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Drag Racing Story of the Day!

Early History of the
Hydrogen Peroxide Rocket Dragster

By Franklin Ratliff

A few comments regarding the Sammy Millet story published at Bob's Berserko Lounge on draglist.comů

Rocket cars continued to run at NHRA tracks up through the early eighties. This was many years after the two fatal crashes. They were banned in large part because the concentrated hydrogen peroxide became prohibitively expensive.

Although speed and E.T. limits were placed on rocket cars, they were not specifically mandated to shut-off at half-track. (Dave Anderson's speed of 344 mph in the first Pollution Packer remains the highest speed ever recorded at an NHRA National event.) Drivers running rocket Funny Cars would set the motor on kill then shutoff and have both chutes fully inflated by the time they hit the speed trap in order not to break the speed limit.

Sammy's original rocket Funny Car was a converted nitro car. However, the Vega-bodied car was purpose-built from the outset as a rocket car with a chassis by Tom Daniels and a rocket system by Dick Keller.

Below is a history article of mine published last year in Bonneville Racing News.

Sincerely, Franklin Ratliff

The hydrogen peroxide rocket dragster was developed in late 1966 when Pete Farnsworth, Ray Dausman and Dick Keller formed Reaction Dynamics Inc. and built the X-1, prototype to the Blue Flame land speed record car. Also known as the Rislone Rocket, the X-1 closely resembled a slightly elongated Formula One car and featured an enclosed cockpit, tubular space frame, front and rear independent suspension, four-wheel disk brakes and three drag chutes. The propulsion system used a 2,500 pounds thrust motor fed from a nitrogen-pressurized 11-gallon tank mounted vertically behind the cockpit. Nitrogen was contained in two fiberglass-wound spherical bottles mounted forward of the cockpit. The Formula One configuration allowed Farnsworth to maximize the stopping power of the 750-pound X-1 as well as place the center of gravity where he wanted it.

In August, 1967 at US 30 drag strip in Crown Point, Illinois, Chuck Suba drove the X-1 to a 5.41 second elapsed time (although Pete Farnsworth felt the best elapsed time record on reliable clocks was 5.9 seconds at Oklahoma City). The 5.41 second elapsed time remained drag racing's all-time low ET until November 11, 1971 when the second hydrogen peroxide rocket dragster, Bill Fredrick's Courage of Australia driven by Vic Wilson, recorded a 5.107 second 311 mph pass during private testing at Orange County International Raceway, California. In doing so, it became the first car of any kind to run 300 mph in a quarter mile. The Courage of Australia was essentially a scaled-down Blue Flame clone. Nitrogen was contained in a spherical bottle mounted in the nose forward of the single front wheel with the hydrogen peroxide in a horizontal tank forward of the cockpit.

The Courage of Australia's initial rival was the first Pollution Packer. The Pollution Packer name came from sponsor Tony Fox's trash compactor company. The Pollution Packer was created when Ky Michaelson mounted the motor from the Reaction Dynamics X-1 in his Top Gas dragster chassis. The Pollution Packer had a fuel tank larger than the X-1's but still mounted vertically behind the cockpit. Unlike the X-1, the two fiberglass-wound spherical nitrogen bottles were behind the fuel tank, stacked one on top of the other. The fuel system was pressurized to over 500 PSI, 75 PSI more than in the X-1, thus raising thrust from 2,500 pounds to about 3,000 pounds. The Pollution Packer made its public debut Labor Day 1972 at Union Grove, Wisconsin with a set of 6.13 second 248 mph and 5.68 second 280 mph runs. In September of 1972 the Pollution Packer would be taken to Bonneville where driver Dave Anderson established FIA standing start records of 158.8 mph (5.666 seconds) for the quarter mile, 173.9 mph (6.31 seconds) for the half kilometer, and 234.7 mph for the kilometer. The kilometer record stands to this day. After acceptance of hydrogen peroxide rocket dragsters by NHRA, the Pollution Packer would become the first car to clock over 300 mph at an NHRA National event during the Gatornationals on March 18, 1973. During the 1973 NHRA Springnationals, the Pollution Packer became the first four-second dragster of any kind when Dave Anderson clocked a pass of 4.99 seconds at 322 mph. At the 1973 US Nationals at Indianapolis, Dave Anderson attained his best ever performance with a pass of 4.62 seconds at 344 mph.

