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Smoke-n-Thunder: Pilot from Silver Lake takes jet car to 400 mph

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Smoke-n-Thunder Jet Car
At a recent air show in Riverside, Calif., Bill Braack of Silver Lake lights off a wall of smoke and flame behind his jet car.

Bill Braack's car goes from zero to 400 mph in nine seconds, leaves a 20 foot-long wall of flame in its wake and emits mini sonic booms with enough oomph to shake loose a kidney stone.

No other vehicle can muster the brawn to make these claims, Braack said. Then again, other cars aren't powered by an engine formerly used in a North American T-2 Buckeye military aircraft.

Braack's 26-foot-long vehicle looks like a drag racer and is equipped much the same. Two parachutes help stop the vehicle and the cockpit is custom-built to fit him. The car sports an aluminum and magnesium body and a "chrome-moly" (chromium and molybdenum steel) chassis.

That's where the likeness ends.

He and the jet car perform at air shows across the country, working under the name Smoke-n-Thunder. As part of his act, Braack shows off the car's muscle, laying out a field of flames and smoke behind him as the jet engine gobbles up 40 gallons of diesel fuel each performance.

The car can run either on jet fuel or diesel. The only difference between the two, Braack explained, is an additive in jet fuel that keeps it from gelling when high altitude and colder temperatures are reached.

The Jet Car, he said, is even "green."

"We run on regular diesel or B20 biodiesel," he said.

He also races airplanes down the runway, pulling G forces strong enough to cause neck pain for days after each event.

Braack, who lives in Silver Lake with his wife, Charlene, and their four children, bought the jet car in 2005. A retired Air Force and Reserves flight engineer, Braack spent seven years on active duty and 13 in the reserves. During that time, he flew a C-141B and a C-130 aircraft.

He first saw Smoke-n-Thunder while helping organize the Kelso Air Show, where its previous owners, Scott and Linda Hammack, performed with the jet car. Show organizers hired the act in 1994 and brought it back for several shows.

One year, Braack noticed that Linda wasn't with the crew. When he found out she was undergoing cancer treatment, he approached Scott to offer support.

"I told him that I was a pilot, a military flight engineer and a former maintenance guy and military crew chief," he said. "If he ever needed help, I have some good background in this."

Into the driver's seat

A few years later, Linda developed liver cancer, and the Hammacks were unable to go to the air show convention in Las Vegas where performers are hired for events.

"Scott said, ‘We need your help,' so I went and handled the convention for them," said Braack, who was working in the marketing department at PeaceHealth at the time.

He spent the next few years researching ways to promote the jet car and seeking sponsors for the act.

He also took turns in the driver's seat.

It's an experience like no other, he said.

The car accelerates at 4 1/2 g (gravitational force) and decelerates at 11 and 12 g when the chute opens. In other words, the pressure on Braack's body at the start is less than that of the force exerted on the Apollo 16 re-entry astronauts in 1972, but at the end exceeds the maximum turn-in force on a fighter jet pilot.

"There is no aircraft in the world that accelerates the way this car does," Braack said. "I have better thrust-to-weight than the Space Shuttle does, for example."

The shuttle has more power, though.

"If we put this car on a launch pad ... I could accelerate going straight up, but I couldn't control it," he said.

Despite the pressure on Braack's body, he said there have been no ill effects except for the occasional sore neck.

"That's the only part that's not restrained," he said.

He advises people who suffer from kidney stones to stand clear, though.

The sonic waves when the car passes them "will shake the stones loose," he said. "Over the history of the car, twice, people have ended up in the hospital passing stones because of the incredible sound waves that come off the car."

He said no one has complained of other physical effects caused by the car's sonic force.

As the spear-pointed jet car barrels down the airstrip, Braack's hands control every second of the ride.

With its aerodynamic design, the car weighs in at 2,200 pounds with Braack at the helm. It is light enough for one person to push it on a level surface, but all its jet power makes it go fast.

Braack's Air Force background helps behind the wheel and brought in a sponsorship contract with the Air Force that lasted seven years. The idea flew into his head while he was at McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma and saw a copy of the Air Force magazine.

"On the back was a rally car that had Air Force Reserve on it," he said.

After he offered military officials a proposal, the reserve signed on as the primary sponsor for the jet car, but military budget cuts forced the agency to drop out of its role, Braack said.

"All of the military recruiting budgets were slashed," he said. "But we were very proud to have represented them for seven years."

Old friends, new adventure

At the time that Braack met the Hammacks, the couple were in their mid-60s. Linda's daughter had no interest in the car, and Scott didn't have any children, Braack said. "So I started talking to Scott about what they would like to do with the car."

In 2005, Braack retired from the Air Force Reserve. He and Charlene crunched the numbers and decided to buy the jet car and all of its accoutrements.

"It was a lot of money, but it worked out very well, and I got lucky," he said, adding that a financial windfall in the form of prepayment by the Air Force Reserve helped them to finance the hundreds of thousands of dollars for the business, the car, two tractor-trailers and additional parts.

Although financially separated from the business, Scott continues to serve on the crew for the jet car. (Sadly, Linda Hammack died recently from cancer.)

Friends John Cowman of Atlanta and his family pitch in. Charlene Braack is on the team, and the Braacks' oldest son, Jeffrey, had his inaugural run on the crew during an air show at McChord Air Force Base in July.

"He was very nervous but did a great job," his dad said. "It's nice to have family just jump in there."

Without others cueing him, Braack's timing has the potential to go dramatically off as he races the airplane that flies overhead and challenges him to a duel at each show.

"There's an object that is going 200 miles per hour, and I am sitting static," he said. "A half-second late, and I may not catch the plane in time. A half-second early, and I'll walk away and the airplane will never even get in front of me, which looks bad for the audience."

One of the best parts of his job, Braack said, is being able to spend time with his family while on the road from March to November, including daughters Erica and Karlene and son William.

"The tractor is a normal Kenworth unit where it has a bunk," he said. "I have extra seats in it, four nice air-ride seats. The kids can be back there doing the iPod and the movies."

Museums eye the car

Despite the loss of the Air Force Reserve contract, Braack said the project has picked up two sponsors — a national vending company, and CoinForce, which creates military "challenge" coins and other promotional tokens.

Smoke-n-Thunder has also taken on the USO as a project, giving the group free advertising.

"The majority of our team is retired military," Braack said. "So we decided to do something fun with the USO. I really want to make it something cool for the men and women in uniform."

He's working on corporate sponsorship to fund a chalet on the jet car trailer where free breakfast or lunch could be served to military personnel.

"We're doing it a little bit at a time. I can't afford to do it all at once."

At some point, he'd like to cut down the pace the car has set for him. "I'd like to turn over the reins of driving the trailer to someone else," Braack said.

So far, two museums have requested the jet car if it's ever retired. One is the National Air Force Museum in Ohio, and the other is the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) museum in Pomona, Calif.

Given his and Scott's ties, Braack said he's pulled to both, but his ultimate fantasy would be to see an NHRA museum in Chehalis. "I wouldn't have to travel far to see the car."

For now, the Braacks are having too much fun. "We get to meet tons of people and do a lot of neat things. It's very surreal."

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Smoke-n-Thunder will perform at the Oregon International Air Show on Aug. 20 at the Hillsboro airport.

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