It's show time at Larsen Motorsports. Call the police. Check. Call the fire department. Check.
The racing crew has rolled the Florida Tech branded jet dragster into the parking lot in front of their building in Palm Bay. Under a perfect blue sky, a helmeted and fire-suited Elaine Larsen climbs into the 1,145 pound vehicle that travels upwards of 300 mph over a quarter mile in 5.5 seconds.
Larsen is test-firing the 5,000 horsepower engine. Within seconds the ground is shaking, the sound ear-splitting as a huge plume of white smoke surges out the tail pipe. Then Larsen hits the afterburner button serving up a series of "fireballs," orange-red blasts of flame 30 feet long. The concussion of air physically staggers our small group watching, a cacophony of noise and flame.
Elaine and husband Chris are co-owners of Larsen Motorsports, a multi-team, national racing organization that has partnered with Florida Tech to design and build jet dragsters. Elaine grew up far from America's speedways on the family farm in Middleton, Michigan.
"I was just a little Mennonite girl minding her manners, wearing pigtails and bonnets," Larsen said with a chuckle. "We didn't believe in going fast. We believed in taking our tractor and going real slow. I think I got that out of my system."
The Larsen Motorsports at Florida Institute of Technology's Research and Development Center houses a workshop and design center in a roughly 30,000 square foot space. A powerful pairing, students gain hands-on experience in full concept design, engineering, training, and fabrication capabilities as well as a in marketing and communications. It also highlights the university's innovative commitment to the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) outreach program at a dozen jet dragster races across the country.
“The program allows us both to collaborate in areas of research and education in ways unique to colleges and the motorsports industry," said Elaine, who won International Hot Rod Association jet dragster world championship titles in 2014 and 2015.
"Beyond the racing my greatest pleasure is being a STEM ambassador, inspiring the next generation."
Elaine first spied Chris in high school driving a little Ford '32 Deuce Coupe. After the couple moved to Florida he entered the drag racing world after converting a 1975 Chevy Vega.
"I thought I was going to be the driver, Elaine wasn't supposed to be any good at it," says Chris, a Cessna jet aircraft mechanic for 17 years. "She started racing down drag strips hitting close to 200 mph. She loved the feeling of power."
Chris started searching for a jet engine to rig to a drag car so she could go jet racing.
"I saw a newspaper ad for a jet engine, so we headed to Alabama with $10,000 in cash," said Chris. "We trailered it back to a two-car garage at our Orlando home. We were in business."
For the past 13 years, secondhand jet engines have been powering the Larsens' dragsters to victories. The Florida Tech jet car is powered by a General Electric J-85, the same engine used in the F-5 Tiger II fighter. In a male dominated sport, Elaine doesn't give much ground.
"Drag racing is my equalizer, on any given day, when I get buckled into that race car, I have the same chance as anyone to win," Elaine contended. "It just has to be my day."
At a speedway peril is never far away. In Ohio in 2011 a gust of wind picked up the front of her dragster and sailed it into the wall going 280 mph. Taken to a nearby hospital, blood had to drained from Elaine's brain from the impact. She still has two titanium plates and 15 screws in her head. At 49, she's not yet ready to walk away.
"You're dealing with bumps on the track, crosswinds, but I'm totally focused on straight ahead," Elaine said. "Accelerating my body is slammed back into the seat with a force about 3 times the force of gravity. Blood is rushing to my head. It's approaching 5 Gs when the parachute deploys to stop. It's a blast."
The level of attention it has brought to Florida Tech is beyond their expectations.
"It's not just a sticker on race car, it's a full, complete package promoting STEM opportunities and our educational experience," said Wes Sumner, V. P. of Marketing. "New opportunities keep coming to them."
Jay Leno turned up for a CNBC segment on "Jay Leno's Garage" that aired in July. He spent two days with the couple and filmed several FIT interns at work.
"It was such an honor to be on Jay's show," Chris said. "It was really rewarding to show him the shop and introduce him to the students who were doing their jobs of welding and composite shaping. An amazing opportunity."
Standing adjacent to shelves that store a couple dozen jet engines, he talks about how Florida Tech students fabricate racing engines.
"You start pulling items off a shelf at one end and by the time you reach the other end, you have an assembled engine," Chris explained. "A big part of our mission is to fill the gap between engineers and technicians so they learn to speak the same language. We're trying to solve that connection one student at a time."
Elaine leads a team of four LMS all-female racers that includes Kat Moller, Allison West and Sebastian's Kat Redner who first piloted the team's jet car on Nov. 25. Elaine's crew chief is Paige. Studying for a masters degree in mechanical engineering, Sanchez is analyzing a new fire retardant and energy absorbing foam in the car's driver's compartment to improve driver safety.
"The Larsens gave me a chance when I had no experience, " Sanchez, 23, related. "I'm living my dream at such a young age, something I never expected. Setting up this program, Florida Tech totally gets it. Real world experience where the students are the stars."