Given the aerodynamics knowledge of the time as well as how the speeds rocket dragsters attained left little room for driver error and no room for structural failure or mechanical malfunction, relatively slower less expensive rockets might have been the type most suitable for drag strip operation. Arvil Porter constructed just such a car and displayed it in the pits during the 1973 Gatornationals. This was a medium-sized red and gold dragster with an enclosed cockpit and a motor developing only about 1,600 pounds thrust. In 1970, Porter had built a go-kart type hydrogen peroxide rocket car and drove it to speeds of over 180 mph.

Despite their optimistic beginnings, the rocket dragster fraternity found itself in a series of accidents that began in April of 1973. While driving the Free Spirit, a car built by Tampa chassis specialist Glen Blakely with a propulsion system and 5,000 pounds thrust motor built by Arvil Porter, driver Russell Mendez saw his front tires disintegrate as he approached Orlando Speedworld's finish line. The Free Spirit was using Funny Car front runners at the rear and Avon moped tires at the front. Mendez managed to guide his machine through the traps on bare front rims to complete a 5.38 second 280 mph pass. Afterward Funny Car front runners would be used front and rear. The Free Spirit was the first of the rail type rocket dragsters to use a vertical stabilizer. The hydrogen peroxide tank was mounted horizontally behind the cockpit while the nitrogen bottle was a large steel cylinder located forward of the cockpit. Not only did this move the center of gravity as far forward as possible but also gave the car a high polar moment of inertia to resist spinning. While making another run at Union Grove, during the 1973 annual Memorial Day Championships, Mendez was hit by about a 30 mph cross wind around 900 feet from the start. The wind, unnoticed before due to signs and guardrails, caused the Free Spirit to swerve into a track side ditch at 290 mph. No damage, other than flat spots on the tires, was sustained. Mendez would later record a fine 5.22 second 325 mph pass with the Free Spirit in August of 1973.

That same summer John Paxon was at Irwindale Raceway trying out a new motor in the Courage of Australia. After lifting at the 950-foot mark, Paxon coasted through the lights at 5.52 seconds 250 mph. Unfortunately, when he hit the chute nothing happened. Then nothing happened again when he hit the back-up chute. Getting on the brakes hard, he wore through and popped the skinny land speed tires. The car stayed upright through the sand trap then pole vaulted when it hit a wooden beam at the end of the trap and landed upside down on its vertical stabilizer. Fortunately, due to the car's sturdy semi-monocoque construction Paxon was uninjured. The Courage of Australia was built with one chute tube over the rocket motor and the other chute tube under it. The problem turned out to be the new motor being several inches longer than the old one. When the first pilot chute was released it dropped down, welded itself to the nozzle, and prevented the back-up chute from deploying.

Later in 1973, Paula Murphy had her 3rd and 5th cervical vertebrae cracked in a similar crash with Ky Michaelson's Miss STP rocket dragster at Sears Point Raceway, California. Murphy, experienced with jet cars at Bonneville and Funny Cars on the drag strip, got her rocket car license driving the Pollution Packer. By this time, Michaelson had split from Tony Fox with Dick Keller taking over as rocket engineer on the Pollution Packer team. The Miss STP improved over the Pollution Packer by laying the fuel tank down horizontally and putting the nitrogen bottles farther forward behind the cockpit. Murphy's accident occurred when at the end of the run when she released her first chute and was left virtually brakeless when it ripped away the portion of the frame to which the chute tow lines were secured. The Miss STP car was rebuilt by Michaelson and Frank Huzar and run again by Murphy later that year.

