Blue Flame Natural Gas Rocket Car
Industry executives recognized the public relations potential of LNG after watching Dick Keller’s dragster X-1 in 1968.
The quest for speed perhaps began when Mrs. Karl Benz secretly took her husband’s car on the first road trip in 1882. Steam and electric vehicles would soon compete with the cantankerous combustion of gasoline engines.
As engine technologies evolved, high-octane but dangerous enhancers like tetraethyl gas were adopted for aviation. On the ground, as competition intensified for a land speed record, kerosene-based rocket fuel powered blistering, new milestones.
But in 1970, a sleek blue feat of engineering set the world record of 630 mph. The Blue Flame was powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG). In recent years, a growing abundance of U.S. natural gas supplies promises innovation for applying what is often called the “fuel of the future.”
Racing for World Speed Records
Throughout the 20th century, land speed records were set with vehicles powered by steam, electricity, and all manner of petroleum distillates.
National pride was often at stake as British, American, French, Belgian, German, and Italian teams fielded competing machines. The world’s first land speed record was set by a Frenchman in 1898. Count Gaston De Chasseloup-Laubat, driving an electric-powered car, achieved 39.24 mph.
After decades of more traditional internal combustion fueled records, mainly by the British, by the 1960s, American innovation – at Utah’s famed Bonneville’s Salt Flats – took mankind’s need for speed to a new level. Jet engines began pushing the land record to previously unthinkable levels.
Jet Propellant 4 (JP-4), the U.S. Air Force’s primary jet fuel until the late 1990s, offered a powerful blend of kerosene and naphtha. On the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1963, the fuel proved to be as good on the ground as it was in the air.
In August of 1963, the Spirit of America, a radical new design created by Craig Breedlove, used a $500 surplus jet engine that burned this kerosene-based JP-4 to run 407.45 mph. Breedlove’s jet-powered machine brought the land speed record back to the United States from England after an absence of more than 30 years.
However, just nine months later, Art Arfons, a drag racer from Ohio, took the land record after clocking 434 mph with his Green Monster using JP-4 in an afterburner-equipped jet engine.
Not to be outdone, Breedlove soon returned to Bonneville with his Spirit of America and pushed to a new record of 526 mph. Arfons in turn responded with a run 10 mph faster. And so it went over three years of competition.
Breedlove’s Spirit of America Sonic 1 ultimately triumphed over Arfons’ Green Monsters and exceeded 600 mph to set a record that would not be bested until 1970 – when natural gas made its spectacular rocket fuel debut at Bonneville.
Rocket Science: The X-1 Dragster
The Blue Flame sprang from the imaginations of three Milwaukee, Wisconsin, men with a passion for speed: Dick Keller, Ray Dausman and later Pete Farnsworth.
In the summer of 1964 Keller, employed by the Chicago-based Illinois Institute of Technology Research Institute, became friends with Dausman, who was working on a propellant research contract for NASA. “Around this time, a keen amateur hot rodder called Dick Keller had just got married,” noted a June 2011 article in Octane magazine. “As a condition of accepting his proposal, his new wife insisted he give up drag racing. But he didn’t lose his interest in fast cars.”
The article explained that Keller and Dausman often lunched together. After sharing many “wild engineering ideas” and concepts, “We were scribbling on napkins and stuff – then we thought we would look at a rocket-powered dragster,” Keller is quoted.
The pair designed, built and successfully tested a small, prototype rocket motor giving 25 pounds of thrust. As they prepared a larger version, Keller designed a chassis and “they drafted in part-time hot rod builder Pete Farnsworth to help,” noted the Octane article.
The speed enthusiasts also formed a company called Reaction Dynamics Inc. In April 1967, the rocket to propel dragster X-1 was complete. The motor delivered 2,500 pounds of thrust using hydrogen peroxide as the propellant. “This showed well on the drag strips and within a season was outrunning the top-fuellers and jet dragsters,” the article added.
Over a two-month period in 1967, the X-1 raced every major turbojet-powered dragster in the nation – and had a lower elapsed time in each race.
Keller later explained that the record-breaking success with the X-1 dragster and its 2,500 pound thrust rocket enabled Reaction Dynamics to consider scaling up to a 22,500 pound thrust engine using liquefied natural gas (LNG) and hydrogen peroxide.
It was about this time that the Institute of Gas Technology (IGT), then the research and development arm of a national association of natural gas companies, saw the potential of industry sponsorship of a natural gas fueled attempt at the land speed record.
“When the Breedloves and the Arfonses and so forth were setting records, they had to find a surplus jet engine to do the job,” Keller explained. “With us, we felt all we had to do was decide how much power we needed – we could build a rocket to do it.”
Thus began the Blue Flame project in 1968.
Birth of The Blue Flame Project
Keller noted that following the X-1’s final run in September 1968 at the Oklahoma City Dragway, the natural gas industry began taking notice of their work at Reaction Dynamics.
