Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Rocket Car Chapter 4


One aspect of the Rocket Car legend that always tickles me
is that no matter how much the story varies, the make, model and
year of the car is ALWAYS specified. Sure this is a nice detail
to have on hand, but considering the details left OUT of the
description, it looks... sorta silly. In the Darwin Award
version, there's no mention of which highway the car was on, or
even whereabouts in Arizona the story took place. And Arizona is
a pretty big place. There's also no mention of any investigation
that took place afterwards. But despite all these oversights,
the story DID specify that the car was a 1967 Chevy Impala. I
think the reason this detail is always supplied is because it's
critical to make the listener think the test pilot at least
LOOKED cool when he flew into the cliff. You'll never hear
someone tell a story about a guy in a rocket-powered K-car or a
Volkswagen Beetle. It has to be a car that DESERVES to have a
rocket attached to it.

In the case of our Rocket Car, we gave some serious
thought to not even using a car body. As soon as we got back to
the scrapyard, Beck wanted to weld one of the JATO's to a bucket
car, stick the car on a track, and light the rocket. He was
doubtless the craziest member of Team Rocket Car, and if I'd been
willing to go along with his idea, I have no doubt he'd have
climbed in and lit the fuse himself. Fortunately, they were
MY JATOs, so I had veto power over all the dumb ideas. Or at
least the REAL dumb ones. Of course sticking a JATO on a bucket
car was out of the question, but building a simple platform on a
bucket-car base with a car seat bolted onto it sounded like the
easiest way to build a rocket sled. Actually, this is pretty much
what the NASA rocket sleds looked like. But this
arrangement would mean that each run would be limited to a single
passenger, and I only had four JATO's. When Jimmy and I discussed
the details of the project, he seemed pretty confident that the
thrust from the rocket would be enough to push a four-passenger
car at a reasonable speed. And if we used a car body, we'd have a
windshield, doors, and some degree of protection if anything went
wrong. Granted, a car body wouldn't do us much good if we hit
something (like a canyon wall) at jet-fighter speed, but it was
better than wiping out in a director's chair at 300 miles per

Despite Beck's impatience, I got started building the
Rocket Car the next day.

Our car wasn't a 1967 Chevy Impala, but a 1959 Chevy
Impala. A bone-white Impala, with a red interior. I know how
bizarre that sounds, but once a story starts to mutate into a
legend, there's no telling which parts of the truth will stick.
Obviously the Chevy Impala part made the cut.

We didn't choose the `59 Impala for it's aerodynamics or
structural qualities, but because one was available. My father
happened to have one, resting on cinderblocks, in a forgotten
corner of his lot. Engine, transmission and wheels were all
missing, sold to Jimmy's father at some point. The only reason
this car was otherwise intact was that Chevrolet only used the
1959 style for a single year, which meant the body parts would
only be usable on another 1959 Impala. This particular car was
obscure enough so that once the mechanical parts were stripped,
it was pretty much useless. And this is why what was left of my
Dad's `59 Impala was left to decay in a field.

Fortunately, the leftovers were all that we needed.

Cutting the bodies from the bucket cars was a chore, but
not as bad as I expected. The thin metal of the buckets was
rusted to tatters in spots, so burning through it was fairly
easy. But despite this, I still used almost an entire tank of oxy
getting the bodies cut away from the bases, and I knew my
Dad would be suspicious when he found I'd used all the oxygen in
an almost- full tank. Luckily, Jimmy was able to help out in
that department. When I told him about my predicament the
following weekend, he simply took my empty oxygen cylinder and
swapped it with one of the dozen or so his Dad kept on hand at
his body shop. My father might notice if a brand new tank of
oxygen were suddenly empty, but Jimmy's Dad's shop used so much
gas he'd never know the difference.

