The Standing-Start Quarter-Mile

Last year I had a few words to say about times over a measured quarter of a mile from a standing start, and last September many people were fortunate enough to see some demonstrations by two American “slingshot” sprint machines that recorded times well below to seconds for the quarter-mile. Anyone who reads Hot Rod Magazine, the American journal that specialises in “drag” machinery, will know about the enormous following that this type of sport has in America. With motorcycles it has been popular in this country for many years, and is a flourishing sport, but with specially built 4-wheel machines it is still in its infancy, though there look like being plenty of opportunities for it to flourish. Some of the American Contenders for top honours in quarter-mile sprints have recorded times just under 8 sec., with a terminal velocity of 190 m.p.h., using supercharged V8 engines running on a mixture of methanol and nitro-methane, and these are shattering machines to see in action.

As is well known, Sydney Allard built a supercharged V8 “slingshot” dragster or sprint machine to endeavour to get this type of sport under way in this country, hut after numerous setbacks the car did not perform as anticipated and the following was still lukewarm. Feeling that perhaps they had started off at too high a level for newcomers to the sport Allards built a smaller machine, on the same lines but using a supercharged Ford Cortina engine, and this evoked much more interest when it appeared at the Racing Car Show, for it was something that seemed to be in the realms of possibility for ordinary mortals. Building a car to take a big American V8 engine was all very well if you were in America or had access to tuning equipment for this type of power, and chassis equipment to take the power, whereas the 1-1/2-litre power unit seemed a good starting-off point. At the Racing Car Show I got into conversation with John Hume, the designer of the little Allard Dragon as it was called, and voiced the opinion that it was a good idea for a beginner but rather a waste of time in the overall picture of sprinting over the quarter-mile, as it would not be fast enough to be exciting. Hume said that he estimated that it would do less than 14 sec. on its first time out, and I rather doubted it, having an idea of what was required to break 14 sec. over a quarter of a mile. However, he went on to say that it would break 12 sec. when they got it sorted out, and I laughed out loud. One thing led to another and when I left the Allard stand John Hume and I had a bet on our hands. I said that if they could break 12 sec. under observation by the National Sprint Association as regards measurement and timing, I would let them cut my beard off.

During. the ensuing months before sprinting got under way it was interesting to note the various sides that people took when they heard about the bet. There were those who thought I had been foolish and those who thought I was quite safe, and many were the reasons put forward for one side or the other. A demonstration meeting was arranged at Silverstone in April at which many journalists and some of the motorcycle sprint boys were given a chance to drive the Dragon, and times in the low 12 seconds began to appear, the best being 12.38 sec. Unfortunately this gathering clashed with the Targa Florio so I was unable to attend, but afterwards betting ran high as to how long it would he before I lost my beard, while there were still plenty of people who considered it was going to take a lot of effort to cut down the last few tenths. At Whitsun there was a meeting at Duxford Aerodrome and during the timed runs John flume recorded 11.92 sec. Once again I was away at a Continental race meeting, which was fortunate for me for I would undoubtedly have been “sheared” on the spot, and would have deserved it, for the time was recorded by the N.S.A. and was beyond dispute. Allards very sportingly suggested that if I would like to come back from the Continent and drive the car myself they would forgo the beard-cutting if I could break 12 sec.; rather like making me commit Hari-Kari. Naturally I jumped at this offer and on June 7th went to an airfield in the East Midlands to attempt to “save face,” or more appropriately “save beard.” The course was marked out and timed by members of the N.S.A. using Hird-Brown beam timing apparatus, and just when we were ready to start operations the rain came down. I had taken my 500-c.c. sprint motorcycle along just for the chance of having a ride, and I did a run in 14.22 sec. in the wet and another at 14.11 sec. John Hume did a run in the Allard Dragon in the wet and recorded 12.53 sec. and I then decided it was time to start learning about “slingshots.”

