Posts Tagged ‘Zarathustra’


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…



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

Bob's Pawn Shop (photo by Cole Coonce)


November 2, 2008

”Man is something that must be overcome; and for that reason you must love your virtues — for you perish by them.“ Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

DUMMMM…….. DAHHHMMMM……… DEEHHHMMM…….. DEEMMMMMM…….. DA-DUM……. to the accompaniment of an orchestral overture, somewhere in America four mechanics in white shirts and slacks push a shaved albino carrot of a motorcar onto the launch pad of a drag strip… the rocket car is shrouded by four motorcycle tires and looks rather docile, like a soapbox derby racer with a slight thyroid condition… horns blare out of a series of lo-fidelity loudspeakers wired in parallel, with cables sagging down the length of a drag strip… DUMMMM………. DAHHHMMMM………. DEEHHHMMM………. DEEMMMMMM…….. DA-DUM… BOUMP…. BAMMPP…. BOUMPHH… as tympanies rattle, smoke silently wisps from hydrogen peroxide gas chilled to near absolute zero… the caustic vapor stings those close enough to read the lettering POLLUTION PACKER stenciled onto the race car’s aluminum-skinned fuselage.

The Pollution Packer. The moniker itself served as a fantastic portent of an age when outrageous hyper-velocity will be absolutely effortless and won’t degrade the Air Quality one iota. The rocket car is a postcard from the future, a day when there is no smog and warp speed for the populous is commonplace. The fuel is hydrogen peroxide, suggestive of experimental hydrogen-burning engines that produce water instead of smog.

Although hardly as pure as the driven snow, as far as rocket fuels go, hydrogen peroxide is decidedly less toxic than, say, hydrazine, a radically unstable fuel additive that would explode upon contact with just about anything. Vintage film of Nazi Luftwaffe pilots with nasty and gruesome burns from dicey landings with experimental rocket airplanes are testament to the chemical’s volatility. In the 1960s, a few of the braver nitro dragster racers would splash hydrazine into the fuel tank after the motor was lit and the dragster was running on the start line, creating a cocktail of nitromethane, benzol and 2% hydrazine. Surreptitious use of hydrazine is credited with the first 200 mph clocking by a fuel dragster (Chris “the Greek” Karamesines in 1960, a feat not matched for another four years). As per the instability of hydrazine, one top fuel driver said that, “I do know if you spilled the straight stuff in the trunk of the tow car you had instant fire. Had first hand experience with that one. I really think there were more guys running it than were willing to admit (it).”

”… it didn’t take the Talmud to see that folks would pay good money to see death-defying displays of horsepower and cockpit acumen at their local drag strip… jet and rocket dragsters became a way to subvert the system and ensure that the racers were in the loop in a fiduciary sense… it was a means for hot rodders to be paid in full…“ — Gus Levy, SCHTUPPING THE SYSTEM WITH MAXIMUM THRUST, previously unpublished.

”NHRA was founded in response to a demand among thousands of hot rodders in all parts of the country to organize a legitimate, purely American motorsport. And NHRA, under Wally Parks’ guidance, did just that. We’re all very proud of 50 years of achievements.

”If you’re so fond of airplane engines, race ‘em the air, in airplanes, where they belong. Yes, drag racing is about automotive engines, and as long as I have any say over it, the sport will stay that way.“ NHRA muckety-muck, Dick Wells.

Meanwhile, back at the drag strip’s launch pad, the music is all midrange and sounds like a hangover feels. As a string section joins the horns and the percussion, and everything swells toward a crescendo that distorts the speaker cones and attempts to cloak the lack of any real noize out of the race car resting in a wistful and dormant manner on the drag strip’s starting line. Noise from the twisted and besotted crowd swells in time with the trumpets’ flourish and a smattering of beer cans and trash are tossed ineffectually in the general vicinity of the track.

From the rocket motor comes a discordant harmonic, a high-pitched whistle — like the sound of a negligent housewife’s tea kettle set to a high burn. The opera overture reaches its apex and continues blaring out of tin speakers, oblivious to the whistling, which is in a different key altogether. Every head hurts just that much more from the atonality.

As the start lights turn green, the rocket car smokes in the drag strip with a heavenly mist of steam. The air stinks like ammonia with a hint of rubber gloves burning in a landfill faraway in Valhalla. As it zips down the race course, the Pollution Packer burns H2O2 in a quantity and concentration that would keep an Aryan nation of Rita Hayworths platinum blond for life. The white vapor is a gentle and clandestine nerve gas, silently tweaking central nervous systems and fogging the brains of those assembled like mosquitoes in a culvert.

