Posts Tagged ‘rocket dragster’

MIGRANT APES IN THE GASOLINE CRACK OF HISTORY

November 3, 2008

Rocket cars. Rocket dragsters. It was only a matter of time before the technology designed to put a man on the moon and vaporize entire cities was appropriated by the speed demons on wheels…

It’s simple: the common method for propulsion of the rocket dragsters utilized the following method: pressurized nitrogen forces the hydrogen peroxide onto a silver plate and the ensuing, instantaneous chemical reaction creates a tremendous cloud of hot stream that is force fed out of a nozzle, creating thrust.

Rockets summon, tickle and reanimate many primal notions dormant within the collective human consciousness… they tap into the memories of fire and they evoke the spirit of the transcendental, the exaltation and elevation of the human body and of the human spirit… “They wanted to escape from their misery and the stars were too far for them” – thus spoke Zarathustra and Friedrich Nietzsche about the very banality of existence… rockets are the stuff of Jules Verne books (From the Earth to the Moon) and Fritz Lang movies (Frau Im Mond), of Arthur C. Clark and Stanley Kubrick and 2001 whose symphonic score (Richard Strauss’ “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”) observed a human destiny far beyond the confines of Planet Earth; of the Ancient Chinese and tossed bamboo tubes filled with saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal as part of ceremonial fires and noisy explosions scaring away evil spirits. A full millennia subsequent, this is the stuff of the Sung Dynasty attaching tubes of powder to spears and using the projectiles to repel the invading Mongol hordes… “thunder that shakes the heavens” was the Chinese description of the dual elements of physical devastation and psychological terror… the Mongols appropriated the technology for use in their conquests of Baghdad and from there rocketry spread into Europe… as the Dark Ages gave way to the Renaissance, Sir Isaac Newton solved the theorem of equal and opposite reactions, which became his Third Law of Motion and a pithy explanation of how a rocket generates altitude and velocity… this is the stuff of unmanned rockets built from the blood of indentured Hebrews, subjugated into aiding the Third Reich as it bombed the shit out of London in its quest to establish a Master Race; of the Space Race and the rocket to the moon with spacemen in aluminum suits establishing beachheads on extra terra firma… this is the stuff of our id and a Jungian subconsciousness – of “migrant apes in the gasoline crack of history,” William Burroughs said – of apocryphal legend and honky imperialism and of dusty teenagers ratchet-strapping forgotten solid-fuel rockets onto the hoods of their rusted Chevy Impalas and smashing man and machine into the eternal oblivion of desert stone…

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THE OTHER X-1

November 3, 2008

July 23, 1966, Union Grove, Wisconsin. On this day, an afternoon as hot and as sticky as taffy, the Space Age comes to the local drag strip in the guise of a revolutionary new dragster concept. After three years of testing and two years of construction, the X-1 rocket car, built under the aegis of the Reaction Dynamics Corporation (basically a three-way partnership between a couple of shade tree propulsion experts as well as an expert fabricator and welder, all working out of a garage in Milwaukee), finally makes it maiden voyage down the pavement…

The X-1’s rocket engine has no moving parts and burns 9.5 gallons of hydrogen peroxide. By design, it shoooshes down the 1/4 mile pavement like a shot, and runs out of fuel 1000 feet into the run. Even after coasting for the length of a football field before entering the timing lights, the X-1 is still the quickest and fastest machine on a drag strip, effortlessly eclipsing the speeds and elapsed times of the state of the art nitro-burning dragsters that roar through the speed traps in full song, week after week across America.

Reaction Dynamics’ goal is to design a supersonic vehicle with a target speed of 1000 mph. The first step is to use the drag strip as a means to shake down their ideas.

The throughline for this project goes back to Germany in the 20s. As a pup, Richard A. Keller (“Dick”) saw a photograph of Fritz von Opel’s rocket car, the black brautwurst-shaped roadster that exploded and killed Max Valier. Dick was smitten with the stark white lettering on the car, which spelled out “RAK,” short for “raketen” (Kraut fur “rocket”). It was an eponymous coincidence as RAK was young Keller’s initials also. Of such coinky-dinks, does the trajectory of history twist… Likewise, at a drag strip, the fortuitous meeting of Keller and Ray Dausman with Top Gas dragster racer Pete Farnsworth also tweaks the course of history.

August, 1967, U.S. 30 Drag Strip in Crown Point, Illinois. Chuck Suba, an All-American boy with a healthy sense of curiosity and a clean cut appearance not unlike that of Eisenhower’s favorite son, has been hired to pilot the X-1 rocket car.

This day is a day of destiny.

A gurgling sound bubbles out of the rocket’s decomposition chambers, like Frankenstein on day old pizza. DRAG RACING Magazine reports that Suba “holds the steering yoke vertically, 90 degrees off axis, and aims the front of the car between his third and fourth knuckle, like a sight on a revolver.

“The rocket engine’s exhaust is 4 times the speed of sound… a noise like an afterburner kicks in and suddenly he is off, riding on the head of a bullet.” The X-1 zips to a 5.41 second elapsed time – the quickest ever on a 1/4 mile drag strip. By a bunch.

