In his quest to become the fastest man on ice, Kurt Anderson naturally wanted to build a drag-racing sled powered by a rocket engine.
He also added a pair of parachutes and an emergency brake called a “pneumatic ice claw.” Because when you’re trying to break the world’s ice speed record, stopping safely is just as important as going fast.
Actually more important.
Yeah, definitely more important.
The divorced dad and business owner from Orono has popped the chutes and dropped the ice claw more than once while shooting across a frozen body of water.
It’s been a long and bumpy mission, taking him from aerospace salvage yards in California to a frozen lake in Sweden. He’s spent tens of thousands of dollars, survived spinouts and crashes and attracted the attention of reality television shows and beauty queens.
“Why not?” Anderson says when he’s asked why he does it. “I set the goal for myself and I want to finish it. I don’t see the risks the way the average person does. I see the challenges.”
The journey started when Anderson, 61, happened to see a vintage, front-engine drag-racing car for sale on eBay in 2007. He’d always been mechanically inclined and he knew his way around cars, but he never did any racing.
“I don’t know if it was impulsive, but I was like, ‘Put a bid on it,’ ” he said.
He got the car even though he had to go to drag-racing school to learn how to drive it. He found that he liked going fast. So he also bought a retired rocket-powered dragster that was about to go into a museum. Then he wondered if he could find and restore an old drag-racing snowmobile.
That led him to the story of “Slam’n” Sammy Miller, a drag racer who put skis on a rocket dragster and set a world ice speed record, going from zero to 247 mph in 1.6 seconds on Lake George in New York.
Miller’s record, set in 1981, still stands today.
“I’m like, ‘You know, I’m gonna build a rocket ice machine and go after this record,’ ” Anderson decided back in 2014.
He recruited the help of Ky “Rocketman” Michaelson, a legendary rocket enthusiast, inventor, former drag racer and stuntman from Bloomington.
Michaelson, 81, the first civilian to launch an unmanned rocket into space, has set dozens of speed records, building rocket-powered cars, boats, snowmobiles, wheelchairs, even roller skates. He helped Anderson build his ice dragster, finding parts for the rocket engine at aerospace salvage yards in California.
Anderson’s initial idea was to make a run at the record on Lake Minnetonka, blasting his rocket sled, dubbed the Arctic Arrow, across the ice between Excelsior and Wayzata. But he balked when he found out how much liability insurance officials said he’d need.
Then he learned of Speed Weekend in Årsunda, Sweden, where speed demons race cars, trucks, motorcycles, air boats, even “pulsejet scooters” on a frozen lake one weekend every winter.
“I contacted the promoter there, and he’s like, ‘Oh, absolutely. You can come to Europe. We would love to have you,’ ” Anderson said. Plus, it was cheaper to ship his 26-foot-long rocket sled to Sweden than to buy the insurance needed for Lake Minnetonka.
In Sweden, he learned that ice can be an unforgiving surface when you’re trying to go fast. His record-breaking attempts in 2017 and 2018 were foiled by rough ice, fuel getting shipped to the wrong place and a broken steering wheel.
“I ended up going sideways through the timing light at 180 miles per hour,” Anderson said of one run.
But Anderson wasn’t giving up. He went back into his shop in Mound and redesigned the sled’s axles and struts. He also found a new venue closer to home.
The Manawa Snodeo is a snowmobile derby and ice racing event where gearheads race everything from motorcycles to riding lawn mowers on Bear Lake, about 35 miles east of Stevens Point, Wis. The town of Manawa (population 1,371) embraced the idea of having a speed record set at the event, inviting Anderson to display the Arctic Arrow at the Manawa fire station and two local high schools.
“It’s going to be a little noisy,” predicted Dave Sarna, Snodeo race director and former mayor of Manawa. “But it’s also going to really put Manawa, Wisconsin, and Waupaca County on the map.”
In February, Anderson shipped the Arctic Arrow to the town. He rented a house and an RV on the lake and set up a heated tent for the sled.
His plan was to break the record on Feb. 16, 39 years and one day after Slam’n Sammy made his run.
Here’s what happened:
8 a.m.: It’s a perfect day to set a record. The sky is clear and blue and the American flag is hanging limp. No problematic crosswinds.
The course — an ice runway about 75 feet wide and a mile long — is plowed, shaved smooth and set a safe distance from the ovals and slalom courses set up for the snowmobile and minibike racers on the other end of the lake.
If history needs to know what Kurt Anderson ate for breakfast on the day he attempted to be the fastest man on ice, it’s peanut butter and a bagel.
That might be about the only detail not captured by a film crew from the Discovery’s Science Channel, which is following Anderson for the reality show “Homemade Astronauts.”
(The Science Channel also was following rocket builder and daredevil “Mad” Mike Hughes. Hughes died in a rocket crash in California on Feb. 22, less than a week after Anderson made his ice run.)
Anderson and Michaelson are filmed as they review videos of a test run and discuss how high to pressurize the rocket fuel system.
“I think the biggest challenge we’ve got today is keeping it straight,” Anderson says.
Michaelson tells Anderson that if it feels like the rear end is swinging out, “You’d better get on that chute right away.”
“I think we’ve got it,” says “Captain” Jack McClure, part of Anderson’s crew of “Rocketboys.” McClure, 94, is famous for racing a rocket-powered go-kart. “Today it’s do or die,” he says.
“I don’t know about that,” Anderson says. “There’s no die. Safety first.”
