The Blue Flame

Team Profiles

Spotlight on Gerard Brennan

The Blue Flame (TBF) Crew Member (welder/fabricator) and Alternate Driver

In the alternate driver’s seat: “I do believe that out of the whole crew, not including driver Gary Gabelich, I was faster in the quarter-mile. I had driven 215 mi/h at the Rockford Dragway. I had also finished up a twin-engine car and went 180 mi/h in that.”

His favorite technological Flame feature: “I spent nearly all of my time in the construction of the vehicle and welded the entire rear suspension; the front suspension was welded entirely by Kenny McCarthy. I was shocked by what was being planned for the front suspension and front axle. As with the rear suspension, the design was handed to us. The design of the front axle was crucial to the performance of the vehicle and it made me feel safe as the alternate driver. It would have really hurt if we had broken the front axle—we wouldn’t have had to worry about a record or having a vehicle left with a pair of front wheels inside the body. That was engineering coming from IIT. The axle was actually clamped into the frame of the steering portion of the vehicle and tapered on each side. I looked at it with big eyes. The idea was that if there were any bumping going on, the axle would deflect the movement instead of being sheared off. With the tires on, each wheel weighed about 300 pounds apiece. If that axle had broke it would have made for a really bad day.”

Yes, it really happened: “There were no press there when we set the record; the film crew had also already left by that day, which was six weeks after we’d arrived at the flats. But we have photographs of Joe Petrelli, the chief timer, on the record. We had permission to stay at the flats until we got rained out or snowed out. We had some light rain and ran in the rain. Petrelli wasn’t ready for that because nobody had done it before, apparently. We had the car fueled and ready to go. We had zero problems running the car in light showers.”

Spotlight on Dean R. Dietrich

The Blue Flame (TBF) Project Director

(Editor’s Note: Dean R. Dietrich passed away in August, shortly after this sketch was written.)

IIT connection: Director of business operations and then VP of business ops for the Institute of Gas Technology (IGT), who helped to form the Gas Research Institute (GRI) with Henry R. Linden (ChE ’52), IIT research professor and president of IGT (IGT and GRI were combined to become today’s Gas Technology Institute.)

How he became involved in the project: “I drove Henry to work one day and he told me about the project’s problems. He also knew that I had an interest in cars, had done a little timed racing, and was driving a Corvette then. I told Henry that if there was anything I could do to help, he should let me know. So I dropped him off, parked the car, and came into my office. I had just hung up my coat when my secretary said that Henry would like to see me in his office. The IGT project liasion, Dr. Robert Rosenberg, was there, too. In a non-dramatic fashion, Henry said that he wanted to make a change in the project and that effective today, I would take it over.”

Incredible Blue Flame memory: “Good communication, setting priorities, and teamwork are three things you really need for any successful project. You also need a little bit of luck. We were filming the runs at the salt flats and the photographer had a Ford van that had a high-performance engine. We were running out of fuel for The Blue Flame. So what we did, which was perfectly legal, was put a push bar in the front of his van and at the start of the run, the van pushed the blue flame up to about 100 mph. We had a chase car signaling alongside and at about 100 mph, the van was waved off and Gary [Gabelich] ignited the rocket. By getting that 100 mile-per-hour push we got an almost 1:1 speed pickup. We also had to hire a truck to drive all night from Buffalo, New York, where the fuel was and got it in on that day—and went out and broke the record.”

Lifelong car buff: Dietrich had a collection of 16 cars—four Porsches, a BMW Z3, a super-charged Mercedes SLK240, a turbo-charged 1963 Corvair convertible, a 1956 14-hp BMW Isetta bubble car with a motorcycle engine, a 1970 Cadillac convertible, and a 1976 Bricklin, of which only about 2,000 were made.

Spotlight on Dick Keller

The Blue Flame (TBF) Concept Co-Developer and, Rocket System Co-Designer, and Co-Founder of Reaction Dynamics, Inc.

IIT connection: Served as an experimental engineer at IIT Research Institute from 1960–66 and then as chief technologist at the Institute of Gas Technology (IGT) from 1966–68

The birth of Reaction Dynamics: “Ray Dausman and I were working at IIT Research Institute; it was handy to work at a university with the resources of a large technical library, so we started looking up different types of rocket propellants because we thought if we’re going to run this in front of people, we don’t want to kill them. We came up with the idea of building a hydrogen peroxide propellant model. We both lived in IIT’s Carman Hall and didn’t have any money, so we thought we could design a little rocket, test it, and see if we could make the thing work. We tested the 25-lb. thrust rocket and thought we were successful. At that point we probably should have left it alone, but we kept thinking that maybe we could put it in a real car. The more we talked the more excited we got, so we took the little movies we made of the rocket running to my friend Pete Farnsworth, who was a dragster driver and builder. We told him about our idea to build a dragster and convinced him. We decided to build at hunk-scale—upping our 25-lb. thrust rocket 100 times to 2,500 pounds—and designed the X-1 dragster to put it in.”

