Pomona: SoCal drag racing's lifelong loveTuesday, February 07, 2012

When you live in Southern California, you take for granted some sights not usually seen elsewhere. Movie stars in your local restaurants. Palm trees. Top-down convertibles in December. In-N-Out burgers. And, of course, NHRA Drag Racing in early February.

Yet even though this year marks its 52nd running – and my 33rd straight – SoCal’s drag faithful never take the Winternationals for granted. We’re pleased and blessed that each NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series season not only starts here, but also ends here as well, and in just two days, I’ll be ringside for the 2012 season opener, happy and excited as hell.

It’s been more than 60 years since the Choppers, one of the most influential Southern California car clubs of the 1950s, began racing on a dragstrip at what then was the L.A. County Fairgrounds, and NHRA fans are still reaping the benefits of that move twice a year. Pomona Police Chief Ralph Parker (for whom the famed dragstrip would be christened Parker Avenue) and Pomona Motorcycle Officer Bud Coons (who would be an integral part of NHRA’s groundbreaking Safety Safari effort) – helped pave the way for the group, which would become incorporated as the Pomona Valley Timing Association, to hold races and led to the staging of the first NHRA-sanctioned event at Pomona Raceway in April 1953.

Other famous SoCal venues have come and gone – Lions, OCIR, Irwindale, San Fernando, San Gabe – but Pomona is a survivor. Known today as Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, the famed dragstrip still sits on the western-most edge of the equally renamed L.A. Fairplex and remains hallowed ground and the site of more history than almost any track not in Indianapolis. The old girl has changed a lot since the early 1950s, as these great photos from the National DRAGSTER files well document.

 
  (Above) This is how the Pomona track looked in 1953. I’m not certain if this photo is from that famed first NHRA event, but my guess is that it is. Note the lack of guardrails – a row of hay bales in their stead – and the familiar pumping house and trees that were a part of the Pomona scenery for years. You can't really see them, but there are folks lined two and three deep in front of their cars along the track beyond those barriers. You could sit in your car and enjoy the drags. Too cool! (Left) The staging lanes, circa 1957, filled with bitchin' vintage hot rods, turning the corner, eager for their shot at the Pomona dragstrip. The railroad tracks are still there.
 
 (Above) The starting line at the inaugural Winternationals in 1961. The banner over the starting line proclaimed the support of the Uptown Pomona Lions Club.

 

 As much as many things have changed in the area surrounding the facility, the old house in the background still remains, as can be seen in the upper left portion of the photo at right.
 

 

The late great Jack Chrisman in Mickey Thompson’s twin raced by the Winternationals sign hung on the E Street (now Fairplex Drive) fence at the 1962 event. Note the use of the now-iconic snowflake.

Beginning in 1963, some of drag racing greatest names, like Don Prudhomme (above) and Don Garlits and James Warren (below), roared down the Pomona strip from beneath this famous banner that spanned the starting line. The banner was removed in 1994 because it blocked sight lines from the tower built behind the starting line.

Man, I love this photo. The Pomona staging lanes, packed with fuelers and floppers, including the beautiful Keeling & Clayton California Charger slingshot. This is either 1970 or 1971; my bet is the former.

Before grandstands lined both sides of the track, this unique behind-the-starting-line view afforded the only seating on the track's west side. I sat in these stands one year -- they were there until the middle 1990s -- and what they lacked in a good view of the actual race was made up for in seeing the teams preparing their mounts.

(Left) In 1979, Chief Parker's long support of the drags in Pomona was immortalized with the installation of this street sign, proclaiming the famed track as Parker Avenue. (Above) After NHRA founder Wally Parks' death in 2007, his name was added to create this intersection, with the road leading back to the pits declared Wally Parks Boulevard.

One of my all-time favorite Pomona photos, also from 1979, with the snowcapped foothills in the background. This photo, which graces the Table of Contents of this week's issue of National DRAGSTER, is what the Winternationals is all about. With rain forecast for today (and only today!), we could have a snowy backdrop.
After the 1993 Winternationals, the venerable three-story Pomona tower was bulldozed to the ground. The building used to hold the announce deck (second floor) and pressroom (third floor), but all functions were moved to the newly created tower seen under construction. The small tower to the left of this photo used to stand watch over the Ontario Motor Speedway quarter-mile and for a while was used in Pomona; it's now a security outlook in the Pomona parking lot. From watching the action on NHRA's quickest tracks to helping spot car burglars. Sigh.

