Drag Racing In Britain

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When the British Drag Racing Association in conjunction with Drag Festivals Ltd. brought American-type Drag Racing to the public notice with their Festival in 1964 it seemed that there might be a big following for this type of motor sport. It offered a comparatively cheap and simple form of motoring competition, especially for those with mechanical ability, and though one could start Drag Racing with something simple in the way of machinery, there were endless possibilities for those with money and ingenuity. One of the big problems was finding suitable lengths of straight flat tarmac on which to organise drag racing, so that the growth during 1965 was slow. However, Drag Festivals Ltd., with the B.D.R.A. and the British Hot Rod Association, put on a bigger and better Festival of Drag Racing at the end of the 1965 season. Whereas the first Festival had presented a variety of American Drag Racing machinery, in order to show the range of vehicles catered for, from standard saloon cars to specialised Dragsters, the 1965 Festival concentrated on the ultimate in Drag Racing machinery, the supercharged nitro-methane burning V8 engined Dragsters that topped 200 m.p.h. at the end of the standing quarter mile, and covered the distance in around 8 seconds. The weekend at Blackbushe Aerodrome was a disaster due to torrential rain, but at the following weekend at R.A.F. Woodvale, near Southport, the American Dragster drivers put on a real show of no-nonsense drag racing which impressed everyone who witnessed it.

Unfortunately, the Blackbushe weekend was a financial catastrophe, and though Woodvale reduced the losses considerably, it was not enough to save Drag Festivals Ltd., who were forced to go into liquidation. Due to this the September Festival was not repeated in 1966, but luckily interest in drag racing was not dead and the British Hot Rod Association took over where the B.D.R.A. had stopped. A group of B.H.R.A. members formed National Dragways Ltd. and purchased the runway at Poddington Airfield, near Newport Pagnell, and set up the Santa Pod Dragstrip at the beginning of 1966. Starting in a modest way, this permanent dragstrip progressed during the 1966 season and, naturally enough, competitive interest increased at the same time. As has happened so often with new forms of motor sport no one will organise events until there are sufficient competitors, and equally no one will build special cars until there is somewhere to race them. This sort of stalemate knows no definite answer, but is usually overcome by someone taking a gamble and, as far as drag racing is concerned, it was National Dragways and the B.H.R.A. who took the gamble.

After its initial season of drag racing the Santa Pod set-up has gone ahead with leaps and bounds, and more and more people are taking an active interest in this inexpensive form of motoring pastime, either with their road-going saloon or sports car, or by building special cars for the express purpose of accelerating furiously from A to B, these points being a quarter of a mile apart. With the limited number of competitors in the first full season of permanent drag racing it was not practical to run class eliminations, so everyone was lumped together on a personal handicap system. The Santa Pod course has first-class timing equipment by beams and digital counters, the starting signal being given by pairs of coloured lights. This timing equipment has incorporated in it an electronic computer into which can be fed competitors’ individual times recorded in practice, and the handicapping for any pair is then automatically fed into the starting light system, the individual green “go-light ” coming on for each of the two lanes with the desired handicap timelag between them. During the 1966 season this handicapping arrangement worked well, so that anyone with any type of car could come out ” top eliminator” by consistent fast driving, and at the Championship meeting a small special powered by a 500cc Rudge motorcycle engine, won the overall award by reason of consistently fast times against all manner of competitors. At the end of the season the faster competitors were invited to a Records Day organised by the National Sprint Association, and Tony Gane in this Rudge-powered “four-wheeled motorcycle” took International Records, along with many other regular Santa Pod competitors. Most outstanding was Les Turner with his home-built dragster powered by a supercharged Ford Cortina engine, for he also took the world standing-start 500 metres record and the international kilometre and mile records. This records weekend, held on Elvington Aerodrome in Yorkshire, was a splendid culmination to the first full season of drag racing in Britain.

Mechanical variety is the keynote of drag racing, and the vehicles range from Mini-Coopers and Shelby Cobras to Ford Populars powered by Jaguar engines and V8-powered dragsters. There are numerous small dragsters built on the same lines as the big American dragsters, but scaled down to utilised Ford or B.M.C. components, some of these vehicles breaking 11 seconds for the quarter-mile, which is no mean performance, and they provide exciting driving. This coming season, which starts on March 12th, at Santa Pod, with a practice day, the first competitive meeting being on Easter Monday, should see a lot more activity, for during the winter months many more special cars have been completed. There are now at least six supercharged V8-engined dragsters in this country, numerous unsupercharged V8 cars and a variety of specials using Jaguar engines, while Cobras and Mustangs and any other production car that really accelerates can be sure of being in the running at a drag meeting. During the 1967 season it is hoped that two more permanent dragstrips will be opened, one in the south of England and the other as part of Jim Russell’s great autodrome scheme for Norfolk, where he hopes to establish a permanent sports centre to accommodate his driving school, car racing and motorcycle racing, as well as space for driving tests, slaloms and other club activities.

Any new sporting activity is bound to take a certain amount of time to get off the ground, but 1966 showed that the foundations for drag racing that were laid in 1964 and 1965 by the British Drag Racing Association were solid and the British Hot Rod Association are continuing the good work. At the Racing Car Show the B.H.R.A. had a very large stand on which were exhibited a good cross-section of the sort of vehicles and specials that have been built for drag racing, including motorcycles. The stand showed that drag racing is a colourful sport that offers vast scope to the special builder with ability and ingenuity, and the spectator is never likely to complain of a “sameness” about the competing vehicles. That people enjoy accelerating hard in a straight line is evidenced every year by the enormous entry that the Brighton Speed Trials attract, in which they are only competing against the clock. In organised drag racing you get the added attraction of competing directly against the other chap, and if you win you have another go against another winner, until an overall winner is found.

One complaint that is occasionally made against drag racing is that if you build a special car you can only use it for that one type of competition. This is true enough, but if 1967 sees three dragstrips in action there will hardly be time to use your drag-racing special for anything else.—D.S.J.