In May of 2009, we ran a story about one of the most truly insane drag racing vehicles of all time, the rocket propelled go kart of Florida’s Captain Jack McClure. We wrote the story and talked about Jack as though he had passed into the great beyond. You can’t blame us, right? Any lunatic willing to lay down on a glorified kid’s toy and go 200mph had to have died in some weirdly awesome way, right? Wrong.
One of the people who commented on the story was someone who identified himself as the very subject of our tale, Captain Jack. Through a string of e-mails that we used to determine the validity of this person claiming to be the Captain, we discerned that the man was the real deal, and amazingly, Captain Jack McClure, a man who put on the most incredible exhibition act in drag racing history and then vanished, was still alive. “I’m 84 going on 42,” he told us.
As impossible as it sounds, McClure’s story is better than we could have imagined, filled with the kind of unexpected side bars and left turns that had our mind reeling during a fast paced three hour conversation. McClure didn’t fall from the sky and land on a rocket go-kart, and then decide that racing the contraption would be a fine way to make a living. Instead, the rocket kart was the final step in what is an amazingly logical progression of speed. By the end of our conversation the crazy bastard was actually making sense to us when describing hitting the throttle on a vehicle that was quicker and faster then the beastliest nitro powered iron on Earth.
To understand the rocket kart, you need to learn about Jack McClure and the rather incredible history he had in both racing and stunt driving. If there was ever a man qualified to ride that devilish contraption that made him truly famous, it’s Capt’n Jack.
The story of Jack McClure begins on the muddy banking of the long dead Columbia Speedway in Cayce, South Carolina. Racing jalopy stock cars against the men who would go on to become the inaugural stars of the freshly minted NASCAR organization, McClure was unwittingly banging fenders with racing immortals. His original NASCAR license is hand signed by one of the founding fathers of the organization. We’re talking about stock car racing circa the late 1940s and early 1950s. It was rough and tumble, and perhaps no more so than at Columbia where big purses drew big names on Thursday nights. The careers of Richard Petty and Buck Baker were birthed there and Chevrolet’s first NASCAR win happened there in 1955. But why did they race on Thursdays? The track operator knew that local military personnel were paid on Thursdays and if he didn’t get their money quickly, someone else would.
“I ran with a lot of the superstar NASCAR guys,” McClure said. “I had no backing, and did everything on my own. I did pretty well for myself, but it wasn’t hard to see that if you really wanted to go places, you needed sponsors and I had none. That pretty well ended my circle track racing career.”
After departing the stock car scene in the early 1950s McClure decided to pursue his other passion for several years, fishing. The “Captain” moniker was not hung on him by a loquacious drag racing announcer commenting on the guy laying on the rocket kart, it was McClure’s actual profession, boat captain. The ocean and high speeds are the two pieces of duct tape that bind Jack McClure’s life together. When he wasn’t doing one, he’d be doing the other.
“In the late 1950s go karts got really big, and I got into racing them,” McClure said. “I was successful as a racer and developed a friendship with Mickey Rupp. I sold the karts and eventually became the distributor for Rupp karts in the South.” McClure raced all over the country and was a winner. At the time competition go karts with twin engines were the hot ticket and McClure decided to run his down the drag strip to see what kind of time and mile per hour he could wring out of it. “My first drag kart was a twin engine competition kart that I modified and it ran 100mph in the quarter mile. Well, I thought that was pretty good and I told Rupp about it. Next thing you know, I’m looking at a four engine kart that is running 125 mph in the quarter mile.” After getting comfortable in the quad engine kart, McClure heard about an outfit down in Florida selling compact rocket engines. That got his wheels turning.
