On the standing-start ¼-mile and the drag festival

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Due to the efforts of the Committee of the British Drag Racing Association, headed by Sydney Allard, a great number of people were able to watch the s.s. ¼-mile being covered in the shortest time ever recorded in this country. I refer, of course, to the runs made by Don Garlits with his Dodge-powered dragster during the highly successful British Drag Festival.

The business of covering a quarter-mile in the shortest possible time, from a standing start, is nothing new to this country, for sprint meetings have been taking place for years, and while the car events have been supported in the main by hill-climb exponents, in the motorcycle world, thanks to the encouragement of the National Sprint Association, the development of special machines for the sole purpose of accelerating has gone ahead with leaps and bounds. The result of this is, that in the motorcycle world, our hikes and riders can match anything that the Americans can produce. In the car world it is a different story, for there has been no concentration on pure acceleration, a sprint event being anything from a s.s. ¼-mile to three laps of Brands Hatch. In consequence our “special” builders have used cars that were very versatile and could be driven up hills and round corners, as well as in a straight line. The R.A.C. did not give any encouragement in this Matter either, for the “use and construction” rules were always the same whether you built a car for a straight ¼-mile or to go up Shelsley Walsh, so naturally everyone built hill-climb specials that could also be used in sprints.

Our sprint events always had but one objective, to cover the ¼-mile in the shortest possible time, so that competitors invariably ran one at a time, against the clock. To add interest, providing there was space available, competitors would sometimes run in pairs, as at Brighton, but time was still the important factor and merely winning your pair did not mean you would .do well in your class. Many years ago, on sonic of the Northern beaches, there used to be sprints on the sand, often as long as one mile, and with a dozen or more competitors going off together; but over the years the name “sprint” has come to mean individually timed runs against the stop-watch; and while courses still vary from ¼-mile to 1 kilometre in length, they have all had the accent on elapsed time, the number of seconds for the s.s. ¼-mile being a convenient yardstick of performance.

The Americans took sprint racing and developed it in many ways, the resultant drag racing varying from sprinting in one vital factor, namely that speed in m.p.h. was more important than time in seconds. The American drag courses have timing clocks to measure the time, and thus the speed, over a distance of 132 feet spread equally on each side of the finishing line, the speed recorded through these “traps” is their yardstick of performance, rather than the elapsed time for the ¼-mile, though this was recorded as well. As far as the results of the meeting were concerned the entry was run through in pairs, on a knock-out basis, the finalist being the overall winner or “top eliminator.” The British way of running meetings, as far as motorcycles are concerned, has been to concentrate on individual runs, the lowest elapsed time being awarded F.T.D. prize, and, if there was time in hand, a knock-out competition at the end of the day as a sort of bonus event for those interested.

Both types of meeting have much to commend them and both have their followers, the National Sprint Association being more interested in individual timed runs, and the British Drag Racing Association following in the footsteps, or wheel tracks, of the Americans. As the names of the two associations imply, the two forms of sport can be viewed as sprinting or drag racing, and undoubtedly sprints are for the purist engine tuner or designer; drags are for the competitive-minded, ged while sprints are essentially a competitor sport, of limited appeal to spectators, drags can be stage-managed into a sport with great spectator appeal. One thing that drag racing has brought about is the development of more sensitive timing apparatus, for whereas a good 1/100th second stop-watch, with light beam actuation, will suffice for the 10- or 12-second interval of a ¼-mile, it would not be accurate enough over the 132 feet of the speed traps. In consequence electronic-crystal time recorders have been developed that the National Physical Laboratory have certified as accurate to a milli-second. If you are going to put on a drag meeting to appeal to the masses of the public, who are nor particularly interested in cars, motorcycles or engines, but merely want a spectacle at which to pass time, then they are not going to make an effort to form an appreciation of time and distance, which is why the terminal speeds of drag racing are given so much prominence, for miles-per-hour is something that anyone can understand. As the drag figures are “flash readings” of maximum, and nothing complicated like average speeds they appeal to the masses.

