Who’s faster? The Mongoose or the Vietnam fighter jock?
Through the course of the ‘74 season, I did Navy recruiting displays almost weekly. Usually the officer would be a fighter jock who was rotating out of a tour in Vietnam.
I’d be sitting around week after week with these flyers. They were interesting guys and they all got off on the Funny Car, as most seemed to like anything that was fast and dangerous. All of ‘em wanted to make a pass, just like I wanted some seat time in a fighter plane. The pilots were quick to brag of hitting approximately 150 mph in 250 feet, but were a little sketchy on how quickly they got there.
I was positive in that sprint I could hand ‘em their heads. As these conversations continued throughout the year, I started thinking about how we could prove who was truly quicker and faster, my blown Nitro Funny Car, or a twin-engine jet Navy fighter plane. Could you imagine the press coverage and bragging rights I’d get by beating a jet fighter? My sponsors (and race track promoters) would eat it up.
So, how could we actually do it? How could I race a jet?
Well, the Navy jets get a major assist from a steam-operated catapult, which launches them off the ship. Obviously, I couldn’t face off against one on the deck of an aircraft carrier. The “shut-down area” would have been several stories down, ending in a gigantic splash!
Finally, the pieces started falling in place. I’m scheduled for a match race at Capitol Raceway, in the Washington, D.C., area. The Naval Air Test Center in Patuxent River, not far from D.C., has an open date for its test catapult. And best of all, or maybe worst of all for me, one of the Navy’s newest and hottest fighter aircraft, the Grumman F-14 Tomcat, is due at Pax River (as the sailors call it) for a work-up.
Finally, we meet the competition. Lurking just outside the hangar complex is the Grumman F-14 Tomcat. Basically, it was two big jet engines, side-by-side with a cockpit in the middle. At that time, it was the newest, most lethal fighter aircraft in America’s arsenal. Standing casually next to it is this guy who looks like he just walked off the set of a Hollywood war movie. Tall, rugged, uniform perfectly pressed, shoes shiny enough to blind you. It was Lieutenant Curt Dose, the Tomcat’s “shoe.” Dose gave us a tour of his baby—all the bells and whistles in the two-man cockpit. He showed us how the adjustable wings worked and how all of the different armament attached.
Then he gave us the performance specs. As it turned out, the speed was around 2-1/2 times the speed of sound, and fully loaded, it weighed 53,000 pounds, which is about 27 times heavier than my Funny Car. I’m no physics major, but I don’t see how anything weighing that much (no matter how many jet engines it’s got) can beat the Duster—short distance, that is.
There’s no way in hell the Navy’s gonna allow me to actually race one of their jets side-by-side. So, initially, we’d planned on running separately that day and recording the results. After things quiet down, it’s determined that the runway’s much too rough for me to make my run, though I want to give it my best shot. So, we’ll record my portion of this speed experiment at Capitol Raceway a couple of days in the future.
The 258-foot race course had been laid out. It spanned from where the plane’s nose wheel sits at takeoff on the catapult, to where the nose wheel lifts off into the air, at the end of the cat shot. We’d use the same distance at Capitol.
Now for the moment of truth: the F-14 was re-fired, and the green-jersey cat crew guided the roaring machine onto the track and attached the harness, much like my guys would back me up and guide me to the staging beams following a burnout. Steam rolling from the track, the Launch Officer signals Dose to hit afterburner. The engines spool up, the sign is given to the cat crew (this all takes place in maybe 30 seconds), the Tomcat hunkers down, engines screaming, and in an instant, he’s blasting by us, literally leaping into the sky.
We run to Marra, praying the clocks functioned properly, because this is definitely a one-shot deal. Yes! And their readings? We were stunned—35,000 pounds of aircraft had just covered the 258 feet in 1.76 seconds at 175.86 mph.
The next week, with John Collins at the controls, the Duster covered the same distance as the F-14 in 1.97 seconds at 118.20 mph.
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