2nd International Drag Festival

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Last year the British Drag Racing Association arranged for a selection of American vehicles and drivers to visit this country and stage demonstrations of what American Drag Racing was all about, while at the same time a variety of British cars and motorcycles went through the motions of an American-type Drag meeting, running in pairs on a knock-out or elimination basis. Without doubt the stars of the demonstrations were the two big supercharged dragsters of Garlits and Ivo, these two drivers putting on some very impressive paired runs clocking just over 8 sec. for the standing-start 0.25-mile, with terminal speeds of well over 190 m.p.h. Many of us were not only impressed by the two class AA/FD cars, running on nitro-methane fuel with a supercharger the size of a Mini engine and pushing out 900-1,000 b.h.p.„ but were really enthusiastic about the sight, sound, smell and speed of these out-and-out racing machines, untrammelled by restrictive regulations as are most European competition cars. There were many Americans at those British Drag meetings of 1964 who said we should go to a Championship meeting, where anything up to two or three dozen such cars and drivers perform. The mind began to boggle a bit.

This year the British Drag Racing Association organised another visit by an American team and it comprised eight cars and drivers all in the top class of Drag Racing, running AA/FD fuel-burning dragsters, and they came with the intention of racing against each other in all seriousness, not. to give demonstration runs. Due to the motoring politics of this country the organising of the meetings at which these eight cars were going to perform had to be put into the hands of ordinary motor clubs and in the hands of a lot of people who did not appear to know the difference between Drag and Drug, With the result that the 2nd International Drag Festival was a bit of a shambles. Fearing that the paying public would not be satisfied with seeing eight really powerful cars in action, the organisers gathered together a motley collection of cars in a great variety of classes, more or less like an ordinary British sprint meeting or hill-climb and trying to run them in pairs as at a true Drag meeting seemed beyond the capabilities of the organisers who shall remain nameless for obvious reasons. In addition to the eight nitro-burning V8-engined dragsters there were also a half-dozen American motorcyclists,with some very potent machinery. In this country the motorcycle-exponents of the sprint 0.25-mile are the best there are, and we could field a team of six to match anyone, so the appearance of the six Americans was most welcome for there was every possibility of a real Anglo-American battle. With cars the story is different, for people have only just started to build specialised machinery for the-standing-start 0.25-mile, and we are 10 to 15 years behind the Americans. As with the car entry the motorcycle entry from this country was run as an ordinary sprint meeting, with classes for nearly all types of motorcycle, and the American bikes were put in the various classes according to engine sizes, just as our bikes were. The result of all this was a vast programme of events that perfect organisation would have been hard put to get through, and the muddled organisation that prevailed had little hope. To add to the difficulties the weather did not help.

Of the two meetings at Blackbushe Airport in Surrey, the less said the better, for the Saturday meeting had to be abandoned halfway through because of torrential rain. None of the big dragsters ran at all, which was hardly surprising, because 100 b.h.p. in the wet is pretty uncontrollable, so imagine what 1,000 b.h.p. would be like. On Sunday the rain was intermittent, with some dry spells, but the track was never dry. The Americans all did some gentle solo runs, never having driven their dragsters on a wet surface before and they put on a fantastic show of skill and bravery. Going down the straight in full-lock slides many of them broke 10 sec. and recorded terminals of well over 150 m.p.h. and while the large and very wet crowd of spectators appreciated the efforts, it was not what they had come to see. The dreaded rain had turned a most promising week-end into a complete flop.

The following week-end another meeting was organised at the R.A.F. aerodrome at Woodvale, near Southport, and this time the weather was kind, but the organisation even more ” shambolic.” A very large crowd turned up to see the-eight Americans put on a pocket-size Drag meeting, and they were not disappointed, even though the gaps between were pretty awful. These American drivers, owners and mechanics, were all experienced drag racers, who really knew what they were doing and in spite of the muddled British organisation they put on a show that must have “sold ” American Drag racing to everyone who witnessed it. In the morning they each did a solo run to get the feel of the track, some of the times being around the 8 Sec. mark, with terminal speeds of over 190 m.p.h. and there was an incredible air of expectancy surrounding the American camp, for not only was this a serious competition, but they had big prize money involved.

These big American dragsters with Chrysler, Plymouth or Chevrolet V8 engines, topped by huge superchargers and burping nitro-methane fuel, do not run for long, and once having run they have to be left for quite a time to cool off before they run again, so that action by the eight cars could not be continuous, there had to he intervals. It was during these intervals that it was intended to run British-built dragsters, driven by people who are only just getting into the game, but unfortunately they were all grouped in with sports cars, GT cars and hill-climb cars, in the Multitude or classes and they barely had time to get themselves sorted out, let alone much opportunity to make runs, and the motorcycle classes were equally disorganised.

