His first pass in a real race car was in the Master & Richter Olds-powered gasser at Fremont Raceway, back in the days of flag starts. (“Still have my Fremont 132 mph card from that pass,” Smith mused. “Beat a Willys pickup.”) And although the man who would come to be known as “Jet Car Bob” Smith promptly graduated into stabbing and steering blown railjobs on nitro, even that treacherous form of pavement pounding was baby food compared to his preferred from of propulsion: A military jet engine with an afterburner. Pure thrust, baby, with no power wasted on something as quaintly passe as burning rubber…
Ahhh, take a humble drag racer from San Jose, strap him into a raw, jet-powered fuselage on wheels, light some kerosene and pressurized air and Voila! Your Humble Working Class Drag Racer is now an instant Meta-Deity of Thunder and Fire! It was “Lock up your children, corral the animals or pay the man at the ticket booth! You can’t have it both ways.” And more often than not, the race fans and the curiosity seekers parted with their hard-earned entertainment dollar to see “Jet Car Bob,” the Superhero/Anti-Hero burn down plywood fences and blast off into oblivion 1/4 mile from where he launched.
Chronologically speaking, the torch for bleeding-edge-jet-technology-as-applied-to-the-drag-strip was lit when Akron Ohio’s Walt Arfons unveiled his massive, $2000 (cheap!) J46 Westinghouse-powered Green Monster at Union Grove, Wisconsin in the summer of 1960, but it was carried by Smith and his partner, fabricator Romeo Palamides, as much as anybody. Their cars, dubbed the Untouchable, were sleek, minimalist projectiles primarily propelled by military surplus General Electric J47 engines and anchored by 4 Firestone road race tires, replete with tread. Smith hung fore of the front axle in a bullet shaped capsule, naked and vulnerable to drag strip ack-ack-ack.
(And what chariots the Untouchables were! 12,000 horsepower, 27′ long, fire-breathing uber-dildos inspired by the excess and omnidirectional audacity and verve of the Jet Age. Or “the Big Zippo,” as Jet Car himself put it.)
Originally the Untouchable was shoed by Archie Liederbrand who soon gave up the seat to Glen Leasher. When Leasher was cruelly snuffed, Smith assumed the hot seat in the Untouchable and began making history as an outlaw drag racer in a machine that, due to its aerospace propulsion system, the High Sheriffs of drag racing, as well as most of the hitter competitors, considered an unsavory, incorrigible idea.
Because of this stigma, both Smith and his race car became audacious, successful commodities. “If you just booked in one jet car,” Smith quantified, “you were guaranteed a crowd.” No doubt, but the Untouchable in specific was truly on a roll: four days after Drag News created an Unlimited Dragster class in its official “Standard 1320 Records“ listings, Smith rode Untouchable to a 6.87/240 mph clocking at Erie, PA, a record that stood until 1967, when the records were no longer recognized by the trade papers.
Since Palamides preferred the relative calm of his Oakland Airport shop to the turbulence of traveling, “Jet Car Bob” became a veritable troubadour for the jet set, and once on the road he was more or less a one man band with the whirligig glissando of his turbine engine functioning as a melodic element of his Teutonic folk anthem and the pop! pop! POW! of the J47’s afterburner acting as the rhythm section. Like so much sturm und drang during this era, the exploits of Bob Smith were completely over-the-top, a career as pushed and absurdist as the contours of the rolling mutant monstrosities that carried him to fame, glory, acclaim — and a couple of emergency wards…
The hospital visits just add to the legend but the truth is this: “Jet Car” was a friggin’ rock star-cum-carny sideshow, barnstorming to and fro across the benighted, backwooded nether regions of America, the Outback of the Breadbasket and beyond, in a quest to show to local yokels what an honest bunch of California hot rodders can do when given access to the same glorious shards of thermodynamic technology that was normally set aside for the military-industrial complex and its corporate welfare mothers.
Ay, after Palamides and Elischer had scoured the scrap yards of the Southwestern Desert in search of military table scraps and the crumbs dropped from the gilded spoons of the techno-industrial banquets before welding them into Frankensteinian mega-machines, Smith would roll onto the starting line of a drag strip and begin spinning the turbines and applying voltage and jet fuel to the engine’s compressor and combustion chamber while the natives would cloister around the clumps of fire ejaculating out of the massive fuselage, like pygmies around a cauldron. It was ungodly; it was pagan. It was a ritual and a seance that nobody had experienced before but each paying customers felt deep in the marrow of their bones that there was something primal and good in the fire that smelled sweet and sour.