The simple tubular frame forms a cage around the driving compartment and you sit with your backside behind the rear axle and your legs over the axle, with the differential housing between your thighs. The blown Cortina engine and 4-speed gearbox are coupled directly to the rear axle, which itself is bolted directly to the chassis frame, so that the mass of weight of the power unit and the driver are concentrated immediately fore and aft of the rear axle. The rear track has been narrowed down until the rear tyres are almost touching the sides of the narrow frame, and at the front is a simple beam axle with wide track, sprung on transverse torsion bars. Rear wheels are large 15 in. racing Dunlops with 6.50 x 15 racing tyres, and the front wheels are tiny 2.25 x 17 motorcycle type, with no brakes, there being normal hydraulic drum brakes on the rear. Steering is by a very direct linkage using aircraft-type “spectacles” instead of a steering wheel, and the stumpy gearlever is between your knees, the driving position being a very reclining one while a full safety harness holds you in place. The view forwards is mostly of the large Shorrock supercharger, an enormous S.U. carburetter, a boost gauge and air pressure gauge for the small fuel tank mounted in front of the engine, while the noise from the upward pointing stub exhaust pipes is quite something on first acquaintance. A short “poodle” up and down the paddock was sufficient to get the feel of the clutch and gear-change, so I then pointed it at the quarter-mile and given the O.K. “put my foot in it” as they say. You start off in second gear, scream the engine up to maximum, across the gate into third and again up to maximum and quickly snatch it into top, by which time you are nearing the end of the quarter-mile and doing nearly 100 m.p.h. and can then aim the front between the chequer hoards marking the end of the quarter. The steering lock is not very much so you use the whole runway to swing round and head back to the start, switching off and coasting most of the way back, as the Cortina engine has no cooling system, merely relying on the water in the head and block and the inherent cooling properties of methanol fuel. The track was very wet and visibility was hazy to say the least on that first run but a time of 12.34 sec. was recorded, which was a good start. The rain had now stopped and the runway was drying rapidly so another run was done, but the starting line was still damp and violent wheelspin was all too easy to provoke, but nevertheless I clocked 12.04 sec., so salvation was obviously in sight. After a time the sun came out and everything dried up perfectly and John Hume had another go and clocked 11.86 sec. albeit with a fairly snaky start, but he kept the power on and steered. Then Sydney Allard’s son Allan had a go and did 12.99 sec., and conditions were as good as one could want.

I had some more runs on my motorcycle and got down to 13.58 sec., a personal record for the quarter-mile with this particular bicycle, and I also had a ride in the sidecar of Maurice Brierley’s supercharged 1,148-c.c. Vincent Special, and we clocked 12.53 sec. As the outfit was geared for the standing-start kilometre, in preparation for some record attempts, Brierley kept it going after the end of the quarter and we reached 150 m.p.h. before the end of the runway came into sight, which was quite an experience. Then I returned to the Allard Dragon for my third and final go. You are push-started in 3rd gear and as soon as the engine. fires you snick it back into and gear ready for the start, keeping the engine running at a steady speed of about 1,500-2,000 r.p.m., the highly blown engine being surprisingly docile. This time I gave it a real boot-ful of throttle, lifted off the clutch pedal and was away, and out of the corner of my eye could see blue smoke coming off the rear tyres. The engine must have gone to well over 7,000 r.p.m. in and gear (there is no rev.-counter) and I could feel the car snake slightly, but the steering “spectacles” were rather like motorcycle handlebars in sensitivity and you do not consciously steer the vehicle but point it. Across the gate into 3rd without shutting the throttle completely and then we were really wound up and heading far the two chequer boards again. Into top as quick as you can move the lever and foot right down and as we approached the end of the quarter there was time to look at the blower gauge which was registering 13 lb./sq. in. The time was 11.45 sec. Honour had been retrieved, facial alterations avoided and everyone was very satisfied, for nobody can now doubt that the little Allard Dragon with its 1-1/2-litre engine can comfortably break 12 sec. over the standing-start quarter-mile. Just to prove that it is the car and not the driver Allan Allard had another run and did even better, with 11.43 sec. I withdrew all my doubts and openly admit that I was very wrong last winter, and that I misjudged Hume’s ability as a builder and tuner. I came away with a great deal of respect for the little Allard Dragon, and Hume’s parting remark was “Want to bet that we don’t break 10 seconds before we’ve finished developing it?” – no thanks, no more bets.

This was the fastest time I have ever done over the standing-start quarter-mile and it was a most exhilarating experience, though I must say that it was a lot easier than I anticipated and a “slingshot” dragster is much easier to drive than a motorcycle of equivalent performance. A quarter-mile in under 12, sec. on a motorcycle is much more demanding on the rider than a similar run on four wheels, but I have no doubt that an under-10-sec. run in a big supercharged V8 American “slingshot” must be quite another story. If any owner is willing to take the risk I’d like to try.

Apart from settling our bet, this test day on June 7th was also the inaugural meeting of the newly formed British Drag Racing Association, whose objects are to foster this firm of sport and in particular to encourage pure Drag Racing as practised in America, which means running two cars at a time on a knock-out basis, finishing up with the “Top Eliminator.” During the runs elapsed times are taken as well as speeds at the end of the quarter-mile. This type of sprinting is at a slight variance with British ideas on sprinting, which are fostered by the National Sprint Association, for we are mainly interested in elapsed times on solo runs, where the rider or driver can go in his own time and not at the drop of a flag. Sprinting is really for the keen builder and tuner, whereas Drag Racing will interest the competitive types, for you get the added enjoyment of racing against another competitor, the first one over the line being the winner. The N.S.A. already promote sprint meetings and help at numerous other sprint events, while the first objective of the new B.D.R.A. is to run the Festival of Drag Racing which is due to take place in September in this country when some of the top American cars will be appearing.

Sprinting or Drag Racing is a form of sport that you either like and enjoy or think it a complete waste of time, but it is worth remembering that an Aston Martin DB4GT takes 14.5 sec. to cover the standing-start quarter-mile.