The next year, on March 30, 1974, the first of the fatal rocket dragster crashes occurred when Dave Anderson died of severe injuries sustained in the crash of the first Pollution Packer. His car was unable to stop when its drag chutes failed to deploy at the end of a run at Charlotte (NC) Motor Speedway's drag strip. The primary chute did release, with the pilot chute coming out followed by the main canopy. However, the rear of the car was spinning to the left (clockwise) so that the car backed into the chute and prevented full deployment. The circumstances of the crash were worsened by the conditions under which the run was made. The 1/8th mile drag strip at Charlotte was primarily the pit road for the various NASCAR races held there. The Pollution Packer bolted down the track at over 240 mph, slid into another dragster -- killing two crewmen -- then bent itself nearly double upon impact with the outside retaining wall.

Two weeks before his death, Dave Anderson unveiled at the 1974 Gatornationals a second Pollution Packer. This was a wedge shaped aluminum monocoque car designed by Dick Keller with a 5,000 pounds thrust motor. Pete Farnsworth was critical of the car's design, citing as his criticisms the car's vulnerability to strong cross winds or an air cushion forming under the flat bottom. With the aerodynamic knowledge available today, it would have been simple to build a ground effects tunnel into the car. During his second test run at the Gatornationals, Anderson was caught in the lights by a crosswind at about 200 mph. The front wheels rose off the track and, at one point, both left side tires were above the track. Anderson managed to throw the car back into line and deploy his chute. After Dave Anderson's death, Tony Fox selected Vern Anderson (no relation) as the new driver. At Bonneville on August 19, 1974, Vern Anderson broke some of the first Pollution Packer's FIA standing start records with averages of 181.341 mph (4.93 seconds) for the quarter mile and 203.536 mph (5.492 seconds) for the half kilometer. Efforts the next day to break the kilometer record and establish a mile record were unsuccessful due to glare from the sun and vibration causing a chute to release prematurely. The next year, back at the drag strip, the 5,000 pounds thrust motor was replaced with a 7,500 pounds thrust "stack." Because the fuel tank didn't get any bigger, the increased thrust did wonders for the car's elapsed times but at some sacrifice to top speeds. Labor Day, 1975 at Union Grove, Vern Anderson made a 4.96-second pass with a trap speed of only 222 mph. His best speed that day was 4.662 seconds at 306 mph.

The last fatal crash of a rocket dragster on a drag strip occurred March 16, 1975 during the Gatornationals. Following its initial development in 1973, Russell Mendez and Glen Blakely made a variety of changes in the Free Spirit. In a change from the way Arvil Porter had installed the propulsion system, the cylindrical steel nitrogen bottle located forward of the cockpit was replaced with fiberglass-wound aluminum spherical bottles mounted behind the cockpit, thus moving the center of gravity rearward and giving the car a lower polar moment of inertia. New bodywork was fabricated including wheel pants by Nye Frank for the front and rear wheels. The problem with the front wheel pants was they had at least as much side area forward of the spindle as behind it and sharp leading edges instead of rounded ones. One thing that seems to have worked well was the experimental solid tires. These were created by vulcanizing a polyurethane rubber directly to the rims in a process similar to making high-speed printing press rollers. Running with a new motor from Arvil Porter developing about 6,000 pounds thrust, Mendez crashed at the end of a run after he had released the chute but before it had time to inflate. The Free Spirit veered from the left lane all the way across the right lane into a post supporting the guardrail. The impact was so tremendous Mendez was actually ejected from the car.

The rocket dragster that turned out to have probably the longest career was very similar to the 1973 version of the Free Spirit. This was the Armor All car owned by Steve Evans and Ray Alley and driven by John Paxon. After the crash of the Courage of Australia at Irwindale, Evans bought the rocket motor and propulsion system from Bill Fredrick and had him install them in a 21 foot long dragster chassis built by M and S Race Cars in Azusa. Although initially run without one, a vertical stabilizer was later fitted to the car. The hydrogen peroxide was contained in a horizontal tank behind the cockpit and pressurized by nitrogen from several cylindrical bottles located forward of the cockpit.

By 1976, things seem to have settled down with rocket dragsters. People had a better idea of what would and would not work. Teams running rocket dragsters, along with those running rocket Funny Cars, motorcycles and go-karts, would soldier on until the early eighties before they all vanished when the supply of concentrated hydrogen peroxide dried up.

Franklin Ratliff
PROPSTERGUY@aol.com

 

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