Holy crap, it’s The Autopian’s second Juneteeth! As before, we’re taking the day off, because any holiday commemorating the Emancipation is okay in our book. We’ll have a few posts go up today, but our staff has the day off, so, you know, adjust those expectations accordingly, please. And, while we’re at it, why not take a moment this morning to think about Roy “Mr. Pitiful” Drew, an incredible drag racer who was one of the very few to attempt to tame the absolutely clinically bonkers Turbonique rocket-turbine-powered 1955 Volkswagen Beetle known as the Black Widow. I wrote about Drew over a decade ago for The Other Site, but it seems like it’s a good time to revisit this absolute legend.
Because you’re probably wondering, Drew got his Mr.Pitiful nickname from this Otis Redding song:
…and not because Roy Drew was pitiful, because he very much was not. Drew was from Kansas City, and was drawn to the more unusual sort of drag racing challenges, which is why he ended up in the seat of a formerly 36 horsepower Beetle that, thanks to the rocket-powered Turbonique, made well over 750 hp.
It’s not a conventional rocket motor in there, in the sense of an action-reaction thrust type of motor; the rear axles are powered here, but powered via a jet of rocket thrust, said to be as hot as an oxy-acetylene cutting torch, pushing against a turbine, and the whole thing designed to bolt right into an otherwise pretty stock VW Beetle.
That means the car that Mr.Pitiful was known for driving weighed about 1500 pounds at the most and made over 750 hp. At 0.5 hp per pound, that’s a better power-to-weight ratio than a Saleen S7 Le Mans.
I heard about the exhaust heat from Jim Graham, noted VW Class 11 Baja racer, who spoke with Captain Jack McClure, who worked with Turbonique back in the day:
Jack never met Drew but was aware of the program and the car. He said the VW only ran a couple of times. Once on a drag strip and once on an airfield runway. The turbo shaft was connected directly to the VW’s axle – there was no clutch or disengagement mechanism. When the VWs rear wheels rolled, the turbo’s gears were turning.
I think Jack said the turbo was powered by propyl nitrate (I was typing very quickly as he relayed this to me) and the flame was the equivalent of a cutting torch coming out the back of the turbo.
To say that the Black Widow was hairy to drive is like saying a pinching your genitals in a pair of vice grips is “uncomfortable.” It’s a colossal understatement. This is a car that took Tommy Ivo’s drag car, Showboat, which featured four V8 engines, and paddled its parachute-crammed behind, soundly:
In that run, the Black Widow ran an elapsed time of 9.36 seconds at 168 mph, incredibly impressive numbers. I’m not certain Roy Drew ran that particular race, but he did others, including the one in October 1966 that definitively proved at what speed a stock VW body becomes a wing and lifts off into the aether: 183 mph, meaning VW seems to have factored in a 110 mph or so margin of safety for that era’s Beetle, a very prudent move.
The launching of the Black Widow while Drew was driving was commemorated in this well-known ad:
Drew was, incredibly, unharmed in the wreck, saying “That was the greatest ride I ever had. Felt like I had all the power in the world.” And, really, he did, or at least enough power to make a VW airborne, which is close enough.
Roy Drew must have had a constitution made of tempered steel that had been injected with steroids, and probably a few splinters of the True Cross and some cheetah’s blood. I doubt there have been many people then or since capable of handling such a terrifying machine like that, but Drew was one of them, and if you need an image to call up into your mind’s microfiche reader during moments when you require inspiration for bravery and madness, I think Mr.Pitiful launching his mad Beetle skyward should do nicely.
Have a great Juneteenth, everybody.