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Monday, April 14, 2008

Look! In the Sky. It’s a Rocket Racer.

The planes the league will use are based on a small jet sold by Velocity Aircraft, a league-owned company in Florida.

The racers may finally be reaching the starting line.

The Rocket Racing League, a long-promised attempt to create a kind of Nascar of the skies, will hold its first exhibition races this year, its founders said.

The races are promised as a kind of living video game — but louder — with a virtual raceway laid out in the sky that will be visible on projection screens at the site of each event.

Racers in rocket-powered aircraft will fly four laps around a five-mile “track” at anywhere from 150 feet to 1,500 feet above the ground. The planes, designed to fly at 340 miles an hour, will start side by side, two at a time. The pilots include professional test pilots who received their training in the military and a former astronaut.

As pilots follow the course, spectators will be able to see alternate views from remote cameras and the cockpits. The league has signed up six teams so far.

“We’re taking the business of auto racing and the business of air shows and we’re combining them,” said Granger Whitelaw, the league’s chief executive and a partner in professional auto racing teams. The races will consist of four heats, each of which will take about 15 minutes, he said.

The announcements are to be made at a news conference planned for Monday at the Yale Club in Midtown Manhattan.

The planes the league will use are based on a small jet sold by Velocity Aircraft, a league-owned company in Florida. The planes will be modified to handle a rocket engine that burns liquid oxygen and kerosene.

The engines should be loud enough to satisfy the decibel-hungry fans of racing and air shows, Whitelaw said, and produce a bright 10-to-15-foot flame.

The engines will come from two companies, Whitelaw said: Xcor Aerospace of Mojave, Calif., and Armadillo Aerospace of Mesquite, Tex. Armadillo was founded by John Carmack, a high-tech businessman who created successful video games, including Doom and Quake.

The first public taste of rocket racing will take place Aug. 1 and Aug. 2 in Oshkosh, Wis., Whitelaw said, at the annual Experimental Aircraft Association air show. It will involve two of the sleek aircraft developed for the league. The racers will also perform at air shows in Nevada and New Mexico. (More information is available at rocketracingleague.com.)

Competition should begin in 2009, the founders said.

That is quite a bit later than the league planned. Rocket Racing was announced in 2005, and the company released animations showing what a race might look like, with plenty of swooping and blazing rockets. The founders said then that the first races would be held in 2006.

The league’s plans have faltered in the interim. A video game based on the races that the founders said would be produced has not emerged, and one of its original teams, Leading Edge Rocket Racing, dropped out last year, issuing a statement that suggested the league was in disarray.

“Some of the things took longer than we had anticipated,” Whitelaw said. He added, “We’re 15 months behind where I thought we would be, which is not too shabby.”

The league’s co-founder, Peter Diamandis, served as chairman of the X Prize Foundation, which awarded the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004 for the first privately financed human flight to space. Diamandis said in an e-mail interview that “most pioneers who enter this business are, typically, optimists, and tend to believe things can be accomplished faster than it really takes.”

The league, he said, fits into a broader goal of “making space a firsthand experience” for people, and driving down the cost of getting to space through commercial ventures.

Whitelaw stressed that the league was a business. It will patent technological innovations on its racers, like safety features, in hopes of making money off them should they make their way into general aviation, and it will try to build profits out of television and merchandising rights. The company will also sell conventional jet-engine versions of the Velocity racer, he said.

Diamandis said, “If we do our job right, many of these new technologies will end up in both space-related hardware and general aviation — just like technologies pioneered in Formula and Indy Racing end up in the cars we drive.”

He acknowledged that flying rockets involved the risk of accidents and death, an issue that has raised questions about the viability of space tourism. Racing, however, is a different arena, with a higher level of accepted risk, he said.

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