But the warmth and the comfort of the cabalistic pyromania had a flip side. On more than one occasion, the propulsion machine catapulted the fearless “Jet Car Bob,” half driver, half shaman, to doom and calamity.
In fact, “Jet Car’s” career crashed to a denouement as precipitously as it began. It ended with him declared dead in Milan, Michigan in 1964. But the proclamation of his demise was greatly exaggerated and ergo salutations are in order: After relegation to near-obscurity, driver “Jet Car Bob” Smith and his bossman and car builder, Romeo Palamides, have been inducted into Don Garlits’ International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 1999, a perch in a pantheon that will ensure they will never be forgotten. In Palamides’s instance, who ultimately constructed six Untouchable jet dragsters, as well as five jet funny cars, the award was posthumous. No matter; in the case of both men the honor could not have been more righteous. But in specific, the acclaim for the man known to his friends as “Jet Car” is particularly poignant… Nobody — and I mean NOBODY — has suffered more for their art (and lived) than Smith…
So “Jet Car,” how did you get tagged with the name “Jet Car”?
JET CAR: We were at Dragway 42 for the Drag News Invitational, back at the hotel. I’m in the room, trying to make some dates for down the road and I’m talking to this guy on the phone from Ohio, “Hot Rod Harry” Williams, that was the way he answered the phone. All I had (written down) was “Harry Williams, ” duh, duh, duh, “phone number, ” duh, duh, duh, “Exeter Drag Strip or something.” I dialed the number and he picked up and he comes on saying, “THIS IS HOT ROD HARRY WILLIAMS” and something just clicks and I go, “Yeah, well THIS IS JET CAR BOB SMITH.” I was having dinner with Al Caldwell, Romeo and Doris (Herbert, Drag News editor) and I told them this story, I’m still laughing about the way this guy’s answered the phone, “THIS IS HOT ROD HARRY WILLIAMS.” But I’ve been “Jet Car Bob” ever since.
So it’s pretty sweet that you and Palamides are inducted in the Drag Racing Hall of Fame. You had to be excited about that…
JET CAR: It’s the greatest thing that ever happened to me, I gotta’ tell you. In 1995 they inducted me into the Jet Car Hall of Fame — which is an honor also — but to us old time racers, this is the one. When I got the letter it put me right down in my chair.
You didn’t know it was coming?
JET CAR: I had no idea. I was at work when my wife got the letter and she called me saying, “You got a registered letter. I don’t normally do this, but I had to open it. It’s from the Don Garlits Museum.” I just went, “uhhhuuhhcckk.” It took me a few minutes to compose myself then she read it to me.
You were driving for Romeo Palamides starting in 1962?
JET CAR: 1962, yeah. I started driving for Romeo after Glen Leasher got killed. Glen got killed on the Salt Flats in Romeo’s Bonneville car, the Infinity.
I’ll tell you a little story: I had driven for Romeo before, in a Top Fuel car. When I heard on the radio that there was a crash up there (in Bonneville) I called the airport on the chance that he would be there — and he was. I offered my condolences on the crash and the loss of Glen and wondered if there was anything I could do for him. “Yeah,” he says,“I got to go to San Gabriel this weekend (for a match race); the track is supposed to find me a driver. If you could ride along and help me stay awake, maybe share the driving.” I said, “Sure, no problem.” I went to the airport and we loaded the jet car up and headed for San Gabriel. We started up the grapevine and the conversation came up as to who was going to drive the (race) car. Before we topped the grapevine and went over the other side, I was going to be the new driver. It took me about five seconds to say, “yes.”
Just like that.
JET CAR: At that time I was driving a Top Fuel car, and of course a week before I figured I could beat “that” car. Everybody did. Everybody figured they could beat that jet car. They figured they could leave on it, but nobody added up that, “Okay, this car is running in the 6s; we’re running in the 8s.” Nobody wanted to think about that. At that time the car always started from behind the starting line and slid. Then they’d fire the afterburner and the car would haul ass. Everybody figured that the car was rolling the lights and the elapsed times weren’t really right — me along with everybody else. But when Romeo said, “You did okay driving my fuel dragster, do you want to drive the Untouchable?” I’m like, “Y-E-A-H.”