(Above) The track as it looked in 2002. (Below) Skybox suites were added above the pitside stands in 2006. They made their debut at that year's Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals.

Twice each year, our little corner of the drag racing world becomes a mini city. Welcome to sunny California!


OK, gang, that's it for our photographic look back. Due to the event, there will be no Friday column this week, but be sure to follow along online with our updated photo blog, the famed NHRA.com live audiocast, and FastNews' detailed event results reporting. I'll see you back here next week.

 

Turns out, you're all rocketmenFriday, February 03, 2012

Well, well, well … turns out the Insider Nation is full of closet rocket-car fans. I’ve never really written much about our hydrogen-peroxide-fueled friends before, but now that I have, the fond memories are flooding in.

The tale of “Capt. Jack” McClure was, as one could have predicted, a huge hit.

“I just finished reading the Jack McClure article, which I really enjoyed for several reasons,” wrote
Nunzio Valerie Jr. “I never realized Jack was a Rupp Dart kart distributor; I actually had one as a kid. My dad was running an A/Altered around 1970, and I pestered him to get me a kart. Well, he makes a deal on one, to surprise me, without knowing what he was getting. When his buddy brought it over to our house, it was a Rupp Dart, with TWO West Bend engines, each with TWO Tillotson carbs, and cans of nitro! I was about 8 at the time, and my dad thought he was getting me a 'fun' kart. So we fired up just one engine, and the thing is popping and cackling like a little fueler, and when my dad saw that, he shut it down and said, ‘We're trading those in for a lawnmower engine!’ Anyway, we saw Jack run that rocket at the 1972 Empire Nationals at our home track, and it blew me away. The Courage of Australia rocket was also at that meet; those rockets were just incredible back then. Ironically, a good friend of ours, ‘Rocket Rod’ Phelps, ended up running a rocket dragster and a rocket Funny Car."

Kip Scharf enjoyed the article about McClure’s rocket kart and remembered a couple who followed him that he saw run side by side at Alamo Dragway in San Antonio in 1976. “I was thinking it was 'Capt. Jack' and perhaps a second car from his stable. Well, looking at it now, it appears there was a rocket go-kart team called The Minute Man Rocket Team. Their karts looked a little different than the Captain’s. I've attached a handout from that race and was wondering if you could fill in a few more blanks. Like you stated, if you've never seen a rocket car run, you just can't understand how fast they were. When I witnessed these two side by side, it was incredible. They were towed out from the staging lanes behind two pickup tow vehicles, the drivers already strapped in minus helmets. They looked like something directly out of the space program. The cars were unhooked, and I believe lawnmower-type engines were pull-started on each kart. Thinking about it now, those may have been fuel or pressure pumps being started. The crowd started to chuckle because they believed they were about to see a couple of gasoline-powered toys roll down the track with some sparklers attached to the back to give the appearance of rocket motors. I then remember hearing the announcer make the call to give the crowd a little show. They then began to do ‘mini afterburner pops,’ so to speak. Well, the hands couldn't get up to their ears fast enough when this began, and the crowd grew more intense and interested. Both karts were staged, and as the green flashed, they were gone. They disappeared so fast; at that time, it was the fastest thing I'd ever seen! The crowd went wild, hollering and screaming, applauding and cheering for what they had just witnessed. It was truly impressive. The karts were then towed back up the dragstrip behind the pickup trucks with the drivers still in the karts, helmets removed, waving to the cheers of those in the stands and the many who ran down to the spectator fence to get a closer look, which was my vantage point for witnessing the spectacle as an 11-year -old. Every year, something reminds me of that particular day back in May of 1976, and I'd often wondered if I'd ever know the whole story behind the rocket-powered go-karts and those brave/crazy few who drive them.”

Ask and thou shall receive. Turns out that ol "Capt. Jack" wasn’t the only driver with enough stones to pilot a rocket kart. The Minute Man Rocket Team consisted of George Lavinge and his Thunderbolt kart and Pat Best (Best Bros. entry). You won’t be surprised to hear that “the Rocketman,” Ky Michaelson, was involved in the project. According to Michaelson, Best made history when he set the world speed record at 248 mph in his rocket kart at North Star Speedway in Minnesota. I don’t know what became of Best, but Lavinge died in the saddle of his rocket kart July 24, 1976, in Kaukauna, Wis. According to reports, the 23-year-old driver hit a guardrail at about 160 mph after a run, his kart flipped multiple times, and he was ejected and died of his injuries at the hospital.