Documentation of the X-1, and its follow-up, the Blue Flame (both being preeminent rocket cars in the history of maximum velocity) is rather sparse, as is accurate information about Reaction Dynamics, the small business that operated and designed these machines. I know they were based out of Milwaukee, but that is about all I know. So I fly out to Wisconsin on a whim. Once there, I cold call Reaction Dynamics co-founder Pete Farnsworth and arrange to meet him and his wife Leah for Chinese food.

It is thirty years after the Blue Flame set the Land Speed Record. Its driver, Gary Gabelich, might call this meeting of conversation and won ton ala Wisconsin “blenderized karma.” As the Farnsworths and I sit down in a restaurant whose decor can only be described as “cavalier and relaxed rusticana,” I take notice of Pete’s prosaic build and underspoken demeanor. There is absolutely nothing about this guy that says “I-was-part-of-the-intellect-behind-what-once-was-the-quickest-car-on-the-planet-and-I-still- have-a-rocket-dragster-in-my-barn-as-some-weird-totem-and-memento-to-the-days-when-I-set- the-world-on-fire.” Nothing. His accomplishments are absolutely hyper-intense, but the guy is more laid back than a back lot security guard. His wife Leah is small in stature, but there is nothing diminutive about her worldview and opinion. Both strike me as no nonsense. During the course of dinner I begin to understand something that I never knew: that holding the Land Speed Record could be as sweet and sour as any Chinese pork.

Between forkfuls as brackish as Bonneville, I masticate and ask Pete about his transition from Top Gas dragsters to the rockets:

But how did you go from reciprocating engine drag racing into the more, you know, thrust driven stuff?

PETE FARNSWORTH: It was a matter of necessity, really. I was working full time and racing full time and it just became a twenty four hour a day thing to try to maintain a fuel dragster and work 8 or 9 hour a day too, so I was looking for a way to build an exhibition car of some sort.

Um hmm, what, what year was this?

PETE: Probably about ‘63, ‘64, when the jet cars were just starting to tour the circuit. As I have mentioned, we know (amputee jet car driver) Doug Rose quite well and he was running for Walt Arfons at the time and broke away from Walt and started his own car, the Green Mamba (jet dragster) and uh, we figured “these guys have cars that will run all day long, they don’t have to do a massive amount of maintenance on them.” I thought the next step up from a jet car would be a rocket car – and I started looking around at propulsion systems that were available in the early 60s and there basically wasn’t any.

I was out at Oswego Dragway with a gas dragster and an acquaintance from out past in Chicago – we both grew up in Evanston (just north of Chicago) and Chuck Suba had run a shop there, building race cars and doing specialized tune ups and things like that, and he had one of his customers that, uh, I was an acquaintance with – his name was Dick Keller and um, Dick was out there and happened by our pit and recognized me, and we got to talking. He asked me what we were doing and I said, “You know, running a gas dragster now, but trying to put together a rocket car for exhibition.” He said, “Well, that’s funny, cause a friend of mine, Ray Dausman, and I had just finished building a twenty five pound thrust rocket engine.”

Um hmm.

LEAH: And they were both going to go to Chicago where, um…

PETE: … the Illinois Institute of Technology and uh, Dick worked part time as a research assistant into gas technology, which was the research arm of the American Gas Association. So that was our first tie-in with the gas association was the fact that Dick knew people in the industry.

So that connection was made even before you guys ran the X-1?

PETE: Yeah, he was working there at the time when we got together. We started out as DFK Enterprises, for Dausman, Farnsworth and Keller and um, I believe that was 1965. We formed that and this was after a discussion meeting about whether the 25 lb. thrust motor they had built was scalable for something usable for drag racing – and all indications it was so, I decided from what I had heard from all this that this was the way to go because it was throttle-able, it was a reasonably safe fuel to handle and uh, hydrogen peroxide didn’t have any possibilities of explosion, (it is) reusable safe to handle as long as you didn’t pour it into a pile of rags or something and it wasn’t going to spontaneously ignite…

Um hmm.

PETE: We were having truckers trying to drop off great big drums of nitromethane while – you were thinking about your kids taking a nap – that was what they did one day when I was at work and they came with a 55 gallon drum of 98 percent nitro next to benzol straight from California. The guy didn’t have a loading shoot, so we decided we were going to take the back off a semi trailer…

LEAH: Well, it was labeled as cleaning fluid…

PETE: Um hmm, “cleaning solvent.”

LEAH: Cleaning solvent, you know, “no problem, it’s just a solvent.”

PETE: Well, my wife panicked, went down to one of my garages and grabbed a bunch of old tires and they rolled in down and dropped it off onto the old tires. If it had gone off it would have leveled the neighborhood –

LEAH: See that’s why I’m so gray.
(laughter)

PETE: She’d had to cover for me a lot.

Was the design goal ultimately to go to Bonneville and take the LSR?

PETE: No no….

Exhibition money?

LEAH: Um hmm.

