Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Rocket Car Chapter 6


Before I go on, I think I should take a minute to explain
why this whole story is getting so lengthy. Actually, my wife
says I should issue a formal apology for inflicting such a
long-winded pile of shit on anyone who reads this. And I halfway
agree with her. But I want to make you aware of one thing: I did
NOT plan it this way. When I decided to write down the story of
the Rocket Car, I figured it would take all of two pages, maybe
three. Four at the outside. That's because I was working from a
set of 20-year-old recollections, and a lot of the details were
missing. I didn't realize that once I started dredging up these
old memories, all SORTS of bits and pieces would start to fill
themselves in, whether I wanted them to or not. Four pages became
five, then six, etc. etc. I originally planned to have the whole
thing done by the beginning of April, so that it would be ready
to go on the 20th anniversary of the first (and last) run of
our Rocket Car, but April came and went, and I was still hunting
and pecking. So did May, then June.

Nothing I can do about it now.

Besides the miscellaneous details that came flooding back
when I started to write this story down, the technical details of
the whole project turned out to be more involved than I
remembered when I started writing. When I began, I remembered a
simple 1-2-3 process that took place over the course of a few
weeks, and seemed fairly simple. But as the story progressed, I
realized I had to supply a LOT more detail than I
originally intended, just to keep it from sounding completely
stupid. And I'm still not sure I've accomplished the
not-sounding-stupid part. Even though the project was executed
one step at a time, it had a goofy, ill-planned,
Li'l Rascals feel to it, and no amount of explaining is going to
change that. Because basically it WAS a Li'l Rascals undertaking.
The only thing missing was a sign saying "He-Man Rocket Kar Klub"
over a treehouse door. But I'm not going to lie about the facts
or try to make the whole thing sound less silly than it actually
was. If someone had been hurt or killed, or even we'd been caught
trying to run a homemade rocket car through the desert, I'm sure
we'd all have ended up in the pokey. Even if a judge were willing
to overlook the instances of theft and trespassing
and illegal possession of military fireworks, we'd have probably
been charged with SOMETHING, just on general principal.
Conspiracy To Commit Flagrant Stupidity, maybe. If Beck had
gotten his way, a charge of attempted suicide would've been a
sure thing.

But nothing like this ever happened.

Having said that, I'd now like to issue a formal apology
for inflicting such a long-winded pile of shit on you.

Sorry about that. It won't happen again.

There you go, Lily. I did it. Happy?


The idea of the Rocket Car sitting on cinderblocks in the
scrapyard, just waiting for a place to run it, was driving Beck
crazy. I have to admit, I was getting anxious to take it for a
test run myself, but Beck was really going nuts. I didn't hear
anything from him for the rest of the week, and I assumed it was
because he hadn't found a suitable launch site. It
was actually because his Dad had taken the four-wheel drive out
for one of his mysterious desert jaunts, and was gone for the
rest of the week. That left Beck and Sal with only one option,
driving Sal's beat-to-shit Ford Falcon, a car that barely held
it's own on pavement, never mind in the desert.

Meanwhile, the Rocket Car waited in the field.

I tried to think about it as little as possible, since I
didn't want to end up afflicted with the mania had gotten hold of
Beck. I worked at the scrapyard, just as I always had, trying to
avoid the far corner of the lot where the Rocket Car was. More
than once I thought about what I'd do if my Dad suddenly got a
buyer for that 1959 Chevy Impala, but there was really no point
worrying about such things. If it happened, I was simply screwed.
No way to explain my way out of a situation like THAT.

So I simply waited.

Actually, I did get ONE minor detail taken care of during
the delay, building igniters for the JATOs. I removed all the
taillights and turn-signal lights from the Impala (no matter what
became of the Rocket Car, signaling for a turn wouldn't be an
issue) and soldered two wires to each bulb. Next I carefully
cracked the glass on each bulb, leaving the filaments intact. The
bare filaments would heat to white-hot when connected to
car battery, but simply laying a hot filament inside the JATO
nozzle didn't seem like it would do the trick. Maybe it would
have, but since Beck and Sal still hadn't found a place to use
for a launch site, I had time to come up with something better.
So I pulled a dozen of the blank M-60 rounds from the ammo belt
my father kept in his office as a decoration, tore off the
skinny end of each shell, and dumped out the powder inside. I
poured a little of the powder into each of seven squares of
newspaper, folded the newspaper squares into packets around the
filaments of the light bulbs, and trussed each one up with
masking tape. When I connected one of them to a battery to test
the idea, it made an impressive little flare.

Surely enough to light the JATO. I hoped.

When Sal and Beck STILL hadn't reported finding a launch
site by Friday morning, I even went through the trouble of
putting an old car battery on the charger at the shop, installing
it in the Rocket Car, and wiring it to a switch on the dashboard.
I considered painting the switch bright red, with the word
IGNITION! underneath, just because I had the time. In retrospect
I'm glad I didn't go through the trouble, since we never used the
switch anyway. But at that point I realized that if Beck and Sal
didn't find a good spot soon, I might end up hauling the car out
to the nearest set of tracks and trying it out myself.

