Ethos

Surpassing 300 MPH in a Jet-Powered Pickup

Shut up, hold on … and shut up

Swoosh. No, not Nike’s logo. Rather, that’s what it felt like. Of course, you don’t think of “swoosh” as being a feeling, especially the feeling of traveling 303 mph in a 1957 Chevrolet pickup. Certainly, it was a big swoosh, a loud, shrill swoosh, but a swoosh nonetheless.

“Pretty much what I told you,” said Hayden Proffitt II, the owner and driver of the 25,000-horsepower twin-jet pickup he calls the Hot Streak II, as we roll to a stop, awaiting a tow back to his pit. “All the drama happens behind us.”

We’ve seen that drama, as far south as the San Antonio Raceway dragstrip and as far north—2,200 miles north of San Antonio, to be precise—at Castrol Raceway in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

At San Antonio Raceway, Proffitt and Hot Streak II made the big windows in the tower’s pressroom shake so violently that the caulk sealing the windows in place cracked and splintered away from the glass, peppering the people beneath the windows with little pellets and causing several occupants to flee. More went for the door after a ceiling panel shook loose. That occurred when Proffitt performed the obligatory “burner pops,” caused by hitting the afterburner as he dumps raw fuel into the engine, producing explosions that would register on any nearby seismograph. Did we mention how track neighbors love jet cars?

At Castrol Raceway, Proffitt and his truck experienced a near-disastrous close call, the closest thus far of his career, minutes after we nagged him for a ride: Of the 35 or so jet-powered exhibition vehicles that perform at North American dragstrips and air shows, Hot Streak II is one of a handful that has a passenger seat, and it seemed like that would make a good story. After that close call—we’ll explain what happened in a moment—a shaken Proffitt said, “Bet you’re glad you weren’t riding along on that run!” True, but it
would have made it a great story.

The fact Proffitt, 30, owns and drives a jet-powered truck surprises even him, though he grew up surrounded by racing. His grandfather Hayden Proffitt, now 89, was a four-time national champion in the National Hot Rod Association’s Super Stock classes in the 1960s, a deservedly legendary innovator. He remains the only drag racer contracted to all four of the American auto manufacturers—GM, Ford, Chrysler, and American Motors—and has been inducted into multiple drag racing halls of fame. As he should have been—if for nothing else, then for managing to win a lot of races in 1968 driving the unlikely AMC Rebel Funny Car, typically topping 180 mph.

If you think Hot Streak II lights up the scenery in the daytime, you should see it at night.

You’d suspect Hayden II might have followed his grandfather into drag racing, but he found more of a role model in his uncle Brad Proffitt, who drove the USA-1 rocket dragster, a spindly, narrow-tired little rail that burned hydrogen peroxide. In 1979, Brad set the quarter-mile top speed record of 349.7 mph in 4.35 seconds. It took nine more years before Eddie Hill finally made the first sub-5-second run in an NHRA Top Fuel dragster, and it took four more years for an NHRA Top Fuel dragster to hit 300 mph, which Kenny Bernstein did on March 20, 1992.

“At the end of the quarter mile I’m going 280 mph. A  jet car is accelerating its hardest as you go through the lights. … Any sort of failure, and you’re in dire straits, probably headed right off the end of the track.

Hayden Proffitt II was born in California but at age 14 moved to tiny Tow (rhymes with “cow”), Texas, 60 miles northwest of Austin, where his grandfather lives. After high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, spending the next nine years working on aircraft and serving multiple tours in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East. When he returned to civilian life in 2015, he looked for a business to buy. Owning a jet truck “just sort of happened,” he said. “The truck was available, I was available, and I thought, ‘Why not?’”

Hayden Proffitt II fills the Streak up with diesel. Proffitt and whoever’s around to help must pack the parachutes into the long metal cylinders after every run.

It didn’t hurt that the truck was built, in 1994, by Les Shockley, who drove dragsters for Hayden Proffitt before building his first jet vehicle in 1978. Shockley quickly became a big fish in a relatively small pond. What really put him on the map was the Shockwave, a 1984 Peterbilt powered by three jet engines, totaling about 36,000 horsepower.