9:20 a.m.: The heated tent on the edge of the lake is full of people preparing the Arctic Arrow, which is aptly named.
Long, low and narrow, tapering to an arrowhead point, the machine has a chromium-molybdenum alloy steel chassis covered with a hand-formed aluminum body. A tail fin and canard wings help keep the machine on the ground and going straight.
The front has a pair of Yamaha snowmobile ice racing skis. The rear has a pair of skis originally made as landing gear for small airplanes operating on snow runways. It weighs just over 1,500 pounds, including Anderson and 18 gallons of rocket fuel.
The machine’s body is covered with a bright yellow vinyl wrap with a honeycomb pattern in reference to Anderson’s company, Honeycomb internet Services. There’s also decals of sponsors, mainly local businesses like the Dinky Diner of Eagle River, Wis., “Where World Champs Eat.”
But Anderson says he and his company paid for most of the machine. “I would say that I have more than $100,000 into it.”
9:45 a.m.: Crew members pack one of the parachutes attached to the rear of the Arctic Arrow, closing the parachute bag with a metal pin attached to a long, red streamer labeled “REMOVE BEFORE FLIGHT.”
The engine works better if it’s warm, so hoses blow warm air into the fuselage, which is covered with a quilted blanket, looking a bit like a thoroughbred racehorse before a competition.
Members of the Manawa Fire Department arrive in a utility vehicle.
“We’re going to have the jaws and cutters here just in case he crashes,” says firefighter Kayla Higgins.
10:15 a.m.: The flaps keeping the cold air out of the tent are opened as two big yellow drums labeled “HANDLE WITH CARE” are rolled in. They’re filled with the rocket fuel: high-test hydrogen peroxide. Crew members don rubber aprons, gloves and face shields to fuel the sled.
A hydrogen peroxide rocket is sometimes described as a “cool rocket” because it doesn’t involve combustion. It uses the rapid decomposition of the hydrogen peroxide reacting with a catalyst to produce water and heat, creating a jet of steam that produces thrust.
Anderson will shoot the hydrogen peroxide (concentrated at 90% and costing $150 per gallon) through a catalyst at high pressure. The end result should be 5,000 pounds of thrust and “no carbon footprint,” says Anderson.
11:20 a.m.: Miss Wisconsin arrives driving a snowmobile, wearing her tiara over her earmuffs and a sash over her parka.
“This event is so big,” Alyssa Bohm says after posing for pictures with Anderson and the Arctic Arrow. “It’s almost surreal to think this man is creating history.”
David Erickson, a photographer with the Wisconsin Historical Society, will launch a drone to record the event for posterity. “It’s probably more important than the guy who ate his 30,000th Big Mac,” he says, referring to another only-in-Wisconsin event he’s photographed.
A reporter from a television station in Green Bay is invited to sit in the Arctic Arrow while Anderson explains to her how the controls work.
Photographer Phil Evans came from Great Britain to document the run. He takes pictures of speed record attempts around the world for a magazine called Fast FACTS.
“This is so far removed from everyday life,” he says.
Noon: Anderson, now dressed in a bright yellow race suit and helmet, squeezes into the tight cockpit of the Arctic Arrow, which is designed to meet drag racing safety specifications. He’s strapped into a seat custom made for his 6-foot frame.
He grips the small drag racing steering wheel and looks at a dashboard of pressure gauges. He’ll press a pedal with his right foot to shoot fuel into the engine. There’s a lever to deploy the ice claw — a pair of air-driven, serrated blades powerful enough to lift the back end of the sled off the ground.
12:18 p.m.: A utility vehicle tows the sled to the ice track for a test run at a lower tank pressure.
Photographers gather in small clumps set back from the track. Michaelson stands by with a checklist in hand.
There’s a loud belch of steam as Anderson squirts some fuel into the engine to warm it up.
“OK, the track is all clear,” Michaelson says. “Give me a chance to get out of the way.”
Suddenly, there’s a chest-thumping roar, a huge plume of steam and the sled shoots down the track.
Ten minutes later, the sled is being towed back into the tent.
It handled well, but Anderson ran out of fuel too soon.
One of the timers reports he hit 134.9 mph.
2:18 p.m.: The Arctic Arrow emerges from the tent again, ready to set a record.
Anderson has taken training designed for fighter pilots to handle the G-forces of the next few seconds.
This time, the roar at takeoff is even louder as the sled flies down the track.
But then Arctic Arrow starts to fishtail. It goes into a spin.
Anderson has just enough time to think: “OK, brace yourself,” as the machine, now sliding backward, slams into the snowbank on the side of the track and launches into the air, rolling upside down in midflight.
It slams into the ground, bounces and slides to a stop on its side, strewing broken parts and a plume of snow in its wake.
Spectators gasp as a handful of ATVs and UTVs carrying firefighters, race officials and crew members speed toward the sled.
The rescuers roll the machine upright. Minutes go by. There’s no sign of Anderson.
Finally, he climbs out and raises his arms above his head as spectators and rescuers applaud.
The protective features he built into the vehicle worked. He escaped with only a sore shoulder and aching ribs.
He made it to 241 mph when he crashed, just shy of the record.
“I was deep into it,” he says later to reporters, but then, “it just started getting squirrelly on me.”
He supervises the wreckage being towed off the track. “We’re done for this Snodeo,” he declares.
But the quest isn’t over.
“No way,” he says. “The next generation of the Arctic Arrow is not going to look anything like this.”