Jimmy came back from college again that weekend, just
about the same time Beck's father came back from who-knows-where
with the four-wheel-drive. During the week I had high hopes that
we'd be able to launch over the weekend, but when everyone
gathered at the scrapyard on Saturday afternoon, I knew it wasn't
going to happen. Jimmy took a look at the sprinkler system
and pronounced it workable, although I could tell he still had
some grave misgivings about how well a couple of pissing garden
hoses would cool down the brake runners. I had the same
misgivings myself, but the amount of heat generated would depend
on so many unknown factors that is wasn't something we
could really plan for. We didn't have any idea how fast the car
would actually go, what shape the tracks would be in, or even how
much the car weighed. From my point of view, the sprinklers were
there for only one reason: To keep the runners from burning up
like matchsticks when they hit the rails. After all, they WERE
made from wood. If the sprinklers could keep the runners from
turning into torches, they'd fulfill my expectations.

While Jimmy was inspecting the rocket car and telling us
what he'd found out about my JATO bottles (which turned out to be
very little), Sal and Beck told us about the launch locations
they'd scouted out over the week. And the news they had was grim
indeed. Within ten miles of town there were a total of three
sections of track long enough to run the rocket car on, and in my
opinion they were all dead losers. Beck and Sal knew the
area well enough to realize that most of the modern wide-gauge
tracks had been laid either directly on top of, or very close to,
the places where narrow-gauge tracks had once existed. So
naturally they started their search at the switching yard near
the city limits. There they found an excellent set of
narrow-gauge tracks roughly paralleling a shiny set of wide-gauge
rails that were probably used every day. But despite the fact
that the old-style tracks stretched for miles, they ran right
through a busy switching yard. Not a good place to test a
jet-propelled boxcar.

Another possibility was a set of rails that started in the
desert, continued for five miles or more, and ended in a soft
dirt field that would have been ideal for cushioning any crash
that might happen. Unfortunately, this set ran directly through
the middle of town, and the field at the end was the Jaycees
Softball Field, right across the street from the
police station. Even though Beck must've realized we'd never go
for THAT idea, it was obvious that he liked it. I imagine he
wanted to set the Rocket Car on the tracks across from the police
station in the dead of night, then blow the horn and scream until
a dozen cops came running out of the station to see what the
ruckus was. At that point he'd hang a moon out the window, then
light off the JATO and blaze out of town.

Or maybe this wasn't what he had in mind. But if you knew
Beck, you'd probably agree with me.

The last location Sal and Beck found was even worse than
the tracks that ran past the police station. The Mystery Mine was
a bargain-basement tourist attraction a few miles from town that
promised to show visitors the INNER WORKINGS OF AN AUTHENTIC
SILVER MINE. People who paid the $2.50 admission were loaded
aboard an ancient, rattling, mine-car and hauled through a few
hundred feet of cavern, while a tour guide in a hardhat
and goggles pointed at rusted pieces of machinery and chunks of
rock, explaining what they were. We'd all been on the Mystery
Mine tour at one time or another, and everyone agreed that the
only thing even VAGUELY interesting about it was wondering if a
cave-in would trap you in the bowels of the mine. Possibly
forcing you to eat the other tourists to survive. There was an
old song that used to play on the radio that described this
scenario, and there was a popular joke around town about being
trapped in the Mystery Mine and having to eat your way out. A
discreet sign near the mine's entrance proclaimed that it was
inspected for safety by the U.S. Bureau of Mines on a yearly
basis, but everyone knew that ancient mines tended to cave in
weather the U.S. Bureau of Mines said it was okay to or
not. Therefore, new folks in town were always advised not to take
the Mystery Mine tour without packing a sharp knife and a salt

Cannibalism and the U.S. Bureau of Mines really weren't
our problem. But the fact that the Mystery Mine was a tourist
attraction presented all SORTS of difficulties. The land around
the Mystery Mine DID have plenty of narrow-gauge track, that much
was true. More than enough to suit our needs. But it also had
lots of fences, lots of lights, a couple of security guards, and
a handful of vicious Dobermans that patrolled the grounds at
night. We all knew it, too. I think Beck and Sal really just went
out to the Mystery Mine to take the tour and kill an afternoon.
Jimmy and I wouldn't have even wasted time with the trip.

The end result was that the Rocket Car was ready to roll,
but we had no place to roll it. Beck and Sal were confident that
they'd be able to find a good spot the following week (since they
were once again desert-capable) but Jimmy and I had serious
doubts. We knew the area around town as well as anyone, and the
chances of finding a good place to run the car were starting
to look grim.

When Jimmy spent the weekend in town, he usually headed
back to the college on Sunday evening, right after dinner. So it
surprised me when I got a call from him at 6:00 Sunday evening,
asking me if I wanted to take a ride with him to "discuss a few
things". I said sure, no trouble. He told me to drive over to his
house, and when I got there, he was already in his car. He
signaled for me to follow him, and I did. I had no idea where
we were going, but I followed anyway. After a few minutes I saw
that we were heading out of town, and I wondered what he was up
to. But I stopped wondering a little while later, when he pulled
to the side of the road near the abandoned mine shaft where we'd
liberated the two ancient bucket cars. He got out of his car,
opened the trunk and took out a tire iron, then headed toward the
mine entrance without a word. When I asked what we were doing, he
held up one finger in a wait-a-minute gesture.

