This legend was again convincingly debunked in 2003 on the pilot episode of the Discovery Channel show MythBusters, titled "Jet Assisted Chevy, Pop Rocks and Soda". They replicated the scene and the thrust of the JATO with several commercially-available amateur rocket motors. The car did go very fast, but nowhere near the 300 mph (500 km/h) reported in the original story, and failed to become airborne.
You all know about the Darwin Awards - it's the annual honor given to the person who did the gene pool the biggest service by killing themselves in the most extraordinarily stupid way. Last year's winner was the fellow who was killed by a Coke machine which toppled over on top of him as he was attempting to tip a free soda out of it.
And this year's nominee is:
The Arizona Highway Patrol came upon a pile of smoldering metal embedded into the side of a cliff rising above the road at the apex of a curve. the wreckage resembled the site of an airplane crash, but it was a car. The type of car was unidentifiable at the scene. The lab finally figured out what it was and what had happened.
It seems that a guy had somehow gotten hold of a JATO unit (Jet Assisted Take Off - actually a solid fuel rocket) that is used to give heavy military transport planes an extra 'push' for taking off from short airfields. He had driven his Chevy Impala out into the desert and found a long, straight stretch of road. Then he attached the JATO unit to his car, jumped in, got up some speed and fired off the JATO!
The facts, as best could be determined, are that the operator of the 1967 Impala hit JATO ignition at a distance of approximately 3.0 miles from the crash site. This was established by the prominent scorched and melted asphalt at that location. The JATO, if operating properly, would have reached maximum thrust within five seconds, causing the Chevy to reach speeds well in excess of 350 MPH, continuing at full power for an additional 20-25 seconds. The driver, soon to be pilot, most likely would have experienced G-forces usually reserved for dog-fighting F-14 jocks under full afterburners, basically causing him to become insignificant for the remainder of the event. However, the automobile remained on the straight highway for about 2.5 miles (15-20 seconds) before the driver applied and completely melted the brakes, blowing the tires and leaving thick rubber marks on the road surface, then becoming airborne for an additional 1.4 miles and impacting the cliff face at a height of 125 feet, leaving a blackened crater 3 feet deep in the rock.
Most of the driver's remains were not recoverable; however, small fragments of bone, teeth and hair were extracted from the crater, and fingernail and bone shards were removed from a piece of debris believed to be a portion of the steering wheel.
Incredibly, an intact bumper sticker was recovered as well. The text on the sticker was; "How do you like my driving? Dial 1-800-EAT-SHIT.
The original Darwin Awards were fictitious. Both were contained in a 1990-12-07 Version posted to rec.motorcycles of the JATO Rocket Car urban legend. When this urban legend was debunked, it was specifically pointed out that the mentioned Darwin Awards were fictitious. It contained a reference to the 1985 mention of a Vending Machine Tipover Darwin Award. It was Paul Vixie who wrote this introduction to the JATO urban legend that first included the term "Darwin Award". Vixie credits Charles Haynes with making the (informal) Darwin Award Nomination, but it was Vixie's specific wording, with the first sentence crediting Haynes stripped off, that was actually circulated and actually referred to the Darwin Awards as if they actually existed and were common knowledge, though the message wasn't widely circulated until it was reformatted.
It remained fairly dormant until 1995, when the message surfaced again in rec.pyrotechnics with the email header stripped off the introduction, though the main story is still indented. Three days later the introduction is fully integrated into the story and it appeared on rec.humor in a form that made it a truly infectious meme. Shortly after it was reposted in 1995 it quickly began to spread, being posted on Usenet 24 times within the next month. In 1996 the legend was further embellished with references to the year of manufacture of the car and G-Forces and to the form which was widely circulated via email (55% of all postings on usenet which included "JATO Rocket Darwin Award impala" also included "g-forces"). Though this urban legend had apparently been around long before 1990, it appears to have been the addition of the Vixie Darwin Award introduction and the subsequent two edits to integrate that introduction and then posting on rec.humor that may have boosted its meme status and the 1996 embellishments almost doubled its popularity. Popularity peaked around the end of 1996.
In 1996 after numerous inquires, the Arizona Department of Public Safety issued a news release posted on their website concerning the story. It termed the story "an Arizona myth."
Forward to October 4, 2006: Paul Harvey's Morning Radio Show comments repeat the above story in a more encapsulated fashion.
Cult of the Dead Cow, a high-profile hacker group and ezine, published an extensive elaboration in 1998 that in a detailed and plausible manner attempts to explain the most common details of the Rocket Car legend. Four adult males under 25 engaged in assorted illegal activity, welding, drinking, Rube Goldberg engineering, and scouting to build the rocket rail car when they happen upon JATOs in a junk pile. After a lengthy and well-written history of the car's planning, group dynamics, secrecy and construction, "CarInTheCliff" describes the car's only test in such a manner as to account for all the elements of the circulating legend plus the elements he has added while discouraging repeats by example.
The Darwin Awards meme was also spread by Wendy Northcutt, who collected the Darwin Awards on a public website in 1993, and circulated new stories in a regular newsletter.