(In this photo, you can see Jack sitting on the left after kicking everyone’s ass during a kart enduro race)
(Here’s Jack’s twin engine kart)
The Florida company was of course, the now infamous Turbonique outfit, led by Gene Middlebrooks. McClure consulted with Mickey Rupp and decided to have a kart built that would be ready to accept a Turbonique rocket engine. The single engines made about 300lbs of thrust, a weak urine stream compared to the power he would later experience and actually a let down, even on the first hit of the throttle. When we asked him what it felt like the first time he hit the button on a rocket kart, his answer caught us off guard. We expected something along the line of “amazing!” What we got was, “It was pretty disappointing really,” he said. “It made a big noise, and I heard later on that most of the people at the food stand dropped whatever was in their hands, but it was barely faster than my four engine kart. I only made the one pass and decided to ship it back down to Turbonique to have the second rocket engine added. The second engine made the kart into a 150 mph runner. That was pretty good for that time period and I was able to tour around and run at a lot of drag strips with it.”
(Here’s a shot of Jack with his single engine Turbonique kart…on the only day he ever ran it like that)
(Here’s the updated, twin engine kart)
The twin engine kart became part of one of the more famous photos in drag racing history, even though the photo itself is an illusion.
The place was Tampa Dragway in Tampa, Florida, and the year was 1964. Jack McClure was booked in as an exhibition act and Tommy Ivo was booked in to run his Top Fuel dragster. Check out these killer pit shots of Ivo wrenching on the dragster and Jack fiddling with his kart.
As it turned out, McClure’s kart was having issues and was broken. Luckily for McClure he didn’t face the same fate that many users of Turbonique equipment did when it “broke”. Normally, any anomaly of performance regarding a Turbonique rocket motor resulted in an explosion, a few of which killed people in their general area. On this day, it simply wouldn’t fire. Ever the promoter, track operator Billy Herndon positioned McClure’s kart slightly down track and as soon as Ivo’s fueler boiled the tires, Herndon made sure the photographers were clicking away. The photo was published all over the place, sans the information that McClure was literally sitting still on the track! Apparently Ivo is still a touch annoyed over that sin of omission.
famous infamous photo!)
His success with the twin engine kart and the amount of publicity it attracted led to a job driving a wild car from the Turbonique exhibition field that was also used to promote the Joie Chitwood Thrill Show. Although the car nearly killed him, it introduced him to one of America’s royal families of racing, the Chitwood clan. This meeting would take McClure places he had never dreamed.
The car that McClure had been tapped to drive was a real 1965 Z-16 Chevelle called, “The Sizzler”, a name that would prove dangerously ironic less than a year after McClure took the driving assignment. Powered by one of Turbonique’s “Rocket Drag Axles” the car was a true freak show and ran speed and times totally unheard of from stock appearing cars of the era.
“I ran the sizzler car for one season,” McClure said. “I think I ran 25 or thirty dates with it. The car was a real Z16 Chevelle that had one of the Turbonique Rocket Axles in it. The big problem was that all the Turbonique stuff was shit and it didn’t hold up. Middlebrooks had lots of ideas and designs but the stuff was always on the verge of breaking or blowing up. I had no idea how dangerous the Turbonique rocket kart was until a few years after the fact and I looked back on my time with it and thought about how lucky I was that the thing didn’t blow up.”
But back to the Chevelle.
“So the car was able to be driven around on the regular engine and transmission, but you didn’t use that on the strip. On the track I would put the car in neutral, hit the button and drive the Chevelle down the track with the rocket axle providing the power and smoking the tires all the way down. The way the rocket axle worked was pretty simple. There was a rocket engine that was ignited when I hit the button. The exhaust (thrust) from the rocket engine would spin this big turbine wheel which was attached to some planetary gears that spun the axles and drove the car. The problem was that the gears and turbine wheels couldn’t hold up to the abuse and I had a couple turbine wheels break and even melt on me. All this came to an end when I went through the lights at 162mph, the turbine wheel melted and locked the whole works up tight. I was told the car rolled 12 times. I was lucky not to be killed and I was done with anything that had to do with Turbonique.”
When Chitwood heard that the Chevelle had been destroyed, he told me that he was sad to hear about the car but glad to hear that I was free. I spent the next six years as a driver for the Chitwood Thrill Show.
