Posts Tagged ‘X-1’

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.

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

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

Bob's Pawn Shop (photo by Cole Coonce)

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.

THE MAD! ROCKET SCIENTIST

November 2, 2008

As a totem, or a weapon, or a propulsion system — whither from Biblical times through the days of Mongol Invasions, beyond the Dark Ages into the bomb factories of Germany, from the launch pads of NASA and finally touching down onto the drag strips of 1970s’ America — the bark of a rocket has always been as fierce as its bite. It is the stuff of the physiological. It is the stuff of Ernst Mach — sensory and tactile and now hard-wired into our metaphysical fabric. It is the stuff of visionaries, daredevils and crackpots. It is also the stuff of dairy farmers moonlighting as rocket scientists…

“You couldn’t see the person next to you,” says Brent Fanning, aka “the Mad! Rocket Scientist.” Fanning is reminiscing about when he and and his wife Vicky ran the Outer Limits rocket funny car at drag strips across America to supplement their incomes as dairy farmers.

Outer Limits was supposedly a Corvette with a rocket engine, but by the time the Fannings were done deconstructing and reconstructing the fiberglass body by installing a series of colored bulbs they had bought at the hardware store and then wired in a hokey chase circuit, it was basically unrecognizable as anything off of a Detroit assembly line, much less of anything on this planet. If the no-budget sci-fi film Plan 9 From Outer Space needed a car as a prop, this was their interstellar baby…

Yes, at a Texas dairy farm whose barn is transformed into a garage for a rocket, the hydrogen-peroxide powered monolith known as Outer Limits would dwell silently and become quite the conversation starter for an agrarian culture not exactly known for its verbosity. The Fanning’s neighbors, most of whom were also farmers, would gather around the monolith and kick the tires, like goats looking at a watch. Brent would tell them the principles of running the rocket car, which he had researched over at Texas A&M, using the university’s networked computers as a font of knowledge and rocket science. He told them how the NHRA muckety-mucks had reluctantly attended a test of the rocket car way out in California and the men in suits were less than enthusiastic about even watching it run, much less signing off on a license for somebody who calls himself the “Mad! Rocket Scientist” racing something called “the Outer Limits.” Fanning told his buddies how they even had flown in a bonafide NASA engineer to supervise the test, who was actually kind of baffled about how Brent has put this particular system together.

While discussing rockets over a couple of beers one night, I tell Fanning that Craig Breedlove once said to me, “Everybody knows that anything under 70 percent hydrogen peroxide makes for a nearly useless rocket fuel.” Fanning couldn’t disagree more about watered-down hydrogen peroxide as a monopropellant.

“We used to dilute it with water so we could make more steam. I’d put Vicky in the stands while we made a run. After the car run, if she said she couldn’t see the person next to her, we considered the run a success, regardless of the speed.”

The speed. In those days, the rockets were running so much faster than the Top Fuel dragsters, track operators would lie about the elapsed time and terminal speeds so as not to upset the National Hot Rod Association and its insurers. This was an ironic about-face to the rather common practice of hyping “popcorn” times over the public address system and in the trades as a way of generating more interest in a given race track and its events.

Indeed, the same muckety-mucks who reluctantly oversaw the Fanning’s rocket test out in California, sent out threatening letters about revoking the licenses of drivers who went too quick and too fast. Philosophically and intellectually, the rockets were beyond what the Druids could process.

Fanning’s Outer Limits was the last vestige of the rocket car subculture, a once-burgeoning scene whistling across the drag strips: the names of the cars underscored a weird synthesis of nationalism, post-psychedelic individualism and futurism: the X-1, Vanishing Point, Miss STP, Stratosfear, Moon Shot, Screaming Yellow Zonkers, the Free Spirit, Spirit Of 76, Age of Aquarius, Captain America, the Pollution Packer, the American Dream, USA-1, the Conklin Comet, Concept 1, the Courage of Australia, etc…

The future was now for hot rodders across America, including Brent Fanning, who, due to the screwy economics of Jimmy Carter America, couldn’t afford a nitro Funny Car but could afford a rocket (!).

“I got to see a rocket car run and got to studyin’ ‘em and stuff. I thought, ‘Them things can’t tear up hardly,’ y’know? ‘We got to make money somehow, enough money to get a nitro Funny Car’ — that’s what I always wanted. So we ran a lot of match races with that rocket car. The first year we ran the (hydrogen) peroxide car, it would cost me $250 a run for fuel. When we quit four years later, it would cost $1200 a run. The last year we ran, I bought more hydrogen peroxide from FMC (Food Machinery Corporation, the manufacturer and distributor) than the U.S. Government. They had doubled the price. Basically, that put us out of business. It was only good for a flower pot so I gave it away and took a tax write-off.”

One of the finishing strokes for Brent’s career as a Mad! Rocket Scientist was when the NHRA tech daddies vetoed some of Brent’s ideas for propulsion enhancement. “Since I had a really weak rocket,” he clarifies, “I was actually going to try to inject a little nitro in it to increase the specific impulse on it — NHRA wouldn’t let ya’. I can’t blame them; it would have made it a little more… unstable.”