LINCOLN, Neb. – Picture this: It’s the Alabama State Fair in October of 1946, and “Antonio the Great” wheels his Rocket Car down the straightaway of a dirt track, tail ablaze with eight rockets belching fire and smoke. Over the dust, noise and commotion the announcer screams, “He must be going 650 miles per hour.” More like 85 mph, truth be told, but this was showbiz.
Antonio the Great was Andy Granatelli, who would go on to become famous as the owner of STP and the sponsor of Mario Andretti when he drove to victory at the Indianapolis 500 in 1969.
This Rocket Car was originally the Don Hulbert Special. It was built for the 1934 Indy 500. Hulbert, a Chicago Ford dealer, commissioned Pop Dryer to craft the sensational aluminum body, with its laid back grille and large dorsal fin. Power came from a Ford flathead V-8.
The 220-cubic-inch V-8 wasn’t competitive at Indy and the car failed to qualify. Granatelli and his two brothers owned a speed shop in Chicago and they bought the car. In 1946, they added eight JATO rockets to the tail and 23-year-old Andy Granatelli campaigned the car at small dirt tracks and county fairs.
In 1983, the Rocket Car was brought back to its original Indy configuration by Stan Betz of Orange, Calif. Tom McRae of Granbury, Tex., founder of the Great Race, bought it in 1999.
Two years ago, Gary Kuck of Lincoln, Neb., bought the car to use in the Great Race. Kuck and his driver, Rex Gardner of Stilwell, are elite competitors in the Great Race. They are two-time world champions. Larry Sittner and Jim Ferrell, friends of Kuck’s in Lincoln, worked for seven months on a complete frame-off restoration. In last year’s Great Race, Gardner and Kuck were in contention for the overall win until a minor mechanical problem cost them precious seconds.
Gardner and Kuck put in countless hours on the car. Gardner built the flathead V-8 and Kuck oversaw the car’s construction. This year they hope it will carry them to the first victory of its career. That will give the old car more boost than rockets ever could.
The Great Race
The Great Race is a two-week, cross-country rally for up to 100 cars dating from 1900 to 1951. The challenge is to maintain precise average speeds over seondary roads on a route that is revealed to racers 20 minutes before the start of each day. The route contains instructions for roughly 100 stops, turns or speed changes. Navigators compute speeds using nothing more than an analog clock, pencil and paper. Hidden video-camera checkpoints record each car’s accuracy. Serious competitors are usually within five to 10 seconds of a perfect score each day.
The cars are upgraded with hydraulic brakes, bigger radiators and electronic ignitions. Tires are filled with nitrogen so they don’t expand and change the odometer reading.
To get in touch with Tom Strongman, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.