The American Gas Association (AGA), headquartered in Washington, D.C., recognized an opportunity to educate the public.
“We had a big meeting – you can see the guys in the suits,” he said later. “These are all gas industry executives there to see firsthand what we could do with the X-1. They agreed at this event to sponsor the Blue Flame officially.”
Keller noted that with the growing environmental movement, AGA executives saw the value of educating consumers. “The Blue Flame was really ‘green’ – it was fueled by clean-burning natural gas and hydrogen peroxide,” he proclaimed. “It was the greenest world land speed record set in the 20th century.”
Although natural gas had long been considered an alternative fuel for the transportation sector, much of the public was unaware of this cleaner burning power source. “It was a promotion of the safety and usefulness of liquefied natural gas.” Pete Farnsworth explained in a 2007 interview.
“There were nine graduate engineers working on masters degrees for theses on various aspects of the design of the Blue Flame: structures, dynamics, aerodynamics, wheel design, all sorts of things,” Farnsworth added. About 70 Illinois Institute of Technology undergraduates would also become involved in the final design.
The 38-foot, 6,500-pound Blue Flame was powered by a rocket motor that combined liquefied natural gas and highly purified hydrogen peroxide. The motor could produce 22,500 pounds of thrust – roughly 58,000 horsepower. AGA originally budgeted $165,000 for the project. Although more than $250,000 was ultimately spent, on October 23, 1970, the Blue Flame rewarded its supporters with a new Federation Internationale de l’Automobile official world land speed record of 630.388 mph in the kilometer, 622.407 mph in the mile.
Remarkably, the Blue Flame’s world land speed record will stand for more than a decade before the British retake it in 1983 using the turbojet-powered Thrust 2 breaking the mile record. The Blue Flame’s kilometer record, however, will not be broken until 1997 by Thrust SSC.
The current record, set on October 15, 1997, is by the United Kingdom’s twin-turbofan JP-4-burning Thrust SSC – Super Sonic Car. Driven by a Royal Air Force pilot, Thrust SSC reaches 763 mph – and is the first land vehicle to break the sound barrier.
Today, a volunteer American team of engineers has converted a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter into the North American Eagle for a 2013 attempt to bring the world land speed record back to America.
With some adjustments, Keller has long believed his LNG rocket car could still be a contender.
“It was built to go supersonic. We were sure we could get over 800 miles per hour,” Keller said. “We were actually operating at about 13,000 to 14,000 pounds of thrust and we had a 22,500 pound thrust capability. So we really had dialed it back for what was intended to be the first year of a multiyear project.”
Germany Museum Fate of the Blue Flame
The Blue Flame toured the country following its October 1970 world record. A fiberglass version is said to have toured Europe. AGA’s natural gas marketing aspirations were met thanks in part to the rocket car’s skilled (and photogenic) driver, Gary Gabelich of Long Beach, California. Gabelich appeared on news, talk and variety television shows – including “The Dating Game.”
However, when industry executives, racing enthusiasts and others made an effort to have the historic natural gas vehicle displayed in a U.S . museum, there were no takers.
“Pathetic, since Breedlove’s Spirit of America is in the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry and The Blue Flame’s roots were in Chicago, and it was built in Milwaukee,” lamented Dick Keller.
“The car was purchased for a song ($10,000) by a private collector in Europe, then later acquired by the museum in Sinsheim (Germany),” he added. “Because it was the first to exceed 1,000 kilometers per hour, it was a bigger sensation in Europe than in the U.S.A.”
Today, natural gas supplies nearly one-fourth of U.S. energy, according to the AGA. Most natural gas demand comes from electricity generators – because it is the cleanest-burning fossil fuel.
The historical society’s volunteer contributing senior researcher and editor, Col. Kristin L. Wells, a retired USAF filmmaker, interviewed Dick Keller in 2013. Wells produced a 26-minute video from the Blue Flame creator’s original 16-mm color film.
Henry Ford’s 1904 Land Speed Record
The land speed record came to the United States in 1904 when Henry Ford wanted to prove to the world that his cars were built better than anyone else’s,” notes one speed-record historian in Australia.
On January 12 at Lake St. Clair, Michigan, near Detroit, Ford bounced his Ford Arrow across the frozen lake to reach an average speed of 91.37 mph. He remarked of the run, after retirement, that it had scared him so bad that he never again wanted to climb into a racing car.
“The No. 999, little more than a giant engine encased in a wood frame with a seat and a metal bar for steering, thundered across the lake,” reports historian Cameron Rogers in a 2013 article for Downshift Autos.
With the news of his record spread around the country, his new car company got a much needed boost at becoming one of the most successful automobile manufacturers in history. Learn more in Cantankerous Combustion – First U.S. Auto Show.
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