Rocket league signs up first racing team

An artist's conception shows two rocket planes in a head-to-head race conducted by the Rocket Racing League.
An artist's conception shows two rocket planes in a head-to-head race conducted by the Rocket Racing League.Rocket Racing League file
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Two F-16 fighter pilots have tossed their hats into a high-flying ring as the first team to join the nascent Rocket Racing League.

Pilots Robert “Bobaloo” Rickard and Don “Dagger” Grantham, of Phoenix, Ariz., announced their Leading Edge Rocket Racing team and presented a $100,000 deposit to league officials during a presentation here Monday.

“We consider it a huge, exciting thing to be on the leading edge of our new sport,” Rickard said, adding that he and Grantham continue to fly F-16 jets with the U.S. Air Force reserves. “It’s kind of a unique talent [to fly]."

To race in the rocket league, Leading Edge pilots and their competitors are destined to race for best times and prize money while zooming through a three-dimensional race course that comes complete with refueling pit stops. The league’s X-Racer rocket planes are based on the EZ-Rocket design developed by XCOR Aerospace in Mojave, Calif.

Based in Las Cruces, N.M., the Rocket Racing League formed last year to meld rocket aircraft and the auto racing format into a completely new competitive sport. Co-founders Peter Diamandis and Granger Whitelaw hope the sport will encourage interest in rocket technology and human spaceflight in a way unavailable to larger government space agencies.

“[Spaceflight] should be sexy, it should be edgy and fun,” Diamandis, who also founded the $10 million Ansari X Prize competition for private, manned suborbital spaceflight, as well as the Zero Gravity Corp. for commercial weightless flights aboard a modified airplane, said in an interview. “It should be more like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Star Trek,’ and that’s what private enterprise can do.”

The rocket league’s first Mark-1 X-Racer — featuring a modified airframe built by Velocity Aircraft and a single liquid-oxygen and kerosene rocket engine — will make its debut during the October X Prize Cup in Las Cruces.

A contest is under way to name that rocket vehicle, league officials said.

With only four minutes worth of fuel aboard and 10 minutes of unpowered flight available, X-Racer pilots will be challenged to fire their rocket engines at vital times to overtake competitors before having to land and refuel during a planned 90-minute race.

More teams, more venues
In addition to announcing the league’s first team, Diamandis and Whitelaw also launched an official call for new competitors and four additional race venues.

At least 10 different teams — of which Leading Edge is the first — are expected to compete in the Rocket Racing League’s first full season in 2007, league officials said. No fewer than six courses will be laid out for the competition’s first year, with four more to follow in the 2008 season, they added.

Prospective teams must lay down a $100,000 deposit — to be put toward the group’s Mark-1 X-Racer — and demonstrate that they are able to cover the rocket ship’s $1.2 million cost and annual operating costs of up to $1 million. Once chosen, the teams will function independently, and are responsible for all hiring, training and meeting requirements set by the league and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Whitelaw, a two-time Indianapolis 500 champion team partner, said talks are currently under way with three additional groups — including a female pilot — which may result in additional league teams.

“From our Web site alone, we’ve been approached by 50 different groups,” Diamandis said, adding that they are being pared down to only the most serious contenders.

New Mexico, Nevada and also ...
Two venues — the Reno Air Races held yearly in September at the Reno Stead Airport in Reno, Nev., and the annual X Prize Cup in October — have been tapped for the Rocket Racing League’s semifinals and national championship contests respectively, Diamandis added.

Individual cities, airport authorities or other entities can compete for the initial four open slots, league officials said. Letters of intent for new teams and prospective race courses are due by March 31, with written proposals due by May 31, 2006, they added.

Meanwhile, Leading Edge co-founder Grantham said his team has begun seeking pit personnel to pilot, service and refuel their vehicle during future races.

“This is a new age of flight … we’ve got one goal,” Grantham said. “We’re going to win, we’re going to be champions.”