Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Rocket Car Chapter 5


I stared at the note for quite awhile, trying to figure
out what it meant. At first I figured Jimmy must have left the
bundle of shocks, since his father stocked such things at his
body shop. But there was no way a college student like Jimmy
would misspell a common word like "problem", drunk or sober. And
the fact that most of the words were spelled CORRECTLY pretty
much eliminated Sal. Which meant that the shock-absorber care
package must have been Beck's doing, and as soon as I realized
this, I hustled the bundle into the house and stashed it in my
room. Obviously Beck's creative juices hadn't REALLY started
flowing until Jimmy and I left the previous night, and he'd
eventually come up with some sort of solution to the braking
problem. It also seemed that he had enough confidence in his idea
to act on it. At the time I had no idea what sort
of solution Beck could've come up with for our "problum", I just
hoped it turned out to be as sensible in the light of day as it
seemed when Beck came up with it the night before. The bundle of
shocks I stuck under my bed were relatively new, but covered with
dust and road-grime. They obviously hadn't come from an all-night
auto parts store. I guessed that Beck had been struck with a
burst of twisted inspiration after Jimmy and I left, then spent
the rest of the night staggering around town with his brother, a
bumper jack, and a crescent wrench. Looking for donor
to contribute some hardware to our cause. It seemed as if they'd
found one, too. And if someone was going to wake up that morning
to a car that was mysteriously missing all four shock absorbers,
I hoped like hell Beck's plan was worth it.

But I never actually ASKED Beck where the shocks came
from, and he never volunteered the information. I didn't consider
it critical to the mission.

I did, however, call him later in the day to ask what I
was supposed to DO with the shocks. His first suggestion was that
I stick them up my ass. I assumed that he was just in a bad mood
from a hangover, since there was no way an assfull of shock
absorbers would help to slow a fast-moving Rocket Car. So I kept
interrogating him until he finally remembered the details of his
Grand Plan, and agreed to meet me at the scrapyard later on. When
he finally showed up at the gates to the yard he looked
like hammered shit, but I expected as much. Go spend a night
getting drunk and stealing auto parts and see how YOU feel the
next day. But he was also reasonably coherent, and described his
idea while we walked out to the weedy corner of the field where
the Rocket Car was still perched on cinderblocks.

And I have to admit, it was good. Real good. Better than
anything we'd figured out up to that point, anyway. But the best
part (to me, anyway) was that it didn't involve me stealing
anything else that my father might notice.

Beck's idea was simple, elegant, and easy to put into
practice. I'd install the air shocks on the Rocket Car normally,
just as if the car would be riding on pavement instead of rails.
But I'd also bolt a pair of wooden beams onto the belly of the
car, runners that were placed exactly between the front
and rear train wheels. Each runner would be thick enough to reach
almost all the way down to the tracks, and the bottom would be
covered with rubber cut from old tires. The effect would be that
the car would roll freely while the air shocks were inflated,
with the twin runners suspended inches above the steel tracks.
When it was time to stop the car, the pilot would activate a
release valve which would dump the air from all four
shock absorbers simultaneously. The car would drop until it's
entire weight was resting on the runners, which would be pressing
into the railroad tracks. This would provide two brake shoes
three feet long, pushed against the track under the weight of the
car's body, providing a HUGE amount of stopping-power. And since
the wheel flanges would also still be firmly on the tracks,
the car would remain traveling in a straight line.

When Beck finished explaining his idea, I stood there with
my mouth hanging open. Actually we BOTH stood there with our
mouths open, but while my jaw was flopping due to surprise,
Beck's was caused by a powerful hangover that was still affecting
his motor control. I must admit, though, I was pretty impressed
with his thinking. We'd talked about dozens of ways to stop the
rocket car the previous evening, but nothing that even came
CLOSE to Beck's plan. It was simple to build, easy to install,
and stood a fair chance of working. I knew that sooner or later
I'd have to talk to Jimmy about the whole thing, but that didn't
stop me from getting to work installing the air shocks on the
Chevy as soon as Beck slouched out of the scrapyard and went

