The standing-start quarter-mile

The distance of a quarter of a mile, or 440 yards, is one that has a particular interest to motoring enthusiasts, for it is a standard distance used by most road-testers over which to time the acceleration potential of various cars. Naturally it is not the be-all and end-all of acceleration figures, but it is the easiest and most convenient way of offering comparisons. The time taken to cover a standing-start quarter-mile is one that gives a good idea of how a car will perform and is of particular interest to those of us who like to be first away from the traffic lights. Saloon cars in the family category that can cover the distance in 20 sec. are very lively ones, and sports cars and G.T. cars that can do 17 sec. are interesting to drive. A car that can beat 16 sec. is getting exciting, and today we have fully equipped G.T. cars that can better 15 sec.

The ultimate in road cars as regards performance are things such as E-types, DB4GTs, 250GTs and these can show figures in the region of 14.5 sec. for the quarter-mile, and we all know how exciting these cars are to ride in, let alone drive. This gives us our sense of proportion and a yardstick for what is to follow.

This quarter-mile distance is one that is often used for Club sprints in which we can all enjoy proving that our car is better than our friend’s, and throughout the season there is a lot of activity in quarter-mile sprints, but few people build special cars for the job. In America the situation grew in the reverse way, for enthusiasts built special cars and raced against each other on the open road in sprints, or “Drags” as the Californians called them. The sport got so out of hand that the Californian police nearly lost control, and the State realised that the easiest way to stop this sprint-racing on the public road was to channel it into special places, and as a result every encouragement was given to organise sprint-meetings on aerodromes and this soon developed into a gigantic sport and self-supporting industry with special sprint-tracks being built.

Times for the quarter-mile were being set up that were hard to believe, and speeds at the end of the measured distance were becoming phenomenal to British ears, for we still had sports or racing cars as our only standards, no-one over here building a car especially for the job. There were occasional flashes of encouragement, such as Archie Butterworth’s 4-W-D special which did the quarter in just over 12 sec., but American cars were approaching 10 sec. by this time. The first real shock came when some of these American sprint specialists broke International records for the kilometre and mile from standing starts, that had previously been held by Auto-Union, and after that the “Drag-boys” took just about every acceleration record on the International books.

While the car world in Europe showed little interest in sprints, the motorcycle world was getting more and more active, and the motorcyclists got together and formed the National Sprint Association, and put quarter-mile sprints on a sound footing and special motorcycles appeared thick and fast. Runs in under 11 sec. were frequently achieved on 1,000-c.c. motorcycles, the fastest ever was 10.02 sec. and the two-way record was set at 10.49 sec., but by this time American cars were well under 10 sec. The N.S.A. was open to all forms of wheeled sprint machines, which meant motor-cars, and two years ago Sydney Allard built an American styled “slingshot dragster,” with a blown Chrysler engine. The N.S.A. had not only formulated standardised procedures for starting, timing and measuring, but from voluntary subscriptions among members had purchased a Hird-Brown Beam Timing apparatus and one-hundredth of a second time recorders. Allard’s temperamental machine eventually did 10.48 sec. on its best run, and more than one motorcycle could approach this figure, but figures in the low nines, and even under 9 sec. were being recorded in America by supercharged 500-b.h.p. cars and many of us in the N.S.A. wanted to see this, because we knew just what effort was needed to do 10.5 sec. (I personally know the effort required to get a 500 c.c. motorcycle down to 13.5 sec.)

On September 10th, at Silverstone, .on the Club circuit starting from Woodcote corner and heading towards Beckett’s, members of the Press and a few guests were able to see a real no-nonsense American “dragster” powered by a supercharged Chevrolet V8 engine of about 5 litres, cover the quarter-mile in 9.48 sec., with a speed over the finishing line of 167 m.p.h. The demonstration was timed by the N.S.A. equipment and timekeepers, and I can personally vouch for it being a genuine standing start as I was on duty at the starting line assisting the judges. It was the most shattering and exciting thing that I have seen for quite a long time, the noise, and smoke from the tyres, being more than a whole Grand Prix field can put together at a start. The engine is coupled directly to the rear axle, the whole run being done in one gear, so that wheelspin is essential, and the black marks on the track ran tor two-thirds of the measured quarter-mile.

To keep a sense of proportion, George Brown clocked 10.86 sec. and 141 m.p.h. over the finishing line, on a demonstration on the same course, riding his supercharged 1000 c.c. Vincent motorcycle, and it was one of his better runs.

This memorable day was organised by the Allard Motor Company and Revell (Great Britain) Ltd. The American parent company of Revell, who manufacture plastic model kits which feature everything from cars to period furniture, are the owners of the Dragster that did the demonstration, and it was operated by the designer and builder Dean Moon, and driven by Dante Duce, a fearless young man who is not afraid “to put his foot right in it” as they say. Naturally, a car with this performance costs many thousands of pounds to build, but to show how one can start in a much more modest way in the “art of sprinting,” Allen Herridge did a run on his 8-cylinder Buick-engined special and Tony Densham ran his supercharged Classic engined “dragster,” a scaled-down version of the real thing with which he clocked 14.66 sec. There are plenty of Clubs ready to organise events for out-and-out “drag machines” and it is hoped that this demonstration will encourage this form of sport on four wheels. As I said earlier, it needs no encouragement on two wheels, for it is already in a very healthy state, which is why some readers missed reports by me of races at Karlskoga and Enna. I was taking my summer holiday and riding my sprint-bike in two quarter-mile sprint meetings.—D. S. J.