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OEM Report: Automotive

Mach trial

By Nick Wright

With a rocket engine, fabricator looks to bring land speed record back to the United States

April 2012 - According to the “Guinness Book of World Records,” the current land-speed record for the fastest car was set by Andy Green, a former British Royal Air Force pilot, in 1997. In the ThrustSSC, powered by two jet engines, Green hit 763.035 mph, just a blink over Mach 1 across Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.

However, records are meant to be broken. Waldo Stakes, a fabricator in Southern California, is working to make a bigger statement for posterity.

“My motivation is to prove to the world that the United States is technologically still the greatest nation on Earth,” he says.

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Stakes is behind the Sonic Wind Land Speed Research Vehicle (LSRV), a 55-ft.-long missile-like steel marvel that’s built around components from surplus Thiokol XLR99 rocket engines that he bought 20 years ago. The engines originally were used on the North American X-15 experimental rocket plane, the fastest manned aircraft to date. It reached an extraordinary 4,519 mph in 1967, Stakes says.

Stakes expects the Sonic Wind to reach a theoretical top speed “in excess of Mach 2 and nearly Mach 3 at 6,000 ft. altitude of Salar de Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia, which is the only place in the world big enough to run that fast.”

To fabricate a ground vehicle that will withstand the stresses of roughly 2,000 mph, Stakes incorporates several metals and assembly methods. For example, the Sonic Wind’s main rails are arc welded for larger welds and MIG welded for smaller joints. Aluminum panel areas that make up the underside will be riveted.

“Arc welding and buck riveting are how Americans build their strongest structures such as skyscrapers and bridges,” he says. “There is no stronger method for bonding metals together.”

In other parts of the vehicle, 4130 chromoly steel tube comprises the space frame structures that hold the liquid oxygen tank (LOX) to the chassis because of its flex and memory. The chassis itself is fabricated from mild steel to absorb energy and distort in the event of a crash, he says.

The stainless steel LOX tank is TIG welded together because of the strength the weld provides. Spherical titanium tanks containing helium and nitrogen gases were heliarc welded in a vacuum when they were originally built to eliminate oxygen from contaminating the weld, Stakes says. The Sonic Wind is propelled by a mixture of methanol and liquid oxygen that Stakes believes will generate up to 60,000 lbs. of thrust.

Its tail fins are comprised of 6061 aluminum skin over 7075 aluminum bodies, and the Sonic Wind’s skin is fabricated from 2025 series aluminum and 6061 sheet. “The driver capsule is built of maraging steel, which is stretched and hardened steel and will be wrapped in carbon fiber for added strength,” he adds.

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Life-long fabricator
For Stakes, a life-long fabricator, the seed for speed had been planted early on. “Before I had turned 15, I had rebuilt four auto engines and was getting better performance from my motorcycles,” he says. He raced modified cars and motorcycles in the streets of Chicago’s suburbs, where he grew up. Fifteen years ago, he built the Sonic Wind ice racer, a record-setting supersonic rocket vehicle that races on frozen lakes. Stakes decided to build a land-speed-record car when he couldn’t find a sponsor to campaign the ice car, he says.

To stress test the Sonic Wind, a project in which Stakes already has invested about $8 million, the only way is to run it up to speeds incrementally.

“There is no other way to load the vehicle other than that,” he says. “Any other way would lead to erroneous data anyway.”

For perhaps the most experienced fabricator, building a rocket car to military specifications presents its challenges. However, Stakes’ biggest hurdle is finding the right people to help build components correctly “since the United States has shipped most of its manufacturing overseas.”

While he won’t disclose who will pilot the vehicle once it is ready to take on the record, he has someone in mind, and it’s not himself, he says. “Right now, it’s between two female fighter pilots.”

Once he selects the pilot and when the Sonic Wind makes its run, she will be the first woman to hold the land speed record. FFJ

Sources

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