Rocket racing closer to reality

Group that aims to race high-speed rockets at 5,000 feet announces its first independent team.

A group devoted to racing high-speed rockets at 5,000 feet is gaining velocity, having announced its first independent team on Monday.

The Rocket Racing League, a New York-based venture designed to turn rocket racing into a commercial sport, chose two F-16 pilots, Robert "Bobaloo" Rickard and Don "Dagger" Grantham, as its first third-party competitors. Their team, called Leading Edge Rocket Racing, will take possession of a Mark-1 rocket supplied by RRL this year.

Fees for the rocket start with $1.2 million up front, and may include as much as $1 million annually in operating costs.

The rocket prototype will be unveiled publicly at the X Prize Cup in October in Las Cruces, N.M. That's because the aerospace junkies behind the X Prize, a $10 million personalized flight contest, are also behind the RRL.

The concept for the rocket-racing events, which are slated for 2007 and 2008, take a page from Nascar's playbook.

Rocket planes called X-Racers will compete on a sky "track" in the design of a Grand Prix race, with long straightaways and the added dimension of vertical ascents and deep banks. The race will run perpendicular to spectators and be about two miles long, one mile wide and 5,000 feet in the air. The X-Racers will be staggered upon takeoff and fly their own "tunnel" of space, each separated by a few hundred feet.

Pilots will be guided by differential GPS (Global Positioning System) technology to help them avoid collisions.

Rickard, a former Air Force pilot and CEO of Leading Edge, called the opportunity to compete thrilling. "The roar of rocket power and a 20-foot trailing flame will redefine the concept of air racing," he said.

Bowing to excited fans online, the league also unveiled a Web contest to allow anyone to submit a name for its own rocket plane, via open submission. Ten semifinalists chosen by the RRL committee will be posted online, and fans will vote on the best of 10. The winner, who will receive annual VIP access to the race events, will be named at the X Prize Cup.

On Monday, the league also called for proposals, or competitive bids, for four race venues in 2007. (The league plans to hold six races that year.) It is also soliciting proposals for additional teams--the league expects 10 or more teams to compete in the 2007-2008 events.

The prototype of the X-Racer is being built in partnership with XCOR Aerospace of Mojave, Calif. It's modeled after XCOR's EZ-Rocket, but the next version will draw from the airframe of Velocity, based in Sebastian, Fla. Retired Air Force Col. Rick Searfoss, a former commander of the space shuttle Columbia, will fly the RRL's rocket.

In addition, the RRL made some executive housekeeping announcements on Monday. The league's president, Granger Whitelaw, will also become CEO. The organization also named two board members. TV executive and "The Blues Brothers" producer Robert Weiss, along with longtime media executive Ramy Weitz, will become board members of the RRL.

"Efforts to assemble the teams, build and test rocket planes, and secure sponsorships and locations are steadily under way," Whitelaw said.

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