Attaching the cut-away rail car bases to the Chevy frame
was pretty easy too. Jimmy stressed the importance of getting the
two sets of wheels precisely aligned, but it wasn't that hard.
The old Chevy frame had plenty of places for bolts and welds, so
picking spots where the wheels would line up was a snap. And
since the Impala was already up on blocks, it was no problem to
slide the wheel frames underneath and lift them into place with a
floor jack, then weld away. I'm sure that these days my students
would laugh like hell at the thought of me laying underneath a
car with an oxyacetylene torch in my hand, but the fact is, I
learned how to draw a bead and cut metal when I was 14 or 15
years old. Growing up around a scrapyard DID have certain
advantages, and learning how to work with a torch was one of
them. So aligning the wheel frames and welding them to the
car was a fairly straightforward process.

The propulsion unit (hah!) consisted of a five-foot length
of steel water pipe, welded to both the rear bucket car AND the
Chevy's frame. This might sound like overkill, but at the time I
had no idea how much thrust to expect from the JATO bottle, so it
seemed best to err on the side of caution. I plugged the end of
the pipe facing the front of the car with a slug of scrap steel
and welded it into place, and even cut the center out of
a threaded cap to screw onto the exhaust end to hold the
JATO bottle securely once it was installed. The end-cap seemed
like a good idea while I was doing it, but Jimmy laughed like
hell when he came in the following weekend and saw my handiwork.
He pointed at the steel cap, and said "That rocket is gonna be
pushing against the car hard enough to make it fly like a bullet,
and you're afraid it'll fall out the BACK end?"

What can I say? This is one of the reasons Jimmy was doing
all the brainwork.

Unfortunately, his critique wasn't only limited to the job
I did on the "propulsion unit". He also asked how I planned to
stop the thing once the ride was over, and I had to admit that I
didn't have the slightest idea.


In the Darwin version of the Rocket Car tale, the car
burned out it's brakes instantly, and was eventually stopped by a
cliff face. We hoped to come up with a somewhat more elegant
braking system, and we did. But not
without considerable brainwork.

The night Jimmy inspected my work on the Chevy, all four
members of Team Rocket Car gathered at a neighborhood bar to
discuss the considerable problem of stopping the car once it was
moving. When I started putting the car together, I assumed Jimmy
would have some idea what we'd do. But as it turned out, he was
just as clueless as the rest of us. So we gathered at the bar
in the hope that ONE of us could come up with a workable idea.

Of course the lack of any way to stop the Rocket Car was
considered a very minor point with Beck. He was perfectly willing
to haul the car out to a long stretch of empty track, get in,
fire it up, and hope he slowed down before he ran out of track.
In his eyes, worrying about something as trivial as brakes was a
sign of cowardice.

Like I said, he was out of his fucking mind.

Fortunately, Beck didn't have much say about the
situation, so we decided that we wouldn't launch the car until we
had SOME sort of braking mechanism to slow it down.

The most popular idea was, naturally, a drogue chute. The
Spirit of America used one, as did a few types of fighter planes,
top fuel dragsters, etc. But like the optimal solutions to most
of our problems, the question was where to FIND one. Nobody had
any idea how to go about getting a parachute. Nobody except for
me, that is. My father actually had six Army surplus parachutes
sitting in a storage shed near the office at the scrapyard, the
spoils of particularly good auction years before. Five of them
were standard personnel chutes, and one was a massive
cargo-drop canopy. But Dad also KNEW he had six of them. He'd
started out with a dozen, and occasionally sold one to a skydiver
or army/navy store. A good surplus parachute was worth upwards of
$200. There was no telling what the cargo chute would be worth to
the right buyer. But if one were to turn up missing, Dad would
certainly notice. Of course we might have gotten away with
using a parachute, then returning it once we were finished with
it, but even this presented problems. It might work okay for the
FIRST ride, but how about the second? I certainly knew nothing
about parachute rigging. All I was sure of was that there was a
LOT of cloth that had to be stuffed into a very small pack.

Besides, I'd already stuck my neck out pretty far for the
sake of the Rocket Car, and I didn't want to stick it out any
further. So I kept the existence of Dad's parachutes to myself,
and hoped someone else would come up with an alternate plan.

