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Twenty years from now, a human pilot may very well be unwanted baggage inside the small, maneuverable fighter aircraft of the future. Unmanned, artificially intelligent and/or remote-controlled drones will likely replace all human pilots once the technologies mature to the point that they are safe and reliable, sparing the lives of pilots from the dangerous wartime skies.

But the men and women who long for the singular thrill of pulling Gs in a compact, high-speed aircraft need not despair… the Rocket Racing League (RRL) is here.

The RRL was founded by two men with some fitting credentials: Granger Whitelaw, the owner of a two-time IndyCar champion team; and Peter Diamandis, who chairs the spaceflight-promoting X-Prize Foundation. Their vision is to host high-speed sky races where pilots navigate a two-mile-wide, 5,000-foot-high racetrack in tiny rocket-powered aircraft.

The first prototype X-Racer was flown last October by three-time astronaut and former Air Force test pilot Rick Searfoss, who described the tiny aircraft’s 1,800 pounds of thrust as “a real kick in the pants.” A single fuel load of the liquid oxygen/kerosene propellant gives four minutes’ worth of burn time, but the craft are designed to thrust in short bursts—vomiting ten-foot columns of flame behind them— while coasting between burns. In order to finish out the 60-90 minute races, the X-Racers will need to make several pit-stop landings to refuel.

Each $1.2 million X-Racer is planned to be built to identical specifications, pitting the pilots’ skill against skill. The League even has its first team— Leading Edge Rocket Racing— which is comprised of two F-16 fighter pilots. A contest is in progress on the RRL homepage to name the first X-Racer, where the winner will enjoy a pass to the first season’s races, a personal tour of the X-Racer, and a Rocket Racing League bomber jacket.

If all goes according to plan, sometime next year the skies above Nevada and New Mexico will be thundering from the noise of X-Racers on virtual racetracks in the sky. The future is coming, and it has rockets.

Further Reading:
Rocket Racing League homepage
Wired article on the RRL
Wikipedia article on the Rocket Racing League
Wikipedia article on the X-Prize

Suggested by Dave Armstrong.