The car is going together slowly. I have been concentrating on the safety capsule and getting preliminary welding done on it. Once that is complete I will have it wrapped in a composite material. What I will use I am not quite sure yet but I am leaning towards regular K glass fiberglass because of its abrasion resistance. I will post more on this next month.
I didn’t talk much last month about the passing of one of my mentors Robert Truax because I had so many other things to talk about. Bob was a great man and still to this day a help in my projects which I will tell you about another day when things are a bit different for me. I offer my sincere condolences to his wife Marisol and to his seven children. Truax died at the age of 93. (Sorry for the blurry picture of Robert Truax and myself, it was the only one I could find and it is from 1981)
You can look up the history of this very famous and prolific rocket engineer on Wikipedia.com or see some of his work at www.astronautix.com. But what many people don’t know is that Bob also had his hand in land speed record racing for many years.
Robert Truax the liquid propellant rocket expert who is internationally known as the man who built Evel Knievel’s rocket “Skycycles” has a very long history in developing propulsion systems for automobiles and motorcycles that most people don’t know much about. Here is a brief history about that as I know it.
Since the age of about 14 I have always enjoyed studying about the history of the land speed record and all the participants there of. I also, like many boys growing up in the 1960s built rockets and studied rocketry and aerospace technology. By the time I was 18 years old I believed I could actually build a rocket powered land speed record motorcycle and attempt to set the land speed record. At that time it stood at 622 M.P.H. set by Gary Gabelich in the Blue Flame. Boy, did I have a lot to learn.
To learn more I wrote prominent land speed racers like Art Arfons of Akron, Ohio and other famous LSR racers such as Craig Breedlove and a few others. Art was the most receiving and we struck up a distant friendship through the years. He would write back from time to time with ideas and comments. I would really get excited when he would send me a letter or photos and I still have the letters and photos he sent me. Through the years he always kept me informed on his latest LSR projects such as his latest jet car or what has happened in his racing career.
Through the years I had learned that in 1965 Walt Arfons, Art’s brother and competitor had been unsuccessful in achieving the speed of sound with his “Wingfoot Express” rocket car driven by Bobby Tatro on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. This vehicle was powered by 25 Aerojet General 1,000 lb. thrust JATO (Jet, Assisted, Take, Off rockets) bottle rockets of 14 second duration. These were originally designed and used for boosting heavily laden Air Force aircraft into the sky when they were over loaded or if they had to take off on a short runway. After his first rocket car was unsuccessful Walt Arfons approached Robert Truax a then well known rocket propulsion engineer for better advice for future rocket powered automobile designs.
At the time (the mid 1960s) Goodyear and Firestone tire and rubber companies were vying for control over the nations automobile tire market. Art Arfons ran nylon clad Firestone tires on his LSR jet cars and his brother Walt’s LSR cars were shod with Goodyear tires. So there was a small yet continuous flow of sponsorship money from these two tire manufacturing giants to be fed to the current land speed record holder. That is if he ran the appropriate tires. Because of this, the Land Speed record was boosted from 394 miles per hour to 622 miles per hour in less than seven years.
In 1964 Walt had used Robert Truax to design a steam rocket booster of about 1,000 lbs. of thrust to mount on top of the 1964 version of his Wingfoot Express turbojet powered car in order to boost its performance. It had set the land speed record at 413 M.P.H. in that year with its J46 turbojet engine on full afterburner.
Robert Truax for some reason, probably the simplicity of it, always liked the steam rocket for simple propulsion applications such as a rocket car engine or a rocket booster. It is a great engine delivering an ISP of somewhere in the low100s. Simply fill a very strong pressure vessel up with water, heat it up to about 400 degrees Fahrenheit or more and pull the cork. Bingo! You have instant rocket power.
Walt never used the steam booster Truax developed for his first Wingfoot Express because by the time it was ready the land speed record had already been upped into the low transonic range of 600 plus M.P.H. by cars using the much more powerful General Electric J-79 turbojet engine which was used in the F-104 Starfighter fighter jet and the B-58 Hustler bomber.
It was at this time Walt Arfons commissioned Robert Truax to design a supersonic rocket car from scratch. Robert came up with a steam rocket powered car weighing 12,000 lbs loaded. 8,000 of which was super saturated steam. The car would have outright supersonic speed potential running at the Bonneville Salt Flats.
The vehicle design was a simple one resembling a missile lying on its side with a cockpit located in the pointed supersonic Ogive shaped nose. Behind the driver cockpit were the two front wheels set side by side. Behind the wheels was a more than 30 foot long by 40 inch in diameter water/steam tank at the end of which was a spun metal rocket nozzle. On top of the rocket car was a tall vertical tail fin and the vehicle had wide set outrigger wheels at the rear. Robert Truax told me about this rocket car design of his when we first met in the 1980s.
