The Legend of The JATO-Powered Rocket Car

As I said earlier, for the past 20 years I’ve kept an eye out for stories like this, and I’ve heard plenty of them. But the stories I’d heard up until then had always been vague and somewhat skimpy on technical details, making them marginally easier to swallow. Or at least to repeat. But the Darwin Award version was different. It was chock full of numbers and specifics, which is always bad news for a legend. Oh, initially it might make the story more believable, but throwing in a lot of facts and figures also gives the non-believers plenty of details they can use to refute the story. In the case of the Darwin Awards version, I’m surprised that anyone, anywhere, believed the story well enough to repeat it the first time. For instance, there’s the fact that this event was supposedly investigated by the Arizona Highway Patrol. Well, that’s not too hard to check, is it? One call to the state police in Arizona would be all it took to get a confirmation or denial. If you don’t believe me, give it a try. You’ll get an irritated denial before you’ve even finished asking the question. Actually, the AHP is so sick of answering questions about this whole thing that they may well hang up in your ear.

Don’t feel like making a long-distance call just to have someone hang up on you? Then ask yourself this: If the Darwin Award story is true, then why was it never reported in the national media? Why has nobody ever produced pictures of the crash site? And how about the unfortunate “pilot”? Nobody was ever able to attach a name to this person? Specify the location?

If you want to explain these questions away by blaming human error or police indifference or whatever, that’s okay. There’s too much apathy and incompetence in the world to pretend that couldn’t be the case. But if you look at the physics of the story, you’ll see that the whole pile of bullshit is impossible, regardless of the human angle. It’s simple stuff, too. You don’t have to be an aerospace engineer to see what I’m talking about. For instance, when the Chevy left the road with its rocket still going full-blast, why did it go in a straight line? Take a look at a missile sometime. You’ll notice that it’s… missile-shaped. Nice pointy nose, tail fins, stuff like that. It’s built that way so it’ll go in a straight line. The 1967 Chevrolet was a nice looking car, sure. But it doesn’t look much like a missile. Mount a big rocket on a `67 Chevy and it may go straight as long as it’s on the ground. But once it got airborne, the weight of the engine would immediately pull the nose down. And if the JATO was still blazing away, the car would drill itself into the ground like a tent-spike before it got fifty feet from the cliff.

This story is obviously bullshit to anyone willing to give it a little thought, but it persists, mainly because people WANT it to be true. And most of those people are men. As a story that got its start when it was still being shouted across pool tables in noisy bars, women were left out of the loop until it hit the Internet. Sort of like the story about the deadly gas that lies inside the core of a golf ball. Little boys learn this one too, but not little girls. And when the little boys grow up (to whatever extent they actually do grow up), the Golf Ball Toxin story is replaced with the Rocket Car story.

One “urban legend” debunker attributes the huge popularity of this story to the fact that it’s “…a real-life version of the Road Runner cartoon. Wile E. Coyote nails an Acme Jato Rocket onto the back of a Chevy Impala and flies into a canyon wall.”

Works for me.

The question is, how did such a story ever get started in the first place? Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to say that nobody would ever be dumb enough to attempt a stunt like this. Anyone who followed the O.J. Simpson trial will probably agree that there simply aren’t any limits to the depths of human stupidity anymore. It’s just mighty unlikely that someone stupid enough to pilot the Rocket Car would be smart enough to build it in the first place. The story probably started with an event that that bears some similarity to the final version, a much smaller event that gradually evolved into the final legend.

All I know for sure is that myself and three other guys were getting up to some awfully weird shit out in the desert back in the spring of 1978, shit that was more than weird enough to start the Legend of the Rocket Car. And only one of us was stupid enough to be the pilot in the Darwin Awards story.

At least that’s what I keep telling myself.

Next: “Why The Rocket Car Doesn’t Work”

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