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Rocket roundup redux

17 Feb 2012
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

The final buzzer had sounded on my weekly hockey game. It had been a hard-fought and heated battle with our longtime nemesis, each jockeying for the top spot in our division, that ended unsatisfyingly for both in a tie. Cross words (and crossed sticks) had been exchanged, and as I skated back to my bench, the biggest, meanest, and nastiest player from the other team skated toward me, supposedly the biggest, meanest, and nastiest player on our team. We had battled throughout the game, exchanging elbows and shoves, so my guard went up. He skated right up to my face, helmet to helmet.

“Hey, that rocket-car stuff you wrote was really cool,” he said and skated off.

And so it is in the often-bizarre world of the DRAGSTER Insider, and so it is in the world of rocket-car lovers.

My friendly adversary is not the only one still expressing appreciation for our hydrogen-peroxide-powered pals based on the series of columns I wrote last month, so here’s a final wrap-up of thoughts and notes.

One of the first things I need to address is the bit of misinformation concerning Glen Blakely that I had printed in the form of a quote from “Capt. Jack” McClure, who had said that Blakely had passed away.

Glen and Steve Blakely, in 2002

I heard pretty quickly from two good sources — Blakely’s son, Steve, and noted Florida drag historian Jim Hill — that Blakely is still alive, though not necessarily well.

“My dad has not passed away but is unfortunately in a nursing home in South Florida with dementia and Parkinson's [disease],” wrote Steve. “About one year ago, I made contact with Ky [Michaelson] and let him know of my dad’s whereabouts and condition. The only person that I have not made contact with is Mr. Jack McClure.”

Hill had heard from his old high school mate and fellow former Cabriolets Road Club member and Crane Cams employee Chase Knight that Blakely was indeed still alive, although in a very diminished state.
 
“Chase noted that Don Garlits -- also a former Tampa native -- checks on Blakely often,” said Hill. “It's a sad situation for an early drag racer who was so successful in a variety of NHRA classes. A highly talented designer, fabricator, and weldor, Blakely spent several years working for Dan Gurney on a variety of projects, including a ‘clean sheet’ project to design and build an entire new line of modern motorcycles.  Glen and his dad were every-meet competitors at East Coast NHRA events in the early and middle 1960s. I believe Glen Blakely was an inductee into the NHRA Division 2 Hall of Fame a few years ago. Deservedly so for such a highly regarded early Florida NHRA racer.”

My apologies to the Blakely family; I’ve gone back and postedited the original quote to reflect the new information.

Russell Mendez

Nick Poloson has seen his fair share of rocket cars run, including most of those shown here in previous columns. “I was at the Gatornationals when Russell Mendez crashed. He did a TV interview the day before, and he said the car handled great under power and great with the chutes out, but there was that brief transition at the finish line where the car was loose, and you know the rest. But the thing that I remember best was 'Slammin' Sammy' Miller's Vanishing Point car. We used to run at Miami-Hollywood every now and then (I lived in Sarasota, Fla., at the time), and they booked in Sammy a few times. First time, they had him match racing Al Hanna in the Eastern Raider Funny Car. They were giving Al a second and a half head start, and Sammy was driving around him before 1,000 feet. But from my visual standpoint high in the stands, and with a fuel car in the other lane, Sammy's rocket just looked smooth and gentle. A few months later, we were back there. I was going to be the next car out when they stopped us to let Sammy make a pass. I was right next to the car as they got him ready. He did his little ‘rocket pops,’ and then they staged him, and away he went. That was the most violent car on the starting line I've ever seen! When he did his ‘pops,’ the car just jumped a few feet forward ... and a few inches up in the air! When he left, it was a few inches off the ground and rocking back and forth between all four tires for the few hundred feet I could see. And it was fast! The rocket cars and karts. Had to love them!

Mike Galewski’s rocket-car memories from Minnesota Dragways include seeing Michaelson's son – aka “Captain Rollerball” with his rocket backpack on roller skates. “I saw him try to make it down the quarter-mile for the first time on roller skates. As I remember, his first attempt did not go too well, and he did not make it the full quarter-mile. I have long lost the pictures of that event but do have a couple of pictures of someone else at KCIR on a skateboard. Do not remember who the person was, but here’s a picture.”

