Things started to change in the seventies. Specialized builders like Keith Black and Ed Pink were needed to keep the Hemis competitive and the costs were skyrocketing. The days of drivers building their own motors were long gone. Big sponsors were appearing.
If you missed the first part to the Fred Goeske story, start here.
“The thing is, it just got too expensive. The Hemis were running so stressed and required so much more maintenance. You start going through engines and transmissions and rear ends and the costs were just going off the charts. And I had several bad fires. After the last one, while I was healing up, I decided to get out of the Funny Cars.”
Dawning of a New Go-Fast Era
“I just wanted something that went real fast. Something that the crowd likes and that took less maintenance. And the rocket car was it. You just pour fuel in them and you go as fast as you can stand it.”
The rocket motors were simple and had few moving parts. You just dumped fuel into a combustion chamber where pure silver screens cause a reaction in the 90% Hydrogen Peroxide fuel. The chemical expansion is instant and insane.
“For every gallon that goes into the motor, 12000 gallons is shot out the nozzle. If you spilled it on your jeans you could get about two steps before your jeans caught on fire.”
Fred always kept water on hand to neutralize the corrosive fuel. One run would suck through 30 gallons of fuel in about four seconds.
“With every run I made I used enough Hydrogen Peroxide to turn every person in Los Angeles into a blonde.”
The rocket drag cars were completely from another world. Ky Michaelson had been building exhibition cars and dragsters and other wild rocket-powered contraptions for years. Fred made a few phone calls and was soon the owner of a Chevy Monza- bodied 3500 lb. thrust rocket car. No cleaning or tuning needed. No transmission or rearends to fail. Just light it off, let it go, fill it back up with that toxic go-juice and it’s ready for another crazed 9G run.
“The other beautiful thing about rocket cars is that suddenly you get paid to be there. I didn’t have to actually win races to make money.”
Sammy Miller had been running rocket cars and soon another crowd favorite, Lew Arrington, stepped over to the rocket madness.
Fans at the time described them as almost spooky. They were silent at the line, no burn-outs, no revving up, no engine noise at all. Just a little trickle of vapor venting. There was usually a countdown coming in over the loud speakers and when the announcer hit zero- it was B-L-A-S-T OFF.
As a drag racer who had already been riding the most violent and extreme race cars in countless quarter-mile bursts of fury, I wondered how Fred would compare the two types of cars.
“There was just nothing to compare them to. It really is night and day. The rocket cars will accelerate from 0-400 mph in 3.9 seconds. You can‘t even put it into words.”
One witness to the mayhem described the fans standing up against the fence dominoing from end to end as the shockwave pulled them off balance.
“It’s just so hard on the body. My vision would go away after a run. It would blur.” Some of the other rocket jockeys could be seen bleeding out of their ears and noses after a run.
“There was really only one way to do it. You just had to dig your helmet into the roll cage as hard as you could and brace yourself. The G forces were so strong you could barely move. I ran right at 400 once. Broke all the blood vessels in my eyes. The thing is, your body couldn’t take the strain these things would put you through. The rocket cars are dangerous for this reason- you start to get used to it. You get so you don’t notice the speed and acceleration. Your senses adapt. Then you want to go faster and faster and all you have to do is feed it more fuel and eventually you will kill yourself.”
Changing the Tides
In the mid 1970’s, the rocket Funny Cars would tear down the dragstrip sucking the air out of everyone’s lungs as they tripped the lights at 380- 390- 400 mph. Top Fuelers were hitting around 250 and Kenny Bernstein wouldn’t break the 300 mph barrier until 1992.
In 1977 Kitty O’Neill hauled a rocket drag car out to Edwards Air Force Base where there was plenty of slow-down room on the long airstrips. She punched the okaythisisjustplainsilly button and fired that car through a 3.22 quarter mile. That’s 412 mph. Thirty six years later, that record stands untouched.
“The NHRA gave us rocket guys no respect because we wouldn’t bring in any money from sponsors. We used no motor parts. No oil. None of it. And they hated it that we were so popular with the fans.”
The truth is, as much as drag racing officials disliked them, and considered them unsafe and illegitimate - they could absolutely see the attraction value needed to fill the bleachers. By necessity, the rocket cars became the unwanted stepchildren of the NHRA.