Throttling off the rocket was to be done by a double cone shaped metal cork stopper in the nozzle throat that could move in and out of the opening releasing more hot water as it moved inwards into the tank. This was done by a long shaft running the length of the tank and out of its front that was linked to a pneumatic cylinder controlled by high pressure air. This was controlled by the pilot with a dead man control set up so that if there was ever a pressure loss the rocket nozzle would slam shut stopping the thrust.
When the nozzle was open the high temperature water escaped flashing into steam in the spun fabricated Delaval nozzle creating thrust. The theoretical output of which was somewhere in the 15,000 lbs. to 20,000 lbs. range depending on tank temperature and pressure. Another innovative feature the car had was that at a certain speed the wheels were supposed to lock up and the car would slide on the Salt Flats minimizing centrifugal forces.
With the rough drawings of the LSR car completed Walt Arfons decided to build a proof of concept drag racing car. It would be a steam rocket drag car that could attain 250 plus miles per hour in the ¼ mile. At that time nitro fueled dragsters could barely hit 200 miles per hour in the ¼ mile. The plan was to campaign this car called the “Neptune” at drag strips all over the country in order to attract a big money sponsor to furnish the money to build the much bigger outright land speed record steam rocket powered car.
Truax built and tested the steam rocket engine for the Neptune drag racer and because of all the noise it made he called it the “Thunderbolt” engine. It was capable of delivering about 6,000 lbs. of steam thrust for 4 seconds at full power. It was also throttle able. The Neptune was taken to a drag strip with Wingfoot Express rocket car driver Bobby Tatro at the wheel. The car was fast but also very unstable because of the high Cg shifts as the water/steam shifted in the tank. On its second run it crashed violently and was destroyed. Bobby Tatro was slightly injured and the car was rebuilt. The car performed as promised and did reach its 250 M.P.H. speed target.
Drag racers who saw the car perform told me that track promoters did not want the car to run on their strips because it left the drag strip wet and the next racers had to wait in order to run and this slowed down the entire race program. Then after the violent crash everyone stayed clear of the whole steam LSR/drag car project altogether. Steam seemed doomed as a car propulsion system as my mind goes back to shades of Fred Marriot and the Stanley Steamer.
The Neptune rocket LSR/drag car project faded away into history, the drag car was sold and has changed hands through the years. Currently it is owned by an engineer in Oregon. Even though the steam rocket never made a big splash in drag racing or on the salt flats, the steam rocket of Robert Truax did not go away.
Later in the late 1960s about 1968 I believe engineer Douglas Malewicki approached Truax to build a 1,300 lb. thrust steam rocket engine for a contract he had locked down with super stuntman Evel Knievel. This was for a rocket powered motorcycle which was to jump across the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Later because of fees that were to be paid for this venue and political differences and wrangling the venue was changed to the Snake River Canyon at Twin Falls, Idaho. The jump had been reduced from a mile across the Grand Canyon to about 1,500 feet across the Snake River Canyon. I met Douglas Malewicki in the early 1980s and he was a really neat guy full of ideas and still is. I keep track of him from time to time and he always has some new idea in a magazine to share. Here is his web page called “How I met Evel Knievel” so you can read his take on the story and see some neat never seen before photos. Check it out at…www.canosaurus.com/10X1Skycycle/Skycycle02a.htm
Robert Truax built and tested the steam rocket engines which used 24 inch diameter Titanium spheres left over from government spacecraft scrapped at the end of the space race as the main steam pressure vessel. At this time all this old aerospace hardware was sold for scrap from all the various contractors to stainless steel and exotic metal scrappers for pennies on the thousands of dollars and most of this stuff could be picked up cheap at local bone yards.
The Titanium sphere was used to hold the water/steam and twin tubes came out of a valve at the bottom of the sphere which led to twin small Delaval nozzles exiting either side of the rear motorcycle wheel. The engine was tested and delivered 1,300 lbs. of thrust. This was to be enough power to propel the two wheeled streamlined bikes at 280 miles per hour and then charge up a ramp and supposedly up and over the canyon. Upon which Knievel would bail out while still at sufficient altitude over the opposite side of the canyon and he and the “Skycycle X-1” as it was now named would land on the other side of the canyon separately suspended by parachutes.
After Malewicki had built the Skycycles, Truax did a bit of math showing… First… The Skycycles were underpowered and would not make the jump distance advertised. This was an easy fix, they decided to add a couple of JATO solid rocket motors to the bikes to boost the Skycycle’s velocity once it had left the ramp. And secondly and most important…. The transition of level high speed motion of the Skycycle with Knievel crouched aboard it at 280 miles per hour as it pulled up into a 45 degree climb up a ramp would strain Knievel right through the chassis of the vehicle juicing him and he would not survive the jump. Heck, he would not even survive the ramp! This was told to me by Robert Truax himself in 1982 when we first met, but the Malewicki’s story tells it a bit differently. So much for who said what to whom.