Lavinge’s demise is a sad story and a definite cautionary tale. The duo had approached Michaelson about building them the karts; Michaelson agreed but insisted that they run no faster than 150 mph with them; in fact, he made sure of it by building the cars with fuel tanks that only would carry enough fuel for them to reach that speed. After running for a while, they asked for larger tanks; he denied their request, but they had them built somewhere else.

Michaelson, who earlier had assisted the duo in their bookings, was at WIR when Lavinge was killed on what he said was going to be his last pass ever in the kart. The duo had split up as a team, but both were at the event. According to Michaelson, Lavinge had secretly arranged with Best to thrill the crowd by swapping lanes at midtrack on the pass – a bad idea if I ever heard one – and it went bad for Lavinge from there. He swapped lanes, overcorrected, and ended up dead. Tragic.

Speaking of karts, Greg Richardson sent this great photo of his boyhood pal David Swensen on the strip at Pomona with his go-kart. According to Richardson, Swensen’s dad was in charge of the art building on the L.A. County Fairgrounds in the 1960s, so he had access to the dragstrip. “Every kid’s dream,” he said. “We were Don Garlits Jr. in our minds even if it was just a go-kart.

“Great photo,” he added. “It’s hard to think that this is all there was for the Winternationals: iced-over rent-a-grandstands from the Rose Parade, and the tower then was state of the art. They opened the gates at 11 p.m. Saturday, so to get a good seat, you spent the night in the stands; it was standing room only on Sunday. Or you could hop the fence and run from the cops! They had a searchlight going down the strip! David still is a friend of mine and runs the Neon Museum of Art in L.A. He loves the old drag racing, mini bike, and go-kart stuff.”

Mike Edstrom, whose dad, Dave, tuned the family’s Blind Faith fuelers, remembers as a kid seeing McClure run at his local track, Great Lakes Dragaway. “I vividly remember hanging out by McClure's pit area,” he recalled. “I was 7 years old when I first saw him run and would go over and bug him for hero cards (wish I still had them!) and was fascinated that he needed a face shield and special gloves to put fuel in the tank. I was there when he ran that 5.90 and remember being so excited and my dad thinking how crazy 'Captain' was for getting in that thing! 'Broadway Bob' always put on the best shows back then, including Evel Knievel, but I always thought that rocket kart was the coolest thing ever, and he was always super nice to a certain snot-nosed kid (ha-ha)!” Edstrom’s ties to the rocket world also extend to my sub-story on Brent Fanning, as he drove Fanning’s nitro Funny Car in 1991.

McClure’s Turbonique roots prompted Jonathan Colatorti to send a link to the YouTube video that’s embedded at right, which is a seven-minute-long mid-1960s promo for Turbonique featuring some of its famous cars, including McClure’s kart and his Sizzler and a variety of other wild machines, and one featuring a Turbonique-powered propeller-driven kart that clearly belongs in the Dangerous Ideas Hall of Fame. Tommy Ivo’s four-engine/four-wheel-drive Showboat is seen facing off against a Turbonique-powered VW bug – the Roy Drew-driven Black Widow – that later proved not very aerodynamic at 180 mph (duh) and flew. You can watch what I presume is McClure facing off with – and clearly beating – a doorslammer, a motorcycle, and a dragster with his kart. There’s also a rocket-powered mini boat and a clearly unstable hovercraft-type vehicle. It’s captivating viewing but also makes you wonder what might have possessed the pilots of these machines to take these white-knuckle rides.

You want more rocket videos? We got 'em. Benoit Pigeon included a bunch in his email: “I've been fascinated by rocket cars since Sammy Miller raced them in the early '80s in Europe. My friend Bob Feeler purchased Sammy Miller's rocket Trans Am in the late '80s, and the car was based just outside Paris for many years. I got to sit in it a couple times (standing). The car is still active in France with a different owner. Feeler's brother Eric Teboul purchased the late Henk Vink’s rocket bike a while back and races it a lot as well. There is a European equivalent to Michaelson in Switzerland. I saw his first rocket kart at a car show over 20 years ago: www.swissrocketman.com/ete02.html. The main page for the creator of those Swiss-made rockets is here www.swissrocketman.com/. There is a lot of info on Sammy Miller here: www.vetechnet.com/rocketcar.htm. One more thing I just found from Mexico: www.tecaeromex.com/ingles/drag-i.html.”