“None of that bothered me. As long as they paid me to appear every week, I didn’t care what the NHRA thought. One night at OCIR, one of the officials came to me in the pits. I’d really hung it out that night, and the guy says, Fred, you know we have a speed limit of 250 mph for these cars and they clocked you at 380. What gives?”
“I just told him that I couldn’t see the speedometer.”
Fred’s second career as a rocket car exhibition driver was rolling so strong he bought another car, a well-known Mustang II Funny Car called the Chicago Patrol and converted that one to rocket power as well.
“We got a little wild with all of it. I bought a rocket go-cart. I wanted to try it out so we blocked off an alley in Tarzana. I lit it off and I think I did about 180 mph in that alley.”
The exhibition work was steady and paying, Fearless Fred being in demand at drag meets all over the country.
“Joe Pisano didn’t like exhibition cars. But he told me that I was the only one he’d come to see. He said ‘Fred, all cars leave the starting line at zero. Yours is the only one that leaves the line at 200.”
Big Trouble on the Dragstrip
Then came the Spokane crash.
Set up on the starting line, Fred listened to the countdown. The crowd were on their feet calling out the numbers with the announcer.
Fred dug his helmet in and popped the cork on his Monza- bodied rocket ship and hurtled down the strip at (literally for Fred) blinding speed. He flew past the finish and popped the chutes. That’s when the exhibition went bad in a hurry.
“The wind blast somehow made one of the chutes get wrapped around the right rear tire. I don’t know how.”
The car pulled hard to the right. Fearless Fred went over an embankment and crashed hard at roughly 275 miles an hour.
“I do remember thinking to myself- I sure wish I wasn’t here right now.”
The car was obliterated. Fred came to a rest in a nearby field and would be picked up by safety crews. Incredibly, he survived- busted up badly, but without life-threatening injuries.
“The only thing left was pretty much just me and the seat. I was very fortunate.”
Fred’s Spokane crash stands as one of the fastest wrecks ever survived.
The NHRA, fearing insurance problems, would eventually ban rockets altogether after a series of driver fatalities.
The rocket cars stand to this day as the fastest vehicles to ever hit a dragstrip.
Long Kept Treasures
“Hey, let’s go out back. I want to show you something.”
We walk past rows of shipping containers filled with WWII surplus aviation fasteners. He tells me he picked up all this cheap and sells a lot of it online.
We stop at an anonymous beige container.
He swings open the metal door.
“You know, very few people have ever seen this car.”
Packed in the cluttered container is a dusty red 1980 Plymouth Arrow pickup truck, looking deceptively stock.
Except of course for the polished 3500 lb thrust rocket engine and Hydrogen Peroxide fuel tanks mounted neatly in the truckbed. I peek into the cab. It looks like a typical AM radio plastic craptastic interior from that era. But there is a full roll cage and some strange levers and knobs sticking up from between the seats. The stock four banger still sits under the hood.
“The rearend has air actuators that will pull the axels out of the drive hubs. Controlled from the cab. So when you light that thing off you won’t be pullin’ a driveshaft.”
The old rocket racer’s voice raises a little bit and his words have sped up. It’s clear that he is still excited by the thought of this lunatic red truck out on the highway.
“You can drive it down the road. It’s registered and street legal.”
He studies every dusty contour of the little red pickup. The old drag king is quiet, lost in his memories of 400mph blasts down the asphalt quarter.
We lean against the little red rocket ship’s tailgate. A rocket nozzle protrudes at about shin level.
“I’ve always lived life to the fullest- I know that’s a cliché, but it’s true. Otherwise what’s the point. I think about the guys I used to race- Jack Chrisman, he was a Ford factory driver. Fast Eddie Schartman from Ohio. Dyno Don Nicholson. Gas Ronda. Jungle Jim. We had so much fun. We’d roll into Lions and the way the bleachers were, it was like the crowd was sittin’ right over you. You know? Right up next to you. You could see them and they could see you. I loved that. Real good times.”
He swings the heavy shipping container door shut.
“Dana Winters up in Spokane is restoring the Hemi ‘Cuda. I recently had a quad bypass and I got a pig valve in my heart, but God willing I’m gonna get in that car again and do one more burn-out.”
I can see the old drag racer determination in those clear blue eyes.
The swagger. The showman.
I want to be there to cheer the last burn-out of Fearless Fred Goeske.
I want to see what I missed out on the first time around.
And I really hope he gets his Hot Wheel.