I worked on the car for the rest of the afternoon, wanting
to get as much done as I could on a Sunday, while the yard was
closed. By the end of the day, I had the shocks installed on the
car and a pair of three-foot-long runners made from sections of 2
x 4 bolted together to make them thick enough to reach the rails.
All that was left to do was bolt the runners to the car frame and
arrange the air hoses for the shock absorbers, and the car would
be ready to test. It was THEN that I finally called Jimmy and
asked him to come down to the yard. Talking to him
sooner would've been the sensible thing to do, but I didn't want
to take a chance that he'd come up with some laughably obvious
reason the brake-runner system wouldn't work. At the time, my
thinking on the subject was pretty clear: There were only two
ways were going to be able to stop the Rocket Car, either by
using a drogue chute or by Beck's braking system. And although I
wasn't too keen on the idea of taking one of my Dad's parachutes,
I'd do it if it was the only way to get the Rocket Car to work.
But even if we DID use a drogue chute, the car would need
an additional braking system anyway. A parachute will SLOW a car,
but it won't STOP it. You still need regular brakes for that.

The way I figured it, we'd need Beck's idea no matter what
happened. So I decided to show Jimmy the braking system I was
building and see what he thought. If he pointed out some reason
why it was completely foolish, I'd show him Dad's parachute
collection, then tell him that the brake runners were the STANDBY
system, and we were actually going to use a parachute to slow the
car to reasonable speed.

It not only sounded reasonable, but it kept me from
looking like a total asshole.

All my planning was unnecessary, though. When Jimmy heard
me describe the rail-braking system and saw what I'd done to the
car so far, he was VERY impressed. I think he was also a little
pissed off that Beck had come up with the idea, and not him. But
here's a thought that never occurred to me back in 1978, and to
be honest, I'm glad it didn't: We never really had any proof that
it was BECK who came up with the idea. For all we know, it was
SAL who dreamed up the notion of using runners to stop the car.
Yes, yes, I know, it's a ridiculous thought. Like having your
pet hamster wake up one morning with a revolutionary process
for splitting atoms. After all, we're talking about the guy who
wanted the pilot of the Rocket Car to hoist a goddamned ANCHOR
out the window to slow down.

Still, you never know. And Jimmy, if you're reading this,
I'm sorry I even brought it up now. I know you'll lose some sleep
over it. But I couldn't resist.

Anyway, Jimmy DID give the braking system his stamp of
approval, and I never had to admit that Dad had a bunch of
parachutes stashed in the shed. The only reservation Jimmy had
about the system was one that should've been obvious to me from
the start: heat. If the car were traveling as fast as we expected
it to, rubber-coated planks pressing against metal rails
would probably get hotter than hell. On the other hand, this
WAS basically the same system used by every car on the road, as
well as racing cars. Drum and disc brakes are essentially nothing
more than pads or shoes pressing against moving pieces of steel
to stop the car. The only difference between their system and
ours was that standard brakes pressed brake pads against steel
that was spinning, while ours used steel moving in a straight
line. And even though our car would be traveling a lot faster
than most, we had much more overall braking surface. So Jimmy and
I talked about ways to cool the runners for awhile, just in case
heat buildup turned out to be a real problem. Actually, I think
Jimmy might have made the heat problem sound worse than it really
was, just so Beck wouldn't get ALL the credit for solving the
brake problem. But to give credit where it's due, we DID wind up
with a heat problem, so whatever Jimmy's motivations might
have been, it's a good thing I listened to him.

Then again, if I'd ignored him, I doubt it would've
changed the final outcome too much.

With the conceptual details taken care of, all that was
left was construction. Even though the braking and brake-cooling
systems were the hardest part of the car to fabricate, it didn't
take long to get them built and installed. Bolting the runners to
the car frame was quick work, and even though it took a little
doing to get the air-dump valve connected to all four
shock absorbers, I had plenty of materials to work with laying
around the scrap yard. After removing the valve stems from the
air inlets to the shocks, I attached sections of air-compressor
hose to the valves themselves. The other ends of the hoses ran to
an air valve that started life as the door-opening lever on a
city bus. With the lever in the "open" position, all four shocks
could be inflated from a single air inlet near the dump
lever. Once the shocks were pressurized, releasing the lever kept
them inflated until the lever was pushed again.