I checked out that last link, and it appears that Juan Manuel Lozano Gallegos is the Ky Michaelson of Mexico. His Tecnologia Aerospacial Mexico group is into everything, including rocket drag cars.

Former National DRAGSTER contributor Tom Schiltz passed along the photos above of Michaelson’s Pollution Packer running at the Division 3 event in Indy and the photo at right featuring the Arizona Speed Sport Turbine, about which he asked. “I have never found out anything about the car,” he said. “I think it’s a compressed-air engine. It was not a thrust car (see the slicks). I saw it run at the '62 Nationals but have never seen or heard anything about it since.”

I asked NHRA historian Greg Sharp what he knew about the car, and he quickly pointed me to the 2007 edition of the California Hot Rod Reunion souvenir program, which included a tribute to team driver Red Greth. There’s a photo of the car, with the side panels on, and a caption that reads: “In 1962, AiResearch approached [Lyle] Fisher and Greth about building a turbine dragster. Speed Sport IV was powered by three turbine engines; essentially starters for jet airliners. With all the plumbing and giant exhaust cones, many assumed the car was thrust-driven, like a jet or a rocket. Actually, a chain drive connected the engines to a conventional automotive rear end. Said Greth, ‘We knew from the start turbines wouldn’t take off. There was no noise.’ “

From reader Joe Mihm: “Reading your stories about "the Rocketman" brought back many memories from my younger days at the old Detroit Dragway. I remember seeing rocket cars make their passes, hitting four seconds, which was mind-boggling in the mid- to late 1970s. But the most vivid memory I have was from a night at the dragway that featured all sorts of ‘entertainment’ -- wheelie cars, the guy that blows himself up in a box, Funny Cars racing bracket racers, etc. It was sometime around 1976/77, and the feature of the night was a guy with a jet pack on his back with roller skates on. When he appeared at the starting line, the crowd went completely berserk and poured onto the track. It was complete mayhem! When they finally cleared the place and he came out again, the same thing happened. We never got to see him make his run that night, but I will never forget the spectacle. I don't know if it was Ky Michaelson's son or not, but if you have any old video of 'Captain Rollerball,' it would be great if you could post it on your website and I can finally get to see what happens!”

I couldn’t find any video of brave young Mr. Michaelson, but there’s a whole page on Michaelson's site devoted to the story behind the act, some photos, and a bunch of newspaper clippings that give you an idea of what went on. Good stuff!

And finally … Gary Crumrine saw both McClure’s kart and the Pollution Packer run and has the scars to prove it! “I disagree with Michaelson regarding nobody getting hurt by the Packer,” he scoffed. “I suffered from two injuries. One from the starting line where I happened to get covered by the peroxide cloud when I got too close while taking some photos (that stuff burned like heck) and the second time shooting from around the 1,000-foot mark. That thing went by me so fast I snapped my head around to see it pass and hurt my neck. That was pure cool. When he popped the chute, the whole rear came off the ground.

"What can I say about ‘Capt. Jack’? He is pure crazy. My kind of guy. The guy every kid wanted for a grandfather. Can you imagine telling your buddies what your grandpa did? Wow, I’d be the most popular kid in town.”

 

'The Rocketman'Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Even for a fan who grew up watching them in the 1970s and early 1980s, there was a lot that I didn’t know about rocket cars, but after spending time on the phone last year with "Capt. Jack" McClure and yesterday with “the Rocketman” himself, propulsion wunderkind Ky Michaelson, I know a whole lot more, especially about Michaelson’s most famous car, the Pollution Packer.

As solid as my knowledge is about the wheel-driven side of the sport, I didn’t realize until last week’s column that the Packer made the first four-second and 300-mph runs in NHRA national event history. And, as goofy as this sounds, I never knew the origin of the car’s name, either.