An example of the possible falsity of putting too much stress on terminal speeds was clearly shown during the Festival when Hagon (1,000-c.c. unsupercharged) and Brown (1,000-c.c. Vincent supercharged) had a match race on their motorcycles. Hagon clocked 10.85 sec. and Brown 10.88 sec., but the terminal speeds read Hagon 123 m.p.h. and Brown 132 m.p.h. On e.t. Hagon was the winner, but on terminal speed Brown was the winner. Now if you are going to appeal to the has public with speed rather than time you are bound give the impression that Brown won, even though he arrived at the end of the ¼-mile 0.03 sec. after Hagon! If the “race” is to be over the ¼-mile then is should be on time alone, otherwise we might as well save our timing apparatus and merely aim for the finishing “traps.” To the initiated the terminal speeds in this particular match race Were most enlightening, providing they were co-related to tittle, for they indicated that these two men had different ways of achieving the same e.t., Hagon having the advantage over the first half of the course and Brown over the second half. A technical study of these two motorcycles shows this to be so, for Hagon builds for ultra-light weight with just sufficient power; and Brown has more than enough power and can carry the weight imposition of supercharger, 4-speed gearbox; streamlining and rigidity. If the race had been over a ½-mile or a kilometre the Vincent would have won easily, but we are discussing the ¼-mile. Technically, the Hagon machine is superior for the job of covering the ¼-mile, but by drag racing standards the Brown machine is the best, as it gives a higher terminal speed. My personal views on this matter side with the N.S.A. and pure sprinting, rather than the “spectacle” of American-type drag racing. Just before Don Garlits came over to the Festival he had recorded 7.72 sec. for the s.s. ¼-mile, with a terminal speed of 201.34 m.p.h., with his Dodge V8-powered car, and to me the 7.72 sec. is phenomenal, the 201.34 m.p.h. being purely incidental.

At the Chelveston meeting of the Drag Festival there was a good example of the drag as a public spectacle, rather than the sprint as a competitor-sport. There was a strong cross-wind blowing which affected the fast dragsters very badly and caused some hectic moments, and due to this one of the American drivers lost control at over 140 m.p.h. and crashed through the light beams in the centre of the terminal “traps.” The B.D.R.A. timekeepers were able to salvage enough equipment to set up the two lanes again to measure elapsed time, but they could not operate terminal “traps” for the rest of the meeting. To close the day, Gartits and Ivo sportingly agreed to make a double run, in spite of the cross-wind, but said “they would play it cool, and not smoke their tyres for the whole run.” This they did, with the remarkable times. of 8.74 sec. and 8.98 sec., respectively, but the commentator, who is one of those self-opinionated people who consider themselves “the voice of the public,’ gave out the results as 187 m.p.h. and 184 m.p.h., and gave neither driver any credit for breaking 9 sec. in a strong cross-wind, even though Tommy Ivo went over the line in a full-lock slide that he only got under control by using his braking parachute. The commentator quoted these speeds out of his own head, unbeknown to the timekeepers, because “I have to keep faith with the public, old boy.” If that is the attitude that drag racing engenders, then I would rather stick to sprinting.

Now do not get the impression that I am against drag racing, for I think it is a lot of fun and the out-and-out dragster is a machine that really appeals to me, but what I am against is messing about with a sport merely to appease the appetite of a “business man” or “showman” in order to give the public what he thinks they want, when they would probably be quite happy with the unvarnished truth. It is too much like television and film scriptwriters who unashamedly re-write history in order to fit it into their idea of what the public wants. These sort of people get very hot under the collar if you suggest that “they must be the public,” or how else would they know their tastes!

To return to drag racing, arid in particular the Drag Festival, the mere fact that ten first-class American car drivers and two good motorcycle riders were able to come to England and put on a show, with a wide variety of machines, was something of an achievement by the newly formed British band of enthusiasts who did all the spade work, and a landmark in the history of British motoring sport. “The American car entry consisted of a good cross-section of the classes of vehicle built for drag racing. Dave Strickler and Ron Sox drove factory experimental cars that outwardly looked like 1964 standard saloons, but both were using lots of non-optional extras in the engine/gearbox department and the front suspensions were jacked up and held there by chains in order to give .a tail-down attitude and as much weight transfer to the rear wheels as possible. These two saloons, a 7-litre unblown Dodge for Strickler and a 7-litre Comet/Mercury by Ford for Sox, were almost to saloon-car-racing standards as regards fittings, and had starter motors and reverse gears, so that they were quite tractable and manageable vehicles, but the engines exhausted out of great big open pipes behind each front wheel, and they not only Made an impressive noise but they went quickly as well, the gear-changes of these two “specialists” giving the impression of automatic transmissions, whereas they had orthodox floor levers operating 4-speed gearboxes. Throughout the Festival they were very evenly matched, Strickler making 11.54 sec. (126 m.p.h.) and Sox making 11.72 sec. (126 m.p.h.) as their best runs of the series. At the final Blackbushe meeting Strickler broke his gearbox on one run and in 40 minutes he had whipped it out and whipped in a new one.

