On the road: from 300mph-plus terminal speeds to Transits and trailers on the M3

Car Culture

Simon Arron takes in the raw and visceral sights of drag racing at Santa Pod, the historic celebration that is the Goodwood Revival and another breakfast at Mallory Park in this month’s on the road

Harry Belafonte tried to remember the kind of September, “when life was slow and oh so mellow, when grass was green and grain was yellow”. Admirable sentiments, but is that any match for the kind of September that blends a Mallory Park breakfast with extreme sensory overload, four-wheel drifts in the shadow of the South Downs and the engaging purity of an old-fashioned Saturday at Thruxton?


MALLORY PARK, September 1

“D’you have the relevant insurance sir? You do, that’s excellent. No, there’s no need to see a certificate – just so long as you’re covered…”

Motorcycle clubbies retain a charming administrative simplicity – a level of trust, if you like – that has long been lost in other spheres of the sport. No matter whether they’ve never met you before, the officials make you feel ever welcome.

And that’s before you’ve commenced the day in the appropriate manner, with sausage, egg, mushroom and beans at the Lakeside Diner.

The paddock is absolutely rammed ahead of the second day at this CRMC (Classic Racing Motorcycle Club) meeting and it takes place on a version of Mallory I haven’t previously seen used.

The main chicane on the back straight – formally known as Edwina’s, in honour of late former managing director Edwina Overend, who did so much in the early 1980s to keep the venue afloat – is not in use, simply because the club doesn’t consider its bikes quick enough to require slowing when approaching the Esses.

They look brisk within Mallory’s compact confines, however, and while riding standards vary from ‘committed’ to ‘casual’, the racing is for the most part close and engaging.

It’s not just the track action that captivates, however, but the atmosphere that envelops the whole event. There are a few shiny Mercedes Sprinters in service, but there is also a T-registered Leyland Sherpa, a scruffy, 40-year-old van being used to convey a mint racing cargo.

This is a world in which expenditure is devoted to the stuff that most matters, the elements with two (or three) wheels.


SANTA POD, September 7

Presently the only permanently active drag strip in Britain, Santa Pod has evolved since it opened 53 years ago – though in parts the clock seems have stopped in about 1974.

The technical term for this is ‘a good thing’. It’s a fusion of past and present, with lots of high-end electronics – though spanners appear to have at least parallel importance.

It’s wise not to leave it too long between visits to FIA European Drag Championship events, because a couple of years away renders you liable to forget the unmatched sensory overload of standing close to a top fuel dragster at launch.

Hence my tendency to duck when I’m supposed to be attempting a photograph… It’s perhaps a little unhealthy to be sprayed with the tiny rubber fibres concealed within every burst of tyre smoke, but it is simultaneously intoxicating.

Standing in the Monaco tunnel was always an immense privilege when Formula 1 cars were doing low-fuel runs, but this is probably the closest you can get to knowing how it would feel to be strapped to the back of a Typhoon.

Plus, you get to eavesdrop as two blokes earnestly discuss whether the Land Rover they just saw was a Series I or a Series II

Some of the key numbers? Norwegian Maja Udtian was fastest top fuel qualifier in 3.806sec (a new European record) at 315.52mph, but she was unable to make the final in which this year’s European champion Anita Mäkela – in the real world a 58-year-old chicken farmer from Vilppula, Finland – recorded her 15th FIA top fuel victory.

There are no elaborate architectural conceits here: it’s just sound and vision, non-stop entertainment for all ages (unless it rains, which isn’t unknown on the Northants/Bedfordshire border) – and if you want to keep youngsters engaged, what better prop could there be than a cannon that fires freebie T-shirts into the audience?

None of this is particularly complicated, but all of it seems to work.


GOODWOOD, September 13

There is, perhaps, ever more of a case to be made for Friday being the most sensible time to attend the Goodwood Revival. For one, you get to see every category of car on track during a day that concludes with the sunset-dappled Kinrara Trophy.

For another, there are no prolonged gaps. The weekend’s two Settrington Cup pedal car races are all well and good for those with family connections, or else watching from a grandstand adjacent to the main straight, but if you happen to be at the far side of the circuit – where Goodwood’s best corners lurk, and showcase traditional  suspension dynamics to best effect – then such interludes are simply dead time.

You don’t get that on a Friday.

The other curiosity – and this seems to apply every day – is the fact the racing often seems to be almost a sideshow. People flock around the chicane to watch, even though it’s not a spectacular vantage point by Goodwood standards, and a healthy number look on from Madgwick or Woodcote, but there seem to be far more gathered around the trade stands and bars, enjoying the occasion without necessarily taking on board the reason why the event first came into being 21 years ago.

Any gripes? A £2.95 charge for accessing your own money through an on-site ATM, plus the ongoing disfigurement of so many old cars through the use of ever more grotesque roll-hoops they weren’t designed to accommodate, but for the most part the competitive body language overrides all.

It’s not quite as antique as it was in period, perhaps, but it’s still significantly more rewarding than watching a field of cars overly laden with downforce.

Plus, while queuing to get through one of the twin tunnels on the pit straight, you get to eavesdrop as two blokes earnestly discuss whether the Land Rover they just saw was a Series I or a Series II – and why.

Probably not the kind of forensic discussion you’d hear in Sochi.


THRUXTON, September 21

The passing of open trailers was once part of almost every weekend’s racing ritual. Set off sufficiently early and you’d spot kindred spirits hauling their Ford Escort or Mini towards the same place you were heading.

They wouldn’t have been testing for two days beforehand; it was simply a matter of pitch up, unload, scrutineering bay, compete, reload, go home.

It’s a phenomenon you can still see if you pick the right event at a suitable location – the Classic Sports Car Club meeting at Thruxton, for instance.

There weren’t quite as many racing cars on the M3 as there were Toyota Prius owners hogging the central lane when there was only emptiness to their left, but it was a close-run thing.

Conditions could hardly have been better. Cloudless skies, a gentle breeze and an autumnal chill: walking (or cycling) to the far side of the track didn’t feel too much of a chore and (hopefully) rendered that lunchtime portion of chips calorie-neutral.

The CSCC’s boundless diversity is mentioned often, but it becomes ever more beguiling with each passing campaign. Ford Escorts retain their competitive frequency at venues around the land, but the Donner family’s Motocraft-liveried Mk1 is a particularly elegant specimen.

And when was the last time you saw a Reliant SS1 in any configuration, let alone race trim?

People often say things were better in the past, but there are times when it’s hard to separate past from present.

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