Posts Tagged ‘Pete Farnsworth’


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

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

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.


November 3, 2008

The X-1. The perfect nomenclature for a rocket-powered Land Speed racer. It’s moniker was appropriated from Chuck Yeager’s airplane, a piece of machinery that rode in the belly of a B-29 bomber until pod doors opened over the barren slate of the Mojave Desert, where every inch of air and space is a proving ground.

(Yeager proved that Mach 1 was not something to be feared, it was something to be penetrated. Breaking the sound barrier is an everyday occurrence for fighter planes nowadays and has even trickled down into the domain of consumer air travel in the form of the Concorde…)

In both instances, the “X” represented “experimental,” and was meant to be a precursor to the real deal: in the instance of the airplane, the X-1 was a means towards understanding and defeating the turbulence of supersonic buffeting. In the form of the rocket-powered dragster, it was an attempt at understanding exactly how much ooommmpphhh could be wrenched out of a rocket motor in a car.

The X-1 dragster (aka the Rislone Rocket) was merely a means to an end, the end being 1000 mph — well beyond Mach 1 — in a larger, more powerful vehicle: The Blue Flame.

Like Yeager, Gabelich was a hired gun, a fearless hot shot who climbed into an unfamiliar situation. (After the negotiations with another test pilot who demanded a nice chunk of change in exchange for powering through the unknown, Yeager got the rocket ride when he eschewed the need for a bump in his Army Air Corp’s pilot’s salary.) Gabelich was hired after Suba was killed in a Top Fuel dragster.

Gary Gabelich: Who was he? His reputation was that as the world’s fastest flower child. Was that accurate? This is the guy who whose parting words in a conversation were “Have a happy forever.” This is also the guy who, while driving the Sandoval Bros. Top Fuel dragster out at Fontana Drag City would greet the track photographers with “the Bone,” obscenely and mischievously sticking one finger in the air for the duration of the run…

What can you tell me about Gabelich, I mean you said he was personable and charismatic and fearless, but he was also, I mean, you guys are, you know, nice Midwestern people that uh…

PETE FARNSWORTH: The only time that we really spent a lot of time with him was at the Salt Flats. I mean he came to the Midwest here when we were fitting the car for controls, when we got everything in the right place, the window opening, you know, so that it was centered on where he was going to sit, and the depth of the seat and location of pedal controls, things like that so he could reach everything while he was strapped in. Other than that, he wasn’t out to the Midwest here very much and generally, he’d be out for a couple of days or so and we’d go and have dinner, but it was a whole bunch of people, a big happening.

LEAH: We heard that he was kind of wild in the California area when he was with his own element but that was not, he kind of segmented things, you know, he kept this group over here and this group over here and we weren’t in the group that was, you know partying with him or anything like that and so, you hear things.

PETE: When he came to the Salt Flats, he had his own contingent, you know, people that were right around him and we met a lot of them out there.

Or was there more, you know the hippie biker kind of contingent that he had with him?

PETE: I guess all of the above.

I mean without being a value judgment, it’s just that he was a different personality type.

LEAH: I would say from uh, as you said Midwest value type thing, that they were all the (clears throat) California crowd. They were from the other end of the country, you know, there’s the Midwest and there’s the California guys. No they weren’t really the hippie biker type, we had that around here, too, they were just, on a different stage, but it was…

PETE: … they were really good friends of Gary’s though, boy they’d do anything for him.

LEAH: He was very mindful of his image, because he wasn’t out there, he was the driver of the Blue Flame. That man was on from the time he got out of the car. When we went back to the motel, little kids would come up and talk to him and he’d pet their dog, he’d bend over to talk to the little old Grammas you know, get down to their level and talk to them.

PETE: Yeah, he was very good with people…

LEAH: … he could just sell everything, but…

PETE: When he got with his own group, then he did whatever they did, but we didn’t necessarily associate that much.

(stop tape)

After you guys set the LSR, Gabelich was hurt in a funny car crash not too long after that.

PETE: Yeah with the money he made driving the car, Natural Gas Industry paid him 50,000 bucks, plus they paid him for appearances too. He built the 4 wheel-drive funny car, they took it out and were testing it and he clipped the guard rail and crashed it and cut a foot off and a hand off and uh, pretty amazing that they put him back together —

Yeah there was a surgeon around that…

PETE: Yep, they threw him the car — and still in his firesuit and all the pieces — and went over there and there happened to be a neurosurgeon on duty who put him back together. As I understand he won the California State Handball, Racquetball championship after that — maybe it was for handicapped people or something, I don’t know — but just the same, you know it was pretty amazing. We had pretty much lost track of him by then.

I sent out e-mail queries to those who worked with Gabelich. Many went unanswered, a mute testament to how much his chums still respect him and continue to honor his privacy. The best and most informative reply read as follows:

I think I understand why those who knew him (to probably even the slightest degree) are “tight-lipped” about GG… it’s because we loved him.

Like all of us, he had his “failings” if you will, or his “weaknesses”… but unlike most, he was so very open about “them” (as well as everything else), with an almost child-like naivete that you could NOT help but love him and accept him with open arms… he was just Gabelich!

