Most assaults on the land-speed record follow one of two templates. British efforts, from the Reid Railton-designed streamliner driven by John Cobb to the ThrustSSC that currently holds the record, typically feature formally trained engineers and vast battalions of support personnel. American undertakings, on the other hand, tend to involve homegrown hot-rodders -- think self-taught Frank Lockhart and junkyard genius Art Arfons -- fueled by lots of Yankee ingenuity.
Waldo Stakes slots neatly into the latter tradition. A sturdy iconoclast whose stocky body seems to hold as much energy as his beloved rocket engines, he works out of a remote shop deep in Southern California's Mojave Desert. On the porch of a modest house is a rocket-powered ice racer that he claims could have broken the sound barrier if only he'd been able to raise enough money to run it. Elsewhere on the property is a half-built streamliner, officially known as the Sonic Wind Land Speed Research Vehicle, that's designed to go 800 mph -- on the low-power setting. "The idea is to set the record at 1000 miles per hour and give the car to the people of the United States," he says. "It's going to sit in trust at the Smithsonian."
Land-speed-record racing is preposterously dangerous, and the technical challenges are almost incalculably difficult. For the most part, the action occurs in a black hole, which means there's precious little money or glory to be earned. As a result, the sport attracts a curious and unique breed of highly motivated fanatics who walk the tightrope between genius and insanity. Listening to Stakes talk a mile a minute about laminar flow, gyroscopic precess moments, and regenerative cooling, it's easy to dismiss him as a blowhard. After all, the guy's a contractor by trade, and he never even graduated from college.
But Stakes is no flake, much less a crackpot. Now 57, he's been obsessed by land-speed racing ever since finding a model of Railton's record-setter in a Cracker Jack box when he was a kid. He designed the body for a 280-mph, rocket-powered dragster when he was eighteen. Later, after moving to Southern California from Chicago and becoming a fixture on the local land-speed scene, he worked on the aerodynamics of cars and motorcycles that set thirty-seven records, mostly at Bonneville. Plus, he's got a secret weapon at his disposal. A bunch of them, actually, designed and built for NASA and the Department of Defense. As he puts it: "I've got a million dollars of engineering in my car -- the greatest hardware ever made."
For nearly thirty years, Stakes has been stockpiling surplus components from the space program and the Cold War arms race. The giant metal sphere plunked down in the middle of the rock garden greeting visitors to what he has jokingly dubbed El Ranchito Rokete? That's a titanium fuel tank from an Apollo service module. Inside the house is an XLR-11 thrust chamber from an X-1, the experimental airplane that broke the sound barrier. Nearby, outside a room filled with thousands of military-spec aerospace valves and fittings, is an LR-8 turbopump that helped push a D-558 Skyrocket past Mach 2.
The Sonic Wind LSRV will be powered by the fuel injector from an XLR-99 rocket, originally used in the X-15 -- the fastest manned aircraft ever built -- mated to a modern composite nozzle and combustion chamber created by Dan Moser of Compositex. The bipropellant unit is fueled by liquid oxygen stored in a stainless-steel tank once found in a Corporal nuclear missile and methanol alcohol in three sausage-shaped tanks from the Redstone program. The so-called blow-down system is pressurized by helium and nitrogen pumped out of seven titanium spheres, mostly built for Project Gemini. The tail-fin assembly consists of components from the Sergeant and Honest John surface-to-surface missiles. The parachutes, meanwhile, were designed to deliver hydrogen bombs. Other hardware was scavenged from a Saturn V moon rocket, a Titan I intercontinental ballistic missile, and an F-104 Starfighter. "I'm not building a car," Stakes says. "I'm building an icon of American technology."
Stakes says he could finish the car for about $75,000, but he figures that mounting a serious assault on the land-speed record would cost another $1.75 million. This sounds like crazy money for a project whose value is measured mostly in bragging rights, but, in fact, Stakes already faces three challengers whose cars are in various stages of completion.
The Seattle-based North American Eagle, a wheeled version of an F-104 high-speed interceptor, is the farthest along; it's already made a test run at 400 mph. The British Bloodhound SSC has the biggest, most prominent, and best-funded team; it's the latest collaboration between Richard Noble and Andy Green, who are the current land-speed record holders, but no metal has been cut yet. Like Sonic Wind, the Aussie Invader also hopes to use proven American rocket technology to break the sound barrier. But it, too, is very much a work in progress.
Stakes contemptuously dismisses all three projects as fatally flawed. And while none of his creations have ever gone faster than 300 mph, history suggests that he's probably right. Truth be told, nobody really knows what is going to happen when a car approaches the speed of sound. To date, there have been only a handful of official -- and, arguably, one unofficial -- passes through the sound barrier, and the sum total of supersonic running time is less than one minute. So hard science may not be the key to breaking the land-speed record. Maybe it's more a matter of alchemy, luck, and pigheaded perseverance.
"Look at my hands," Stakes says. "Look at my arms. They're covered with scars. All for this. It's cost me everything I've ever had: A million dollars. A marriage. A house. My goal was never to be in the land-speed record book. I think of myself as an artist. I'm Michelangelo working on the Sistine Chapel."