No smoke without fire

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Santa Pod, September 7: FIA European finals at the track of my tears

The warnings are clear enough, but it’s easy to be distracted when you are standing behind a low concrete wall, a matter of feet from a couple of 7000bhp top-fuel dragsters. You’re supposed to avoid nasal breathing, because the adjacent concentration of nitromethane emits a diluted form of tear gas. I forget this momentarily and am rendered instantly lachrymose, but it’s all part of the sensory and palatal overload.

On many occasions I have watched Formula 1 cars thunder through the Monaco tunnel and always assumed automotive drama peaked within its length, but that was before I’d visited Santa Pod. Drag racing originally piqued my attention via the miracle of VHS tapes, but only first-hand experience does the sport justice. When you watch a top-fuel dragster from close quarters, there’s an irresistible urge to duck as it passes by. Gradually, though, you acclimatise and learn to appreciate its improbable force. And so, it seems, does much of the UK. Having peeled from the busy, northbound M1, you find traffic becoming ever denser as you thread through slender country lanes. Even on a practice and qualifying day, Santa Pod’s car parks and campsites are rammed.

Upon arrival, the first competing car I see is David Russell’s Chevrolet V8-powered Marina panel van: not the most obvious weapon, perhaps, but I’m glad he considered it so. It’s all part of the paddock’s endless inventiveness, although my favourite is probably Andy Frost’s FD-series Vauxhall VX4/90. It is licensed and fully road legal, when fitted with suitable wheels and tyres, yet remains capable of crossing the finishing line at the best part of 230mph at the end of a standing quarter-mile. Don’t recall seeing that in the Vauxhall sales brochure circa 1972, or I’d frantically have been steering Arron Sr away from yet another Cortina…

The populous paddock walkways feature a giddy mix of family groups, fascinated fathers accompanied by ‘howfastisthatwillitreach300mph?’ kids while mum shows a blend of tolerance and keen interest. And where else in sport can you find a VIP suite that appears to have started life as a corrugated hut?

For a few days each year, this converted wartime airbase – formerly known as RAF Podington – becomes Northamptonshire’s cosmopolitan hub, with Dutch, Swedish or German as widely spoken as English (depending where you happen to be standing in the paddock). There are burger vans, of course, but sweet and savoury pancakes are likewise available (cheese and spring onion highly recommended).

The action might be fleeting – for individuals, at least – but that means there’s absolutely no margin for error. Top teams thus bring a zillion different head gaskets, to make sure they have something perfectly suited to the prevailing climatic conditions. And that’s why, during the final seconds before launch, you see gangs of helpers trying to brush away contaminating flecks from tall rear slicks. There’s only one person strapped deep within the missile, but this is a team sport – and the whoops and high fives tell you as much, every time a driver shaves half a millinothing from his or her car’s previous best.

The numbers might be small, but they mean an awful lot.

Simon Arron

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