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Turns out, you're all rocketmen

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

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.”