The Legend of The JATO-Powered Rocket Car




In the Darwin version of the Rocket Car tale, the car burned out its brakes instantly, and was eventually stopped by a cliff face. We hoped to come up with a somewhat more elegant braking system, and we did. But not without considerable brainwork.

The night Jimmy inspected my work on the Chevy, all four members of Team Rocket Car gathered at a neighborhood bar to discuss the considerable problem of stopping the car once it was moving. When I started putting the car together, I assumed Jimmy would have some idea what we’d do. But as it turned out, he was just as clueless as the rest of us. So we gathered at the bar in the hope that one of us could come up with a workable idea.

Of course the lack of any way to stop the Rocket Car was considered a very minor point with Beck. He was perfectly willing to haul the car out to a long stretch of empty track, get in, fire it up, and hope he slowed down before he ran out of track. In his eyes, worrying about something as trivial as brakes was a sign of cowardice.

Like I said, he was out of his fucking mind.

Fortunately, Beck didn’t have much say about the situation, so we decided that we wouldn’t launch the car until we had some sort of braking mechanism to slow it down.

The most popular idea was, naturally, a drogue chute. The Spirit of America used one, as did a few types of fighter planes, top fuel dragsters, etc. But like the optimal solutions to most of our problems, the question was where to find one. Nobody had any idea how to go about getting a parachute. Nobody except for me, that is. My father actually had six Army surplus parachutes sitting in a storage shed near the office at the scrapyard, the spoils of particularly good auction years before. Five of them were standard personnel chutes, and one was a massive cargo-drop canopy. But Dad also knew he had six of them. He’d started out with a dozen, and occasionally sold one to a skydiver or army/navy store. A good surplus parachute was worth upwards of $200. There was no telling what the cargo chute would be worth to the right buyer. But if one were to turn up missing, Dad would certainly notice. Of course we might have gotten away with using a parachute, then returning it once we were finished with it, but even this presented problems. It might work okay for the first ride, but how about the second? I certainly knew nothing about parachute rigging. All I was sure of was that there was a lot of cloth that had to be stuffed into a very small pack.

Besides, I’d already stuck my neck out pretty far for the sake of the Rocket Car, and I didn’t want to stick it out any further. So I kept the existence of Dad’s parachutes to myself, and hoped someone else would come up with an alternate plan.

Using a retro-rocket was discussed briefly, but it only took Jimmy a minute to punch that idea full of holes. Even though rigging a retro would mean nothing more than sticking a second JATO on the front of the car to oppose the one in the rear, it would mean a maximum of two rides before we ran out of JATO’s. This much was obvious. What wasn’t obvious was the physics of the whole thing, which Jimmy was happy to explain. Firing the first rocket would provide a huge forward thrust for a very short time, but a retro rocket would produce an identical thrust (if we were lucky) in the opposite direction, for the same duration. Which would mean the only way to bring the car to a dead stop would be to fire the retro as soon as the thrust rocket burned out. That would result in a 0-to-300 acceleration in seconds, followed by a 300-to-0 deceleration in the same amount of time.

Doesn’t sound like much fun, does it?

And if the retro was fired a little too late, it could easily result in the whole rig traveling backwards. Possibly at a high rate of speed. Or even worse, the retro might be a dud. Or the ignition system might not work.

Needless to say, we shitcanned the retro-rocket idea in a hurry.

Sal suggested outfitting the car with a huge anchor, one that could be heaved out the window at the critical moment. The rest of us suggested that Sal shut the fuck up and get us another round of beers.

I brought up one idea I’d been toying with, stretching a cable across the track and fitting the Rocket Car with a tailhook to slow it down. Why not? After all, aircraft carriers had been using this system to stop incoming planes for years, and it seemed to work just fine. But before I could explain the idea, Beck started laughing his ass off, then asked if I wanted to use a rubber inner-tube to catch the car, or just tie a rope between two fence-posts. And I clearly remember how much this pissed me off. Here was a guy willing to strap a military rocket onto his back and sit in a rusty rail-car while someone lit the fuse, but he was laughing at my ideas. Unfortunately, he did have a point. It wasn’t until years later that I found out how aircraft carriers absorbed the shock of a plane catching an arresting wire (it involves huge pistons moving through cylinders of hydraulic fluid), but I knew that rigging a similar system would be next to impossible. Putting a tailhook on the car and catching an arresting wire was simple. But it sure as hell couldn’t be stationary wire. There would have to be some system to absorb the impact of a car moving at high speeds, and we couldn’t come up with anything. We went through a slew of ideas for mechanical systems, but I rejected them all because they were either too complicated, too expensive, or too impractical.

Jimmy pointed out that rocket sleds usually ended up in a pool of water, which both acted as a brake and cooled the whole contraption down. Beck pointed out that all the narrow-gauge railroad tracks he’d ever seen were in the middle of the desert, where pools of water were pretty tough to come by.

Overall, we ended up batting exactly zero for the evening.

I remember that I was pretty damned depressed when Jimmy and I left the bar that night, despite the fact that I was pretty drunk. Considering the progress I’d made on the rocket car up to that point, I figured that a braking system would be a minor point. Surely if we put all three of our heads together (well, 3-1/2, counting Sal) we could come up with something.

But it hadn’t happened.

Or at least it hadn’t happened while we were all sitting at the bar. Jimmy tried to blow some optimistic sunshine up my ass while we walked up the street toward our houses, saying that one of us might be able to come up with something later, once we were all sober. I didn’t consider it likely. Beck and Sal seemed to think better when they were drunk, and they were both pretty shitfaced when we left them. If they hadn’t come up with anything at the bar, chances are they never would. And Jimmy and I weren’t having any brainstorms drunk or sober.

Anyway, there’s no telling how Sal and Beck spent the rest of their evening, but the next morning my Dad woke me up by pounding on my bedroom door. When I finally peeled my eyes open, he asked me who was delivering my car parts in the middle of the night.

I had no idea what he was talking about.

Part of my incomprehension was from a hangover, but even if I’d spent the previous night drinking Kool Aid, I would’ve been pretty confused. So he led me out to the front porch and pointed to a bundle of four thick metal rods, tied together with twine, laying on the porch swing. When I looked closer, I saw that they were actually a set of heavy-duty air-adjustable car shock absorbers. Jammed under the twine was a note written in what looked like crayon on a crumpled paper bag.

It said this:

Problum solved.

Call me later

Major Tom

Next: “Heat Of The Momentum”

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