Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Rocket Car

I am off to a camping trip but want to leave you with a fun read. A few years ago Wired magazine had a great article about the urban legend of the Rocket car. They prefaced the article with this editor's note:
Editor's note: Wired found the following tale posted on the Web, originally at a site called According to its author, the story has garnered thousands of emails, some filled with praise, others with doubt, delight, sympathy, or suspicion. After a series of cagey communications with the writer, we reprint the piece here in the spirit of "all of the above."
And here's the introduction to the article:


he first thing you should know about the Legend of the Rocket Car is that it's been around longer than most people think. It started years ago, as a vague rumor passed from one guy to the next by word of mouth, usually in bars or during lunch-break bullshit sessions. The kind of story someone hears from a friend who read it in a magazine a long time ago. It's a story that comes out of nowhere, gets passed around for a while, then dies out. And whenever it flickers back to life, it seems to spread like a grass fire. I used to think it was funny how it managed to spread so fast purely by word of mouth, but now that it's become a subject of Internet interest, its popularity is downright spooky.

If you've never heard the legend before, here are the bare bones of it: Once upon a time, in some out-of-the-way part of the country (take your pick of locations), a maniac took a rocket of some sort and mounted it on the back of a car (make and model depend on the automotive trends when the story is told). The maniac then sped down a deserted stretch of highway, and when he reached an appropriate spot, lit the rocket (which was either a JATO bottle, a surplus ICBM engine, or an experimental shuttle booster). The car reached an incredible speed in a matter of seconds (somewhere between 150 miles per hour and warp 9) at which point the brakes and steering became ... ineffective. This development would've been bad enough on a straightaway, but through some error in planning or navigation, the maniac found himself hurtling toward a sharp curve. When the car hit the curve, pilot and car flew like an arrow (for a distance limited only by the imagination of the person telling the story), before crashing into an inconveniently placed mountainside.


I'm sure this sounds pretty ridiculous if it's the first time you've heard the Legend of the Rocket Car, but that's because I didn't go out of my way to make it sound good. Most people try to make the story convincing, embellishing it with all sorts of facts and details to make it easier to swallow. I've personally heard a dozen versions over the past 20 years, and I'm amazed at how the story grows, shrinks, and generally mutates with each retelling.

I'm sure I notice these changes more than most people. I'm not a car expert or an aerospace engineer or anything, and I really don't have much interest in urban legends. Even if I did, from an intellectual point of view, this story isn't as entertaining as some of the others that have come and gone. The one about McDonald's shoveling worms into the grinders that produce Big Macs, for instance, beats it by a mile. I only pay attention to the rocket car legend because I'm 99 percent sure that I started the whole thing in the spring of 1978.

As they say read the whole thing.

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