Many Angelenos are aware of the Elton John tune Rocket Man; however most are unaware that the town of Apple Valley is the home to a Southern California rocket man. The current land speed record is just a hair over 763 MPH (763.035 MPH); however, Waldo Stakes has plans to shatter that record. He sets his goal at an astonishing 2,000 MPH. To date his dream consists of a four-foot-long model, which resembles a dart, and a pile of rocket parts.
Mr. Stakes has set up shop in one unit of a small industrial park located at the edge of the town. The unit is packed with aerospace hardware, with which he plans to assemble his Sonic Wind Land Speed Research Vehicle. In his video tour of the project, he boasts, “The Sonic Wind Land Speed Research Vehicle will be the premier land speed car and the most powerful car ever seen on the planet. Nothing being built in Australia or Great Britain or planned by any nation will be able to touch this car in its velocity. And its stability will be second to none.”
Mr. Stakes day job is that of a general contractor; however, he is devoting considerable time to his rocket car. In fact, the construction of a rocket car has been a life-long ambition. Since 2003, he has devoted countless hours to the project. His formal education ended in 1974, when he dropped out of Elgin Community College; however, a passion for speed, which began when he was a child, has continued to grow. In an interview with Popular Mechanics (PM) magazine, Mr. Stakes explained, “When you study something for 40 years-and I don’t mean just think about it, but study something-you can get to be pretty good at it… I have literally a thousand books on engineering and aerodynamics. Just everything.”
For decades, he has been scouring scrapyards for parts he could use to build a rocket car. His greatest find was a set of XLR99 rocket engines designed for NASA’s X-15, the stub-winged experimental plane that attained the flight speed record of 4,520 MPH in 1967. Mr. Stakes explained, “Back in the ’80s this stuff was considered scrap metal, and everyone was melting it down to recover the silver and gold from the brazed tubing. But these engines weren’t built that way. They’re made from Inconel-X [an exotic alloy] and virtually indestructible. I think they cost $1,500 each for four. I have two left: one for the car and a spare.”
The XLR99 delivered up to 57,000 pounds of thrust via the combustion of liquid oxygen and anhydrous ammonia. It is a throttled rocket, capable of operating between 50-100% thrust. Mr. Stakes is considering fueling it with a mix of methanol and liquid oxygen, which he expects to deliver up to 61,000 pounds of thrust. He also owns and plans to use two fuel tanks from a Redstone rocket because they are durable and thoroughly tested.
In 1965, when Craig Breedlove was attempting (without success) of attaining a 750 MPH record, he explained to a PM that shock waves, aerodynamic instability, transonic local airflows and other “fatal gremlins” can easily wreck a car at Mach 1 speeds (761.2 MPH at sea level). Currently, a team of more than 20 British engineers are working on a vehicle to break the sound barrier and hit 1,000 MPH in the Bloodhound SuperSonic. To date they have invested years of research as well as $15 million; however, they are not sure what will happen to their vehicle above 800 MPH. Despite lacking the sophisticated equipment possessed by the Brits, Mr. Stakes claims that he knows how to keep the Sonic Wind from disintegrating or taking fatal flight at transonic and post-Mach 1 speeds. He explained, “The idea is to use all the forces acting on the car to keep it stable during runs. The Sonic Wind’s body changes plane slightly in the nose area. This anchors shock waves over the front wheels to increase the negative lift. These shock waves, along with the shocks that will radiate downward from the rear bi-wedge tail fins, will also be used in roll control.”
When he assembles his collection of parts, he envisions as a seven-wheeled vehicle, which is 47 feet 4 inches long and 7 feet wide. According to PM, Mr. Stakes should dedicate a few years of testing and refinement in an advanced wind tunnel before strapping himself down behind the wheels of his land rocket. Although Mr. Stakes chance of success appear to be slim, he may attain his goal. Hopefully, he won’t destroy himself in the process of pursuing his dream.
Stakes gets help from friends in the land speed community, as well as the occasional moonlighting rocket scientist, but he alone is responsible for the design, handcrafting the scale models and assembling the vehicle.