I busted my balls running Sid (Waterman’s) Top Fuel car and we’re running 8.0 or 7.90 at 190. This car was going to run 6s at 220 or 230 mph. Who in their right mind wouldn’t jump into a jet? If nothing else to say okay, “I ran 230 mph.”
So the jet cars were sliding through the starting line?
JET CAR: Yeah. I cut some little wooden blocks out and stuck them behind the rear tires. I told Romeo, “You know the car hunches when it leaves.” It would pick up and be impossible to stage. These little one-inch blocks were enough to hold it so we could stage the car.
Tell me about the first night at San Gabriel.
JET CAR: Gary Gabelich made a pass right away, then Romeo put me in the car. I wanted to go fast right away. The first run was motor only (no afterburner) and I said, “No, I want to go faster.” There were a lot of switches to turn on (laughs), but I still wanted to go faster. So on the next run he let me turn on the afterburner, but he didn’t tell me the whole story. I made the run and it covered the track in so much kerosene that it killed mosquitoes for thirty square miles.
Weren’t you considered a turncoat by the wheel-driven community?
JET CAR: Yeah, yeah. But I was still looking at them and saying, “Hey! I’m going 230 and you’re going 190, pal.”
The Untouchable was quite a hot property. Did you have problems getting paid at some of these strips?
JET CAR: When we set the record up at Kingdon it went out UPI and AP, all over the world. I knew we went fast because on that particular run the ass of that car picked up off the ground (immediately) whereas it usually just slid then went “Boom“ and then picked up speed and by the time it reached the 1/8th mile you knew it was hauling ass. However, on that particular run I felt the back of the car just pick up and nail me to the seat. After that run the phones started ringing.
So I got a listing of drag strips and I talked to (dragster drivers) (Art) Malone and (Chris) Karamesines and I asked them who the good guys were and who the bad guys were. The bad guys didn’t pay you; the good guys were like slot machines: You went in and put on a show for ‘em and they paid you. But there were questionables in there: they paid you but you had to be hard nosed at the pay shack. Like (“Broadway Bob”) Metzler at Union Grove.
You could get money out of Metzler one of two ways: You stick a .45 up against his head and go, “Click. Pay me,” and have the look in your eyes that you were going to blow his brains out, even then it was nip and tuck — he’s a pretty good poker player, let’s put it that way; or you give him two more dates, usually holidays. This is an hour, hour and a half in the pay shack. You walk out going, “Well, we got our money,” then you go, “Oh shit, we just sold our two best dates of the year…”
There were times you really had to get mean. The second Drag News Invitational was at — I can’t even remember the name of that piece of shit drag strip — it was out by Mt. Clemens in Michigan. Doris (Herbert, of Drag News) had cut a deal with the owner. It was a signed contract. The only problem was that his guy had a drag strip that was about as wide as my living room. The week before he laid down the asphalt, and he went El Cheapo on the asphalt. We go there and the left lane of the drag strip — you couldn’t run on it. No way. It was soft, squishy. But what are you gonna’ do? You’re gonna’ race. Then it rained and everybody disappeared. Doris disappeared, the track owner disappeared. Everybody disappeared. Vaporized. There were a bunch of cars, most of ‘em were depending on gas money to get home. Everybody was getting nervous, “How am I going to get home?“ But I knew when I got to the motel that night I was going to have my money. When one of the lackeys gave the ol’, “Ahh, get out of here,” I said, “Okay, we’ll do it my way.” I backed the friggin’ jet car right up against the tower and I said, “Get these people back here or I’m burning the tower down.” We plugged that baby in and “wwwhhhoooo,” it started whirring. They showed up and bagged the money. It paid off like a slot machine.
What was Romeo like?
JET CAR: A super guy. A piss poor business man but a hell of a racer. The more he made, the more he spent.
He wasn’t unique then, as least as far as drag racers go. It is ironic that you could have problems making ends meet with what has been considered “cheap horsepower.”