Joe Mihms also saw his share of sideshow acts in his 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,” he wrote. “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!”

The footage that I know of is in this clip, on Michaelson’s YouTube page, from his appearance on the 1970s game show To Tell the Truth. It’s at about the 3:20 mark and shows his son on a short, low-speed test run down a sidewalk on 42nd Street in New York.

Tim Smalko’s first day at the drags was in Englishtown in the early 1970s, when he was an early teenager. “My cousin lived across the street from me, and I used to beg him to take me,” he remembered. “It was a Sunday early in the season, and there was an eight-car Pro Stock field – ‘Grumpy’s’ Vega ,’Fast Eddie,’ and ‘Dyno Don’ were the ones I remember – and the Pollution Packer. I remember the track announcer said, ‘Hold your ears; this thing is loud.’ Me being a kid, I said it can't be that loud and did not plug my ears during the run. The car was quiet during the run till it got past you. The noise was so loud it almost knocked me over. The car went into the fours at 311 mph.”

Michael Guziak remembers seeing McClure run his rocket kart at Orange County Int’l Raceway, although he certainly didn’t know him by that name. “At the time, our home track was ‘the Beach’ (Lions), but we weren't at the track this particular night to work on someone’s car, which was weird because there was a huge race that night. We were going to OCIR to see Some Crazy Idiot Kill Himself in a Rocket Kart. I also owned an Inglewood Enduro Kart that we raced at Willow Springs, Phoenix Int'l, and Ontario Motor Speedway. We weren't going to miss this screwball in a kart. I seem to remember he only made one pass – at night, of course! We were in the top-end stands. I wanted to see him fly away at the end of the track. We and everybody else were just jacked up as far as possible on the anticipation of the event. I mean, hey, we had seen everybody there was to see. We knew this guy was NUTS. When the time finally arrived, it was over pretty quick, just like other rocket cars we had seen, but this was special. When he pulled the chute, the front of the kart was off the ground at least what looked like 2 feet. We were blown away. He made it. The only other guy that we knew who was more daring was Pat Foster. We loved Pat (who didn't?).”

Ivan Sansom provided some updated and corrected info about the rocket scene in Europe, noting that contrary to a previous note, “Eric Teboul's bike is not the ex-Henk Vink bike, although the chassis was also built by legendary frame builder Nico Bakker. Eric has run as quick as 5.196 and produced a speed of 281 mph over the quarter and is aiming to be the first man (mad or otherwise?) into the fours on two wheels. Fellow Frenchman David Pertué now owns the ex-Sammy Miller Vanishing Point Trans Am; David is very much in the learning phase with the tweaked and renamed Hydrogen but has carded some mid-fives to date.”

And finally, Glenn Menard, a longtime track manager/operator from the Division 4 region, also had a turn behind the wheel at SoCal’s Irwindale Raceway and relates this unforgettable rocket-car story.

“The Courage of Australia rocket was purchased by Steve Evans and Bill Doner and driven by John Paxson and renamed the Armor All rocket. I believe it was early 1973. A mishap with the engine impacted the opening race in 1973, the Grand Premiere, which marked the beginning of ownership by International Raceway Parks, which bought the lease on the track from Harry Snyder of In-N-Out.

“We had a match race between Garlits and Cerny-Lins-Moody, and after one round of Top Fuel, the rocket car came up. The engine malfunctioned, spraying hydrogen peroxide all over the line, the photographers’ cases, and the grass (rocks) along trackside. This caused the accumulated rubber to bubble and burn, so the fire rig had to hose down the starting line to put out the flames. Unfortunately, this left only one lane usable for Top Fuel, and the cars could only make single runs the rest of the match. This caused Steve and I to go out that week to purchase a weed burner tank and torch on wheels so that we could dry up any water in the future. The same equipment is still used on the starting line today.

“Bernie Partridge then refused to let the rocket car run until it was repaired and we had a midweek test.  On that test, the parachute malfunctioned, and the car left the property, flew into the [adjacent] Santa Fe Dam property, and had to be ‘ransomed’ from the caretaker there, a 'Whitebear.'
 
"I could not make this stuff up.”

So there you have it, rocket-car fans. More of what you love. Sound the final horn. This game is over, too (I think).