Incredible Blue Flame memory: “Obviously, setting the record was a highlight. But, for me, the highlight came earlier. After Henry Linden began promoting the land speed record idea with his friends in the natural gas industry, he suggested they watch us run the X-1 rocket dragster [The Blue Flame prototype]. A delegation of natural gas executives came to watch us run the X-1 at the World Jet and Rocket Championship race in Oklahoma City on September 15, 1968. There were representatives from IGT, Northern Illinois Gas, the American Gas Association, and a couple of other natural gas distribution companies. Former world land speed record holders, Walt Arfons and Art Arfons were there with a ‘steam’ rocket and jet dragster, respectively. A half dozen other jets also raced that weekend. Chuck Suba, driving the X-1, set a new all-time drag racing record of 265.480 mph in 5.90 seconds elapsed time and embarrassed all of the other thrust cars. So impressed were these industry gentlemen that they agreed right there to fund The Blue Flame project. That was the highlight, followed by the low point on October 13 when Chuck Suba crashed a top fuel dragster and was killed.”

Still about speed—and sustainability: I raced bikes, primarily velodrome, in the early 1960s. I began master’s racing in the 1980s—road, criterium, time trial, and of course, on the track. Sprinting was always my forte; I won a few U.S. national championships. Also, racing in Europe for the world and EU championships, I was able to set records in the sprint races. Now I just ride for fun. I needed something I could haul my racing bikes in, so I’ve got a gasoline-powered Chrysler Pacifica. We also own a Nissan LEAF electric car and can get 80–100 miles on a charge.

Spotlight on Thomas Morel (M.S. ME ’69, Ph.D. ’72)

The Blue Flame (TBF) IIT Aerodynamic Design Student Team Member

IIT Connection: In 1968, Thomas Morel was a Czechoslovakian immigrant who came to IIT to pursue graduate education in mechanical engineering. Andrew A. Fejer, former chair of the IIT Department of Mechanical, Materials, and Aerospace Engineering, introduced Morel to Professor T. Paul Torda, who had been tapped to serve as aerodynamic design consultant on The Blue Flame project. Torda assigned Morel—who attributes his good fortune, in part, to serendipity—as the sole student tasked with determining the shape of the rocket car.

Unique undergraduate research: Morel met weekly with Torda whose teaching philosophy was to let students come up with solutions to the research problem, using him only as a resource. Torda pointed Morel in the direction of some valuable materials: declassified papers on tests previously conducted by the United States Army in the area of supersonic airplanes and munitions. Morel says he studied these documents and derived from them the first ideas for the design. Not all of them worked. “In the original design that I came up with for the car, it had wing-like fairings over the rear structure and the wheels to shield them from air drag. But transonic wind tunnel tests indicated that the ‘wings’ would create lift,” he explains. “What was most scary about that was when the car was going down the track at a high speed or the speed of sound, which was the intention and what we hoped to be able to do, the car could lift off the ground making it very dangerous for the driver. So eventually we modified the design.”

His aerodynamic contribution: “The Blue Flame was designed to be just a skin over tanks of fuel, cigar-shaped. One original idea was to have its cross-section shaped like a rounded triangle with the apex oriented toward the ground to minimize the effect of shockwaves formed underneath. The body was inclined a couple of degrees toward the nose, which was calculated to ensure that there was a force always keeping it down but not too much as to overload the tires. The general design has stood the test of time because most, if not all, of the [land speed] vehicles that came after have a similar shape. For me the biggest challenge was to come up with something that was low-drag and low-lift. I must say that when I went to see the trials in October 1969, I was worried that the vehicle could take off upward. It was always my greatest worry as that would have endangered the driver.”

Lasting benefits from his Blue Flame experience: “Today, I’m president of Gamma Technologies in Westmont Illinois, a company that develops computer software that designs engines for vehicles. The software is provided to various companies around the world—practically every automaker today uses our software to design its engines. This requires a lot of fluid mechanics of which I got introduced to in my courses at IIT and through The Blue Flame project. I studied mostly structures as an undergraduate in Prague but as a graduate student, I very quickly changed my direction under the influence of Professor Torda, Professor Fejer, and Professor Morkovin. Fluid mechanics is behind the design of our software—in combustion, the fluid flow of engines, and turbocharging. A lot of what I do today is a continuation of what started for me at IIT.”

