Rocket Car Legend - The "True" Story

Once upon a time, in some out-of-the way part of the country (take your pick of locations) a maniac took a rocket of some sort, and mounted it on the back of a car (make and model depend on automotive trends when the story is told). The maniac then sped down a deserted stretch of highway, and when he reached an appropriate spot, he lit the rocket...

- Fast Forward -


 The first thing you should know about the legend of the Rocket Car (especially if you got the story via E-mail or the Web) is that it's been around a lot longer than most people think. It started years ago, as a vague rumor passed from one guy to the next by word of mouth, usually in bars or during lunch-break bullshit sessions. The kind of story someone hears from a friend who read it in a magazine, or a half-remembered newspaper story that someone read a long time ago. It's a story that comes out of nowhere, gets passed around for awhile, then dies out, like one of those weird strains of flu that keep coming back every few years. The period of dormancy varies, but whenever the story springs back to life, it seems to spread like a grass fire. I used to think it was funny how the legend of the Rocket Car managed to spread so far (and fast) purely by word-of-mouth, but now that it's become a subject of Internet interest, it's popularity has become downright spooky.

 If you've never heard the legend before (in which case I can't imagine why you'd be reading this), here's the bare bones of it: Once upon a time, in some out-of-the way part of the country (take your pick of locations) a maniac took a rocket of some sort, and mounted it on the back of a car (make and model depend on automotive trends when the story is told). The maniac then sped down a deserted stretch of highway, and when he reached an appropriate spot, he lit the rocket. Unfortunately, the rocket (which was either a JATO bottle, a surplus ICBM engine, or an experimental Shuttle booster) proved to be far more powerful than the maniac anticipated. The car reached an incredible speed in a matter of seconds (somewhere between 150 miles per hour and Warp 9) at which point the car's brakes and steering became... ineffective. This development would've been bad enough on a straightaway, but through some error in planning or navigation, the maniac found himself hurtling down a road that curved sharply, not far from where he ignited the rocket. When the car arrived at the curve, it went straight ahead instead of negotiating the turn. Pilot and car then flew like an arrow (for a distance only limited by the imagination of the person telling the story), before crashing into an inconveniently-placed mountainside.


          I'm sure this sounds pretty ridiculous if it's the first time you've heard the Legend of the Rocket Car, but that's because I didn't go out of my way to make it sound good. Most people do try to make it sound convincing, embellishing the story with all sorts of little facts and details to make it easier to swallow. I've personally heard a dozen versions of this story over the past 20 years, and I'm constantly amazed at how the story grows, shrinks, and generally mutates with each retelling. Maybe I notice these changes more than most people because I've always paid close attention to this particular rumor. Oh, I'm not a car expert or an aerospace engineer or anything, and I really don't have much interest in urban legends. Even if I did, from an intellectual point of view, this story isn't as entertaining as some of the others that have come and gone. The one about McDonalds shoveling worms into the grinders that produce Big Macs, for instance, beats it by a mile. I only pay attention to the Rocket Car legend because I'm 99% sure that I started the whole thing in the spring of 1978.

          Not intentionally, of course.

          Now, before you draw any conclusions, I don't want you to get the impression that I, myself, claim to be the maniac who drove the Rocket Car into the wild blue yonder. I said I was probably responsible for the rumor, not that I actually performed the test flight. As far as I know, the flight in question never happened. Like all legends, the root of the story might be true (or partially true), but once the tale started circulating, the root was lost in the embellishments. If the Legend of the Rocket Car survives, my great-grandchildren will probably end up talking about a guy from Lunartown who nailed an anti-matter pod onto an old Apollo moon-rover and flew into the side of Tycho Crater.

          That's how it goes with legends.

          Like I said, I'm not a rocket scientist or motorhead. I don't even KNOW any rocket scientists or motorheads. I'm a high-school biology teacher. I know, this must sound like I'm the most unqualified person in the world to give opinions about things like jet-propelled cars, but I wasn't always a biology teacher. The fact that I'm a biology teacher today is only relevant to the extent that it's responsible for my writing this story down.

          Last year, a week or two before Thanksgiving, I was taking my class through some of the particulars of evolution ("how human beings were raised from monkeys" as one of my students phrased it). We were discussing Charles Darwin and The Origin of Species when one of my students asked me how Darwin's research ship ever got the name "H.M.S. Beagle".

          Damned good question, when you stop and think about it.

          Since I've been teaching this subject for 11 years, it's rare when a student asks a question I can't answer. But this one was a real pisser. Anyone who's ever taught in a classroom knows that sometimes you get a student that likes to play "Stump the Teacher". A kid who asks questions he doesn't really care about, just to see if he can find a gap in the teachers knowledge. Usually these questions are pretty easy to evade or ignore (or even lie about) but sometimes one will catch my interest. This was one of them. You have to admit, "The Beagle" is a pretty dumb name for a ship that cruised the Galapagos in search of exciting bird-beak variations. So I told the student that I had no idea where the ship's name came from, but I'd find out. After all, I've been teaching the same class for 11 years, so I've amassed a pretty good variety of books on the subject. Surely the answer would be in one of them.

