XCOR met the design goal of a 10-minute time to refuel the X-Racer in 2005, a vast improvement over the three hours it took to refuel the EZ-Racer. It’s a remarkable achievement to pump a half a ton of LOX—which boils at –300 degrees Fahrenheit—into a tank that has to be pressurized with helium to force its contents into the combustion chamber. The design of the 39-inch-diameter LOX tank and support was a surprising engineering challenge. The mounting had to be flexible enough to allow for expansion and contractions due to thermal shock and at the same time provide rigid structural support for the inertial loads created by the LOX mass sloshing around due to G and power changes.
On race day, there will be three, maybe four bracketed races. Qualifying rounds held in the days before will determine the racers’ positions for the first race. The fastest racers from the field of 12 in the first race will move forward in position until in the fourth, or final, race, the two fastest vehicles of the day will launch from the front two spaces on the starting grid to vie for first place. The remaining pairings will be of equally matched racers.
Granger Whitelaw envisions the oldest scenario in sport—the underdog comes from behind—as possible if a great pilot/plane combination has a bad day qualifying and ends up in the back row for the first bracket race of the day. If the pilot wins his pairing for that bracket, he will move up a row for the next round and may conceivably be sitting in the front row for the final, deciding race.
THE RACE PILOTS WHO HAVE signed on bring to the sport a vast range of experiences. Dave Morss, chief pilot for the Santa Fe racing team owned by New Mexico land developer Marc Cumbow, has 27,000 hours in more than 30 types of aircraft and has competed in more air races (170) than anyone else since the national races restarted in Reno in 1960. “Basically, I am going to take my 34 years of experience and apply it as need be to get the job done,” he says, already perfecting the sound bite for the sports announcer. On the other end of the experience spectrum, league racer Nick Mowery has about a tenth the hours Morss has—2,500 of them as an instructor in Cessna 172s. Among his students: league founder Granger Whitelaw. “I’m just the average guy, I guess,” says Mowery, who is currently learning aerobatics and getting a glider rating because gliding “is going to be a big part of the race.”
Independent team owner and race pilot Jim Bridenstine is a former Navy E-2 Hawkeye pilot who now flies the F/A-18 Hornet at Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada. Nearing the end of his Navy career, Bridenstine sees team ownership as a way to make money while flying something that will be as much fun to fly as the Hornet. “Think of the number of people who went to all the NFL football games in 2006,” he says. “Now double that and you have the number of people who went to an airshow in 2006.” Bridenstine sees huge sponsorship potential in the combination of the largest on-site audience with the large television audience for motor sports. (According to Nielsen ratings, NASCAR is second only to the National Football League in television sports viewership.) “This could be the most viewed sporting event in history,” says Bridenstine, “once it gets going.”
It’s not too difficult to imagine the Olympics-style video profiles of the racers, interspersed with segments in which announcers describe the mood of the crowd on race day…once there is a race day. The first Thunderhawk was to have flown in 2006; racing was supposed to have begun this year.
The Rocket Racing League now plans to begin with demonstrations this year and races in 2008. Plans include piping data over the Internet to home systems that will re-create what is happening on the course and selling video games and home gaming consoles. Finally the plans require the not-so-minor detail of producing operational rocket-powered racing craft. Can they do it?
The fact that the Rocket Racing League has missed a series of deadlines doesn’t mean its plans won’t be fully realized. Projects of greater complexity—the U.S. space program, for instance—have foundered in their initial stages only to come from behind and win.