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Rocket racer goes public

Rocket Racing League
Click for video: An XCOR-powered rocket plane fires up its engine Tuesday
during a Rocket Racing League exhibition flight at the EAA AirVenture show.

After three years of press releases and hush-hush rocket testing, the Rocket Racing League finally presented its first public demonstration of a NASCAR-style racing plane, powered by a on-and-off blaze of orange flame.

The league put its first built-to-order rocket plane through a 10-minute run-through today at the EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wis., the world's largest experimental air show. And although the crowd experienced only the sound of one plane racing, league executives exulted over the success.

"Yi-hi-hi-hoo!" the league's co-founder and chief executive officer, Granger Whitelaw, yelled into a cell phone after the flight.

The league's X-Racer wasn't the loudest or the smokiest plane at the air show, but its bright rocket plume and unconventional flight profile set it apart from any other entry. AirVenture spokesman Dick Knapinski said he could recall only one other rocket-powered plane to make an appearance - and that was XCOR Aerospace's EZ-Rocket, which served as a precursor for the league's first plane.

The EZ-Rocket, which came to Oshkosh in 2002, packed far less punch than the X-Racer: Today's demonstration started with a takeoff powered by 1,200 pounds of rocket thrust. The engine roared for about 30 seconds as the racer took to the air.

Then, in a flash, the bright kerosene-fueled flame disappeared. A couple of seconds later, the roar snapped off, as if a spigot was being turned shut. The cutoff was punctuated by a fuel burp that some have dubbed a "bark" or an "elephant sneeze."

The silence that followed was eerie.

That's all part of the plan for the league's races: The racers can carry only so much fuel, and a big factor in the race strategy is how to optimize the rocket burns and the unpowered glides as pilots negotiate separate lanes in a "raceway in the sky." XCOR's rocket can't be throttled; it's either all on or all off.

In all, the X-Racer performed six rocket burns, ranging from 15 to 35 seconds in length. That was enough to keep test pilot Rick Searfoss airborne for nearly 10 minutes, rising to an altitude of about 2,000 feet.

The X-Racer has been tested in the air at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, where XCOR is based, but this was the first time that the plane was flown in front of a paying audience. For that reason, Searfoss played it conservatively today. The rocket plane is due to make repeat appearances on Friday and Saturday.

Whitelaw said the typical competition flight would be somewhat flashier than today's demonstration.

"It'll actually be a little lower, a little closer, with more vehicles," he told me. "But for a first flight we wanted to be a little cautious."

Alan Boyle / msnbc.com
An Armadillo-powered rocket plane, partially
assembled, sits on display at the Rocket Racing League's booth at the EAA AirVenture show.

Whitelaw said he was anxious to get the league's second rocket racer into service. That plane, powered by a 2,500-pound-thrust, alcohol-fueled rocket engine from Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace, was on display in Oshkosh. However, it still lacks the required certification from the Federal Aviation Administration for a demonstration flight.

That may come in time for the Armadillo-powered plane to join the XCOR plane in the sky at the Reno Air Races in September, Whitelaw said. As time goes on, still more racers will be added to the mix - most likely using the bigger Velocity XL airframe used for the Armadillo craft.

Honest-to-goodness competition could start in late 2009 or 2010, Whitelaw said.

"It's really TV-dependent," he explained. In addition to having the races televised, the league is working out a deal for a reality-TV "docu-soap" that follows the rocketeers behind the scenes, Whitelaw said. Viewers can get a taste of that treatment on Sept. 24, when the Rocket Racing League is due to be featured in a Discovery Channel documentary series.

Then there are the sponsorships: The DKNY fashion label had its logo emblazoned on the X-Racer under the terms of the league's first corporate sponsorship. Whitelaw, along with some of the league's racing team members, modeled flight suits designed by DKNY.

Success doesn't come cheap: Whitelaw told reporters that the league's backers have spent somewhere between $10 million and $20 million to get to this point. The next step is to turn the venture into a real race.

Will such a race attract NASCAR-size audiences? The verdict may not be in for another two years. But if the Rocket Racing League can eventually attract a crowd like the one that showed up today for the EAA AirVenture show ... well then, the sky's the limit.