It is fitting that the soundtrack to the launching of a rocket car is “Also Spake Zarathustra,” Richard Strauss’s ode to Frederik Nietschze, a pompous piece of music appropriated by motion picture director Stanley Kubrick as the opening theme in his space epic, 2001.

Nietschze was a firm believer in the elevation of the human spirit, and how man could take his endeavors to ever-spiraling heights. If life had any meaning, he reckoned, it was to raise the bar on all matters spiritual and intellectual — and by extension, technological.

2001 was a 1960s production and an exercise in inscrutable bombast. The movie’s message was garbled by the gobbling of w-a-a-a-y too much LSD by its filmmakers as they read the Arthur C. Clarke book upon which the script was based… one precept of 2001 was the notion of uroboros or bookends and how everything in the spacetime continuum comes full circle… at the beginning of the film, barbaric simians gather at a monolithic totem left behind by a future civilization of humans who have vaporized their very existence… during a total eclipse of the sun, the monolith generates an unheard cosmic wail that tweaks the psyches of the primordial chimps who have discovered technology in the form of a zebra bone that can be used as a billy club… they haven’t yet discovered the wheel nor fire, but these hairy precursors to humanity have found a way to beat each other’s brains into a pulpous ooze… this same totem mysteriously manifests on one of Jupiter’s moons, whereupon the nervous sounds of a planetary eclipse drives a handful of space explorers to their doom… civilization has gone full circle, back to the species upon which humans evolved…

There is an echo of Kubrick’s ethos by the whooping and hooping of beer-battered bleacher bums, dangling precipitously by the top rails of a temporary grandstand. The drunks are an embodiment of verisimilitude and simulacrum, an example of 2001’s apes either somewhat evolved or somewhat de-evolved. The shrill pitch of the rocket engine is a physiological device that tweaks the primitive id of the beastly crowd of trackside tipplers.

The rocket whizzes by and the drunks scream even more belligerently, dazzled by the raw display of speed and stoned by the surreal cloud of rocket vapor. Up in the grandstands just shy of the finish line, two hippies blowing weed drop their jaws. “That was too fast,” one exhales, like he had just seen the monolith and thy monolith’s name is the Pollution Packer.

And perhaps it was too fast. Or perhaps tossing beer cans in the presence of a rocket car is just a monkey throwing a bone to the heavens.


November 2, 2008

”… supposedly when I lifted off the throttle, that was one fuel shut off device and when I popped the chute it was supposedly another one. Well, none of the fuel shut off devices worked so both chutes pulled off the car because it wasn’t very firmly anchored to the chassis and off I went, till I ran out of fuel. When I got down to the end, there were two guys waiting to pick up the chute and help me get off of the track. Well, here they start walking out in my lane, I‘m in the left lane, I mean, I knew I was in trouble, but they didn‘t realize that the chutes came off and then I steered the car — not knowing the chutes came off — I pulled over to the right and that aimed me, fortunately down a dirt road, when I went through a 14 foot cattle gate and missed a chain link fence. Otherwise I would have impaled myself right through the fence… I went up a hill and I don‘t remember anything else, I remember seeing blue, then that‘s the last thing I remember…“ — Paula Murphy, on her crash in the ”Miss STP“ rocket dragster when she set both a local speed and an altitude record in a race car.

Chuck Suba’s 5.41 second run remained drag racing’s all-time Low E.T. until November 11, 1971 when Vic Wilson clocked a 5.10 pass at 311 mph in the second hydrogen peroxide rocket dragster, Bill Fredrick’s Courage of Australia. This transpired during private testing at Orange County International Raceway in Southern California.