Using a retro-rocket was discussed briefly, but it only
took Jimmy a minute to punch THAT idea full of holes. Even though
rigging a retro would mean nothing more than sticking a second
JATO on the front of the car to oppose the one in the rear, it
would mean a maximum of two rides before we ran out of JATO's.
This much was obvious. What wasn't obvious was the physics of the
whole thing, which Jimmy was happy to explain. Firing the first
rocket would provide a huge forward thrust for a very
short time, but a retro rocket would produce an IDENTICAL thrust
(if we were lucky) in the opposite direction, for the same
duration. Which would mean the only way to bring the car to a
dead stop would be to fire the retro as soon as the thrust rocket
burned out. That would result in a 0-to-300 acceleration in
seconds, followed by a 300-to-0 DEceleration in the same amount
of time.

Doesn't sound like much fun, does it?

And if the retro was fired a little too late, it could
easily result in the whole rig traveling BACKWARDS. Possibly at a
high rate of speed. Or even worse, the retro might be a dud. Or
the ignition system might not work.

Needless to say, we shitcanned the retro-rocket idea in a

Sal suggested outfitting the car with a huge anchor, one
that could be heaved out the window at the critical moment. The
rest of us suggested that Sal shut the fuck up and get us another
round of beers.

I brought up one idea I'd been toying with, stretching a
cable across the track and fitting the Rocket Car with a tailhook
to slow it down. Why not? After all, aircraft carriers had been
using this system to stop incoming planes for years, and it
seemed to work just fine. But before I could explain the idea,
Beck started laughing his ass off, then asked if I wanted to use
a rubber inner-tube to catch the car, or just tie a rope between
two fence-posts. And I clearly remember how much this pissed me
off. Here was a guy willing to strap a military rocket onto his
back and sit in a rusty rail-car while someone lit the fuse, but
he was laughing at MY ideas. Unfortunately, he DID have a point.
It wasn't until years later that I found out how aircraft
carriers absorbed the shock of a plane catching an arresting wire
(it involves huge pistons moving through cylinders of hydraulic
fluid), but I knew that rigging a similar system would be next to
impossible. Putting a tailhook on the car and catching
an arresting wire was simple. But it sure as hell couldn't be
stationary wire. There would have to be some system to absorb the
impact of a car moving at high speeds, and we couldn't come up
with anything. We went through a slew of ideas for mechanical
systems, but I rejected them all because they were either too
complicated, too expensive, or too impractical.

Jimmy pointed out that rocket sleds usually ended up in a
pool of water, which both acted as a brake and cooled the whole
contraption down. Beck pointed out that all the narrow-gauge
railroad tracks HE'D ever seen were in the middle of the desert,
where pools of water were pretty tough to come by.

Overall, we ended up batting exactly zero for the evening.

I remember that I was pretty damned depressed when Jimmy
and I left the bar that night, despite the fact that I was pretty
drunk. Considering the progress I'd made on the rocket car up to
that point, I figured that a braking system would be a minor
point. Surely if we put all three of our heads together (well,
3-1/2, counting Sal) we could come up with SOMETHING.

But it hadn't happened.

Or at least it hadn't happened while we were all sitting
at the bar. Jimmy tried to blow some optimistic sunshine up my
ass while we walked up the street toward our houses, saying that
one of us might be able to come up with something later, once we
were all sober. I didn't consider it likely. Beck and Sal seemed
to think better when they were drunk, and they were both pretty
shitfaced when we left them. If they hadn't come up with
anything at the bar, chances are they never would. And Jimmy and
I weren't having any brainstorms drunk OR sober.

Anyway, there's no telling how Sal and Beck spent the rest
of their evening, but the next morning my Dad woke me up by
pounding on my bedroom door. When I finally peeled my eyes open,
he asked me who was delivering my car parts in the middle of the

I had no idea what he was talking about.

Part of my incomprehension was from a hangover, but even
if I'd spent the previous night drinking Kool Aid, I would've
been pretty confused. So he led me out to the front porch and
pointed to a bundle of four thick metal rods, tied together with
twine, laying on the porch swing. When I looked closer, I saw
that they were actually a set of heavy-duty air-adjustable car
shock absorbers. Jammed under the twine was a note written in
what looked like crayon on a crumpled paper bag.

It said this:

Problum solved.

Call me later

Major Tom



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