(Here’s the Sizzler in happier times)
We didn’t spend a lot of time talking about Jack’s exploits thrilling crowds at fairs and race tracks with the Chitwood Thrill Show, but understand that all of these vehicular experiences were playing a small part in developing McClure into one of the most capable drivers in the country. There was one interlude that really shocked us involving Chitwood though.
You’ll be floored to hear that Jack McClure and Joie Chitwood Jr. competed in the 1967 24 Hours of Daytona, driving a brand new 1967 Z/28 Camaro. They qualified well and were leading their class for portions of the race, with McClure and Chitwood Jr. driving in shifts. Against some of the most talented road racers in the world, these two nutballs were contending. During the middle of the night, with McClure driving the high banks, near disaster struck. “Well, I was flat out and had just passed a slower car when the lights went out and the electrical system quit. Nowadays that’s not such a big deal, but back then there were no lights,” McClure said with a laugh. “We swapped the alternator out and got back on the track, but at about 3 AM, while we were leading our class, there was an electrical fire in the car and that was it for us. Our goal was to have a good showing for Chevrolet and race hard. We did that, it was a lot of fun. Not many people know that I did that.
In case you are questioning the above story, click here to see where they finished in the official record from the 1967 24 Hours of Daytona. Scroll to the second page and you’ll see them amongst the DNF competitors.
Fast forward to 1969. Jack has been away from the race track for a couple years but his interest in the new “hot setup” at the track, hydrogen peroxide rocket cars, was piquing. He contacted Arvil Porter, the well known authority on Hydrogen Peroxide rocket engines and asked if he could build a 1,000lb thrust engine that was to be mounted on a go-kart. He then contacted Tampa, Florida based chassis builder Glenn Blakley to build the kart itself.
“When I first got involved with the karts, they were a sit-up design,” McClure said. “As time went on, they evolved to a semi lay down design. I pictured a full lay down design for my kart to keep the weight as low to the ground as possible and to have better aerodynamics as well. I told Glenn what I wanted to do and he told me to get up on the chassis table and sit in the position I wanted to be in while driving the kart. He blocked me up with wooden blocks and then tacked a bunch of rod together to hold the basic shape. He literally bent tube around me on that table. That kart was built specifically for me.”
Not everyone was excited about the idea of a rocket kart, even some well known karting folks were fearful that this was a fatal idea. “Mickey Rupp took one look at the kart and told me that it would be airborne at about 175mph,” McClure said while laughing. “He looked me in the eye and said, ‘This thing is going to fly and kill you’ which I didn’t believe because how the hell could he know just by looking at it?”
With the 1,000lb thrust rocket motor and no body work, aside from the small wings by McClure’s feet at the front of the kart, it went 178mph and according to Jack, ran straight down broadway.
That very first run was telling. McClure raced this one kart for the entirety of his final run. From 1970-1973, every lap he made down the strip was on the same pipe that Glenn Blakley welded together. He never wrecked it once.
(Here’s an early shot of the kart at Roockingham, NC)
At this point you’re craving some technical information on the kart, so here goes. It wore standard go kart tires. Literally, off the shelf pieces. The rears were tubeless and on 6″ rims, the fronts were tube style tires on 4″ rims. He had the smaller tires all the way around to start but found that he needed more contact patch to safely slow the kart. It only had rear brakes but stopping was aided by a 5′ diameter Deist drag chute that was intended for streamlined Bonneville motorcycles. The first rocket motor was a 1000lb thrust design but that was rather quickly replaced with a 1500lb thrust motor that lived on the kart until McClure sold it in 1973. The whole rig, with McClure loaded onto it weighted 450lbs.
Food for thought. The kart went 220mph in the quarter mile. We’re guessing those tiny (stock!) tires were spinning somewhere around 10-12,000 rpm.