I first tested the air-valve system on Tuesday afternoon,
and when I saw that it worked the way it was supposed to, I
immediately called Beck. He came to the yard with Sal, and the
three of us took turns raising and lowering the car for almost an
hour before the novelty wore off. Despite the fact that it wasn't
very exciting to watch, there was something distinctly
satisfying about seeing the system work the way it was supposed
to. Of course Beck was more anxious to "take the car for a spin"
than ever, and he actually got a little pissed off when I pointed
out that we weren't out of the woods yet. There was still a heat
problem to deal with, but this detail didn't cut much ice with
Beck. He was positive that it wouldn't be a problem, which meant
that our next step was to take the Chevy out and light the
rocket. So rather than dwell on the heat problem, I said "Haul it
out WHERE, and light the rocket with WHAT?"

That took the wind out of his sails in a hurry.

See, we still hadn't considered how we were going to
ignite the JATO, but to be honest, this wasn't a major sticking
point. There was a rubber plug in the end of the exhaust nozzle
of the rocket I'd inspected, and it seemed logical to assume that
some sort of igniter plugged into the hole. Probably an
electrical fuse, something along the lines of the igniters used
for model rockets. Whatever fueled the rocket (ammonium
perchlorate, I later found out) was no doubt highly flammable,
and shouldn't be too tough to ignite.

But I knew I could come up with something better than a

A much bigger problem was the launch site. Beck got sulky
and petulant when I pointed out that we had no idea where we'd
actually run the car, but he didn't argue too much. Even if I
agreed to hoist the car onto Dad's flatbed right then and there
and drive around searching for a spot to use, I'm sure Beck
would've realized how dumb the idea was before we even got out of
the yard. So I put Beck in charge of finding a suitable launch
site, which I'd have done even if he wasn't being a royal pain in
the ass and keeping me from my work. His Dad's four-wheel drive
was the perfect vehicle for location-scouting, and he and Sal
were more familiar with the surrounding desert than anyone I
knew. Beck and Sal headed for the gates deep in conversation, and
I got back to work.

The brake-cooling system I ended up building was pretty
cheesy, I'll be the first to admit that. But since we weren't
even sure it was necessary, I didn't want to spend a lot of time
messing with it. I ran a length of garden hose along each wooden
runner, near the point where the runner was attached to the car.
Took the ends near the front of each runner, and led them
into the empty engine compartment. I tied off the ends under the
car, then punched holes along the sections near the runners with
an awl. Water entering the ends in the engine compartment would
leak out through the perforations, soaking the runners and pads.

I told you it was pretty cheesy.

The only part of the cooling arrangement that even came
CLOSE to sophistication was the result of a brainstorm that came
to me while I was strapping a five-gallon jerry can under the
hood of the Rocket Car. I started putting the sprinkler system
together with the idea that we'd simply open a valve before
launch, letting water leak out of the hoses and onto
the runners for the duration of the run. But while I was
attaching the jerry can, a better method occurred to me. Instead
of attaching the garden hoses to a valve, I drilled a pair of
holes directly into the top of the jerry can, and fed the hoses
through the holes. Then I drilled a third, smaller hole, and
connected another hose from the jerry can to the air-dump handle
for the shock absorbers. I sealed all the hose connections
with massive amounts of rubber cement, then called it quits for
the day.

No word from Beck or Sal that night, so I assumed finding
a launch site wasn't as easy as they'd thought it would be.

When I checked the Rocket Car the next day, the rubber
cement sealant had dried to the consistency of a hockey puck, so
I tested the entire system. I filled the air shocks from Dad's
portable compressor, then closed the dump valve. Filled the jerry
can with water, and screwed the top down tight. Said a quick
prayer, and hit the dump-valve lever. There was a slight hiss
as the air rushed out of the shocks, through the dump valve.
But instead of being vented into the open, the last air-hose I'd
installed directed the escaping air INTO the jerry can full of
water under the hood, forcing water OUT through the sprinkler
hoses. When I checked under the car there was an impressive
puddle, and water was still jetting out of the holes in the
garden hoses.

I was thrilled beyond words.

And when Jimmy saw the whole system in action a few days
later, he said he was "..really impressed with my application of
Bernoulli's Principle." Hell, I didn't even know the Italians
BUILT rocket cars.

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