Angry as Knievel always seemed to be, Bob Truax said Knievel made a few changes now giving Truax complete control over the entire design and build of the Snake River Canyon jump project now slated to take place in the fall of 1974.
Truax opted for a new design of steam rocket engine he called his “4-4-4-4” steam rocket engine in a new “Skycycle X-2” design. The engine was his Thunderbolt engine scaled down slightly. He called it the 4-4-4-4 engine because it used 400 lbs. of water heated to 400 degrees F to deliver 4,000 lbs. of thrust for 4 seconds. He also changed the design plan to launch the Skycycle X-2 steam rocket right off of the ramp at a higher inclination and eliminate the powered run up to a jump ramp idea.
And so the rest is history as they say. It took six years overall to set up the whole project and finally make the jump. Bob Truax said this was because money was sporadic as Knievel never seemed to pay as he said he would. Never the less in 1974 Knievel made his unsuccessful attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon. The fact that he even tried it paints Knievel as a superhero in my eyes even to this day. I also proclaim Douglas Malewicki and Robert Truax “Aerospace engineering gypsies of the highest caliber” for all the creativity and engineering work that they put into this gutsy and famous project.
In the meantime back in Illinois I was following all this thinking how I needed much more powerful rocket engines than the hydrogen peroxide motors I had planned on using for my now revised design which had evolved into a three wheeled rocket trike the “Sonic Wind.” What I really wanted were “real” rocket engines running on explosive fuels and liquid oxygen. I called these types of engines “Exotics.” These were the type NASA uses and I needed that kind of high performance. Where they would come from and how I would pay for them, I had no idea but I kept my eyes open for any opportunity that would present itself none the less.
A short time later I read about Truax again in the very first issue of “Omni” magazine. It was about 1980 and he was now working on a suborbital flight rocket to put the first private astronaut in space. This was twenty years before the X-Prize projects. He called his flight rocket the X-3 Volksrocket. The project was originally slated for making Evel Knievel a bona fide astronaut as a next step after the Canyon jump. The rocket was to reach an altitude of in excess of 60 miles and then splash down in the Ocean. Reaching that altitude would qualify Knievel as an astronaut.
In the interim Evel Knievel had let his evil side out and had beaten up a writer for writing something Evel didn’t like written about him. Knievel had an accomplice hold the writer while Knievel attacked him with a baseball bat breaking his elbows. Thus when the press told the story, Knievel’s sponsorship deals dried up, Evel went to jail and was also ordered to pay the victim I believe $12 million dollars in damages. The victim, writer Shelly Saltzman never saw a dime.
After reading the article I called Bob Truax and found that talking to Truax on the phone was great and revealed he was very genuine and personable. Truax told me to fly out to Saratoga California so we could talk more about my project. I borrowed some money and hopped a flight out with my model of the Sonic Wind rocket car in my hands.
When I met Robert Truax, I was in awe of what he had accomplished as he had an entire rocket manufacturing shop at his home.
Among the exotic toys in his backyard was a twenty foot long boiler plate rocket powered by four Rocketdyne LR-101 verniers running on LOX/Kerosene and manifold together in cruciform. The engines were originally developed for velocity tweaking on the Atlas and Thor ICBM missiles and were built in the mid 1950s.
We talked for two days and Bob said he would help me. He said that when I raised twenty thousand dollars to come back and we would get started on developing the propulsion system for the Sonic Wind land speed racer. He might as well have asked me for twenty million dollars because I didn’t have that much either but at least he didn’t turn me away. No, Bob Truax was a positive man of the likes I had never met. He was so competent and knowledgeable as an engineer that nothing seemed too hard for him to accomplish if he only had enough time and of course money. He was easy to deal with also because he always had a smile on his face. He had a can do spirit and no matter what you brought to him as a problem he minimized it and made it nothing. “We can make it work if we just do this or just make it like that instead.” He would tell me.
A couple of years went by as I refined my vehicle design and saved all the money I could. I was a father of three and barely had enough money to cover our bills at the time. Luckily, at this time my first wife still seemed to like me and she put up with my obsessions. I don’t think anyone really believed in me and my goals except myself but then again that is life for you.
In the meantime I educated myself with hundreds of books on rocketry, aerodynamics and of course the land speed record (at one time I held as many as 8 different library cards). I also educated myself at the drag strips as I would go whenever there was a rocket car or jet car meet. I knew all the drivers and watched all the vehicles run. I studied and photographed the rocket and jet dragsters like a religion. I watched Bill Fredericks, Art Arfons and Ky Michealson’s creations run. At that time the machines they built were created at the peak of their jet and rocket racing car careers.