          Hah. I couldn't find the answer anywhere. My reference books concerned themselves with headier subjects, the Scopes trial and genetic mutations and whatnot, NOT the name of Darwin's boat. I looked through every book I could find, but came up dry. After exhausting all my research options, I was thinking about conceding this particular round of Stump the Teacher when one of my kids asked if I'd looked for the information on the World Wide Web.

          I said "Of course I looked there. It's the first thing I checked. Go play in traffic."

          Truth be told, I not only hadn't checked the Web, I didn't know how to check it. In addition to being a non-rocket scientist, I'm not (or at least I wasn't) very interested in computers or the Internet. I know this is a shameful thing for a teacher to say in 1998, but it's true. I kept meaning to take a look at the Internet-connected computers in the school library, just to see what all the hoo-hah was about, but I simply hadn't gotten around to it. Actually I was a little bit intimidated by the machines, and kept putting off the inevitable confrontation due to embarrassment. Sure, I could've walked into the library during my free period, sat down at one of the machines and tried to figure out what to do on my own, but what if I couldn't make it work? It wouldn't be long before someone spotted my baffled expression and realized I was completely lost. So the next day I went to the library during my free period and asked the librarian for help, feeling like Crocodile Dundee asking how to work the bidet. But the librarian had obviously dealt with the situation before, and gave me her ten-minute "Internet For Stupid Teachers" course without making me feel any dumber than she had to. As soon as she left me alone with Netscape running and a search engine online, I typed "Darwin" into space provided, and let the machine do it's thing. When the results of my search started filling the screen, the first thing I noticed was that there were over two MILLION sites listed as being Darwin-related.

          The second thing I noticed was that none of them seemed to pertain to Charles Darwin, the most famous naturalist in history. Instead, they all seemed to focus on "The Darwin Award", an "...honor (posthumously) bestowed on people who did the most good for humanity by removing themselves from the communal gene-pool".

          Which really isn't a bad idea, when you think about it.

          Of course I expected this "award" to be a piece of tongue- in-cheek humor, the sort of thing that used to make the rounds via smudgy Xeroxes in the days before E-mail and the World Wide Web. And that's exactly what it turned out to be. What I wasn't prepared for was my very first encounter with the story of the Rocket Car in print. Not only in print, but in a format that can reach around the world. When I read the story, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry or get nauseous, but I think if I were alone, I'd have done all three. Based on the number of different Websites cross-referenced to the word "Darwin", I'll bet that if you read the Rocket Car story from a computer monitor, the version you saw looked something like the one that follows.  The text, anyway. The high-tech, precision-drafted engineering diagrams are my own addition. Don't bust my balls about them, either. I already told you that I'm not a motorhead or a rocket scientist, and I'm no Leonardo da Vinci, either.

  The Arizona Highway Patrol came upon a pile of smoldering metal embedded into the side of a cliff rising above the road at the apex of a curve. The wreckage resembled the site of an airplane crash, but it was a car. The type of car was unidentifiable at the scene. The lab finally figured out what it was and what had happened.

It seems that a guy had somehow obtained a JATO unit (Jet Assisted Take Off-actually a solid fuel rocket) that is used to give heavy military transport planes an extra "push" for taking off from short airfields. He had driven his Chevy Impala out into the desert and found a long, straight stretch of road. Then he attached the JATO unit to his car, jumped in, got up some speed and fired off the JATO!

The facts as best could be determined are that the operator of the 1967 Impala hit JATO ignition at a distance of approximately 3.0 miles from the crash site. This was established by the prominent scorched and melted asphalt at that location. The JATO, if operating properly, would have reached maximum thrust within 5 seconds, causing the Chevy to reach speeds well in excess of 350 mph and continuing at full power for an additional 20-25 seconds. The driver, soon to be pilot, most likely would have experienced G-forces usually reserved for dog-fighting F-14 jocks under full afterburners, basically causing him to become insignificant for the remainder of the event. However, the automobile remained on the straight highway for about 2.5 miles (15-20)seconds before the driver applied and completely melted the brakes, blowing the tires and leaving thick rubber marks on the road surface, then becoming airborne for an additional 1.4 miles and impacting the cliff face at a height of 125 feet leaving a blackened crater 3 feet deep in the rock.

Most of the driver's remains were not recoverable; however, small fragments of bone, teeth and hair were extracted from the crater and fingernail and bone shards were removed from a piece of debris believed to be a portion of the steering wheel.

  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 it's 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 it's 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.