Drag racing’s first steps in Britain were hesitant, but 40 years on it enjoys its own keen following
What fascinates me about all types of four-wheeled activity is not how different they are, but how much, deep down, they are really the same. Motorsport snobs have no time for drag racing: crude American V8s in clumsy home-made chassis; can’t go round corners; like watching noisy paint dry. But, being open-minded about such things, I recently spent a day at an English drag meeting. I found it full of engineering talent, sportsmanship, friendly people and — in some cases — real bravery.
I first saw dragsters thundering side by side down a quarter-mile strip more than 40 years ago, on a hot summer’s Saturday night in Michigan, under floodlights, in front of a happy, vociferous crowd who looked like extras off the set of American Graffiti. I’d never seen, or heard, anything like it in all my 19 years, and I was hugely impressed. But in the cold English climate the magic has always been harder to generate. That great sportsman Sydney Allard, British Hillclimb Champion, Monte Carlo Rally winner and maker of V8 cars with more horsepower than roadholding, tried hard to pioneer the sport over here. He built a Chrysler-powered dragster for straight-line sprints such as the Brighton Speed Trials and won the British Sprint Championship in 1962. He tried to popularise low-cost drag racing with the Allard Dragon, a miniature rail with supercharged 1498cc Ford engine. A few were sold, but rails without V8s aren’t much fun and the Dragon never really caught on.
Wanting the UK to see the real thing, Allard promoted the British Drag Festival, with American stars. Don Garlits did 8.09sec/197mph at Blackbushe in 1964, with Buddy Cortines making 7.74sec/201mph at Woodvale in 1965. The British establishment curled its collective lip: John Bolster wrote “chromium plate has no place on a racing car”. But in Motor Sport Denis Jenkinson, who always championed anything that involved going fast with courage and ingenuity, was very supportive and competed with his own BSA motorbike and a borrowed Allard Dragon. WB wasn’t convinced. With a shudder he quoted a Sunday paper’s piece about “asphalt eaters putting juice through the jug to lay a batch” and “pilots in gourd guards coping with big rompers as the slugs oscillate in a do-or-unglue attempt” — and went off to watch a VSCC rally in Wales. The 1964 Drag Festival had fine weather, but the 1965 version was blighted by rain. By then Sydney Allard was already a sick man, and his death from cancer at only 56 came the following year. British drag racing went on through a prolonged and inconsistent gestation, with tracks and promoters waxing and waning. Eventually a former USAF airfield in Northants called Podington rose above the rest. Its promoters felt its name sounded rather humdrum for a drag strip and, in an effort to add a Californian zing, christened it Santa Pod.
The speeds have soared since the 1960s. In the USA the top boys now achieve low fours for the standing quarter, with terminal speeds of more than 300mph. That’s 0-300 in 4sec — hard for those of us raised on 0-60 times to comprehend. Subfives have been done in the UK too, where the cars can be every bit as sophisticated as in the USA.
A Pro Fuel dragster runs on nitro-methane which is simultaneously injected both sides of its huge supercharger. Ten gallons of the stuff, at £55 a gallon, is used in that quarter-mile, and for those few seconds power outputs of more than 6000 horsepower are claimed. After every single run the engine is torn down in the paddock and pistons, bearings and rods are replaced. So in a busy weekend, with four runs, the engine will be completely rebuilt three times for a cumulative racing distance of one mile. It puts Max Mosley’s efforts to increase F1 engine life into a new perspective.
The sight, and sound, of two of these monsters exploding off the line side by side defies description.
As they come to the line the crowd goes quiet. Abruptly, the cars are engulfed in flames and smoke and, with a noise like World War Three, simply disappear over the horizon. Then the noise of the crowd takes over, whooping and buzzing as they absorb the electronic figures that flash up over the finish line.
There are innumerable classes which are hard for the newcomer to understand — Top Methanol, Super Gas, Altered, Modified, Sportsman — but the standards of workmanship and preparation are almost universally wonderful. The cheery, relaxed paddock, with work on the cars going on all around, reminded me strangely of a VSCC meeting and couldn’t be further from F1 ‘s pofaced gulag. The so-called Funny Cars — dragsters with paper-thin lift-off bodies that ape the shape of a specific road car, with pretend grille, lights and bumpers beautifully airbrushed on — are almost as fast as the Pro Fuel rails. At the other end of the scale there’s the delight of a very standard-looking, road-registered VW Beetle, still with its aircooled flat-four but now 2.4 litres and supercharged, doing the standing quarter in under 12 seconds, with a terminal speed of 122mph.
All this may well not be your cup of tea, but your education isn’t complete until you’ve seen a big drag meeting at least once. Now filed away in my motorsporting memory bank is the sight of Martin Hill’s Fireforce 2, powered by a 5000 lbs/ thrust Pratt & Whitney aircraft engine. A jet-powered car takes longer to get under way than an axle-driven dragster, so his elapsed time, at 5.793sec, was some way from fastest of the day. But he crossed the finish line at a dumbfounding 336.1mph. I hope that, in Another Place, Jenks and Sydney were watching. They weren’t motorsport snobs — and they would have loved it.