I shut up.

Jimmy walked down the slope and stopped in front of the
boards we'd re-nailed over the entrance. Even though the sun was
almost down, there was still plenty of light to see by. I thought
he'd brought the tire iron to pry off the boards near the
entrance, but when I reached the place he was standing, he
started walking down the tracks, away from the entrance.
Ten paces later he'd reached the point where the tracks ended,
buried in sand. He took a few more paces, then bent over and
jabbed the pointy end of the tire iron into the sand.

To my surprise, it clanked.

Jimmy looked at me with a goofy little smile on his face,
and when I realized what he was doing, I smiled myself. Probably
just as goofily. He pulled the tire iron out of the sand, walked
a few more paces, then stuck it into the ground again. No clank
this time. But when he stuck it in again, a few inches to the
left, he got the same metallic clank. He was now standing a good
fifty feet from the mine entrance, and at least twenty feet
from the spot where we all assumed the tracks terminated. He
looked up at me, with that dumb smirk still plastered across his
face, and said "So, how far out do you think these tracks
actually go?"

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.

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


The Rocket Car Chapter 3


One thing that remains constant in every re-telling of the
Rocket Car legend is that it reportedly took place somewhere in
the southwest United States. I've heard versions stating that the
whole thing happened in Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, western
Texas and southwestern California, and in each case, the location
seemed to be a critical part of the plot. Which makes sense,
considering the premise that the story is based on. The Rocket
Car would have to be launched on a fairly long, flat stretch of
road, away from prying eyes. The Mojave is an ideal place to find
such a road, as anyone who's ever driven across the desert will
tell you. The Darwin Award version specifies Arizona, which is
covered with roads that would be ideal for the event described in
the story. But one thing that strikes me as incredibly silly
about this version is the fact that the test pilot chose to
test his vehicle on a road with a CURVE in it. The story
specifies that the cliff where the car impacted was at the "apex
of a curve", and that the test pilot ran under JATO power for 2.4
miles before hitting the turn and becoming airborne.

This suggests a pretty obvious question: If you were going
to test drive a rocket-powered car, what sort of road would YOU
pick for the ride? Would you choose a section of highway less
than three miles from a turn in the road that overlooked a

I don't think I would.

Even if Jimmy hadn't been around to talk sense into me and
I HAD attempted to drive the rocket car, I'm sure I could've
found a stretch of highway that didn't include a hairpin turn.
The desert contains thousands of miles of highways and dirt
roads, and it would've been much harder to find the kind of road
in the Darwin story than to find a nice level straightaway. On
the other hand, when Wile E. Coyote lights the big skyrocket tied
to HIS jalopy, he ALWAYS seems to be near an unexpected turn. I
guess whoever wrote the Darwin story must have assumed this
was standard procedure.

Fortunately, highways aren't the only long, straight
thoroughfares through the desert. After Jimmy was through
demolishing my plans to build the Rocket Car, he pointed out that
the control problem could easily be overcome if the car was
actually a rocket SLED, running on rails rather than asphalt.
Mounting the rocket on a railroad car would not only solve
the problems of control and traction, but if an ABANDONED stretch
of track was used, traffic wouldn't even be an issue. And the
Mojave is covered with abandoned railroad track, most of it the
old-fashioned narrow-gauge kind used for mining trains near the
turn of the century. I knew of at least three such pieces of
track within five miles of town. Finding a railroad car that
would actually run on the old-fashioned track was a whole nother
story, but by the time Jimmy finished explaining his idea, I
already had a plan in mind to deal with that part of the

The following morning I found myself bouncing across the
desert in a battered four-wheel drive pickup with the remaining
two members of Team Rocket Car (my tongue is firmly in cheek when
I use THAT term), Sam and Beck. Beck and I were almost as close
as Jimmy and I when we were kids, but Beck had a "wild streak"
that caused most of the trouble we got into from time to time.
During high school his "wild streak" got out of control, Beck
turned into "one of those dope-smoking degenerates" (Mom's
preferred term) and he dropped out a year shy of graduation.
Sal was Beck's junior brother, junior not only by calendar-count
but by any sort of I.Q. measurement. Sal wasn't retarded or
anything, but people tended to use phrases like "not too swift"
and "a few bricks short of a load", a lot more often than usual
when he was around. Just like "dope smoking degenerate" tended to
pop up in conversations that involved Beck.

Okay, so they weren't exactly Nobel Prize laureates, but I
didn't have much choice in my selection of assistants. I needed
their truck.