But we’ll get to all of that. First, a little background on Michaelson, whose road to putting an indelible stamp on the sport and the business of entertaining fans has more twists and turns than a climb to Pikes Peak.

Michaelson’s road to dragstrip fame began in the early 1960s while working at the Sno Pony Snowmobile company owned by his across-the-street neighbor, Tony Fox, an enterprising and cunning carny barker of a businessman who not only owned the snowmobile company but also had delved into everything from weight-loss equipment to trash compactors. Michaelson convinced Fox that they could earn a public-relations bonanza for the company by setting a world speed record, so together they built the Sonic Challenger.

Tony Fox, Ky Michaelson, and the record-setting Sonic Challenger

The Sonic Challenger had a historic lineage. It was built from the chassis of the famed X-1 rocket car, the first-known hydrogen-peroxide-powered rocket car to take to the dragstrip and a car that shocked everyone in 1967 when driver Chuck Suba powered it to an e.t. of 5.41 at U.S. 30. Michaelson had convinced Fox to buy the car from Reaction Dynamics – a company owned by Pete Farnsworth, Ray Dausman, and Dick Keller, who later would build Gary Gabelich’s land-speed-record-setting Blue Flame -- then took off the X-1’s wheels and put snowmobile tracks on the back and skis on the front (later replaced by skis at all four corners) and drove it into the Guinness World Records book Feb. 15, 1970, in Vermont with a run of 114.5 mph over a quarter-mile course.

Michaelson lost interest in snowmobiling and began a long history in wheel-driven drag racing, especially in Top Gas, and it was NHRA’s decision in 1971 to discontinue the class that led Michaelson to create his first rocket dragster. He had a new rear-engine chassis but no class in which to run it, so he bought the hydrogen-peroxide engine out of the Sonic Challenger from Reaction Dynamics, which sold the car in part to fund the Blue Flame project.

Throughout the years, Michaelson had done a lot of prototype work for Fox’s many companies, but their relationship often was stormy. In fact, at the time that Michaelson decided to build his first rocket car, he wasn’t working for Fox, but the canny Fox talked him back into the fold with the agreement that he would sponsor Michaelson’s new machine through his company that manufactured trash compactors under the Pollution Packer brand name. Thus, the Pollution Packer rocket dragster was born.

(Full disclosure: In the early 1970s, “pollution” was as big a news topic as “recession” is today; I admit that for years – oh, say from 1973 when I first heard of the Pollution Packer until roughly, oh, last week – I figured that Michaelson had just been playing on the buzzword with a car that emitted no hydrocarbons. Silly me.)

When the Pollution Packer debuted in the summer of 1972, it had this striped paint scheme and quickly aimed at taking the title of quickest and fastest rocket car from Bill Frederickson's Courage of Australia (below).

Michaelson initially drove the car (even before it was rebranded as the Pollution Packer) in May 1972, but the father of seven began to have misgivings about his craft after witnessing an accident involving a Top Fuel dragster and turned the wheel over to his childhood friend Dave Anderson, a journeyman Top Fuel pilot still looking for his big break. He got it with the Pollution Packer.

Fox provided the capital not only for a tractor-trailer rig, but also paint jobs, matching uniforms, and even a helicopter, all of which upped the ante and brought in mountains of PR.

“Tony Fox was all about show business; it was quite a dog-and-pony show,” remembered Michaelson of his late partner, who died recently. “We got a tremendous amount of exposure with that car.”

It didn’t take them long to set their sights on breaking records and making a name for themselves. At the time, the unofficial quickest and fastest rocket dragster belonged to Bill Frederickson, the Courage of Australia – a three-wheeled machine not unlike the Blue Flame – that driver Vic Wilson had wheeled to a stunning 5.107, 311.41 Nov. 11, 1971, at Orange County Int'l Raceway. At the time, the best Top Fuel cars were running in the 6.30s at 230 mph, so the pass – although not sanctioned by any racing body – nonetheless drew oohs and aahs. When the two cars were booked together at Great Lakes Dragaway in Union Grove, Wis., Fox quickly challenged Frederickson to a high-dollar race, putting up $100,000 for bragging rights. “[Frederickson] never took the trailer off the car, and we ended up getting his appearance money,” recalled Michaelson with a hoot.

The Pollution Packer team set 13 records on the Bonneville Salt Flats in late '72.
Dave Anderson was the fearless pilot of the Pollution Packer. In its debut at the 1973 Winternationals, the Packer rocketed to a best speed of 297 mph.