The rocket that drove the operation was powered by pure hydrogen peroxide, a substance that is literally unavailable on the North American continent now. It was not cheap stuff even in the loosey goosey days of the early ’70s according to McClure. “At the time I was buying the stuff, it was around $10 per gallon,” he said. “I’d use about four gallons per run, so my expenses were around $50-60 each time down the track. There was a plant in Canada that distilled the stuff and I bought it from FMC chemical in New York. Often, if I was in the area for an appearance I would buy a few drums. It was sold by the pound in 30 gallon drums. I think the stuff weighed like 10lbs a gallon, so the 30 gallon drums were 300lbs. Because it was pure Hydrogen Peroxide, it was never really stable. It was sold in double drums. The drums were vented and you could hear them burping now and then. I’d haul four drums in my trailer with the kart.”
The operation of the rocket was very simple. There was one moving part, a ball valve which was attached to the throttle pedal. McClure explained, “The only thing that moved on that motor was the ball valve throttle. The tank of hydrogen peroxide would be pressurized and when I opened the ball valve the pressurized HP would rush out of the tank and across a pack of small silver screens. Those were a catalyst which caused the Hydrogen Peroxide to immediately turn into steam. That steam was forced out a nozzle creating thrust and that thrust shot me down the track.”
Amazingly, McClure did a whole lot more than just “floor it” and hang on. The guy literally drove it! “If I was going for a low ET, I would just stand on it and run it as had as I could, but if the track operator was looking for big MPH numbers I would kind of roll into the throttle, saving some fuel, and carrying my speed farther,” McClure said.
Why was saving fuel a concern?
We’ll let Jack explain, “I didn’t change the fuel tanks out when I swapped the 1000lb thrust motor for the 1500lb thrust motor so the kart would run out of fuel at 1,000ft if I just stood on it. If that happened I typically had a better ET but my speed was down due to the fact that I was coasting farther to get to the end of the track. By launching off hard and then rolling back the throttle and then into it again at the top end, I was able to be under power longer at the end of the track, carrying more speed through the lights.” Sounds kind of like throwing the switch on the electric chair slowly or quickly to us!
(Here’s a couple shots of Jack in action!)
Not surprisingly, the NHRA wanted nothing to do with Jack or his rocket kart. That didn’t make much difference to him and he made a great living running the kart all summer long at IHRA/AHRA and unsanctioned tracks all across the country. He was making great money with appearance fees and during an IHRA race at Bristol, TN, an executive from Amalie Oil approached Jack and told him that they wanted their name on the kart and anything that had to do with it. They paid Jack handsomely, painted his van, trailer, and the kart in Amalie colors. They used Jack in ads and for promotional purposes. Why did they sponsor a vehicle that didn’t use oil? It did use grease, and those little axles were working their ass off, so the product tie in was there.
(Story continues below photos!)
The kart was normally the top billing at whatever event he was attending, and when it wasn’t he made sure that it was the thing all the fans were talking about when they left. One event in 1973, which has been documented in an audio recording was particularly satisfying for McClure. “We were at a big funny car show at OCIR in 1973,” McClure said. “My friend Ky Michaelson showed up and asked what I was running for fuel pressure. I told him and he said that I should crank it up to really put on a show. I told him that I didn’t have the fuel to do that, but he said we should do it anyway. We did and the kart was quicker than every funny car there.” (For the record, it wouldn’t be until 1974 that a funny car ran close to McClure’s 6.22 second lap and even in 1974, the best Funny Car performance was a 6.23 run! His best mph numbers were in the 220mph range, if you can fathom that.
At the close of the 1973 campaign, McClure sold the kart for several times what he paid to have it built and went back to the ocean and fishing. He ran a wildly successful charter fishing service and by the early 1980s has amassed a sizable fortune. He’s since lost it and made most of it back again on the water.
Speed is still in his veins, however and he’s teaming up with Ky Michaelson on a Bonneville motorcycle that he plans to ride on the salt. Like he told us, he’s 84 going on 42.
