What Is a Rocket Car?

Mark Wollacott

A rocket car is a land-based vehicle propelled by a rocket engine. Such cars have been used for dragster racing and land-speed record attempts. A rocket car briefly held the land-speed record, but has since been overtaken by a jet engine-propelled vehicle. Dragster racing is no longer done using rocket engines, as it became too dangerous for participants.

Dragster racing is no longer done using rocket engines, as it became too dangerous for participants.
Dragster racing is no longer done using rocket engines, as it became too dangerous for participants.

Jet engines and rockets are different machines. A rocket-propelled vehicle uses both fuel and an oxidizer. This means that it does not require an inlet or a compressor, thus saving the machine crucial weight. The downside is that rockets have a shorter operation span before they run out of fuel. Despite only running for less than 20 seconds, rocket cars have a high acceleration rate.

The rocket car works by taking a normal car body with wheels and appending a rocket engine too it. The presence of a rocket on the back of the car brings about great propulsion, but also reduces driving ability and destroys breaking power. As a result, rocket cars needed large areas of flat land in order to operate. Accidents involving such vehicles have been numerous.

The first rocket car was developed by Austrian rocket pioneer, Max Valier. Valier grew up in Innsbruck, South Tyrol, and trained to become a science writer. In the 1920s, Valier founded the Spaceflight Society and later worked with car designer Fritz van Opel of Opel cars. Their collaboration created the Opel-RAK 1.

After the Opel-RAK 1 achieved 47 miles per hour (75 kilometers per hour), Valier and Open worked on a number of follow-ups. They were assisted by another pioneer, Friedrich Sander. Valier later died when some of his experimental alcohol-based rockets exploded, while Sander helped develop military rockets. Valier’s protégé was Arthur Rudolph, who made a safer version of the rockets that killed Valier in 1930. After working on rocket cars in the 1930s, he helped the Nazis develop V-2 rockets and later went to work for National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA's) space program.

The rocket car caught the imagination of generations of Americans, leading to the creation of dragster speed events and those wanting to break land-speed records. Amongst those caught up in speed fever was Kitty O’Neil, who set the quickest quarter-mile (0.10 km) in 1977. Her speed in her hydrogen peroxide-powered rocket car was 3.22 seconds.

As jet engine technology became more efficient and safer, the allure of rocket cars faded. They regained some interest in the 1990s with the circulation of a story about an American who attached a rocket engine to his 1967 Chevrolet Impala. In the story, police found skid marks and then a few miles or kilometers away and impact mark on the side of a mountain. The story gained so much popularity that it made the Darwin Awards, which is a book dedicated to dumb deaths. The story was later proved to be a fake by the American Mythbusters TV show and turned out to be an email-based hoax.

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