Despite the reluctance (actually, refusal) of the NHRA to sanction the rockets as a real class (the NHRA remains the de facto arbiters of all things drag racing and they refused to acknowledge or publish any jet car “records” as the cars were relegated to the “exhibition class” status (or “exploding clowns” as the dragster crowd sniffed)), the rocket car scene flourished like a comet. Its luminescence was just as brief. The triumphs, mishaps and tragedy left in its wake were legion and belie the brevity of the rocket car’s moment in the sun. To wit:

1972: Craig Breedlove crashed his English Leather Spl. (nee Screaming Yellow Zonkers) while testing an experimental aero package (sans wheel fairings); in her first (and only) pass in a rocket car, Paula “Miss STP” Murphy breaks her neck while setting both velocity and altitude records in Sonoma, California when the parachutes are ripped from the car’s chassis, and the car subsequently launches up and over the rolling hills of Wine Country…

1973: John Paxson tests a new motor in the Courage of Australia, and after a parachute failure, drives through the sand traps, pole vaults and lands upside down on the vehicle’s vertical stabilizer. Paxson was uninjured…

1974: Dave Anderson crashes in the Pollution Packer in Charlotte, North Carolina… Anderson’s chute doesn’t deploy and the dragster first slides into a parked race car at the end of the course — killing two crewmen — then impacts a retaining wall and nearly bends in half, killing Anderson…

1975: Upon impact, Russel Mendez frees his spirit and is beheaded by an aluminum guardrail in Gainesville, Florida as his body ejects from the Free Spirit

1976: “Fearless Fred” Goeske wrecks his Chicago Patrol rocket at a speed of 275 mph and merely bruises his collar bones from the shoulder harness…

1977: Stunt woman Kitty O’Neil rips a 3.72 at a crushing 412 mph in Bill Fredrick’s Rocket Kat dragster… Jerry Hehn is killed in his American Dream while doing thrust tests in a gravel pit; Hehn is strapped in with the vehicle anchored down, when the car breaks loose of its restraints and impales the side of a hill…

1981: Among the most bizarre of all rocket cars is the Vulcan Shuttle, a Volkswagen Bug dissected with a solid fuel rocket stuffed through the middle of the passenger compartment, which, unfortunately for driver Raul Cabrera is not throttleable. His destiny was the same as that of Mendez: Garish, ghastly and gruesome. The demise of both car and driver transpired while testing at an airport…

1994: The last hurrah for the rocket went down on an abandoned Royal Air Force air base in England. “Slammin’ Sammy” Miller stopped the clocks at mind-warping 3.58 seconds at 386 mph in the Vanishing Point rocket funny car. Miller, who had his crotch burned off in a nitro funny car fire in the early 70s, routinely kept his foot in the throttle until he would pass out (!) from the excessive g-forces, which was usually 660 feet into the run. According to crewmembers, Miller routinely got his thrills from waking up in the car after the car stopped accelerating, coasting through the speed clocks at nearly 400 mph.

(As an addendum, “Slammin’ Sammy” Miller possesses the only 1 second ET on a time slip; circa 1980, at an 1/8th mile drag strip in Holland, he actually tripped the clocks 1.60 at 307 mph. He was relegated to Europe after an NHRA blacklisting… )

Brent Fanning explained Miller’s method cum madness thusly: “He had the brake handle rigged with a brass knuckles-type grip (a push brake) so his hand would stay on the brake should he black out when the car ran out of fuel, which it had been calculated to do, at just past the 1/8th mile. Then the deceleration would move his arm and brake handle forward applying the brakes and also releasing the chutes which were attached to the brake handle in some manner. Thus slowing the car until he regained consciousness.”

Military grade hydrogen peroxide is getting used up. As with hydrazine, because of environmental concerns, no more will be doled out to those rocket car renegades. Even if the private sector could summon any more of it, the drag racing authorities and their insurers had no interest in sanctioning what they considered to be hyper-speed death traps.

But even Fanning alluded to a problem with the rockets; an actual lack of sturm und drang. Not enough noise, not enough walla-walla… “We always felt the fans wasn’t gettin’ their money’s worth, so we rigged up a little act to go along with the rocket car,” Fanning smirks through a cigar chewed to cud. “We’d tell the ambulance drivers to be ready because we had something special to race against the rocket car. We’d put my brother in the other lane with a firesuit on, strap a fire extinguisher on his back like he was Roger Ramjet — it wasn’t nuthin’ but baking soda packed into the extinguisher, y’ know, and we’d line him up against the rocket. The light would go green and the rocket would take off and my brother would pull the lever on the fire extinguisher and all that pressurized powder would begin spraying all over and my brother would begin runnin’ around in circles; he’d spin around like he was out of control, then bang into the guardrail, and flip over it. The ambulance would come down from the finish line with the bubblegum machines on and the siren blaring. That was nuttier than the rocket.”

1995: the Vanishing Point car is seen by the author parked at an auto repair shop in a bad neighborhood in Los Angeles (on Fairfax, two blocks south of Washington). Its tires are flat.