Spotlight on Pete Buzane

The Blue Flame (TBF) Crew Member (responsible for refueling TBF with natural gas)

IIT connection: Thirty-nine-year veteran of the Institute of Gas Technology and the Gas Research Institute who served as manager of personnel and building services

Propellant science: “The hydrogen peroxide propellant and the natural gas were kept in separate tanks. When the driver stepped on the throttle pedal, the peroxide was forced through a catalyst pack with silver screens that caused a chemical reaction. The peroxide (H2O2) broke down to water vapor (H2O) and oxygen (O), and created about 1,400° F of temperature. Within a 1,400° F oxygen-rich environment any carbon fuel, especially something like concentrated liquid natural gas, is going to instantly burn. That was the whole idea, to get it to burn in the combustion chamber, giving us the additional thrust. And it did. It increased the car’s speed to well over 600 mph and we were able to break the record. Even the X-1 rocket dragster that preceded The Blue Flame was a monopropellant vehicle. The dual-propellant rocket engine, designed for The Blue Flame, provided a way to greatly increase the thrust necessary to break the world land speed record.”

Incredible Blue Flame memory: “We stayed at a motel in Wendover, a town that straddles the state line between Utah and Nevada. The car stayed at the flats and one of the crew members had to stay with the car overnight in a mobile trailer. Being the low man on the totem pole I got the first night out there, which was kind of fortunate because I got to meet the former land speed record holder, Craig Breedlove. The following morning, while the folks in town were still having breakfast and I was out on the flats alone, I saw a Cessna circling and then landing on the flats. Two people were aboard and Craig Breedlove, who I’d known from pictures, was one of them. He got out and asked me if this was my car. So I told him yes. He was very interested in the construction and the suspension. When the rest of the crew came out and I told them that I had met Breedlove, who, of course had been long gone, no one would believe me.”

A little salt goes a long way: “In those days the Bonneville Salt Flats was the place for land speed records. Bonneville is an ancient lake with water 2 to 4 inches below the surface, which is as hard as concrete. In the winter the water table comes up above the salt; by late summer, it dips below and leaves the salt flats perfectly flat. I was at the salt flats for five weeks, which is a long time to be on something that pretty much looks like the surface of the moon. Because of the evaporation of the water that is below the salt, our feet were freezing and yet we were baking because it’s a desert. We went out to survey the area and were told to wear rubber-soled shoes because leather would disintegrate, just from the moisture. Most of the people walking around had sores on their lips, just like you see in desert movies.”

Spotlight on Pete Farnsworth

Former President of Reaction Dynamics, Inc. (RDI) and Manager of Vehicle Engineering on The Blue Flame (TBF) project

IIT connection: One of my jobs was to coordinate with doctors [T. Paul] Torda and [Sarunas C.] Uzgiris and the master’s degree students during the engineering phase of designing TBF. I made several trips to IIT to make sure that the work they were doing, in theory, could actually be built by RDI and stay within time and budget constraints. The students had an extremely important opportunity to help design and engineer an exciting product that actually would be built, operate, and perform dramatically in full view of an interested and knowledgeable world.

Racing in his blood: My first interest in automobiles came from listening to the Indianapolis 500 on the radio with my dad in about 1947. My first hands-on experience with building a car started in 1952 when I bought a broken down 1934 Ford-based racing-track roadster that had been raced at Soldiers Field in Chicago. A year later—before it was legal for me to drive—I had gotten the car back in operating condition, including installing a newly rebuilt engine. By the time I was 25 years old I had attended the University of Illinois School of Engineering, completed almost three years of tool and die school, was a good welder and machinist, and had helped to build 25 cars (mostly race cars). One of the dragsters that I designed and built the engine for was the fastest B-fuel dragster in the world in 1963. Another dragster that I designed, built, and drove, held the unlimited track-elapsed time record at Great Lakes Dragaway in Wisconsin from 1961–1963. Then I started to formulate ideas to build a rocket-powered dragster, which became the X-1 rocket car.

At the record-braking moment: I felt euphoria at setting the record, relief from the extreme stress of the past two years completing the project, sadness that we were out of a job, and shortly thereafter, the reapplication of stress when I thought about what is next! I have had many great moments in drag racing but none with the worldwide importance of setting the world-unlimited land speed record and being the first to achieve that record at more than 1,000 kilometers per hour.

Celebrating at the 45th-anniversary Blue Flame reunion: The reunion happened on October 24, 2015. It was a four-hour luncheon attended by more than 90 people. We showed previously unseen movie footage of the last runs of TBF along with a soundtrack of driver Gary Gabelich calling out the speeds on the two record runs. My wife, Leah, and I presented 21 awards to the people who built TBF and to individuals such as the IIT graduate students and others who did major system design work.

His current ride: I drive a Chrysler Town and Country Limited Mini-Van. I love it!