The Peterbilt was in such demand that Shockley built the Super Shockwave, which gave him and his sons a second truck to place on the touring circuit when the original Shockwave was busy—or to match-race the two trucks if a track or an air show really had some money to burn. Shockley said the Super Shockwave was clocked in a standing mile at 406 mph, and the Shockwave Peterbilt’s best speed was 381 mph. Frankly, if you want to go super fast, jet cars—and there are several examples built to unique themes out there—are the best buy going. There’s one for sale now that has logged a best time of 4.98 seconds in the quarter mile at 317 mph. Asking price is $65,000.

They require maintenance, of course, but compared to an NHRA Top Fuel dragster, which essentially needs an engine overhaul after every run, jet cars are the Toyota Corolla of the quarter mile. Proffitt said off-season maintenance on the Hot Streak II is largely confined to changing the brakes and cleaning out the vertical exhaust stacks behind the cab, which belch fire during the run. Tires can last the year. But expect to use a lot of diesel—Proffitt can go through 150 gallons per run.

However, if you are thinking of buying a jet car and raking in money with multiple drag race bookings, reconsider. Off the record, NHRA and International Hot Rod Association officials said jet cars are not always embraced as part of a program. The sanctioning bodies cited the need to remove everything they can from starting lines—signs, brooms, buckets, trash cans, small people—or they will literally blow away. The officials also said some non-jet competitors don’t like to make their runs after the jets perform. “They say it greases down the track, and they don’t want to run unless we clean it,” one such official said. Consequently, jet vehicles often close the show.

At least there’s no longer a formal ban at NHRA tracks. In August 1963, LeRoi “Tex” Smith, one of the top automotive writers of all time, published a story in Hot Rod magazine headlined, “The Jet: A Short-Fused Bomb?” which questioned the safety of jet cars, speculating they could explode and take out half the crowd. Wrote Smith: “We intend to limit our jet-watching to Bonneville.” The NHRA immediately responded by informally banning jet cars, which lasted 12 years.

All this is the legacy that Les Shockley helped contribute to before he retired, selling the Shockwave Peterbilt to Darnell Racing Enterprises in Springfield, Missouri, in 2012. Three years later, Proffitt bought the Super Shockwave and renamed it Hot Streak II in honor of his grandfather’s original Hot Streak, a more conventional single-engine jet dragster he drove in 1980.

Last year, Proffitt II and the Hot Streak II teamed up with Castle Rock, Washington-based Bill Braack, who owns a “regular” jet car. The Smoke ’n Thunder is essentially a jet engine with a little bullet-shaped cockpit up front; it rides on four narrow wheels, not much different from the late land speed legend Art Arfons’ original Green Monster. Braack is primarily an air-show performer, not surprising since he flew with the U.S. Air Force for 20 years.

Both the car and the truck use the same engine, the Westinghouse J34-48, which was introduced in 1959 and has powered a variety of military aircraft. Although Braack’s car has one engine and Proffitt’s truck has two, performance is comparable because Braack’s car weighs just 2,300 pounds to Hot Streak II’s 4,300—and Hot Streak II has the aerodynamics of a Kleenex box.

Braack, who has driven the 38-year-old car since 2006, said that although at one time the IHRA actually had a class for jet-vehicle racing, everything now is “for exhibition purposes only. We might race, but the paycheck is the same whether we come in first or second.” Braack’s specialty is match-racing airplanes at air shows, where he has competed against everything from a P-51 Mustang to an F-18.

Indeed, Braack only books air shows, regularly turning down offers to run at dragstrips. Most air shows are on military bases, where the runway is a couple of miles long and a minimum of 150 feet wide.

“On a dragstrip, at the end of the quarter mile I’m going 280 mph, and unlike a regular dragster, a jet car is accelerating its hardest as you go through the lights,” he pointed out. “Any sort of failure, and you’re in dire straits, probably headed right off the end of the track.”