After lunch the eight Americans were ready for their first heats of the elimination contest, which is the whole point of Drag Racing, and they presented themselves in the starting area in pairs, all ready to go. You cannot run these powerful engines for very long, for their only cooling is the water in the heads and block, and the alcohol fuel, so they are taken up the 0.25-mile and then push-started on the way back towards the start line. They come down the strip with the engines idling, each turn a semi-circle in the starting area and are then ready on the line. A few quick blips on the throttle which produces a noise like you never have heard before and the starter gives them the ” ready ” signal, to which they reply with a nod of the head. The flag goes up and all hell breaks loose as wheels spin, engines roar and everything disappears in a cloud of rubber smoke, and the two ears are gone. A standing-start 0.25-mile in under 8 sec., with a speed through the traps at the end of 200 m.p.h. This was recorded in the second heat, when Ongais beat Keith, and again in the third heat when Cortines beat Nancy. The speed through the traps at the end of the .1-mile is measured by light beams actuating a timer that is accurate to 1/1,000th of a second, while the elapsed time for the 0.25-mile is measured by another set of light beams and a similar timer. You don’t use stop-watches or Longine clocks for these sort of speeds, you use electronic time counters. After the eight Americans had run their first round of the elimination they were all pushed back to the paddock to cool off and the four winners got ready to run the semi-finals later in the day. The time between was filled in by the British cars and the motorcycles, and Allan Allard in the latest Chrysler-engined Allard dragster did a brilliant run in 9.71 sec., with a terminal speed of 167 m.p.h. and later he improved on this with 9.30 sec., showing that a British-built and driven car is beginning to get the hang of really fast 0.25-miles. With the building of dragsters still in its infancy in Britain there is as yet no very clear pattern, but there is quite a good nucleus of people and machines on a small and modest scale, using 150 b.h.p. and getting E-type Jaguar performance as a starting off point.

The four heat winning Americans turned out again for their semi-finals and again Ongais and Cortines got under 8 sec., to win their heats, so the final run-off was to be between them. As they had both broken 8 sec. and recorded 200 m.p.h. the final was obviously going to be a real needle match, but when Ongais returned from the far end of the strip it was heard that his clutch had broken on that last run. Undaunted he set to work to replace it, helped by other Americans, while the really quick motorcycles ran their eliminations, the battle for the fastest time of the day being hotly contested between British and American riders; the Americans using British Triumph engines in their special machines.

Right at the end of the day, when darkness had almost fallen, Ongais came out of the paddock and joined Cortines, who had been waiting, and they came up to the line, engines running and all set for the big final. The sun had long since gone down, and in the dusk the stub pipes of the dragsters blew out multi-coloured flames, with strange greens and blues flickering eerily. The starter leapt in the air with the “go ” flag, Cortines shot away, but Ongais did not move. The front of his engine was literally Sparkling like phosphorus’, as the elecktron casing of the blower manifold burned, for it had split wide open as he blipped the engine for the take-off. The fire brigade soon smothered everything with foam, and meantime Cortines had disappeared into the gloom at a fantastic rate., to set f.t.d. with 7.74 sec. and a terminal speed of 201 m.p.h. It was an incredible climax to an exhibition of true professional Drag Racing, run in all seriousness by eight very fast and brave drivers, and if that was real Drag Racing then I feel we could do with a lot more of it, it really is powerful stuff.

In order to make the whole affair clearer I append a break-down of’ the elimination contest, with times and terminal speeds for each run of the eight American drivers. Some of the times and speeds do not at first appear to tie up, but are explained by drivers lifting off before the finish, thus getting a low terminal speed, or rolling through the starting lights before they have really got the power on, which gives a poor elapsed time, but a high terminal speed.

Judging by the crowds that turned out for this 2nd International Drag Festival, even at the rainy Blackbushe meeting, it would seem that Drag Racing. has come to stay in this country. From the British competitors point of view there is plenty of enthusiasm for this sport and dragsters are beginning to appear, albeit in varying shapes and sizes at the moment, but these are early days and you cannot build a machine in a few weeks; nor can you expect to get it working properly first time out. The Americans showed us what big-time professional Drag Racing is like. At the moment the British competitors are doing it as a spare-time sport, starting on something that is entirely new to special builders, and the progress made in a short time is encouraging. As an outlet for special-building, engine tuning, ingenuity and letting-off steam, 0.25-mile Drag Racing has a great potential. There is a feeling that all we can do is to copy the American cars, and use American engines, but the answer is ” why not ?” The fast American bikes all use British Triumph twin engines, and the Indianapolis crowd were not too proud to copy European car designs, so let us not be proud, but get on with the job of having fun and enjoying ourselves.

Before leaving the Woodvale meeting I must record the results of motorcycle runs, well run by the riders, but badly organised by the officials. The battle for f.t.d. was between flagon with his supercharged 1,150-c.c. vee-twin J.A.P.-engined machine, and the American Perry with a special bike with two 650-c.c. Triumph Twin engines mounted one behind the other. Third was George Brown with his supercharged 1,147-c.c. vee-twin Vincent and fourth was American Jim Cook with an unblown 650-c.c. Triumph-engined machine.—D. S. J.