Jack McClure – aka Captain Jack McClure – has skimmed across dragstrips at staggering speeds and sailed into high political adventure at sea. He was a moonshine-runnin’ rebel with a rival to some of NASCAR’s pioneers back in the Southeast hollers and hills. He has been a stunt driver with the Joie Chitwood Thrill Show, a boat skipper whose craft was seized during the 1980 Marielito boatlift from Cuba, and a plucky participant in the 1967 Daytona 24 Hour race. (He was a non-finisher in the endurance race, along with such notables as the Phil Hill, Lloyd Ruby/Dennis Hulme/Mario Andretti team, the A.J. Foyt/Dan Gurney/Bruce McLaren team, Mark Donohue and Peter Revson, ad Bobby Allison.)
He (at first unwittingly) risked blowing himself to smithereens in a Turbonique-branded racing kart with twin T-16 rocket engines – while the manufacturer hid behind a railroad car. (At the first test-firing of those go-kart engines, McClure told close friend Ky Michaelson that he had asked Turbonique owner Gene Middlebrooks why he was hunkering down yards away. Replied Middlebrooks, “because I have a wife and two kids.”)
McClure is a North Carolina-born daredevil and story-spinner, a man who has done what Autoevolution.com termed “kazilIionfold crazy” and has lived for 91 years to tell about it – and does so with charm and touch of whimsy. He has a tale for every teaspoon of hydrogen peroxide that powers his go-kart – the one he wants to clock 240 miles an hour in less than four seconds on an eighth-mile course.
Yes, hydrogen peroxide … the miracle chemical compound that whitens teeth, disinfects wounds, gets rid of nasty problems from acne to boils to nail fungus, fights mold, makes an excellent toilet cleanser, and erases “ring around the collar” and armpit sweat stains. This is the stuff that he sprays in his go-kart engine – at a much higher concentration.
This kart of McClure’s – which has zipped down the strips from Brainerd, Minnesota, to the Caribbean island nation of Aruba but is sitting in a trailer in Tampa “ready for a place to run,” he said – uses 90 percent hydrogen peroxide.
“What you buy in the drug store is three percent. What the beauty salons use to bleach hair is 20 percent. And what the industry uses – like in the textile business, they use it to bleach cotton after it’s woven – that’s 50 percent. We have to use 90 percent,” McClure said, “and it’s very volatile. It’s hard to get, and there’s only one source in the United States. We were just able to get it about three years ago, because the federal government had it shut down over a certain percentage. We can get it now, but it costs $150 a gallon.
“My go-kart uses four gallons per pass. So that’s $600 a pass, right there,” he said.
My go-kart uses four gallons per pass. So that’s $600 a pass, right there.
McClure described the mechanics of his engine: “Inside the motor, what makes this motor work, is we spray 90-percent hydrogen peroxide over a silver screen that’s actually like screen wire but it’s nickel silver. It’s silver-plated. And there’s like 100 of those things stacked in there, and they’re eight inches in diameter. It’s called a catalyst pack. And the pack is, like, two inches thick when it’s all pressed together. When the peroxide hits the silver, it becomes super-heated steam in a millisecond. It goes up to 1350 degrees instantly and goes out the back of the nozzle in the form of thrust that pushes it down the strip.”
America loves the extreme. Remember Captain Dynamite, who’d lie down in his homemade coffin and blow it up? Captin Jack McClure is popular with spectators for the same reason they like watching demolition derbies and high-wire artist Nik Wallenda walking a tightrope over the Grand Canyon gorge.
But here’s the catch … However much drag-racing spectators want to see Captain Jack McClure stretch out on a go-kart with a rocket engine fastened inches from his rear end that will slam him off the starting line in four Gs, it’s difficult for him to secure gigs.
“The insurance companies that insure the racetracks, they won’t insure a rocket-powered vehicle,” McClure said. “We’ve been able to run two times at Brainerd [Brainerd International Raceway].”
He ran just a little quicker than four seconds there last year in his most recent appearance. “We had three Go Pro cameras mounted on the car. One was looking at me. One was looking back, at gauges on the back, showed the parachutes coming out and all that stuff. But we’ve got to get it under four seconds.”
