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Rocket Racing League announces August takeoff

After months of delays, the "Nascar in the sky" aeronautics start-up gets ready for its first exhibition race.

A Rocket Racer lifts off for a test flight.
Rocket Racing

NEW YORK--Top Gun and Ender's Game fans take note: Rocket Racing is here.

It'll be like Formula One or Nascar in the sky, or at least that's what the leadership of Rocket Racing said at a press conference at the Yale Club here on Monday morning. The aeronautics entertainment start-up announced the debut of its long-awaited Rocket Racing League, which will have its first exhibition race on August 1-2 at the EAA AirVenture air show in Oshkosh, Wis.

The science fiction-like Rocket Racing pits aircraft called Rocket Racers against one another in a high-speed dash around the sky. The pilots are equipped with 3D helmets and navigation panels to visualize the virtual "raceway" they follow, and spectators on the ground and at home will have access to footage from remote and rocket-mounted cameras. This is accomplished through "cockpit-based augmented reality," which the Rocket Racing League ultimately wants to bring into general aviation as a way to make navigation easier and more efficient for pilots.

Rocket Racing, which hopes to have a formal racing season in 2010, simultaneously announced the acquisition of Florida-based Velocity Aircraft to produce the frame for all its aircraft.

"If you're going to race Ferrari in your league, why not own Ferrari?" Rocket Racing CEO Granger Whitelaw said of the acquisition.

In a hypothetical Rocket Racing event, up to 10 pilots will be racing at a time in a 90-minute race. The aircraft can fly up to 350 miles per hour. "It's great for TV," Whitelaw said. "It'll be very fast, very thrilling. It's all about competition." There will ideally be Rocket Racing video games released to fans in conjunction.

The company also plans to hold exhibition races at the Reno National Championship Air Races in September, the Aviation Nation event in November, and the 2008 X Prize Cup. Six teams have already signed up for the Rocket Racing League's first season, and Whitelaw said that two television networks have already offered deals.

But the announcement itself was a long time coming, and Rocket Racing's short history has been rife with delays. "It's almost now three and a half years since we announced the concept to the media and the world and I've very proud of the incredible progress that's been made by this team," Rocket Racing League co-Chairman Peter Diamandis, who also serves as the CEO of the X Prize Foundation, said at the press event via videoconference. "We waited quite a long time to unveil this, until we were ready."

Indeed, after launching in 2005, "we were very optimistic in hoping to race in 2006," Whitelaw admitted in the press conference. "I take full responsibility for missing our target date. We're about 15 months behind schedule." Ultimately, the Rocket Racing League didn't have its first successful test flight until November 2007.

And the Federal Aviation Administration has not yet given the league the green light. "We have no reason to believe they won't," Whitelaw said. But this is key to the company's promises of safety, which Whitelaw reiterated to an audience that seemed mildly skeptical at the prospect of rocket-powered planes zipping around the sky with spectators on the ground below. "Every plane in every air show has to be approved by the FAA," Whitelaw explained. He added, "We will never be flying directly at (spectators)."

Rocket Racing filed an extensive safety-related patent on Monday."We have the technology today," Whitelaw said.

And on the subject of environmental friendliness, he explained that "we like to say that 95 percent of our fuel is grown on trees." He provided the example of IndyCar, which now powers its vehicles with ethanol, but admitted that some of the Rocket Racing aircraft engines' technology does run on kerosene. But the company is currently looking at using more biofuels "to be as environmentally friendly as possible, and we'll be introducing those when we can."