JET CAR: You could build a jet car cheaper than you could build a Top Fuel car. The motors were very cheap at that time, all you had to do was go to Tucson and get them out of an aerospace boneyard over there. Then you had to have the ingenuity to bolt them into the car and make them work. There weren’t too many people who were motivated to do that because this was around the time that the NHRA said, “Errmp, you’re out of here.” I chased (NHRA Competition Director) Bernie Partridge all down the West Coast trying to convince him that the car was safe — they kept saying the engines were going to blow up. Which could happen, but under a lot of other circumstances beyond the way we were running the car. But when the NHRA gets their mind made up about something, nothing is going to change it.
But they were even down on the Allison-powered cars. The resented anything that came from aviation.
JET CAR: True. But if we had an off weekend and there was an NHRA race nearby, I’d tow into the pits and immediately there was a thousand people around the jet car. But it took a lot of years before they came around and let us make even exhibition runs…
They are afraid of progress sometimes.
JET CAR: The next couple of three years when all the crashes started didn’t help either.
“BAN THE JETS!” You guys were pretty much outlaws.
JET CAR: Pretty much. There were other associations around, plus there were a lot of outlaw strips that didn’t have any banners hanging up. They had their own insurance — I think they had insurance. They paid their bills, let’s put it that way.
You guys were really threatening the status quo. All of a sudden the diggers (Top Fuel dragsters) weren’t necessarily the headliners anymore.
JET CAR: Right. We could draw a crowd if just a jet car showed up for an exhibition. But when we ran (top fuel racer)Tommy Ivo in a match race — that lit it off. I must say I had to go in the tank on that one.
JET CAR: Well, what would have happened if I had blown him in the weeds three runs in a row? It would have been over.
How many rounds did he win?
JET CAR: He won two, we won one.
JET CAR: We came back a few weeks later and I blew him in the weeds two-out-of-three and I let him win one. From then on, I would let the dragster win one and then I’d win two.
JET CAR: Hey! I knew when it started that we had a commodity and if it worked right we had a saleable item. We were putting on a show — we were showmen, that was the bottom line. What NHRA forced us to do was be showmen. Back east, there weren’t that many jet cars so we’d race the favorite dragster in town, their local hero. I let him win a race so he’d look good.
And this was all on some rather dicey tracks.
JET CAR: Oh, oh, some of the tracks were shaky — in fact, a lot of them were shaky. There were very few that weren’t… Union Grove (WI) was a pretty big track at that time, but you’d go through the lights and after 100 feet you’d go straight down hill. Then you’d run out to a county road that would go right across the end of the drag strip. The road was about six feet higher than the level spot right before you got there. You’d go down a hill, you go across a flat spot then you’d go up to get on the road.
You had one of your worst crashes at Union Grove.
JET CAR: I crashed the first car in town.
JET CAR: At the circle track. I put it up in the grandstands and totaled it. The second car was the one that Romeo built for (Jack) Birdwell. We sort of leased it to finish our tour — and I crashed it. That was at Union Grove. There is a bump in the track in the right lane at about 1000′, and we hit the bump and that kicked the chutes out — I didn’t even know that they came out. I go through the lights and hit the chutes; no chutes. I went off the end and when I got to the road I was launched 10 feet, 12 feet in the air, I guess. I cleared the road — almost. There was a big old bathtub modeled Nash Rambler there with some guys in it who had just left the races. They were going to watch Karamesines and me make the last run from over the hill. I came over the hill with no chutes and I was back-and-forth, back-and-forth trying to make three miles out of a half mile. I got to the road and there was no place to go. I hit a telephone pole and cut it in three pieces before it hit the ground, I went up in the air and came down on the Nash Rambler. There were three kids; two of ‘em ran, one of ‘em jumped in the car.
JET CAR: It came down and went “kuh-wish” and flipped it around. I went into the ditch on the other side. I broke one finger, broke my nose again, cut my lip and scraped the grafts off because I was still wrapped up because of the burns the time before. I got out of that one without much, uhh, well I killed another car so that wasn’t good.
Yeah. And you say there was a kid in the Rambler? How did he fare?
