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 -
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.
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.
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.
intentionally, of course.
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.
how it goes with legends.
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.
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".
good question, when you stop and think about it.
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
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
said "Of course I looked there. It's the first thing I checked.
Go play in traffic."
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.
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".
really isn't a bad idea, when you think about it.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
"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."
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.
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.
least that's what I keep telling myself.