The Pollution Packer was already a match race sensation in late 1972 – though not yet legal at NHRA tracks – when Michaelson, Fox, and Anderson went to Bonneville in October 1972 to try to set a record on the Salt. With Anderson sharing cockpit time with female speedster Paula Murphy, they set 13 state, national, and international records.

NHRA was reluctant to license rocket and jet cars, according to Michaelson, in part due to its inexperience with them and a fear of what might happen if the engines in either should fail. But NHRA was certainly enamored of wealthy Fox and his commitment to the sport – which included plans for building a new dragstrip in Minnesota -- and Michaelson believes that that may have gotten NHRA over the hump. Regardless, rocket cars were accepted, and it was Michaelson, Fox, and Anderson who ushered in NHRA’s rocket era with a spectacular debut at the 1973 Winternationals, where Anderson set the crowd abuzz with a run of 5.35 at 297 mph.

A month later, March 15, 1973, they ran the sport’s first official 300-mph pass, 305.08 on a 5.176-second run, and a few months later made the first four-second run, a 4.99, on June 10 at the NHRA Springnationals at National Trail Raceway in Columbus. At the time. only a few Top Fuel cars had ever run in the fives or at more than 240 mph.

Remembered Michaelson, “Don Garlits came over to me and said, ‘Thanks a lot for effing up drag racing.’ We stole the thunder everywhere we went with that car.”

Later that year, Anderson ran 4.62 at 344 mph at the U.S. Nationals, speeds that began to concern Michaelson.

“Tony was always wanting us to go faster,” remembered Michaelson, “and eventually we had a falling-out and went our separate ways.”

Anderson, who enjoyed the fame associated with the car, stayed with Fox and was killed in the car the next March in Charlotte. According to the best understanding that anyone has, the car locked up – either because of driver or mechanical error – and spun backward, rendering useless the parachute. The Packer collided with a car stopped on the return road, killing Anderson and two crewmembers of the other car.

“I cried my heart out,” said Michaelson.

Michaelson fielded rocket cars after that, including the Miss STP dragster in which Murphy suffered a broken back at Sears Point Raceway when her first parachute ripped away the back of the frame to which the chute lines were attached, and the Conklin Comet with Ed Ballinger and Kitty O’Neil.

“No one was ever hurt by an engine explosion in a rocket car,” noted Michaelson. “Everything that was bad happened at the other end in trying to stop them.”

By his count, Michaelson has been involved, either as car builder, owner, or propulsion provider, for 20 rocket cars and set 72 state, national, and international speed records. When the price of rocket fuel skyrocketed and its availability became limited, Michaelson got out of the game in 1980.

Michaelson and his Rocketman Quick Flight Belt: a jet pack for the masses?

In the years since, Michaelson has attached rockets to everything from motorcycles to outhouses (really) and even to his teenage son Curt (aka "Capt. Rollerball"), who zipped along at nearly 60 mph on roller skates with a rocket engine strapped to his back. He has built a real-life rocket belt (picture Buck Rogers) and on May 17, 2004, became the first civilian to put a rocket into space when his Civilian Space eXploration Team reached an altitude of 72 miles (“space” begins at 66 miles) and set the record for the fastest anything built by a civilian when the CSXT vehicle – a conventional liquid-fueled rocket -- hit 3,420 mph.

“Can you imagine building something in your garage that you get four sonic booms out of?" he chuckled. "What a thrill. People say, ‘You must be a rocket scientist.’ No, I’m just a hot rodder."

And now you know why they call him “Rocketman.”
 

Rocket roundupFriday, January 27, 2012

In the interest of full disclosure – and many of my longtime column readers know this already – the two-part story on “Capt. Jack” McClure’s rocket go-kart was a long time coming. I did the interview about a year ago and – shame on me – sat on it for a few weeks while working on other columns. I thought I was the only one who had “found” him after all of these years, so I thought my “scoop” could wait while I put the pieces together.

I didn’t realize that McClure had a Facebook page, and before I could get my story online, he also had done an interview with another website; when that interview was quickly published, quite a few of the quotes were similar to what McClure had given me, so I felt I needed to distance my story from the other so that no one thought I was riding on its coattails. I felt bad for McClure, who had spent considerable time on the phone with me, but he was understanding.