Likely he won’t be doing that at Brainerd, for he said the NHRA, which sanctions the facility northwest of Minneapolis, put the kibosh on such activity. “They won’t let us run because it’s rocket-powered. That’s a big problem,” McClure said.
They asked me, ‘You got a license?’ ‘No.’ I ran that kart for about five years in the ‘60s and ‘70s and I never had a license anywhere.
“You know, the funny thing about all this … They asked me, ‘You got a license?’ ‘No.’ I ran that kart for about five years in the ‘60s and ‘70s and I never had a license anywhere,” he said. “And the kart at one time was approved by NHRA, IHRA, and AHRA. It was approved to run on all the tracks, but I never had a license. They just said, ‘He knows what he’s doing and he’s been doing it long enough.’ ”
The kart is classified as an exhibition vehicle, but McClure said he’s struggling to find promoters agreeable to booking him and his act.
“I never ran for free anywhere. I always got paid to run. I always got in free, never had to buy anything,” he said. “They treated me like a rock star back then. It’s different now.”
One track operator, Tim Ringer at U.S. 41 Motorplex at Morocco, Ind., is game.
Said McClure, “We don’t know. He says he’ll let us do it, but we’re not sure. He said he welcomes us there. But we don’t have it in writing, and I don’t know what kind of insurance he’s got.”
Ringer, while welcoming, also has questions.
The co-owner of the independent (outlaw) racetrack that’s in its third season with new management, said, “There are lots of ways we could probably make it happen, especially if he’s cleared by the doctors and has proper safety equipment. It would be marketable. It’d be an exhibition. He’d have to go down the track all by himself [with no one in the opposite lane]. I don’t think it’d be a problem. I would be willing to do it, as long as it’s not going to affect me in any way.”
Ringer said another possible concern regards his status. He said he is entering negotiations with the IHRA and that he is unsure whether McClure’s unique endeavor would interfere with an alliance with that sanctioning body.
I never ran for free anywhere. I always got paid to run. I always got in free, never had to buy anything. They treated me like a rock star back then. It’s different now.
McClure is hopeful he’ll be allowed and invited to perform for just the sixth time since he could possess hydrogen peroxide.
“I’m ready! Yeah!” McClure said with a hearty laugh.
He was ready in 2014, at South Georgia Motorsports Park, at Valdosta. That appearance started with a visit to Florida’s Bradenton Motorsports Park the year before. McClure had his go-kart on display the weekend Frenchman Eric Teboul used an exhibition pass at the Haltech Manufacturers Cup Finals to run a 5.12-second, 264.39-mph quarter-mile pass that reset the record for two-wheeled vehicles with a rocket-powered motorcycle.
He talked his way into the bike show at SGMP the next year and made a couple of passes, none even a full eighth-mile.
But, McClure said, “That’s where we met the people from Aruba. They saw me run, and they were impressed and they said, ‘What would it take to get you go to Aruba?’ I said, ‘It’ll take a lot of money.’ Three months later, in February 2015, with a $22,000 layout from the Aruba promoters, McClure was on the island.
“We drew the biggest attendance. We didn’t set no speed records, but we were a big hit. We were there for eight days altogether. We went to every school on the island, talked to all of the students. They all came out on a Saturday night. And Friday before the race, the prime minister of Aruba spent three hours with us.” He did hurt his right arm there but said the pain “went away and I can put my jacket on now.”
He said he isn’t planning to return anytime soon.
“I don’t know. A lot of people want us to come back. But the promoters, I’m not sure – they haven’t contacted us yet about going back. It cost a lot of money to get us over there. We had to ship the kart and all the equipment and ship the fuel. They had to take five of us over there, a crew of five, and put us up in hotels and all that. We figured it was around $22,000 to get us all over there. That’s a lot,” McClure said.
Even at 91, Jack is still plenty endearing with his female fans.
Besides, he said, “The track was awful rough. I had trouble keeping my helmet on. I had straps under my chin, holding it down, and it still would almost shake off. The fastest we went there, I think was 167. It’s a full quarter-mile track there. We did that run in just over six seconds, because I had to shut it down.”
And McClure has made plenty of provisions for staying in the seat and staying safe. He has to.