(discussion turns to Pete Farnsworth and Chuck Suba towing the X-1 to California in an effort to get the car approved by the National Hot Rod Association for exhibition runs at their tracks.)

PETE: My idea to start with was just to build and exhibition car and Dick and Ray had ideas of going to Bonneville for the Land Speed Record. They started to use it as a stepping stone and I wasn’t involved with the land speed record at all. At that time I had interest in it, but I was following it since I was a kid. You can’t help it if you’re in Hot Rodding to not read about Bonneville, but I had never been there.

HOT ROD did a nice article on it and then we went over to NHRA (in California) and uh, we had contacted them before that we were coming out, (because) we couldn’t even get anyone to come out into the parking lot and look at the car… Finally, I think it was Bernie Partridge came there and he took one look at it and he said, “No.” I explained the car to him, Chuck and I did, and he said well, “We’ll let you know.” So we went back in and in a while they came back out again, you know, didn’t invite us in at all.

(laughter)

PETE: In a while they came back out again and said, no we can’t do this – and explained that they were supported by the automotive industry and that the automotive industry would not want this sort of competition at the track, and from that standpoint I could see it, so they basically said, “No, we’re not going to let you run.”

And one thing was that they said that the car was so fast that it would have too much kinetic energy if it got into the crowd. Well the top fuelers were much heavier and they were going proportionally pretty fast, they had more kinetic energy than we did, but they flat refused to consider it.

LEAH: That was a real heavy disappointment to send the car all the way out there and…

Sure, and you had to know in hindsight that they had their mind made up even before they saw it… then again, you guys were so far ahead of the curve that, whether it was collusion with the automotive industry or not they just couldn’t deal with it.

PETE: I think they saw that after we ran the car and we were the first to go below 6 seconds – we clocked a 5.90 in Oklahoma City and, uh, Labor Day weekend of 1968 – that was the last time the car ran and we went 6.03 and 5.90. Nobody ever recognized it except the Guinness Book of Records, which did recognize it and so we were in there as world 1/4 mile elapsed time record holders. We were two miles an hour short of what Art Arfons did with his J79 Green Monster Car. He had gone 267 mph and we went 265 but we weren’t even running all the way through to 1/4 mile with it (because of) the fuel tank’s capacity. We never had enough fuel to go all the way through and considering we were coasting going through the trap and we were running 265. We probably figured the terminal speed was probably 280, 285 something like that when we shut off and coasted. But uh, that was basically the end of the X-1, we ran it down at the meet at Oklahoma City. We had already started on our promotion with the Gas Industry people and they were there observing what we were doing the day we set the world record (for the drag strip).

Within a month we had signed a letter of intent with them to build the Blue Flame.

THE X-1, THE BLUE FLAME, REACTION DYNAMICS AND THE WORLD’S FASTEST FLOWER CHILD … A RAW TRANSCRIPT … OR … HOW I STOPPED WORRYING AND LEARNED TO LOVE THE BONE…

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.

70 PERCENT IS A LOUSY ROCKET FUEL (1973)

November 2, 2008

”The skies were black with clouds and the season was late, so any storm represented the official end to the runs for the year. Gary made a successful first run, the car was turned and fueled for the return through the ’Flying Mile,‘ it was a moment of ’should he or not?‘ The timers gave Gary the radio call that the decision to go or not was his. He sat in silence (he was always sort of spiritual). Suddenly the clouds parted and a ray of sun pierced the windshield, Gary’s words were: ’That’s a sign from God‘ and he lit the match for the record setting run.“— Blue Flame crewmember Paul Stringer.

Inspired by the US moonshot and Gary Gabelich’s achievement in the Blue Flame (a cool two-way average speed of 622.407 mph on October,1970), Craig Breedlove uses the drag strips to shake down his English Leather rocket dragster, powered by a hydrazine-fueled lunar module motor. His ultimate target speed with the rocket is the Speed of Sound, but Uncle Sam intervened and confiscated Breedlove’s eye-dropper and chemistry set. Or as Craig puts it, “We actually built the English Leather rocket car as a prototype test vehicle to develop a hypergolic rocket system for a Land Speed car… We ran that engine on unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine and nitrogen tetraoxide for an oxidizer. We were able to order it at will, TRW was able to vouch for us that we were not a bunch of dingbats out there. In 1974, all of that was outlawed.”

Nonplused, Breedlove begins to r&d a hydrogen-peroxide rocket car. Different design, same results. “We changed the design of the car to four peroxide thrusters because they had not yet restricted hydrogen peroxide in any way,” he explains to me in the SOA compound on Black Rock in 1997. “After we made the switch, all of a sudden you couldn’t manufacture or sell peroxide in any concentrations higher than 70 percent. And 70 percent is a lousy rocket fuel. At that point the entire rocket-powered land speed vehicle was trashed.” Disheartened and almost destitute, Breedlove jettisons his dream of going Mach 1 and began living on his sailboat, a sad statement on the Spirit of these here United States. With the government putting the kibosh on lunar module fuels in the private sector, Gabelich’s rocket-powered record run was the final chapter for Bonneville as the playpen for truly unlimited thrust. Bummer.