The truck actually belonged to Beck's father, who used it
in the performance of his job. Whatever THAT was. Nobody knew for
sure what Beck's Dad did for a living but the truck was ugly and
battered, sat on huge mud-grabber tires, and came with a massive
454 engine. Beck's father would drive the thing out of town
occasionally, sometimes staying gone for days at a time. When he
returned, the truck always looked as if it had spent
the entire time driving around in the desert. If Beck knew what
his father did for a living, he never said. But Jimmy and I
figured the man used his pickup for transporting something (ahem)
back and forth from remote desert locations. Contraband
vegetation arriving at an isolated airstrip was
one possibility, and people desperate to become American citizens
without a lot of government interference was another. The only
relevant fact is that the truck was very good for cruising the
desert, which is why we used it to visit an abandoned silver mine
a few miles from town that morning. The mine had been out of
commission and the entrance boarded over for as long as any of us
could remember, but at least a few brave kids had explored the
interior of the shaft. Everyone knew there was nothing of value
left in the mine, with the exception of some ancient equipment
that was worthless, even as scrap. Worthless to most people,
anyway. That's because very few people went into the mine LOOKING
for old mining equipment.

We did. And we found some, too.

Actually, Beck himself was one of the juvenile delinquents
who'd poked around in the mine years earlier, so he knew just
what to expect when we pried off the old wooden planks covering
the entrance. Less than a dozen feet into the shaft was a train
of ancient bucket-cars, the tiny railcars used to haul ore out of
the mine while it was in use. Probably parked so close to the
entrance to discourage people from going any further. I wasn't
too thrilled about entering a man-made tunnel that could cave in
at any moment, but I could see from my flashlight beam that the
"train" only consisted of three bucket-cars linked together. And
despite the fact that they'd probably been parked for forty years
or more, they seemed to be in reasonably good condition. Shit
lasts forever in the desert, it really does. Beck dragged a
towchain into the mine, looped it around the hitch on the last
car, then used the pickup to drag the whole line of cars
closer to the entrance. When the cars were nearly clear of the
overhang, I went inside and used a five-pound pony-sledge to bash
the connection on the last car until it came free. When Beck
threw the pickup into gear and dragged the first two cars clear
of the mine, and the metal wheels screeched so loud I thought it
would bring the shaft down on my head. Of course the wheels were
frozen with rust, but they were far from destroyed. The
first thing we did when we got the bucket cars into the light of
day was turn them upside-down, then slop grease onto the axles.
After a few well-placed whacks with the sledge, we got the wheels
to turn. A few more whacks, and we had them turning freely enough
to push the bucket-cars up a ramp and into the back of the
pickup. Once the bucket cars were loaded, we replaced the boards
over the mine entrance, then took the cars back to
the scrapyard.

The Rocket Car was off to a fine start.

The Rocket Car Chapter 2

The tale continues. Again with respect to the unknown author Chapter 2 of " The Rocket Car".


One thing I want to make clear from the start is that I'm
not pissing on the Rocket Car legend purely as an academic
exercise. When my friends and I set out to build the vehicle we
test-fired in the spring of 1978, a real-life jet-powered,
road-traveling car was exactly what we had in mind. Craig
Breedlove was busy breaking land speed records in the Spirit of
America, Evel Knievel had graduated from "biker"to "payload"
while attempting to jump the Snake River Canyon a few years
earlier, and rocket-powered vehicles were a pretty popular
notion. Unfortunately, machines like this require a lot of time
and money and engineering skill to build and operate.

My friends and I had none of these things.

In 1978, I was 22 years old and still living with my
parents. My father owned a scrapyard, twenty-two acres of barren
desert scrub ideally suited to having junk thrown on it. The yard
was a salvage smorgasbord, covered with everything from dead
water heaters to junked airplane cockpits. And since we lived
near a major Army storage facility, a lot of the scrap my father
bought and sold came from government auctions. To be brutally
honest, the main yard looked like a cross between Sanford &
Sons and Apocalypse Now. My father would go to the auctions held
at the post from time to time, bid on pre-marked lots of God only
knew what, then send me out he next day with the big flatbed to
collect the latest pile of junk he'd bought. Plenty of people who
went to these auctions ended up with nothing more than tons of
unusable junk that was worth less than they paid for it, but my
Dad always seemed to find the lots that contained valuable stuff.
He also knew plenty of people who owned military surplus stores,
and usually had some idea of what was in demand and what wasn't.
But since the nearby Army base was a HUGE storage depot,
the auctions weren't the sort of affairs that the average
man-off-the-street would be interested in. The lots for sale were
usually measured by the ton, and if a lot seemed to have a few
items you were interested in, you had to buy the whole
mess. Because of this, my Dad ended up with an amazing amount
of unusable military surplus, things like gas-masks and vehicle
parts that were worthless in the civilian world.

But from time to time, we'd get weapons, too.

