Rockets. You light them at arm’s length and retreat before they whoosh into the sky and explode to a chorus of oohs and aahs. Only someone notably deranged would attempt to strap one to a car with the intention of going very quickly. But four decades ago, a small group of American hot rodders and academics did just that.
During the 1960s, a revolution took place in land speed record breaking. Following decades of wheel-driven vehicles, jet engines had turned record-breakers into trollies, blown along by wind. From Art Arfons’ junkyard special Green Monster to Craig Breedlove’s more scientific Spirit of America, they pushed the record from around 400mph to more than 600mph in just three seasons at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Then things went quiet for a while.
Around this time, a keen amateur hot rodder called Dick Keller had just got married. As a condition of accepting his proposal, his new wife insisted he give up drag racing. But he didn’t lose his interest in fast cars.
Employed at the Illinois Institute of Technology Research Institute (IITRI) on fine particles research, he had struck up a friendship with Ray Dausman, who was working on a propellant research contract for NASA. The pair often lunched together, shooting the breeze about various wild engineering ideas.
We were scribbling on napkins and stuff,’ says Keller; ‘then we thought we would look at a rocket-powered dragster.
After some digging in the library, they opted for hydrogen peroxide as the propellant. This tricky chemical can be used as a monofuel by exposing it to a catalyst that triggers decomposition, resulting in oxygen, water and a lot of heat. Recruiting the help of James McCormack, the guru on the substance at manufacturer FMC, they cooked up an engine design.
Following the successful test of a prototype motor giving 25lb of thrust, they scaled up their design for a car version delivering 2500lb. Keller penned an F1-style chassis and they drafted in part-time hot rod builder Pete Farnsworth to help construct the Reaction Dynamics X1. This showed well on the drag strips and within a season was outrunning the top-fuellers and jet dragsters.
Satisfied with their proof of concept, Keller, Dausman and Farnsworth decided they were ready to go for the big one, the World Land Speed record, at the time held by Craig Breedlove’s jet car Spirit of America at just over 600mph.
By now, Keller had moved to the Insititute of Gas Technology (IGT), doing contract work for the natural gas industry. Enthused about his side project, he was explaining to fellow scientists at work how, with all the heat and free oxygen their rocket engine produced, adding some form of hydrocarbon would give it a whole lot more power. They said, “Could you run it with liquefied natural gas?”’ says Keller, ‘and I said, “Certainly”.’
At the time, the American Gas Association (AGA) was trying to promote liquid natural gas and IGT’s management spotted the potential of this project to do just that. One thing led to another, and eventually to a ,000 budget for initial work on the car. This was 1968 and a schedule was drawn up to break the record at Bonneville in the autumn of the following year. It was a commitment that, with hindsight, would prove costly.
The money changed everything and work began in earnest. Keller went back to the IIT engineering school, pulled in some of the best academic brains, and convinced a group of students to base their theses on the project. Suddenly they had their own team of highly qualified aerospace engineers and all the facilities for them to do their research, including a supersonic wind tunnel.
Then the problems started. Firestone pulled out of record-breaking, which forced the team to use bigger Goodyear tyres and necessitated a bigger car to accommodate them. Next the team was hit by tragedy when their driver, Chuck Suba, was killed testing a dragster. They talked to Don Garlits, who was keen, but his family talked him out of it. Eventually they recruited an ex-astronaut test subject and adrenaline-junkie called Gary Gabelich. He had the necessary credentials and the Californian’s presentable looks were a gift to the AGA’s marketing aspirations.
These delays forced the team to miss the good weather window on the salt flats in 1969, in effect defaulting on the contract with the AGA, who consequently acquired ownership of the project and the car. They did, however, agree to fund an attempt the following year with the Reaction Dynamics crew.
Eventually the team rolled out a 2245kg projectile with a rocket motor delivering 22,000lb of thrust. That’s the equivalent of 58,000hp and a design speed of 850mph. Called The Blue Flame, it is thought by many to be the most beautiful record car of all time.
Following some static, tied-down engine tests, they made it to the salt flats on 14 September 1970 for a two-week assault on the record. Then the engine internals exploded. Fortunately the damage was confined to just one part of its three-stage fuel injector design and they were able to start testing on reduced power using just hydrogen peroxide.
‘We were up around 400mph and the handling was great,’ says Keller. The team then retreated to Salt Lake City to recover at least one more stage and allow the engine to run LNG as well. The two-week window had long since passed and now the money was drying up. Back to the salt flats, and they lost a lot of time tuning the reconfigured motor effectively. Says Keller: ‘We were running too rich and the gas was burning outside the car. It also burned the parachute lines on the first run and, when Gary popped the ’chute, the lines were cut. Let’s say he went for a nice ride.’
The car was now delivering something between 13,000 and 15,000lb of thrust, way down on its design maximum, but was regularly turning in 600mph runs while the team sorted out minor issues. ‘We finally got to 23 October, the fateful day,’ remembers Keller. ‘We were down to our last dollars from the gas industry and everyone was definitely on edge. So we went out and set the record for the mile (622mph) and the kilometre (630mph). As the car slowed down it began to rain. That night it started to snow and that was the last possible time we could have run on the salt flats.’
With the record broken, the AGA, who now owned The Blue Flame, whisked it off for a promotional tour and the team never got their hands on the car again. Keller would have liked another chance to unleash the car’s full potential but admits there is little to be gained by breaking your own record. ‘We had definitely set our own sights on going supersonic though, from day one.’
The car’s mile record stood until 1983, when it was broken by Richard Noble’s Thrust2, but the faster kilometre record stood for 27 years until ThrustSSC went supersonic.
As for being the first 1000km/h car, Keller gets the last word. ‘Being in the States we were looking at mph,’ he says. ‘Speeds in kilometres didn’t really have any meaning. The first time I realised was while reading Stern magazine. The headline was “First over 1000km/h”. I thought, “Well, that’s interesting”…’