A Friendship That Is Out Of This World
Most race car drivers have fast friends. NHRA Full Throttle Funny Car driver Bob Tasca has one out of this world.
Tasca, the driver of the Quick Lane/Motorcraft Ford Mustang Funny Car, had the honor recently of attending the Cape Canaveral launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour’s final flight at Kennedy Space Center this past Monday morning. Tasca’s good friend, Commander Mark Kelly, was at the helm of NASA Mission STS-134. Tasca was a guest of the astronaut and was astounded by what he saw.
“It was absolutely incredible,” said Tasca of his initial reaction of the Space Shuttle launch. “I’ve told people it’s only one word that can describe it – amazing.
“To see that Shuttle sitting out there weighing in excess of four million pounds, how can you describe that? From the time they hit the throttle, eight minutes and 11 seconds later, the engines are shut off and they are in outer space.
“Watching one of these fuel cars run is pretty extraordinary, but seeing that Space Shuttle, what it did on Monday, I think that is the definition of extraordinary.”
The primary segment of the mission of STS-134 is erecting the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-2, which will categorize and measure cosmic particles from its perch on the International Space Station’s backbone. The STS-134 mission will deliver the most recent in a series of experiments that look at how different materials are affected by some of those cosmic particles, along with the other harsh effects of the space environment.
The friendship began when Tasca was racing at the Royal Purple Raceway in nearby Houston and the NHRA brought some drivers to tour the Johnson Space Center. After years of attending, he established some solid friendships.
“In our sport, you get to meet so many wonderful people across the country racing,” said a smiling Tasca. “In Houston, a few years back I became very friendly with a bunch of people at NASA, who introduced me to Mark Kelly.
“I’ve also met his brother, Scott, which also has been a commander of a shuttle and the commander of the space station for a period. Just a wonderful guy and he came up last summer with his daughters and spent a little time with our family in Newport, R.I.
“We had him and his brother as grand marshals at the race in Houston and took them out to the starting line. Mark told me, ‘Bob, when I get to drive my hot rod, I’m going to have you out and invite you to see the launch.’
“It’s very fortunate the timing worked out. As drag racers schedules go, as luck would have it, this time, it fit perfectly into my schedule. It was just special to be there with the family of all the astronauts and to have a front row seat to watch one of the wonders of the world.”
Tasca saw the launch from the family section at the Saturn 5 Building about two and half-miles away. It’s the closest anyone can be to a Shuttle launch.
“It was interesting because you initially didn’t hear the noise and then once it got through the clouds, I put the camcorder down and figured it was over and I thought it wasn’t so that loud,” Tasca said. “Then you heard the rumble. I describe it as the grand finale of a fireworks show to the tenth degree.
“It was banging and popping and if there hadn’t been another astronaut there talking us through what was going on, you almost get a little worried that something was going wrong.
“Well, with the crackle, the huge bangs, that’s just normal, it’s just the engines firing. It was unbelievable. Someone asked me what was louder, the fuel car or the shuttle? The Fuel car is louder because you’re standing right next to it. When you’re at two and half-miles away and it started to really make some noise, the Shuttle was actually 80 to 90 miles away, it puts it into perspective just how loud it is.”
Tasca’s life in the fast lane has always taken precedence and growing up, his love for racing was apparent. Did he ever have any inspiration to be an astronaut one day?
“No, never,” said Tasca. “I joke with Mark all the time and have gotten pretty good in that simulator of landing the Shuttle a few times at NASA. I’ve gotten better each time, but I said to Mark, I’m going to leave you with the steering wheel of that thing and I’m going to stick with the steering wheel of my car.
“I’m not a claustrophobic person, but when you are in the shuttle, you don’t realize how small it is. As far as driving a Funny Car, people ask, it doesn’t get any smaller than that, does it? Yeah, but it’s one big difference.
“I can get out anytime I want, other than those four seconds. They can’t get out for two weeks. I’m going to stay in the Funny Car and the leave the Space Shuttle missions to the real heroes out there, our astronauts.”
As Tasca’s friendship grew with Kelly, they often compared notes of whose craft was faster and quicker.
“Mark and I talk about that all the time,” laughed Tasca. “We joked with each other that from zero to 60 mph, I’ve got him covered. Zero to 100, I’ve got him covered and at 1,000 feet, I’ve got him big-time covered, but after that, it’s the Space Shuttle all the way. It’s just so different.
“Mark has been up to the starting line and was impressed by the energy that comes off those cars at the instant hit of the throttle. Clearly, the Space Shuttle at 7.4-million pounds of thrust, there’s no comparison. Ultimately, between the two, once that Shuttle gets rolling, it’s going, but from a pure acceleration standpoint in what makes our sport so cool and amazing, it’s the acceleration rate. People who come out for the first time are never bored.”
Speaking of the relevance of speed, Tasca recently had a great conversation with one of the fastest men on this planet, NASCAR great, Bill Elliott
“I was with Bill Elliott in Atlanta and we were talking about speed,” noted Tasca. “He’s been over 225 miles-per-hour. He said he didn’t notice a big difference between that and 180 mph.
“I told him to a certain extent, he was right. At 300 mph, when I look out my window and there’s another driver next to me, it’s no different than looking out your window at 60 mph. It’s relative. When the person next to you is going 300 mph, it ain’t that fast.
“Our sport is so unique with the acceleration rate, even more so than the speed. It’s going 300 plus miles-per-hour and I think that puts in perspective in what we do and obviously separates our sport from any other motorsports in the world.”
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