No, he never bought a pile of crap and ended up with a
crate full of M-16's or a Shrike missile, the military was
usually careful enough to keep THAT from happening. But from time
to time we DID end up with stuff we weren't supposed to have.
Once day I opened a crate marked "heater assembly" and found it
full of smoke grenades. My Dad found a steel ammo box full
of blank M-60 rounds once. And even though these instances were
a rarity, the Army had a very strict policy toward scrap dealers
who found such things: You had to give them back. No two ways
about it. Before even being allowed to place a bid, dealers at an
auction were required to sign several forms, one of which stated
that they'd return any "explosive, ordnance, fuse, detonator, or
other chemically viable part or assembly of a weapons system." I
remember that paragraph well, since it's the only part of
the Army red tape that ever directly pertained to me. The
penalties for non-compliance outlined at the end of the paragraph
sounded pretty scary (five-figure fines, possible imprisonment,
etc), and were enough to make my Dad return the crate of smoke
grenades, but not the blank ammo. These were judged to be too
trivial to warrant a drive to the base, and my Dad ended up
keeping them draped over a file cabinet in his office, as a

Of course I'm telling you this because it's how I managed
to get hold of the JATO bottle we used for our rocket car.
Actually there were four of them, each in a long, hay-filled
crate with "BARREL ASSEMBLY" stenciled on the side. One day I
went out to the base to pick up a load of junk my Dad had bought
at the auction, and while we were going through the stuff back at
the yard, I spotted the crates and took a look. And even though I
didn't know what the hell it was at first glance, I knew
it wasn't a barrel for ANYTHING. The JATO bottle was a round
metal cylinder about four feet long, and less than a foot in
diameter. At first I thought it was a gas cylinder of some sort,
but written on the side in red paint were the words "M-23 JET
ASSIST UNIT". And rather than the sort of valve assembly you'd
see on a gas cylinder, the end of the bottle had an inverted
funnel shape to it, with a rubber plug at the lowest point. It
was obviously a rocket of some sort. And judging from the weight
(it took two people to even budge the things) they were still
full of something.

Once I figured out what they were, I decided I had to call

Jimmy and I met in the third grade (or thereabouts), and
were best friends for most of our growing-up. His family lived
just down the street, and his father ran an auto body shop in
town. On more than one occasion Jimmy's Dad and my own traded
parts or services, and our families were pretty close. But while
I went to work for my father after graduating high school,
Jimmy went to college to study mechanical engineering. He had a
natural talent for figuring out things in the physical world, but
was never much good at putting them into practice. He could
design and visualize, but when it came to hands-on applications,
he just wasn't very talented.

Nevertheless, he was the first person I showed the JATO
bottles to.

Actually, I didn't show them to anyone right away. The
campus where Jimmy took classes was almost 150 miles away, so he
spent his weekdays in a rented room and only came home on the
weekends. I found the JATO's on a Wednesday, which meant I had
three days before I could tell Jimmy about them. More than enough
time for me to cook up the idea of the Rocket Car. As a matter
of fact, as soon as I realized what that dull metal
cylinder represented, I thought about attaching it to a car and
taking a jet-propelled ride. I spent the rest of Wednesday,
Thursday and Friday planning how it could be done. The principle
certainly seemed simple enough. Nail the rocket onto one of the
junkers in my Dad's field, point it down a straight stretch of
road, and light the mother up. Sure there'd be minor details to
be worked out, but the basic idea was fairly straightforward.

All I can say is thank God I consulted with Jimmy before
actually doing anything. If it wasn't for his intervention, I'd
have probably ended up a damp spot on a highway somewhere.

Jimmy came over to the house on Saturday morning, we drove
to the yard, and I showed him the rocket. He immediately knew
what it was, or at least what it seemed to be. A solid fuel
rocket, the kind they'd used in Vietnam to give cargo planes a
kick in the ass when they needed to take off from
short runways. Very simple, very straightforward. Also very
dangerous. I described the idea of the Rocket Car to him, and at
first he was pretty enthusiastic. But after thinking the whole
thing over for awhile, he not only lost his enthusiasm, but made
me promise I wouldn't actually DO anything with the JATO until he
had time to check a few things out. I agreed, mainly because I
knew I'd need Jimmy's help if I was ever going to make the
Rocket Car work.

We talked about design possibilities for the rest of the
weekend, and when Jimmy went back to campus, I stashed the JATO's
in the back of a wasted milk truck rusting in the field. When
Jimmy came back the following weekend, we sat down at his kitchen
table and he explained PRECISELY why the rocket car wouldn't

It was a sobering (and depressing) lecture.

The main problem was control. Jimmy explained that the
JATO bottle would produce something like 2,500 pounds of thrust
(albeit for a very short time), which sounded like more than
enough to ensure a fun ride. Unfortunately, this huge amount of
thrust would not only be unstoppable once it was started, it
would probably have to be applied to a point on the car
that wasn't designed to handle such a such a force. Under
normal circumstances, a car gets it's forward thrust from the
back axle, by way of tires against the pavement. Which means that
a normal car will never exceed a certain amount of thrust due to
the fact that the tires HAVE to touch the pavement to move the
car forward. Jimmy described the whole thing using top-fuel
dragsters as an example. When the driver hits the gas, the back
end of the car tries to lift into the air due to the sudden
force applied to the rear axle. But as soon as the ass end starts
to lift, the tires lose traction, and the thrust decreases. The
back end drops, thrust is restored, and the process starts all
over again. So a car of a given weight using driven wheels can
only get so much forward thrust. The limiting factors are the
weight, the distribution of the weight, size of the tires, and
torque applied to the wheels. The fact that a car uses driven
wheels creates a self-damping system that ensures the wheels will
stay on the ground (at least most of the time). The only reason
dragsters and funny cars pop wheelies is that they use oversized
tires that screw up the relationship between torque and traction.
Unfortunately, a rocket car has no such restraints. A massive
amount of thrust is suddenly being applied to a point on the
car that wasn't designed to handle it, and there's no telling
what happens next. Maybe the front end lifts off the ground.
Maybe the rear. Maybe the ass end would slew around sideways. The
only thing that was certain was that the car would NOT go in a
straight line, and would continue to not go in a straight line at
a VERY high rate of speed.

