— The Rocket Racing League debuted its premier flight vehicle July 29 when veteran pilot and former NASA astronaut Rick Searfoss maneuvered the liquid oxygen- and kerosene-fueled rocket through a straightforward pattern during a flight that lasted approximately 10 minutes from takeoff to landing.

“Everything went exactly as planned, exactly as practiced,” said Granger Whitelaw, co-founder and chief executive officer of the Rocket Racing League. “It performed exactly as we had laid out for the flight.”

Whitelaw, a veteran of the
500, joined with Ansari X Prize founder Peter Diamandis to found the Rocket Racing League in 2005. The men envisioned combining human spaceflight with NASCAR-style racing in the sky, and have planned a series of events this year showcasing the new sport.

The league boasts six teams on its roster under title sponsor DKNY Men, a New York-based men’s sportswear line that also is backing the Bridenstine Rocket Racing Team headed by former U.S. Navy jet pilot Jim Bridenstine.

The only hiccup during the first public flight was an intentional one that came from the planned engine cutoff – a sound that various observers have described as a burp or bark. The racer lit its engines six times for 15 to 35 seconds, shutting it down abruptly after each time to glide.

The flight was performed at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s air show in
, known as EAA AirVenture, where an expected 700,000 spectators gathered. Additional flights were scheduled to take place Aug. 2 and Aug. 3 when attendees also were to have the opportunity to photograph and examine the Bridenstine racer.

“It’ll be much closer to a lot of the fans,” Whitelaw said. He said the rocket plane also would perform some minor aerobatics including aileron rolls, half-loops and Immelmann turns, a maneuver in which the plane performs a half-loop while ascending followed by a half-roll that sends the aircraft in the opposite direction at a higher altitude.

“There’s a lot that is important about these flights, not only for Rocket Racing, but for aerospace and general aviation,” Whitelaw said. “It’s the start of a new industry, and certainly a new sports and entertainment company.”

Another racer from a Santa Fe, N.M.-based racing team also originally had planned to fly at
Aug. 2-3 against the Bridenstine racer, but that vehicle remains grounded because the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has yet to clear it for flight. The
Santa Fe
racer’s engine was designed by Mesquite, Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace to run on liquid oxygen and ethanol.

Whitelaw said he hopes the second racer will get flight approval by September, when the rocket planes are slated to compete head-to-head at the Reno Air Races in

Either way, a new element in the fall will involve a 3-D track in the sky, which fans could follow on large television screens that show views from pilot helmet displays. The added immersion factor could help bring rocket racing one step closer to mainstream entertainment, organizers said.

The announcement of the title sponsorship with DKNY Men also marked a major step forward for the league. Not only is the fashion firm sponsoring the league and Bridenstine’s team, but it also designed the flight suits to be worn by Rocket Racer pilots and pit crew, as well as executive league clothing.

“Rocket Racing is innovative, fast and fun – which also defines the kind of man who wears DKNY,” Patti Cohen, the firm’s executive vice president of global marketing and communications, said in a statement. “This partnership is just the beginning for both the brand and the sport.”

Whitelaw said corporate sponsorship is vital to extend the league’s reach to the public and investors, and that the DKNY Men deal is just the beginning.

“We’re going to be announcing more sponsors, and I think that’s a good thing because then people can touch and feel a real rocket, and they can get more excited about it,” he said, adding that more exposure also could help other space-oriented firms like Virgin Galactic, XCOR and Armadillo Aerospace with their own private suborbital efforts. “I think it’s a very important step in the underpinning of the industry. I don’t know if there can be a more important step quite frankly.”