Jet cars aren’t new. Crazy people have been putting jet engines into cars since the 50s as jet technology became more prevalent and ex-military engines started popping up for sale. There was a famous anecdote about Art Arfons, one of the jet car pioneers, having the FBI show up on his doorstep to enquire how he got his hands on one of their newest Air Force F104 Starfighter engines. It turns out he bought the engine for scrap prices after it had damaged some compressor blades. The engine was unsuitable for flight but Art rebuilt it and pulled out a couple more compressor blades to balance things up, then used it to power his Green Monster land speed record car. When jet dragsters arrived on the scene in the early 60s the NHRA was so concerned they banned them outright and in doing so only added to their mystique. Jet cars continued to develop without any oversight by the NHRA and they continued to race on IHRA or unsanctioned tracks. There were some spectacular accidents and a few shocking deaths, but the cars were pushing past 285mph at a time where Top Fuel wasn’t even hitting 250mph and the fans came to see them in droves.
It wasn’t until 1974 that the NHRA decided to licence jet cars, and they were strictly policed. There was to be no prize money or official competition category – jet cars were for exhibition only.
Nowadays the quickest jet cars can run four-second quarter mile times at over 300mph, and they do it easily. Remember that’s without the pressure of competition; most jet car operators run to suit their budget.
Top Fuel pilot Darren Di Filippo has been bitten by the jet bug and he’s set aside his fuel cars for the moment to play with his five jet cars. Yep, he’s got five of them; two dragsters, two funny cars and a truck they’re putting the finishing touches on which has three engines.
“Compared to a nitro car they’re a lot easier, and with the way the sport is at the moment we’re not running nitro until the sport picks up,” Darren says.
The guys were out testing the Speed Demon dragster at Calder the other day, giving driver Peter Bedford some seat time in the lightweight ride. The car weighs about 850kg and its powered by a General Electric J85 engine; it’s same engine you would find in a F5 Freedom fighter.
To help keep the cars on the track the engines are installed nose down at about 1.5 degrees. Darren says they can 60-foot in the low 0.9 second zone with full throttle but you have to have your wits about you when you drive a jet car.
“You can’t use the foot brake during a run,” he says, “the brake is just for staging. Once you launch you don’t touch the brakes because they can lock up the wheels and the thrust will just keep pushing you. They’re not like a Top Fuel car; stepping off the throttle with one of those is just like hitting the brakes. But a jet car will still keep accelerating for a couple seconds after you close the throttle.”
We didn’t get to see any record setting times from Speed Demon during testing but we did get to see the car, and how it operates, up close and personal. It was enough to make Scotty utter a few expletives. If you haven’t seen these amazing cars in person make sure you get out to the track next time they’re on; keep an eye on the facebook page Jetcars.com.au for dates.