So as you guys got to Bonneville, it’s like 1970 I think, and…

PETE: Dick went out there in 1969 when Mickey Thompson was running the Autolite Streamliner. He hired a survey crew out there and we did a full length survey of the course: how flat it really was, you know, how much of a dip and what sort of undulation the surface had, (there is) so much suspension travel we had to figure on at speed. So he was out there when Mickey was running and got the survey confirmation which we then sent to the engineers at the Illinois Institute of Technology; they were nine graduate engineers working on masters degrees for theses on various aspects of the design of the Blue Flame: structures, dynamics, aerodynamics, wheel design, all sorts of things.

I was the liaison between our company and my title was Manager of Vehicle Engineering, that’s what it was.

So this was not a couple of hot rodders building something in their backyard.

LEAH: The X-1 was. We built the X-1 during the week in our family garage – we parked it on the street. (!)

So anyway, you’re acting as a liaison between Reaction Dynamics and the Illinois Institute of Technology and so you got a bunch of…

PETE: Our company presented the basic layout of what we wanted to do and then they would work on refining those ideas: location of center of gravity and how it worked with the aerodynamics. We worked back and forth between the engineering students and the engineering staff at IIT…

(stop tape)

… I’m not sure I got this on tape, I want to be sure I’m hearing this, you said there was some scale wind tunnel testing, subsonic wind tunnel testing…

PETE: Supersonic.

And which wind tunnel was this?

PETE: It was Ohio State University. We paid them to build the wind tunnel model to the aerodynamic specs and wind tunnel tested up to Mach 1.120. 1.15 I believe. It was around 850 miles an hour that they wind tunnel tested it to and structurally it was built to hit a half-inch steep bump at 1000 miles an hour. There was nothing out on the Salt Flats that high, although there were deviations and dips which we thought maybe would be a problem, but as it turned out the 350 pounds of nitrogen pressure in the tires, the tire moved itself out of the way, it just made ruts.

So the tires were 350 pounds per square inch and they were filled with nitrogen?

PETE: Yeah, they were built by Goodyear, designed by Mike Hopkins.

Now I got the impression that at some point Firestone originally was interested in this car, and uh, they were never in the loop with this?

PETE: They were interested in our 1/4 mile car, the X-1.

Right, but then they pulled out.

PETE: Humpy Wheeler, who is a big deal in stock car racing now with tracks, worked for Firestone at that time and we had contacted them. They provided tires for the X-1 to start with, then later on when we became associated with Goodyear. Goodyear gave us tires for the car, the X-1.

Okay, so basically, as I understood it, Firestone pulled out of the “tire wars” altogether and nobody saw it coming.

PETE: So we went to Goodyear and Goodyear supplied us with tires. And with that, we got the letter of intent that Goodyear would be making us these tires and went to the Gas Industry and they then signed the contract to let us build the car, once they were assured that we could get tires. It wasn’t until afterwards that we found out it would be three years before we would get the tires.


PETE: We already signed all the contracts and everything and we were too much of novices to nail down all the specifics in the contract, we were just young people at the time and didn’t have any business experience as far as contracts. So we learned.

Do you think that partially because Firestone pulled out and so Goodyear has no real incentive?

PETE: They already have the record.

(With) Breedlove’s Sonic 1 car.

PETE: But, uh, they were not interested in having their record broken by someone else so they decided – they didn’t help us financially at all. They built the tires and provided us twelve tires tested and did the balancing on them and Cragar Industries built the wheels. Did just a beautiful design, we designed the wheel, they manufactured them and just did a super job on them, they made 12 wheels and Goodyear mounted them, spun test them on Walt Arfons’ spin testing machine and while they were spin testing it, they had the machine break while it was going 850 miles an hour with a tire up there.

So the tire took it, but the machine didn’t ?!

PETE: I think there was a four-inch shaft driving that thing and the shaft snapped. They said there will be tire marks in that test cell that will be there forever.

