Image: Artwork of rocket flight
Rocket Racing League
An artist's conception shows staggered flights of several X-Racers in a Rocket Racing League competition.
By Senior space writer
updated 9/14/2006 4:11:22 PM ET 2006-09-14T20:11:22

When the gates open on the X Prize Cup next month at the Las Cruces International Airport in New Mexico, visitors will get a feel for a new type of super-slick speedster — the rocket racer.

The Rocket Racing League is pushing the throttle forward in the development of a new sport — a NASCAR-style racing league utilizing rocket-powered aircraft flown by pilots through a “three-dimensional track” that’s plainly sky-high.

For the motorsport-challenged among you, NASCAR stands for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, the largest sanctioned venue of its type in the United States. While NASCAR takes it to the roadway, the Rocket Racing League takes it to the air. The league is power-charged to accelerate technology in the areas of airframe, propulsion and spacecraft design — and have flat-out fun at the same time.

In the early years of this new sport, each rocket-powered X-Racer will be based on an existing airframe, but modified to carry a 1,500-pound-thrust rocket engine burning liquid oxygen and kerosene. The single-pilot, first-generation Mark-1 X-Racer is expected to reach maximum speeds of more than 320 mph (500 kilometers per hour).

X-Racers are designed to be rapidly refueled, during a pit stop that would be on the order of five to 10 minutes long. Even faster refueling techniques are expected to be mastered as the Rocket Racing League develops over time.

Individual X-Racers will be capable of roughly four minutes of intermittent engine boost and 10 minutes of unpowered flight. That will permit three to four laps around the air course between pit stops.

The virtual airspace that X-Racers will speed through is 10,000 feet long, 3,000 feet wide and 5,000 feet high (3,000 meters long, 900 feet wide and 1,500 meters high). Pilots will navigate the course through use of Global Positioning System satellite technology and a heads-up display within the cockpit. This virtual course may be supplemented with real obstacles such as inflatable pylons and balloons, as well as spotlights and lasers during nighttime races.

Technology: on track
Now busily at work on the Mark-1 X-Racer engine is XCOR Aerospace, headquartered in Mojave, Calif., and known for its expertise in safe, reliable and reusable rocket engine development.

Jeff Greason, president of XCOR Aerospace, has noted that progress is being made on the rocket racer motor — including static test firings to 100 percent thrust on the engine. “We are proceeding with power plant development leading to safe, successful flight,” Greason said in a recent XCOR press statement.

“We have fired the rocket motor for the racer repeatedly … and it’s running within our time schedule,” said XCOR spokesman James Busby. The official designation of the liquid oxygen/kerosene powered engine is the XR4K14, he advised

While progress is in the wind, the Rocket Racing League has raised a yellow flag on flying the Mark-1 X-Racer during the X Prize Cup festivities Oct. 20-21 in Las Cruces. The League had hoped to accelerate the development schedule ahead of the vendor’s commitment, but that has not been possible.

“We’re holding off on flying until we’re prepared from a business standpoint … it has nothing to do with the technology,” said Granger Whitelaw, chief executive officer for the Rocket Racing League. “The technology is 100 percent there. The vehicle and the engine are on track as far as that goes,” he told

The Rocket Racing League has already taken delivery of its company-owned Mark-1 X-Racer trainer, crafted by Velocity Inc. of Sebastian, Fla. This plane — powered by piston engine, eventually to be replaced by rocket engine — will serve as a training vehicle for rocket racing pilots. A second Velocity, already owned by the league, is currently undergoing modifications, including the installation of a rocket engine, by XCOR Aerospace.

Competitive environment
Creating a brand-new 21st-century sport like rocket racing is not without its challenges, Whitelaw explained. He’s no stranger to blending business with high-speed hardware as a two-time Indianapolis 500 champion team partner.

“Just pulling everything together at the same time … it’s all about execution for us,” Whitelaw said. “There are so many different pieces that we’re doing to bring out a major brand … a major sport in the aerospace/aeronautics world.”

The Rocket Racing League was co-founded and chaired by X Prize founder Peter Diamandis.

Whitelaw highlighted the league’s push in technology innovation. The competitive environment, the high heat from racing conditions, and the professional feedback from the pilots — all this and other aspects allows the Rocket Racing League to serve as a test bed for research and development.

“There has never been that environment for aerospace or aeronautics … and now there’s going to be,” Whitelaw added.

Over the next week or two, as well as at October’s X Prize Cup, Whitelaw concluded, stand by for surprises. “We have some exciting things we’re going to be announcing … so stay tuned.”

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