JET CAR: He broke a collarbone. The real bad part was the ambulance ride to the hospital. Union Grove’s ambulance was a ‘36 Chevy panel truck. Even worse, they put the kid in the same hospital room with me. There were all these parents there and everything… oh, man. I’m laying there — I didn’t even want to go to the hospital, but “No, you gotta’ go to the hospital overnight” — and who do they wheel in but this kid. I go, “Oh shit, how can I escape from this?” If they hadn’t taken my clothes away I would have ran.
Were you getting stink-eye from the parents?
JET CAR: Oh, man! Oh! (Silence.) It was a bad evening…
So we’ve covered Untouchable’s 1 & 2. Tell me about number 3.
JET CAR: That’s the one I got hurt in the most.
Weren’t you in the hospital for almost six months?
JET CAR: That was a long one. Actually, what they called Untouchable IV was Untouchable III for me. III went to Birdwell; it was the one he renamed and put a little tail on the back and called it the Scorpion.
But (after the crash of Untouchable IV) they tagged my toe. I was in a coma. When you’re in a coma you hear things, but you can’t react to them. For some reason I’m laying there — and I know there is a lot of stuff going on around me but there is this heavy fog. The shit’s going on but you’re taking a nap. My sister was there, she’d flown in from Germany. She’s standing there with me and the doctors say, “Pffftt; ah, he’s gone.” They’re tagging the toe and putting the blanket over my face and she let out a giant scream. For some reason I just went “Whoa” and groaned and moved around a little bit. They went, “Hold it! Let’s check his beat again” and they started working on me. I started coming around and a few days later I came around some more. But at one time I was headed for the morgue…
The chute had torn off on that pass?
JET CAR: One of them came off and tore the mount off. Both (chutes) came right off the back of the car. That was not a long strip; there was a big ditch at the end of it. It nosed into the ditch which snapped the cockpit off. It came out of the ditch and just went endo six or eight times across this wheat field. The only thing holding the cage on (to the fuselage) was a throttle cable. It was like a rock on the end of a string — “whhipp, whhipp.” I was basically wearing the cage.
I was conscious when they got there. They sawed the cable off and put me and the cockpit in the back of this ambulance. At the hospital they cut me out — I was telling them where to cut in order to get me out of this thing. My legs were up around my head.
JET CAR: When they took me out of the ambulance, the nurses thought I was black. There was so much dust and dirt on me that they thought they were taking a black guy into the hospital.
“Bob Smith, the famous Negro jet car driver.” Unreal.
JET CAR: They put me in bed and set my legs; then I went into a coma. I had head injuries. For months after that there was no blue in my eyes, they were totally red. My eyeballs must’ve came clear out of my head. My eye sight sort of went bad after that…
You didn’t drive any more jets after that?
JET CAR: That was my last jet ride.
That was be quite an exclamation point. What did you turn on that run?
JET CAR: 230-235 mph. It was an average run. I don’t remember the run. I remember packing the chutes before the run — that’s all I remember.
Was Romeo touring with the car?
JET CAR: Romeo wasn’t there. I went out with the car quite a bit by myself; he was back here welding and running the shop. In fact, I didn’t even have anybody helping me. I picked some guy out of the crowd and said, “Hey, you want to help me pack a chute? Do you want to pump the kerosene?“ Somebody was always willing to do that, it was quite a charge for them.
So you drove diggers after that?
JET CAR: Yeah. I was in the hospital about six months then it was six months further down the road before I could really walk and talk and put enough weight back on to look human. It was a good year before I was really up and moving around and could get a job.
Did you like the dragsters better than the jets at this point?
JET CAR: At that point, yeah. (laughs) The jet was a show. There were things you had to do in driving a jet car, but it wasn’t anything like driving a digger. You didn’t have the wheels spinning, the car moving around underneath you and driving it by the seat of your pants.
You were more of a passenger?
JET CAR: You were. You lined the car up right and when you fired the afterburner you were going to go straight.
But then again you were describing wrestling it in the shutdown area. That had to quite an experience with all the weight on the ass end.
JET CAR: Oh yeah. It was like a Greyhound bus.
Did you do any racing at Bonneville?
JET CAR: No. I didn’t go with them when Glen got killed. Romeo and I talked about another car to go to Bonneville with. In the three or four year span that I drove for him in the jet car, we never made it long enough into the year to get there.