Okay and just to wrap this part of it up – Goodyear developed tires, specifically for this project…

PETE: They were going to and when they couldn’t deliver them soon enough we ended up using the front tires off Breedlove’s Sonic 1 car, only they were re-engineered for our car – same molds, but the insides were quite different and they’d come up with new fibers and double the bead wire and had changed the internal construction using the same molds as the front tires on the Sonic 1. Those were 35 inch diameter and because of it the car grew a third in size and tripled and cost and we lost the vehicle to the Gas Industry because we immediately overspent.


LEAH: Also our original contract with the Gas Industry called for them making payments here, here, here, and here. Those payments were contingent on the fact that we had this much work done before each payment by a date and we had to prove we could do it – well we were doing fine until there was a national steel strike, you cannot build if you don’t have steel. Finally they settled, and it was just going to be touch and go for us to possibly make the next point and the truckers were waiting for the steel strike to get over. When the steel strike was over, the truckers shut down and said, “now it’s our turn” and we had no steel, and we couldn’t build, the fellas went back looking for other part time work, no paychecks, there was nothing.

PETE: Six months nothing happened on the car.

LEAH: The Gas Industry said we’re taking our car, they took the car and they left and we were sitting there devastated. No work…

PETE: The car went to Chicago, got put in a shed and it was on the wheels by that time, but the propulsion system wasn’t finished, it hadn’t been tested.

LEAH: It was no longer our car, according to the contract we didn’t own it.

PETE: We lost the ownership of the car, because initially it was going to be our car.

LEAH: It was a very hard time, that was during the time when Ray Dausman said his part of the work was done. He had developed this propulsion system, he had seen it through, he didn’t walk out on the company, he saw through everything that was his part, but he couldn’t deal with this devastating loss and saw no need for his talents to stay there. So he sold his share of the company and got on with his life basically and the rest of us twirled until we could re-negotiate.

That’s brutal.

LEAH: It was brutal, you know we think of it very sadly. It was out of our hands, the Gas Industry knew that we weren’t just scuffing around with the thing. “Well, send us more money, we’ll build it,” you know, they were aware of the steel strike and the trucker’s strike, but there was nothing we could do, so then we re-negotiated and…

PETE: They ended up owning the car and they agreed to pay us to finish the car, and because they had twice the money, more than twice the money of the original contract and just to finish it, get it to the testing point, and of course it cost a lot more to run it.

So the last part of the car as far as buttoning it up finally was you guys were kind of out of the loop at that point or you were just hired employees?

PETE: We were basically hired employees.

So Reaction Dynamics was still involved with the car?

PETE: Oh yeah, we were doing all the work, but we were doing it for the Gas Industry.

Was there a positive out of that, were you like, getting a paycheck at least?

PETE: Once we started working on it again, then everybody went back to collecting paychecks and you know everything was basically the same except that we didn’t get the car.

LEAH: It wouldn’t be our car and we spent about a week as a family agonizing over what this was going to mean, but you don’t meet too many people with the determination of Pete and he was going to have that car finished. If we didn’t have it, we didn’t have it, but he had said it would be done, he’d given his word, he signed the papers and…

PETE: We decided that it still needed to be done, I mean it wasn’t for nothing that we did it. We wished we’d been able to go back.

(tape rolls out)

How much would you say was LNG and how much would you say was hydrogen peroxide? 50/50? 90/10?

PETE: I’d say when we finally ended up running it, well, we had, it jetted so that the flow 25% of what the full flow of the engine would be and we flowed in 25 % by volume of LNG, no wait a minute – yeah it was about 25%. 30 gallons of LNG and 160-something gallons of hydrogen peroxide.

What was remarkable about this car was that it was really the last hurrah for the rocket guys, I mean Bill Fredrick was trying something similar, but by that time it was so hard to get fuel in the US, hydrogen peroxide, you know?

PETE: I guess you can get it, but whether or not they would allow you to import that much into the country I don’t know.

Well, (drag racer) Brent Fanning was telling me that there was one manufacturer left in Europe that would manufacturer at a percentage that a decent rocket, which I think is above 85%.

PETE: Yeah, it will run about 70% but it’s very poorly, it runs poorly and very inefficiently, 90% and above is better, 98% is better yet.

Spoken like a true drag racer.

PETE: 98% is military. That’s torpedo fuel.