Oh, and if you think you’re getting out of this tale without any war stories, you are dead wrong.
Check this photo of Linda Vaughn and Jack McClure out, and then scroll down to find out exactly what’s going on!
Here’s Jack’s story about this photo with Linda Vaughn, “This picture was taken at Muncie, Indiana during an IHRA race. It was a three day meet and the weather on Friday was really bad. At 5pm the press guy for IHRA said the race had been called off for the day and he opened up the bar in the timing tower. Well, we’re all having drinks and getting a little rowdy when the second in command for IHRA comes in and demands I go out and make a run. I told him it would be a while, but he told me to bring the kart to the line, fuel it, and get suited up right there on the starting line. Ok, no problem. I noticed that the track had puddles and stuff all over it when I was getting ready, so I thought I’d just do a little burst and be done with it. So they have Linda up there getting me dressed up so the crowd is into it. I get in the kart, get rolled to the line and then hit the button. Despite the water, it was going OK so I went right on down the track like normal. I ran close to 200mph and the other racers were laughing at me because they said my kart looked like a jet boat with all the spray I was kicking up.”
Here’s another gem from Jack.
“I was running an IHRA race early in the season. The event happened to be in NY at Empire Dragway. I was going to do all the IHRA events that season and they were going to play up the fact that I was trying to hit 200mph with the kart. Larry Carrier, the guy who ran IHRA didn’t want me to go out there and run 200 right off the bat, he wanted me to work up to it over the weekend. Well, I launched off on my first pass and the track was smooth as glass. I went through the lights at 215mph and Carrier was pissed! He was screaming and yelling that I’d have to run that fast every time from now on. It wasn’t much trouble for me to do that, but he was really mad. Anyway, I went down to the office to get paid and who was in there but Shirley Muldowney. I told her that she should make a run in the kart because she was lighter than me and the thing would be faster. Know what she said to me? “FUCK YOU!”
And yet another great one, involving a legendary nitro racer.
“I was in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the pits with the kart. It was up on the stand and I was doing some stuff to it, getting it ready. A bunch of racers came over to look at it. I always found that racers were the most impressed with the kart. Anyway, one of the guys was Don Prudhomme. He actually asked me to sit in it. Of course I said yes and he climbed in. Prudhomme is a lot taller than me so he was pretty well crammed into the kart. His knees were all jammed up and it looked kind of funny. He just sat there in the kart shaking his head. He finally looked up at me and said, “FUCK YOU!”
And finally, a chance encounter with “Big Willie” Robinson at US30 Dragway.
“I ran US30 Dragway all the time. They had me in there a lot. One event was supposed to be me facing off with Art Arfons and his jet car head to head. This was after Arfons had the accident that killed the reporter so he was not happy with running side by side with me. We told the track operator that we were going to run separately. The guy running the track panicked and told us that there was going to be a riot. The whole place was gambling on the races and there was big money riding on either me or Art to win, and unless we found a way to have a winner, there was going to be trouble. We went on the PA and told the folks that we were going to run one at a time and whomever had low ET would be the “winner”. They seemed OK with that.”
“Art went down the track and I knew I could beat him. I went shooting off and made a clean run. Part of my show was to get towed back up the track and wave to the fans. As I was being towed back I recognized that the place was dead silent. I thought we were in for it. I stopped in front of the stands and you could hear a pin drop. I thought something really bad was about to happen. Big Willie grabbed me, hoisted me up on his big shoulders and the announcer screamed, ‘NOW’ and the place went nuts!” I was really thinking that we were done for!
(A final shot of Jack before a launch down the strip in his kart)
Jack McClure is a true American original whose talents behind the wheel have been woefully under-documented. We hope to have shed light on an amazing career perpetrated by an amazing guy. In this day and age, we judge “extreme” athletes on the number of facial tattoos and scrotum piercings they have.
None of those clowns can hold a candle to Captain Jack McClure, a man whose life in reality is far better than any fiction the human mind could conjure.