Naturally I asked how Craig Breedlove managed to drive the
Spirit of America at 600+ miles an hour, but I knew the answer
before I even spit the question out. He hired a team of aerospace
engineers and rocket scientists to design a car that was BUILT to
have a jet engine sticking out it's ass.

After hearing this, Jimmy didn't even have to outline the
rest of the reasons why my idea wouldn't work, but he did anyway.
There was also the fact that store-bought tires couldn't handle
the sort of acceleration a rocket would provide, which was why
all land-speed record cars used custom-made, solid-rubber tires.
Simply SPINNING a regular tire at rocket-car speeds would
probably create enough centrifugal force to tear it right off the
rim. And if that wasn't enough, there was the problem of stopping
the thing once it got rolling. And structural stress. And so on
and so on.

By this time I'd pretty much decided that the whole idea
was stupid and suicidal, which was why I was amazed when Jimmy
proceeded to tell me exactly how the rocket car COULD work.

The Rocket Car Chapter 1

Sorry for the delay. I've been busy with a sick pup. But like I said this is a story that Micheal found on the Internet and I enjoyed reading so with all due respect to the unknown author here is chapter 1 of "The Rocket Car"


The first thing you should know about the legend of the
Rocket Car (especially if you got the story via E-mail or the
Web) is that it's been around a LOT longer than most people
think. It started years ago, as a vague rumor passed from one guy
to the next by word of mouth, usually in bars or during
lunch-break bullshit sessions. The kind of story someone hears
from a friend who read it in a magazine, or a half-remembered
newspaper story that someone read a long time ago. It's a story
that comes out of nowhere, gets passed around for awhile, then
dies out, like one of those weird strains of flu that keep coming
back every few years. The period of dormancy varies, but whenever
the story springs back to life, it seems to spread like a grass
fire. I used to think it was funny how the legend of the Rocket
Car managed to spread so far (and FAST) purely by word-of-mouth,
but now that it's become a subject of Internet interest, it's
popularity has become downright spooky.

Just in case you never heard the legend before (in which
case I can't imagine why you'd be reading this), here's the bare
bones of it: Once upon a time, in some out-of-the way part of the
country (take your pick of locations) a maniac took a rocket of
some sort, and mounted it on the back of a car (make and model
depend on automotive trends when the story is told). The maniac
then sped down a deserted stretch of highway, and when he reached
an appropriate spot, he lit the rocket. Unfortunately, the rocket
(which was either a JATO bottle, a surplus ICBM engine, or an
experimental Shuttle booster) proved to be far more powerful than
the maniac anticipated. The car reached an incredible speed in a
matter of seconds (somewhere between 150 miles per hour and Warp
9) at which point the car's brakes and steering became...
ineffective. This development would've been bad enough on a
straightaway, but through some error in planning or navigation,
the maniac found himself hurtling down a road that curved
sharply, not far from where he ignited the rocket. When the car
arrived at the curve, it went straight ahead instead of
negotiating the turn. Pilot and car then flew like an arrow (for
a distance only limited by the imagination of the person telling
the story), before crashing into an inconveniently-placed


I'm sure this sounds pretty ridiculous if it's the first
time you've heard the Legend of the Rocket Car, but that's
because I didn't go out of my way to make it sound good. Most
people DO try to make it sound convincing, embellishing
the story with all sorts of little facts and details to make it
easier to swallow. I've personally heard a dozen versions of this
story over the past 20 years, and I'm constantly amazed at how
the story grows, shrinks, and generally mutates with each
retelling. Maybe I notice these changes more than most people
because I've always paid close attention to this particular
rumor. Oh, I'm not a car expert or an aerospace engineer or
anything, and I really don't have much interest in urban legends.
Even if I did, from an intellectual point of view, this story
isn't as entertaining as some of the others that have come and
gone. The one about McDonalds shoveling worms into the grinders
that produce Big Macs, for instance, beats it by a mile. I only
pay attention to the Rocket Car legend because I'm 99% sure that
I started the whole thing in the spring of 1978.

Not intentionally, of course.

Now, before you draw any conclusions, I don't want you to
get the impression that I, myself, claim to be the maniac who
drove the Rocket Car into the wild blue yonder. I said I was
probably RESPONSIBLE for the rumor, not that I actually performed
the test flight. As far as I know, the flight in question never
happened. Like all legends, the root of the story might be true
(or partially true), but once the tale started circulating, the
root was lost in the embellishments. If the Legend of the Rocket
Car survives, my great-grandchildren will probably end up talking
about a guy from Lunartown who nailed an anti-matter pod onto an
old Apollo moon-rover and flew into the side of Tycho Crater.

That's how it goes with legends.