Then there were the two competitors who outwardly appeared to be comedians, but in reality were very clever and brave. They had cars built to the “modified coupe” category, which lake a basic production body/chassis unit and, providing the main components are kept in the original positions, you have a free hand. The two that ran in the Festival were Ken Pittman and George Montgomery, and they both started out with 1933 Willys coupes, the former using a. supercharged 7½-litre Chrysler V8 engine and the latter a supercharged 6-litre Chevrolet V8 engine, both being power units often seen in pure dragsters. Light alloy wheels, wide “slick” tyres on the back, fibreglass body panels and suchlike are used, while the driving compartments are upholstered and immaculate. These old-fashioned looking, high, fixed-head coupes look like a joke until they are started up, and then things start happening. Balanced on spindly half-elliptic springs they prance away from the line with a shattering noise and furious wheelspin, and clock times in the mid-to-sec. bracket. Pittman’s best was 10.52 sec. (144 m.p.h.) and Montgomery’s 10.37 sec. (139 m.p.h.), which is fast travelling on chromium-plated “cart-springs” with a frontal area like a London bus.

Two singleton entries were Dante Duce with a ” modified sports car,’ and Doug Church with a “baby-dragster.” Duce’s car, known as Moonbeam, was an all-enveloping 2-seater with a supercharged 6-litre Chevrolet V8 engine and automatic transmission, laid out like an old-fashioned sports car such as a Testa Rossa Ferrari or C-type Jaguar; it put in a best time of 11.15 sec. (140 m.p.h.). The car of Doug Church was more understandable to European eyes both as regards construction and performance. It was built on dragster principles but with the driver in front of the engine, the Power unit being a 1600 Porsche engine, with oversize barrels and pistons to bring the capacity to nearly 2-litres, and it drove through a Porsche gearbox and final drive, the swing axles being locked by bracing struts. Porsche rear hubs and wheels were used, the rims being widened to take fatter tyres. A spindly tubular chassis frame ran forwards to a rudimentary front axle and motorcycle size front wheels This little car was most beautifully engineered and had a lot of direct opposition from British competitors, in particular the Allard Dragon; Tony Marsh’s 2-litre Climax hill-climb car, the 4-w-d Ferguson P99 with 2½-litre Climax engine, and Tony Densham’s Worden Dragster. Church and Allan Allard had a very consistent needlematch throughout the series of six meetings, with the others joining in at some of the meetings. Peter Westbury with the Ferguson P99 made best time of all, with 11.0 r sec. (127 m.p.h.), followed by Allard in the supercharged Cortina-engined Dragon with 11.26 sec. (129 m.p.h.), Densham in his supercharged Cortina-engined Warden with 11.32 sec. (121 m.p.h.), then Church with 11.36 sec. (118 m.p.h.) and Marsh in his little hill-climb car with 11.79 sec. (119 m.p.h.).

The real cream of the American entry was naturally the unlimited class dragsters and these were in two categories, those running on pump petrol and those on special fuel. Bob Keith and Duce had cars running on petrol, both built on conventional dragster lines, while Tony Nancy had a brand new conception of dragster that was in a class of its own. The present-day accepted layout is to have a V8 engine with a G.M.C. rotor-type supercharger bolted in the vee of the block, with a fuel-injection unit mounted on top. The blower is driven by an internal-toothed belt from the front of the crankshaft, and the power unit is bolted direct to the final drive, there only being a clutch between the two. The narrowed rear axle is bolted to the chassis frame and the engine is mounted in a nose-down position to keep the weight as low as possible; the driver sits behind and below the rear axle with his legs over it„ the differential housing being between his knees. The tubular chassis forms a cage around the cockpit and the side rails then run forward to a simple tubular front axle carrying tiny motorcycle wheels. The rear wheels carry huge wide tyres and there are disc brakes on the back axle only, usually operated by a hand lever, while the accelerator pedal is a large plate-affair with a strap to keep the diver’s foot in place. Steering is very high-geared by simple linkages and control is by means of an aircraft-type “spectacle” wheel, often having the ends bent backwards to save space. At first these machines were naked and unashamed, but since speeds have been over 180 m.p.h. sleek bodywork has been the order of the day, the tail forming a housing for the braking parachute. This type of dragster was labelled the “slingshot,” for obvious reasons, and has become universal among the winners, with variations as regards engines, fuels., dimensions, gear ratios and so on. With these fast dragsters each builder has his own ideas and experiments with various things, such as aero-foils on the nose to keep the front down at high speed, exaggerated king-pin angles on the front axle to provide instant correction in case a slide develops at high speed, as well as chassis length and strength to give the right amount of flexibility for riding over bumps.