Which, as we mentioned earlier, very nearly happened to Proffitt at Castrol Raceway in Edmonton. It’s a quarter-mile track with a runoff area at the end, then a sand trap (hit that, and you’re “On the beach,” in NHRA insider parlance), and after that a road, and after that a bright yellow crop of canola.

There’s a pair of long stainless-steel tubes, one on each side of the Hot Streak II’s engines, that contain parachutes needed to stop. Pull the throttles all the way back, and the parachutes automatically deploy. Usually. Remember, Hot Streak II weighs well in excess of 2 tons, and there’s no engine compression to help it slow.

Proffitt made his second run of the weekend, nudged 200 mph, throttled back, and … no parachutes. One sort of deployed and fluttered around. Its lines had been singed previously by the jet engines, and Proffitt thought it was good for at least one more run. He was wrong. The other parachute never made it out of the tube; there’s a wire that holds the cap on, and when you deploy the chutes, the wire pulls out and lets the cap open and the chute pops out. But the wire was simply too tight this time.

Belted in and ready for my run. What am I looking at down there? Pavement. There is no floor forward of your footrests.

So Proffitt hit the brakes harder than ever, but the end of the track was coming up fast. At the very last exit, Proffitt yanked the wheel to the left, hoping and praying his business investment could make a 90-degree turn at maybe 60 mph. Somehow, it did, though for a second you could see daylight under the three left-side tires. Back in the pits, he parked next to his 80-foot transporter and apologized to fans who were hoping for at least one more run: Sorry, no place to buy jet truck parachutes on the weekend in Edmonton, Alberta. The 2,000-mile tow back to Texas seemed even longer.

Thankfully, nothing like that happened when I finally got a ride in the Streak’s right seat. It took place at the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Wayne County, North Carolina, at the Wings Over Wayne Air Show, featuring, in very large letters, the Blue Angels, and in much smaller letters, a jet-powered pickup truck. Perhaps the best news was that Johnson AFB’s Runway 28 is 11,760 feet long and 300 feet wide. If the chutes don’t deploy, there are a couple of miles of super-smooth concrete before you would have to figure out what to do next. So even though I had never gone 300 mph on rubber tires and still had my driver’s narrow escape in Edmonton fresh in my mind, I wasn’t worried. Reassuringly, Proffitt wasn’t concerned, either. He used to be stationed at Seymour Johnson, working on the 4th Fighter Wing’s 95 F-15E Strike Eagles, and if those pilots trusted him, what could go wrong?

I pulled the belts tight and then tighter, as I’d been warned that it wasn’t so much the start that gets you—even though Braack said to expect more acceleration g’s than an F-18 launching off an aircraft carrier—but rather the deceleration g’s when the twin chutes (hopefully) deployed.

Proffitt explained why he was adjusting levers and pressing buttons and flipping switches, but I just nodded, as my hard drive was fast filling with just the sensation of sitting a few feet ahead of 25,000 horsepower. My head did not have room for technical details. I think he did a few burner pops for the crowd, but I’m not sure, because, like he said, everything happens behind us. In front, when I looked down, I saw pavement: Beneath the familiar ’57 Chevy hood, behind the gaping grille and working headlights, was pretty much nothing. Ahead of my feet, no floor.

Proffitt pulled onto Runway 28, looked over, gave me the thumbs-up, and I thumbs-upped him back. And we launched. The start wasn’t eyelid-peeling abrupt, and surprisingly neither was the stop. Yes, both big chutes deployed just fine, but when you’re slowing 4,300 pounds, it’s more of a gentle transition than it is for, I suspect, Bill Braack and his 2,300-pound jet car. Another set of thumbs-up and then helmets off as we waited for the tow back to the trailer. “What did you think?” Proffitt asked.

“It’s spectacular in here,” I said, “but I really think it’s even more spectacular watching from out there.”

“Told you so,” he said.

Swoosh.

Hayden Proffitt’s Hot Streak II and Bill Braack’s Smoke ’n Thunder can be booked together or separately through Smoke-n-Thunder.com.

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