Like I said, I'm not a rocket scientist or motorhead. I
don't even KNOW any rocket scientists or motorheads. I'm a
high-school biology teacher. I know, this must sound like I'm the
most unqualified person in the world to give opinions about
things like jet-propelled cars, but I wasn't ALWAYS a biology
teacher. The fact that I'm a biology teacher today is only
relevant to the extent that it's responsible for my writing this
story down.

Last year, a week or two before Thanksgiving, I was taking
my class through some of the particulars of evolution ("how human
beings were raised from monkeys" as one of my students phrased
it). We were discussing Charles Darwin and The Origin of Species
when one of my students asked me how Darwin's research ship ever
got the name "H.M.S. Beagle".

Damned good question, when you stop and think about it.

Since I've been teaching this subject for 11 years, it's
rare when a student asks a question I can't answer. But this one
was a real pisser. Anyone who's ever taught in a classroom knows
that sometimes you get a student that likes to play "Stump the
Teacher". A kid who asks questions he doesn't really care about,
just to see if he can find a gap in the teachers knowledge.
Usually these questions are pretty easy to evade or ignore (or
even lie about) but sometimes one will catch my interest. This
was one of them. You have to admit, "The Beagle" IS a pretty dumb
name for a ship that cruised the Galapagos in search of exciting
bird-beak variations. So I told the student that I had no idea
where the ship's name came from, but I'd find out. After all,
I've been teaching the same class for 11 years, so I've amassed a
pretty good variety of books on the subject. Surely the answer
would be in one of them.

Hah. I couldn't find the answer ANYWHERE. My reference books
concerned themselves with headier subjects, the Scopes trial and
genetic mutations and whatnot, NOT the name of Darwin's boat. I
looked through every book I could find, but came up dry. After
exhausting all my research options, I was thinking about
conceding this particular round of Stump the Teacher when one of
my kids asked if I'd looked for the information on the World Wide

I said "Of course I looked there. It's the first thing I
checked. Go play in traffic."

Truth be told, I not only HADN'T checked the Web, I didn't know
HOW to check it. In addition to being a non-rocket scientist, I'm
not (or at least I wasn't) very interested in computers or the
Internet. I know this is a shameful thing for a teacher to say in
1998, but it's true. I kept MEANING to take a look at the
Internet-connected computers in the school library, just to see
what all the hoo-hah was about, but I simply hadn't gotten around
to it. Actually I was a little bit intimidated by the machines,
and kept putting off the inevitable confrontation due to
embarrassment. Sure, I could've walked into the library during my
free period, sat down at one of the machines and tried to figure
out what to do on my own, but what if I couldn't make it work? It
wouldn't be long before someone spotted my baffled expression and
realized I was completely lost. So the next day I went to the
library during my free period and asked the librarian for help,
feeling like Crocodile Dundee asking how to work the bidet. But
the librarian had obviously dealt with the situation before, and
gave me her ten-minute "Internet For Stupid Teachers" course
without making me feel any dumber than she had to. As soon as she
left me alone with Netscape running and a search engine online, I
typed "Darwin" into space provided, and let the machine do it's
thing. When the results of my search started filling the screen,
the first thing I noticed was that there were over two MILLION
sites listed as being Darwin-related.

The second thing I noticed was that NONE of them seemed to
pertain to Charles Darwin, the most famous naturalist in history.
Instead, they all seemed to focus on "The Darwin Award", an
"...honor (posthumously) bestowed on people who did the most good
for humanity by removing themselves from the communal gene-pool".

Which really isn't a bad idea, when you think about it.

Of course I expected this "award" to be a piece of tongue-
in-cheek humor, the sort of thing that used to make the rounds
via smudgy Xeroxes in the days before E-mail and the World Wide
Web. And that's exactly what it turned out to be. What I WASN'T
prepared for was my very first encounter with the story of the
Rocket Car in print. Not only in print, but in a format that can
reach around the world. When I read the story, I didn't know
whether to laugh or cry or get nauseous, but I think if I were
alone, I'd have done all three. Based on the number of different
Websites cross-referenced to the word "Darwin", I'll bet that if
you read the Rocket Car story from a computer monitor, the
version you saw looked something like the one that follows. The
text, anyway. The high-tech, precision-drafted engineering
diagrams are my own addition. Don't bust my balls about them,
either. I already told you that I'm not a motorhead or a rocket
scientist, and I'm no Leonardo da Vinci, either.


The Arizona Highway Patrol came upon a pile of smoldering
metal embedded into the side of a cliff rising above the road at
the apex of a curve. The wreckage resembled the site of an
airplane crash, but it was a car. The type of car was
unidentifiable at the scene. The lab finally figured out what it
was and what had happened.

It seems that a guy had somehow obtained a JATO unit (Jet
Assisted Take Off-actually a solid fuel rocket) that is used to
give heavy military transport planes an extra "push" for taking
off from short airfields. He had driven his Chevy Impala out into
the desert and found a long, straight stretch of road. Then he
attached the JATO unit to his car, jumped in, got up some speed
and fired off the JATO!