“I’m just [lying] there. I’m not strapped in or nothin’. That would be like strapping yourself onto a motorcycle,” he said. “I’ve got [four strips of] Velcro on the back of my seat, and the other part of the Velcro is on the upholstery of the seat. When I sit in it and lay back down, I have to get where I’m going to sit. Then I lean back, and the Velcro holds me in there to keep me from actually sliding out.”
I’m just [lying] there. I’m not strapped in or nothin’. That would be like strapping yourself onto a motorcycle.
The notion of using Velcro originated with the late Jim Diest, the SEMA Hall of Famer and recipient of NHRA’s Lifetime Achievement Award who concentrated on and innovated with safety but died eight years ago this month.
“I told Jim Diest, ‘I have trouble staying in this seat. Can you do anything about that?’ McClure said. “He thought a couple of seconds and said, ‘Yeah – we’ll Velcro you in there.’ You wouldn’t believe how strong Velcro is. What makes it strong is not pulling directly off of it. I’m pulling 45 or 60 degrees on it – not like 90 degrees.” Reassuringly, he said, “I still have my hands on the [steering] wheel.”
Incidentally, VELCRO® is the brainchild of the late Swiss engineer George de Mestral, who in 1949, while walking his dog, observed the common burdock burr and from that model developed the world’s first hook-and-loop fastener. He christened it VELCRO, from the French words velours (velvet) and crochet (hook). And McClure is correct – the product is tougher than people might think. It’s not just for clothing and simple fastening. It is used across the spectrum of industry – in medical, military, transportation, construction, packaging, and personal-care applications. NASA even uses it to keep dinner plates from floating in zero gravity space. McClure insisted that his strips of the VELCRO fastener are red, so the fans can see them.
The goal for this year is to go 200 miles an hour in under four seconds in the eighth-mile.
Noticeable, too, is the silver suit McClure wears that’s unlike the firesuits or leathers of today’s racers. Diest built that suit in 1971 – 46 years ago – and it still fits McClure. “Everything fits, and I’m in good health,” he said. What’s extra-unusual about the suit is the parachute sewn into it.
“That suit has a stabilizing ‘chute going around my neck in the collar. There’s an eight-foot chute in there, and it’s attached to the go-kart with a static line,” McClure said. (About four years ago, he took the uniform back into the shop and said, “I need to unpack this and see it if it’s OK.” The technician unpacked the ‘chute and said it looked brand-new.)
At the urging of Diest’s representatives at the racetrack, McClure traveled to Diest’s shop in Los Angeles. There Diest built him a correctly-sized parachute for his kart but was concerned that the kart had no roll bar. So, with inspiration from his boat-racing designs, he made McClure a firesuit with built-in parachutes that would protect him if the kart were to fling him at speed. However, Diest never had tested the idea on land, so he decided he and McClure would do that in Diest’s Pontiac station wagon. The plan was to drive out to a grassy area, crank the wagon up to 100 mph, and have McClure jump off and hope the ‘chutes opened.
Luckily for McClure, his trip to California included constant rain, so they couldn’t carry out their experiment. And even luckier for McClure is, as he told Michaelson, “I was never unlucky enough to crash my go-kart to see if it worked.”
McClure did discover, though, that the screen inside his motor wasn’t up to snuff.
“We opened up the motor and cleaned the screens and put some more silver screens in there. We haven’t run it since then. So now it’s sitting down here in the trailer ready for a place to run,” he said. “The goal for this year is to go 200 miles an hour in under four seconds in the eighth-mile. I used to run 180 miles an hour in less than four seconds in the eighth-mile, but that was back when we were getting a better grade of this peroxide and everything was new and I was young and all that stuff.”
Jack has been as quick as 5.89 in the quarter-mile on his kart at 228 miles per hour, recorded at the famed Beeline Dragway in Arizona back in 1973.
At 91, he still seems young, just wrapping up a trip to Sweden with his Rocket Boys cohorts, who ran their so-called “Arctic Arrow” at Årsunda in pursuit of the rocket-propelled quarter-mile world speed record on ice. They have dubbed McClure “Commander In Chief of the Rocket Boys.”
And if nothing else, that makes him somebody worthy of saluting.