We had exchanged a few emails in between, and I got a note from him earlier this week after my recent two-parter, thanking me for its thoroughness and accuracy, but because – again, shame on me – I had not followed up with him, my last column ended with the whodunit concerning the kart’s whereabouts when, in fact, he not only had since found it but had it restored by Ky Michaelson, as you can see here in his photo, in which he has re-created the Steve Reyes photo from the cover of the July 1973 issue of Drag Racing USA.


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The rocket kart as McClure found it, still in Free Country livery
 
“I found out that Ramon's [Alvarez] daughter had it, and it took a long time to make a deal,” he said. “I didn't want to tell anyone where the kart was, but I had it and was waiting for when it was restored. Anyway, I got it back and took it to Ky's shop in Bloomington, Minn., and he restored it."

The kart was disassembled and the frame sandblasted and repainted. Michaelson went through the propulsion system, and everything was chromed or polished, repainted, and reupholstered. The kart was then reassembled and the propulsion system test-fired last November.

"When we restored the kart, we did it with intentions of running it again," said McClure. "We installed new bearings, new heim joints, and new tires. Ky wasn't sure if the motor was in running condition; he had some 90 percent hydrogen peroxide, and we fired the engine; it worked like new. The problem is rocket-grade fuel; we found a source here in the U.S., but it's very expensive."

Even if they do get it run-functional, I'm not sure where they would run it. I'm sure it's not legal for any kind of NHRA applications, but you can check out a gallery of the kart’s resurrection at right, and there’s a lot more to be found on McClure’s new website (also built by Michaelson) that includes photos from McClure’s wild and vast career, a great interview he did with Michaelson that goes places my interview never did, and so much more. Check it out here.

There isn’t a ton of McClure footage around, but the BangShift group did copy this 14-second silent clip that gives you an idea of how the kart looked and ran.

McClure’s site also has a bizarre 14-minute, 42-second video clip of him running at Fremont Raceway in 1973 (when it was under AHRA control). That footage, shot by NorCal drag film mavens the Jackson brothers, shows McClure suiting up, consulting with his crew and track officials, and firing off into the dark Bay Area night trailing sparklers, but that’s shown over and over in an endless loop. I’m not sure who spliced this all together in this fashion, but you can pretty much stop watching after the 90-second mark. (You can thank me now for giving you back 13 minutes of your life; I had to watch it all just to make sure.)

Still, if you’ve never seen a rocket car run, even the small amount of footage here gives you an idea of just how quickly these things left the starting line. You’d be standing there watching the driver stage, maybe notice a little vapor percolating from the engine area, and then – WHOOSH – it was gone. As a kid, it was one of the most astounding things I can remember seeing at the drags (Leapin’ Larry McNemany excepted). The conventional rocket dragsters ran bigger engines than the one in McClure’s kart and ran well into the fours and more than 300 mph long before the first Top Fuelers ever did.

Speaking of 300 – and with the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals presented by Super Start Batteries just around the corner – Bruce Lee, a friend of Michaelson’s, sent me a photo of one of his prized possessions: the first 300-mph NHRA time slip from a pass at Gainesville Raceway. No, we’re not talking about Kenny Bernstein’s 1992 history maker, but the 305.08-mph blast recorded by the late Dave Anderson and the Pollution Packer at the 1973 Gatornationals. Michaelson owned the Pollution Rocket car at the time it set these records. The car, sponsored by Tony Fox's trash compacting business (Fox later bought the car), was the first licensed rocket car to run on an NHRA track. Anderson had blown everyone away with a five-second, 297-mph run at the rain-plagued Winternationals, then made history a month later (on March 18 to be exact) in Florida. At the time, NHRA had placed a 300-mph limit on rocket cars --according to Michaelson, they were given a 3 percent margin for overun -- so from that point until the restrictions were lifted, the cars were intentionally run out of fuel early to avoid “breaking out.”