The facts as best could be determined are that the operator
of the 1967 Impala hit JATO ignition at a distance of
approximately 3.0 miles from the crash site. This was established
by the prominent scorched and melted asphalt at that location.
The JATO, if operating properly, would have reached maximum
thrust within 5 seconds, causing the Chevy to reach speeds well
in excess of 350 mph and continuing at full power for an
additional 20-25 seconds. The driver, soon to be pilot, most
likely would have experienced G-forces usually reserved for
dog-fighting F-14 jocks under full afterburners, basically
causing him to become insignificant for the remainder of the
event. However, the automobile remained on the straight highway
for about 2.5 miles (15-20)seconds before the driver applied and
completely melted the brakes, blowing the tires and leaving thick
rubber marks on the road surface, then becoming airborne for an
additional 1.4 miles and impacting the cliff face at a height of
125 feet leaving a blackened crater 3 feet deep in the rock.

Most of the driver's remains were not recoverable; however,
small fragments of bone, teeth and hair were extracted from the
crater and fingernail and bone shards were removed from a piece
of debris believed to be a portion of the steering wheel.


As I said earlier, for the past 20 years I've kept an eye
out for stories like this, and I've heard plenty of them. But the
stories I'd heard up until then had always been vague and
somewhat skimpy on technical details, making them marginally
easier to swallow. Or at least to repeat. But the Darwin Award
version was different. It was chock full of numbers and
specifics, which is always bad news for a legend. Oh, INITIALLY
it might make the story more believable, but throwing in a lot of
facts and figures also gives the non-believers plenty of details
they can use to refute the story. In the case of the Darwin
Awards version, I'm surprised that anyone, anywhere, believed the
story well enough to repeat it the first time. For instance,
there's the fact that this event was supposedly investigated by
the Arizona Highway Patrol. Well, that's not too hard to check,
is it? One call to the state police in Arizona would be all it
took to get a confirmation or denial. If you don't believe me,
give it a try. You'll get an irritated denial before you've even
finished asking the question. Actually, the AHP is so sick of
answering questions about this whole thing that they may
well hang up in your ear.

Don't feel like making a long-distance call just to have
someone hang up on you? Then ask yourself this: If the Darwin
Award story is true, then why was it never reported in the
national media? Why has nobody ever produced pictures of the
crash site? And how about the unfortunate "pilot"? Nobody was
ever able to attach a name to this person? Specify the location?

If you want to explain these questions away by blaming human
error or police indifference or whatever, that's okay. There's
too much apathy and incompetence in the world to pretend THAT
couldn't be the case. But if you look at the PHYSICS of the
story, you'll see that the whole pile of bullshit is impossible,
regardless of the human angle. It's simple stuff, too. You don't
have to be an aerospace engineer to see what I'm talking about.
For instance, when the Chevy left the road with it's rocket still
going full-blast, why did it go in a straight line? Take a look
at a missile sometime. You'll notice that it's... missile-shaped.
Nice pointy nose, tail fins, stuff like that. It's built that way
so it'll go in a straight line. The 1967 Chevrolet was a nice
looking car, sure. But it doesn't look much like a missile. Mount
a big rocket on a `67 Chevy and it MAY go straight as long as
it's on the ground. But once it got airborne, the weight of the
engine would immediately pull the nose down. And if the JATO was
still blazing away, the car would drill itself into the ground
like a tent-spike before it got fifty feet from the cliff.

This story is obviously bullshit to anyone willing to give
it a little thought, but it persists, mainly because people WANT
it to be true. And most of those people are men. As a story that
got it's start when it was still being shouted across pool tables
in noisy bars, women were left out of the loop until it hit the
Internet. Sort of like the story about the deadly gas that lies
inside the core of a golf ball. Little boys learn this one too,
but not little girls. And when the little boys grow up (to
whatever extent they actually DO grow up), the Golf Ball Toxin
story is replaced with the Rocket Car story.

One "urban legend" debunker attributes the huge popularity
of this story to the fact that it's "...a real-life version of
the Road Runner cartoon. Wile E. Coyote nails an Acme Jato Rocket
onto the back of a Chevy Impala and flies into a canyon wall."

Works for me.

The question is, how did such a story ever get started in
the first place? Oh, don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to say
that nobody would ever be dumb enough to ATTEMPT a stunt like
this. Anyone who followed the O.J. Simpson trial will probably
agree that there simply aren't any limits to the depths of human
stupidity anymore. It's just mighty unlikely that someone
stupid enough to pilot the Rocket Car would be smart enough to
build it in the first place. The story probably started with an
event that bears some similarity to the final version, a
much SMALLER event that gradually evolved into the final legend.

All I know for sure is that myself and three other guys were
getting up to some awfully weird shit out in the desert back in
the spring of 1978, shit that was MORE than weird enough to start
the Legend of the Rocket Car. And only ONE of us was stupid
enough to be the pilot in the Darwin Awards story.

At least that's what I keep telling myself.


Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Real Story

Well it turns out that my friend did not write the story about the rocket powered car. It was something he found on the Internet. So since it was on the Internet once I guess that it will be again. Starting tomorrow I will post a chapter at a time. For your reading pleasure. I would start today but I don't have access to my electronic copy from here. So watch this space for the "real" story of the Rocket Powered Car from the Darwin Awards. I will not take credit for the tale though I wish I had the talent.