Of the conventional dragsters running on petrol, the car of Bob Keith was remarkably consistent and reliable, always running under to We. It was a well-finished car using a supercharged 6-litre Chevrolet V8 engine, and it did more runs throughout the Festival than any of the fast Cars. His best run was 9.06 sec. (171 m.p.h.), and on his final run of the whole Festival the rear axle broke. His partner in the petrol dragster class should have been Duce, driving a car he borrowed from Tony Nancy, a conventional slingshot using a supercharged 8-litre Plymouth V8 engine, but unfortunately it got out of hand in the cross-wind at Chelveston and Duce crashed into the timing gear, smashing the car beyond repair.

Nancy himself was running a brand new petrol class dragster, powered by a supercharged 8-litre Plymouth V8 engine, but this machine was built along new lines. The engine was still in front of the rear axle and bolted directly to it, but instead of the driver being in the “slingshot” position, he was in front of the engine, like in a modern Grand Prix car. There were a number of reasons which led up to this new layout, firstly the problem of visibility, for when sitting low behind the rear axle the view up-front is very limited, and when under way, with smoke pouring from the war tyres, it is even less. Added to this is the risk of ‘fuel spray and oil it anything goes wrong, the matter of having a flywheel and clutch doing 7,500 r.p.m. between your feet, and the crownwheel and pinion between your knees. There have been instances of rear axles seizing, which tears the whole thing from the frame and rotates it smartly round, so that the nosepiece of the axle comes up through the seat. Taken all round, the “slingshot” driving position is not the most healthy of places to be, even if nothing goes wrong. All these problems caused some Serious thinking, and by putting the driver in front there was an added bonus, in that I he rear wheels could be brought closer together. It is reckoned that the 3-wheeler layout is the ideal for stability, and the shorter the half-shafts the better they can cope with the whirling mass of a large “slick” tyre at 200 m.p.h.

Another line of thought on the new Nancy car was to use a sprung engine/axle unit, but the first time out the car went end-over-end at 180 m.p.h and destroyed itself. Such is the safety factor built into the tubular structure round the cockpit of dragsters, and the use of a proper seat harness, that Nancy stepped out unscathed, and his warn set to work and built a second car, this time fixing the engine/axle unit solidly to the chassis in accepted fashion. It was this brand new car that ran for the first time in the British Festival, and with its all-enveloping body it was named “The Wedge.” On the first few runs it appeared to be very unstable as speed went up and it took the team quite a while to find the trouble. Due to engine bothers it kept losing all the water from the cylinder blocks, either through burst hose connections, faulty filler caps and so on, and each time this happened the water sprayed onto the spinning rear lyres, with obvious results. As the whole of the rear of a dragster is enveloped in tyre smoke as it accelerates, nobody could see the water, and with the driver up front he was oblivious of the trouble, apart from the frightening slides that developed. When switched oil at the end of the run everything seemed to be in order, apart from trouble where the water had escaped, but there was nothing to indicate that the tyres had been “water lubricated.” It was hot until all the engine faults had been remedied and it held its water that the car went dead straight, as planned. Then it recorded 8.98 sec. (176 m.p.h.) running on pump petrol, which must prove something or the other.