One of the best rocket funny cars I had ever seen was the H2O2 rocket powered funny car of Larry Flickinger. It was called the “Natural High” funny car. The propulsion system was built by rocket racing legend Arvil Porter. Larry gave me Arvil’s phone number, I called him and we would talk from time to time. He spoke in a southern drawl and was as sharp as a tack. Arvil has since passed away but Larry still has a promotional website dedicated to his Natural High funny car. I believe this was the best built rocket funny car I had ever seen. It was fast, extremely well built and so clean you could eat off of it. It had all the important parts anodized and meticulously and perfectly painted. Here is the website of Larry Flickinger’s car. Go to http://naturalhighrocketcar.com. Really go through the site and Larry will teach you all the pertinent points of building a rocket powered dragster and why he believes they are the drag race cars of the future.
Other than making the drag racing connections in the Midwest I could not seem to get my project rolling even a little bit. I was making a bit of a name for myself building hot bikes and street racing I also helped the rocket drag racing car team of the Fanning brothers design a body for their “Instant Insanity” rocket dragster and helped them race it at Union Grove Dragstrip in Wisconsin.
I worked on my vehicle design all alone with no one to help me or share ideas with. When I would talk about building a rocket car people would look at me as if I was insane. I began to feel that I would never get enough help to build the Sonic Wind rocket car in Illinois where I lived. Realizing that I was at a dead end, I borrowed some money from my father, packed up my wife and kids and moved to Southern California. I remember all my friends and family (everyone except my father) saying that I would be back and looking for my old construction job within a year. That was 26 years ago and I have never regretted it.
Once in “SoCal” I joined the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) and was voted a member of the SCTA club “The Land Speed Racers.” I really got involved pulling mud patrol every Sunday at El Mirage dry lake while I helped certain racing projects that I thought had something to teach me. I also began hunting for my own rocket engines for Bob Truax now Truax Engineering to plumb up for me. I thought this might bring down the overall price when I got to that phase of construction. This is how I fell across Norton Sales in Burbank. I essentially scoured nearly every salvage and bone yard within 400 miles of Los Angeles buying anything I thought would help me build the Sonic Wind’s propulsion system or building of the vehicle.
Sometime about 1989 Bob Truax called me and said he was doing rocket engine testing at Freemont Airport in Northern California and to come up and see what he was up to. I went and after he performed a live hot engine test of the four LR101 engines he introduced me to his protégé’ Ken Mason. Ken and I hit it off as we were the same age and were together since that time and up until about a year ago when we parted ways. Shortly after he introduced me to Mason, Truax Engineering would get a military contract to develop a sea launched rocket called “Sealar” and Bob turned away from private projects as that took up all his time.
A few years ago I helped the Australian land speed record contender Rosco McGlashen to acquire a rocket engine for the car he wanted to design and build the “Aussie Invader 5”. He had been promised engines from a prominent rocket engine builder who was tied in with the Burt Rutan Spaceship One project but a couple of years had gone by since the promise of help and still there were no rocket engines delivered.
Rosco stayed at our house in southern California and Denise and I were quite impressed with Rosco as Rosco is an “Order of the Metal” knight in Australia. I had never had a knight spend the night at my house before. Yes, that was a joke…Anyway we set up a meeting with Bob Truax at the Saxon aerospace Museum in Boron California. Bob Truax was planning to refurbish and modify an LR-89 rocket engine from an Atlas or Thor missile for the Australian LSR project but the deal eventually fell through.
Rosco said that he was not sure that Bob Truax could actually do what he promised because Bob at 89 was already showing signs of the Dementia that finally helped kill him a couple of months ago. I believe he actually passed from Cancer but I am not sure. I have to admit I could see it a bit also as Dementia was what my father was also suffering from and it is what killed him a few months ago.
So you see Bob Truax besides being a famous rocket engineer and designer since the 1940s was also my mentor in my quest for the land speed record. He taught me how to scrounge up aerospace components at surplus warehouses and bone yards and develop my project around that hardware. It is a lot cheaper than trying to design and build your own bipropellant rocket engines as well as safer because there are hundreds of millions of dollars spent on developing military and NASA hardware as opposed to home made rocket hardware built in someone’s garage.
Even after his death Bob’s ideas live on…As a footnote a friend of mine Michael Hughes who calls himself Mad Mike Hughes has built and is testing his own steam rocket engine which is somewhat similar to the “4-4-4-4” steam rocket engine. It is built and being tested as money allows and God knows in this economy there is very little of that. Michael has also already fabricated his own rocket shaped airframe which has evolved into a small three finned man carrying flight rocket. You can see his efforts at www.madmikehughes.com Here are a couple of photos of his rocket and his steam rocket engine. His goal? Why he is going to jump over the Grand Canyon of course. Stay tuned…..Waldo