Anderson and Michaelson then wowed everyone a few months later with the first four-second pass, a 4.99 at the Springnationals in Columbus, and later ran as quick as 4.62 (in Indy) and as fast as a mind-boggling 368 mph (location unknown) before being killed in an accident the next March in Charlotte. Anderson held that speed mark until stuntwoman Kitty O’Neil ran 3.22 at 412 mph in 1977 on a quarter-mile track laid out at El Mirage that might not have accurately clocked her speed, but DragList reports that she also ran 392.64 on a sanctioned strip. DragList also reports that Vic Wilson drove Bill Frederick's Courage of Australia rocket dragster to a 311.41-mph pass during a private test at Orange County Int'l Raceway Nov. 11, 1971, but Anderson’s pass was done in public, so I tend to give it more weight.

The early to mid-1970s were definitely the golden age of the rocket cars but, with the exception of “Slammin’ Sammy” Miller, largely fell out of favor by the early 1980s. Of all of the things I’ve seen and done on this job, perhaps one of my weirdest claims to fame was that I actually served as a crewmember on one of the last rocket cars during my first year on the job here, way back in 1982. Those first years here I was kind of like a kid in a candy store, wanting to run around and do anything that gave me an inside look at the sport, which included working as a crewmember on various cars and, of course, driving the Mazi family blown altered.

But in 1982, I had become fast friends with Brent Fanning (well before his inexcusable starting-line stunt in Indy with his nitro Funny Car), a dairy farmer from Stephenville, Texas, who had built his own unique rocket car. It was short-wheelbased and could wear either a Funny Car body (a topless Corvette) or a homemade “altered” body. He’d be booked into a track to run in either guise (or sometimes both); the Funny Car was called Outer Limits, and the altered was Concept-1. Larry Bostick, a fearless 28-year-old from Lingleville, Texas (population 78, according to their press materials), drove the car.

Some rookie reporter, center, with Bostick, left, and Fanning, standing in front of the Outer Limits Corvette in the Sacto pit area. I still have that shirt.

I had made acquaintance with them at OCIR, during the 1982 Summer Showdown event, one of the first I ever covered for ND. We kept in touch, and that September Brent invited me to travel with him and Larry to run at the Governor’s Cup event at Sacramento Raceway. They’d already been rained out there the first try, then drove home (1,700 miles) and two weeks later picked me up in Los Angeles on their second trip (they’d left the car at the track). We were about six hours into the seven-hour drive north when we received word the event had been rained out again. Fanning debated just picking up the car and calling it quits (which meant he would have been out his $750 appearance fee) or turning around, heading home, and coming back three weeks later to run the date, which we did. The disappointment and lost highway miles gave me a firsthand glimpse of the not-so-fun side of match racing.

I learned a lot about the car and rocket racing. The altered weighed just 750 pounds and sported a 3,500-pound thrust (about 6,000 horsepower, they reckoned) engine. With the Funny Car body, it weighed 1,050 pounds – still pretty light! DragList credits Concept-1 with a best pass of 5.22 at 270.27.

The Concept-1 rocket altered. Sparklers were just for show, and we also had matching ones on the chase vehcile that were fired off on the return road.

Anyway, the second trip to Sacto was successful, and we (yes, we) ran 5.92 with the Outer Limits and 5.67 with Concept-1 – certainly not world-beating runs, but Fanning and Bostick were pretty pleased. I chronicled our adventure in an article I wrote for the late Stevie Collison for Super Stock & Drag Illustrated, but he never published it. Looking back at the writing in my rookie year, I can see that it certainly wasn’t Cole Coonceian in its prose, but I still liked it and got a kick out of rereading it yesterday and reliving those memories. Stevie was nice enough to send me back my story and – even better – my negatives, so that I could show you the photos here.

I stayed in touch with Fanning through early 1983, but the increased cost of bookings (due to fuel bills) led to a major reduction in bookings and even led him to construct a wall made of ½-inch-thick Styrofoam to be placed at the 1,000-foot mark with an opening for Bostick to try to drive through; the opening was just 2 feet wider than the car (“making impact unavoidable” he noted). They tested it, but I don’t think anyone ever booked it.

That March, I got a note from him reporting that hydrogen peroxide manufacturer/distributor FMC had informed him that it no longer would be making the product. ”This means no more rockets,” he wrote, sadly. “The entire rocket system in our car is now worthless. We should be able to get a few more barrels of their closing stock … but our days are numbered.”

And so the rocket car, another part of drag racing’s wild and woolly past, was resigned to history. As much as I liked to watch them run, with their otherworldly speed, that’s probably not such a bad thing.
 

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