You’d find his picture in TWO places in the dictionary… the first is where it says “charm”… he was the most “charming” person I’d ever met! And I’m talking SINCERE charm… that is why he was so special… because if anyone ever had the opportunity to be “stuck-up” it would have been Gary, as he was “movie-star, drop-dead handsome,” famous, daring, and with a fantastic personality, he had it all.. yet he was TOTALLY unassuming, generous, and loving to EVERYONE and NOT just when he was in the spotlight… but ALL the time… what you got was the real Gary, ALL the time. With one bright white smile he’d charm your socks, shoes, pants and shirt off!

The second place in the dictionary would be where it says “fearless”… I don’t know what it was… if he actually thought he was indestructible, if he just didn’t care… or just loved doing what he did… I don’t know, but he truly had NO FEAR!

I was at Orange County International Raceway with him when he crashed… I know what really happened… but… I’m afraid that all I can do is tease the shit out of you, in that I was one of the fortunate ones who knew him and witnessed GG “events”… usually along with others, but sometimes just me and him… or me and him and a “friend” at the shop at 2 AM… He was a super-magnet to beautiful women… but he didn’t seem to overly care about the chicks… I think his “daring” lifestyle (as he did more than drive race cars… like doing stunt work in Hollywood, and being a human “guinea pig” for the Air Force… etc.) was his REAL passion…

And with that, I will have to tell you that I too will have to join the tight-lipped club, in that I can only tell those things that I can tell (and that wouldn’t be much)… the rest I will not tell, to protect him, because I loved him.


November 2, 2008

What was the budget going in, I mean what did you guys think you could deliver for?

PETE FARNSWORTH: We signed a contract I believe for $165,000.

Um hmm, so that’s almost a half a million by the time it was done?

PETE: It was a little more than half a million when it was completed run and a movie made about it. It was all part of the budget.

So I’m assuming the chassis’s 4130 chromemoly?

PETE: From the back of the driver to the front of the front wheels, structure in front that held the pressure tanks for the fuel systems was chromemoly 4130 and all the structure from the driver back was 4130. I heli-arced that whole thing together.

And the propulsion system, did they end up using the liquefied natural gas?

PETE: Um hmm. That was a bi-propellant engine, hydrogen peroxide, liquefied natural gas. We did break the primary injection system for the liquefied natural gas on one of the early runs and bypassed and ran the secondary system which we were going to put 3/4 of the fuel through the secondary injection system and 25% through the primary system. We broke the primary system and ended up only through the high speed, the high powered section of it.

Okay, so there was two injection systems but either one used a combination of the two propellants.

PETE: Yeah, yeah…

Because here’s the confusion, some people don’t think that there was LNG running through the car.

PETE: The gas industry insisted on that, there was definitely LNG running through the engine. It helped in creating heat in the combustion chamber on the run and we were way down on power. We went out there, the engine was designed for 22,000 pounds of thrust at full power; the first year we didn’t need nearly that much, we only were going to run the primary fuel injection system, with the 25% fuel flow. We ran it at that and we sunk a big steel post in the Union Grove (drag strip) down in their shutoff area way down at the far end. We tied the car to it and put strain gauges between the car and the post and the post was down in several yards of concrete below ground with a nine inch diameter steel post and, uh, tied it to the car with 5/8 steel cables and we were consistently getting 16,500 pounds thrust cutting the engines. That’s what we went to the Salt Flats with.

Okay I’m trying to understand what you said — The 16,500 pounds was strictly out of the primary injection system? Not even using the secondary?

PETE: We were not going to use the secondary system the first year. We had enough power, we were going to upgrade it the second year supposedly to go supersonic, but in order to do that we would have to have gone to Schenectady, New York and check out the rocket — the Lowell Rocket system on their rocket test — and check it for combustion instability and that would have been probably well, we’re not really even sure, but we think it would have been 50 or 60 thousand dollars additional just to test it in those days. 1970 dollars.

And so you guys wanted to go Mach 1 but the Gas Company just wanted to…

PETE: Well, they got the record and that was enough for them. They toured the car around the world it was the first car to exceed a thousand kilometers per hour in Europe. It was a tremendous hit, over there, Jesus, one thousand kilometers per hour on the ground, but it was just a number. Speed of sound… THAT was the number.

A physical barrier, yeah?

PETE: We were restricted the first year as well by Goodyear: no more than 700 miles an hour with the tires, till they could evaluate the design and take the tires, cut them apart, make sure that everything was all right. So we went 660 with it, with a broken motor, we ended up having 10,500 pounds thrust on the record runs. A very interesting project, but just heartache after heartache. But you know, (these were) experiences that you wouldn’t trade for anything, no matter what.

On one level it sounds like you got jobbed out of you know, going Mach 1.

PETE: No, no, we never said that. You know, we would have liked to have the attempt at it.

Okay, I mean basically that next year you wanted to break…

PETE: They never agreed that they were going to do that, (but to make) an evaluation after we ran the first year.

If the car hadn’t been repossessed and had you guys still had some cash or maybe derive some cash from the car, from appearances and in car shows and what have you, that potentially you would have gone out the next year.

PETE: Perhaps.