Finally there were the two “slingshot rail fuelers,” as American slang would describe them. These were the conventional dragsters of Champion Don Garlits and Tommy Ivo, the former using a supercharged 6-litre Dodge V8 engine and the latter a supercharged 6-litre Chrysler V8 engine, both extremely highly tuned, blowing at around 20 lb.,/sq. in. and burning a nitro-methane-based fuel, using as much as 80% nitro. These open class ears do not run very often, or for very long, but there is no arguing their performance when they tin go, nor the skill of their drivers. The principle of these big dragsters is that they are geared to reach a maximum of 7,500 r.p.m. at 195 m.p.h., so that the wheels must be spun when starting off or else the engine will stall. With 900 b.h.p. available it is a simple matter to provoke wheelspin, even on a gear ratio of the order of 3.4 to 1. Equally, it is simple to provoke too much spin and just stand still while the tyres melt! Garlits and Ivo are real masters at the art of handling these powerful cars, as are many more Americans, Such as Hampshire, Kalitta, Thompson and Prudhomme, and it is a joy to watch them dissipate the wheelspin from a maximum to a desired minimum by the time they reach the end of the with the engine r.p.m. almost constant for the whole run. By skilful throttle control and judgement they use the huge Goodyear “slicks” to act as a torque-converter, or infinitely-variable gearbox, so that the engine is at its working maximum the whole time. Garlits’ best performance was 8.09 sec. (195 m.p.h.) and Ivo 8.21 sec. (194 m.p.h.), which are the best standing-start ¼-mile runs we in Britain are likely to see until another Drag Festival is organised.

In the motorcycle category only two Americans came over, Bill Wood with his unblown V-twin Harley-Davidson; running on methanol, and Don Hyland with his “special” driven by two 650-c.c. Triumph vertical twin engines, they being coupled together by chains and running together as twin twins. Using pump petrol, Hyland was very fast and serious competition for the British motorcycles, but we had the advantage of numbers, with Brown, Higgins and Ashwell on supercharged 1,000-c.c. Vincent vee-twins and flagon and Woods on V-twin 1,000-c.c. J.A.P.-engined machines, as well as a lot of fast 650-c.c. machines. George Brown, the undisputed champion of motorcycle sprinters, was the best overall with 10.30 sec. (146 m.p.h.).

In the car category Britain could produce nothing to challenge the top Americans and the fastest British car was first of all Allan Allard with his Dragon, in 11.42 sec. (125 m.p.h.), and then Westbury with the 4-w-d Ferguson, but Allard got down to 11.26 and Westbury replied with 11.01 sec. However, at the final meeting Allan Allard drove his father’s blown Dodge V8 powered dragster, that is now a bit “dated” and outclassed, and in a “do-or-die” attempt recorded 10.28 sec., the best ever by a British driver. Although the British entry could not put up much of a show compared with the Americans there were some interesting lessons to be learned, such as the 11.01 sec. of the 4-w-d Ferguson, the 11.76 sec. of Wilson’s 2½-litre 4-cylinder B.R.M. Grand Prix car, the 12.62 sec. of the twinny-Mini Deep Sanderson Single-seater, the 12.79 sec. of Ropner’s production A.C. Cobra, the 13.07 sec. of a Lister-Jaguar, and the 14.17 sec. of an Iso-Rivolta A3 Grifo.

The obvious question at the end of the Festival was “Where do we go from here?”. The whole project of putting on the six drag meetings was a gamble that only paid off by reason of the-glorious sunny weather that accompanied the three weekends, and the thousands of spectators who paid rather high prices to witness the meetings. To bring 12 teams of drivers and mechanics, with all their cars and equipment, the 6,000 miles from California, keep them here for nearly a month, pay for their return and also pay them for their performances, for most of them are professionals, cost about £31,000. Add to this the £2,000 for the timing equipment, R.A.C. timekeepers, insurance, transport and running costs, and replacements for the timing gear, the £1,000 in prize money, and a similar amount for expenses for British competitors, the cost of contracting-out the building of stands, provision of crowd barriers, race circuit services, rental for the aerodromes, and the total outlay becomes pretty staggering. It all had to be recovered from admission charges, car park fees, programmes and advertising, and it was not until lunch-time at the last meeting that the B.D.R.C. felt certain that they had broken even. As the whole Festival had been organised as a non-profit-making attempt to establish American-type Drag Racing in England, such small profit that did accrue was given to the American teams as a bonus, for some of them had experienced expensive damage to machinery and they had all contributed to the success of the whole venture in no small way.

Whether American-style drag racing is going to spread in this country the next few months will show, but already plans are forming to hold a three-day Festival next summer, with as many as 20 top Americans taking part. Whether British enthusiasts for the sport will have any competitive machinery by then is not known, but the B.D.R.C. will give every encouragement to its members. Meanwhile the National Sprint Association continues with the fostering of motorcycle sprints, and at its final Club Meeting at Duxford aerodrome over 500 individual timed runs were recorded and George Brown set up a new course record with a time of 10.32 sec. for the standing-start ¼-mile, riding Super-Nero, his blown 998-c.c. Vincent.—D. S. J.