Road Kill Joys

July 7, 1999

Baltimore City Paper

I've been watching a little NASCAR lately, and one thing that caught my eye is a commercial that Kmart has been showing. While hawking the store's jeans or something, the commercial recounts the rocket car urban legend: Man finds rocket, bolts it to his car, lights it and takes off skyward.

What this has to do with jeans, I'm not sure, but every time I see this spot, I have to laugh. They didn't get the rocket car legend quite right. At least not according to my friend Dave. Dave's a freelance journalist, and he actually put some research into the matter. He was going to write about it for the online magazine Salon. And he got the scoop. Or so he thought.

Every gearhead must know the tale by now. It's been around for ages. The Urban Legends Web site tells it like this: The Arizona Highway Patrol found the remains of Chevy Impala embedded to the side of a cliff. Evidently, some fellow bolted onto his ride a JATO (jet-assisted take off) unit - a small, solid fuel rocket that helps heavy transport planes take off from short airfields. Then he took a test run. Once he hit about 300 mph, the speed demon found he could neither brake nor steer his rocket propelled auto. So into the side of a mountain he slammed.

As the Urban Legends site points out, a call to the Arizona State Highway Patrol confirms the rocket-car tale isn't true; the Arizona Department of Public Safety even issued a public statement to that effect.

Case closed right?

Well, Dave found a Web page that tells a different version - one not yet dispelled (Origin of the Rocket-Car-in-the-Cliff Legend). It's written by a high-school biology teacher, Johnny Pelligrino. Pelligrino doesn't say he's the rocket car man, but, on this page, he does lay claim to "a much smaller event that gradually evolved into the final legend."

"I'm 99 percent sure that I started the whole thing in the spring of 1978," Pelligrino wrote.

See, Pelligrino's father ran a scrap yard and frequently purchased Army surplus items from a nearby base. When the then 22-year-old son found four JATO rockets mixed in with pop's latest purchases, it got him thinking. They should have been returned, but it was the era of Evel Knievel's daredevil stunts and Craig Breedlove pushing the land-speed envelope out on the Bonneville Salt Flats. So Pelligrino stashed the JATOs and gathered his three pals to build a rocket car.

From the start, they knew a car with just a rocket attached couldn't be controlled. They weren't that dumb. So they welded some railroad wheels to a junk 1959 Chevy Impala and found a long stretch of abandoned railroad track. And, fortunately, they didn't do a manned flight. They just put their JATO-car on the track, lit their homemade fuse and watched what happened.

"You know what it looks like when you shoot a paper clip with a rubber band? One second the clip is between your fingers, and the next it's just...gone," Pelligrino writes. "Think of the same thing happening with a 1,500-pound car."

The car barreled down the track and smashed into the entrance of a mine at the end of the line, causing an avalanche of rocks to come down, crushing it mid-flight. The four astonished guys hauled tail, leaving the butt end of an Impala sticking out the side of a mountain.

It's a riveting read, and makes perfect sense - maybe too perfect. It explains most of the details in the original legend - the asphalt skidmarks, the car-in-the-side-of-the-cliff image, even why the Arizona Highway Patrol doesn't know about it. Pelligrino figures it was the county sheriff's department, not the state boys, who found the remains. They must have called in the Army, which obviously didn't want the world to know about a misplaced JATO. The car was extracted. No bodies were found. Problem solved. And no doubt whoever winched the car from the mine (and Pelligrino notes it was gone shortly thereafter) had a great story to tell at the bar that night. Birth of a legend.

Is it true? That's the mystery. Dave really tried to verify it. It would have made a great story. But Pelligrino was reticent, noting he deliberately left out the specific location of where all this occurred. "I'm still a bit nervous about the idea of my involvement becoming common knowledge," he wrote Dave. He hemmed that his students would call him Mr. Rocket Car. He hawed that one of his co-conspirators, now a bigwig at a major U.S. corporation, didn't want his youthful misadventures haunting him.

"I wrote the story for my own amusement, and put it on the Web because I thought people might get a kick out of it," Pelligrino E-mailed. "So I really have no stake in situation. If someone wants to say I'm fulla shit, dandy."

Undaunted, Dave tried to verify the facts independently. He figured the Army base was Fort Huachuca, which is by the U.S. border and had a tourist silver mine nearby, both mentioned in the story. In chance the tale-teller was using his real name, Dave even called nearby high schools to ask if they ever knew such a student. (One school librarian responded, "I just have to ask you: Are you for real?")

But in the end, speculation wasn't enough, and Salon never did run the piece. "It hurt my pride to admit it, but I simply had to give up," Dave said. "Maybe it was better that way. It's not a news story - it's a legend."

-Joab Jackson

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