Straight up. No messing.
For 50 years Britain’s most innovative nutcases have gathered at Santa Pod to race up the strip. Dragstalgia celebrates this glorious heritage, and gives youngsters a chance to challenge the old boys…
Drag racing has gone full circle. It started with illegal competition on the back roads and dry lakes of America and we’ve seen a return to that kind of informal racing, first at Glemseck with the café racer drag races and now at custom bike events across Europe.
But if you really want to discover the sport’s roots then take a trip to Dragstalgia at Santa Pod. Here, 1960s and ’70s drag bikes and racers are back in action on the strip.
The Pod is the ancestral home of British drag racing. After housing the 92nd Bombardment Group between 1943 and 1945, Santa Pod opened its purpose-built, quarter-mile strip on April 11, 1966. There were 60 entries for this first event, 15 of them pure dragsters and, inevitably, it rained until midday.
The motorcycle element of Dragstalgia draws heavily on machines from the 1970s – a time when the sport vied with road racing and motocross for top billing in the two-wheel media. It was an era of rampant experimentation in the pursuit of speed – twin engine bikes, triple engines, V8s using two four-cylinder motors on purpose-built crankcases, superchargers, turbochargers, increasingly high volumes of nitro methane, big fat slick rear tyres… Drag racing was – and still is – the ultimate search for excessive horsepower and how to put it to the ground.
But two machines at Dragstalgia typify 1960s drag racing. Maurice Brierley’s Methamon supercharged Vincent outfit was one of the machines raced in the 1960s Podington sprints and at Santa Pod in its infancy. And Sheila Neal (right, above), who was there when it all began, was the passenger on this very outfit.
“I rode on Methamon back in 1961/62,” she says. “The bike has the chair on the wrong side because Maurice Brierley only had one leg and used to use the platform to rest his false leg. I used to have to lay backwards in the chair, hence the hand grip for me by the sidecar wheel arch. When Chris Ilman started using the bike he couldn’t work out why the handle was there. The Vincent engine has so much power it’s difficult to hold on coming off the line. You have to hold on tight but it’s such fun.”
Sheila originally got into racing as a passenger for her dad Ossie on a Scott outfit in sprints and hillclimbs. “We were at the Drag Festival (in 1964) and rode in sprints at Podington,” she says. “It was really rough in the old days and you could damage your vehicle just driving into the airfield, the access road was that bad. But most of the airfields we raced at were like that back then.”
Sheila, now in her 70s, has always raced sidecars and solos – and continues to do so with her husband David White.
Another 1960s development was Dragwaye – a weird-looking, supercharged, VW-powered, long-wheelbase device with the rider sat behind the engine. It was the brainchild of a missile engineer called Clive Waye and one of his riders Dave Lecoq ran 9.33s @ 155mph on it in the early 1970s.
Terry Homan restored it just in time for Dragstalgia last year, where it went on display. This year he planned to race it but a few weeks before the event the front wheel bearing broke and Terry went down the road. Despite suffering a shoulder injury he still brought the bike along to Dragstalgia as a reminder of how furtive imaginations were (and still are) among drag racers.
Ian Williams raced at the Pod in the 1970s and ran a 9.4sec with an 800cc Puma Triumph. He’s currently building a brand new doubleengine Triumph in association with Dick Smith of Baron’s Speed Shop fame. Ian says: “There were loads of bikes at the Pod every time back then. The bike pit was 200 yards long.”
“Yeah but the Pod was a hell hole back then,” interjects Chris Ilman, pilot of Methamon.
“Basic in the extreme.”
“There was no Tarmac like there is now,” adds Ian. “The paddock was grass and if it rained it was mud. But we had a lot of fun here. John Hobbs, Ray Law and Jeff Byne all had double engine bikes in the ’70s – they’re here today with them. But people used all sorts of engines.”
They certainly did: Rod Pallant raced a Rover V8; Dave Brock used an MG Midget engine; Jim Balchin had a blown 350 Gold Star; Keith Lee shoehorned a Triumph twin into a scooter; Brian Chapman ran phenomenal times with his Vincents.
“Everyone had different ideas,” adds Chris. “And the crowds were massive – stretching the entire quarter mile bank on the far side of the strip.”
The big draw at the Pod for the bike fraternity were the Americans – people like Tom Christensen with a double-engine Norton called Hogslayer and Dan Johnson with a doubleengine Harley called Goliath who came to take on the top Brits.
Ian says: “I remember watching Danny Johnson thinking he wasn’t fast. His Harley was barely on tickover – or so it seemed. We got such a shock when we saw his times! We used to run stock cranks and rods in our Triumphs. Only a few guys went to Carillo rods. But in even Christensen used to run stock internals in Hogslayer. Mick Butler (one of the Pegasus team) was there when they stripped the Norton engines and it really was quite stock.”
The British-built drag bikes favoured superchargers while the Americans had normally aspirated motors – but ran the things on ridiculous percentages of nitro.
Martin Willmot built and raced a supercharged 500cc Triumph at the Pod in 1980 and cut eight second runs. “I first got interested in drag racing because, as an eight year old, I saw the Americans in the Drag Racing Festival of 1964. I was gob-smacked. My dad used to do scrambles but I thought I could never be as good as him. Drag racing appealed more because not only was it noisy and spectacular, it was only a short burst of activity, which I thought would suit me.
“I’m a tuner as well as a rider too. I think that’s how it is for a lot of us drag racers. I’ve only ever run a single-engine bike. I view doubles and too much work. Three times the work they say. I think the British supercharger influence comes from Spitfires and other aero-engines. The Americans had turbochargers but we always had that knowledge of making a supercharger work well.”
Derek Chinn was one of a three man drag racing team, with Ian Messenger and Mick Butler, that first wowed the British crowds with a supercharged Vincent, and then a double-engined supercharged Norton called Pegasus.
He agrees with Martin about the roots of engine development but says the Americans had a wider influence on drag racing. “Until we went to the States we only used small amounts of nitro. With our Vincent it was maybe 25-30 percent. When we went to Indy in 1970 it was on 50 percent and I recall talking to one of the Americans and he said 50 percent was the mix they used for warm-ups! They were on 90 percent plus! We saw one engine blow up on the starting rollers – blew the rear cylinder clean off a Harley motor and sent it flying through the air!
“Pod paid for our US trip. Dennis Norman came with us. He had a Triumph double.” ‘Stormin’ as he was known is now in his 80s but was at the Pod with his Triumph and a later Norton double for his son to ride.
“American influences? They had huge MH slicks. We only had 4in Avon slicks developed with George Brown and his Vincent in the 1960s.
The Americans also had long strokes, big bores and in 1972 we built a 1700cc Vincent but sold the bike before we could full develop it. Bike magazine sponsored us and we got Norton engines – going along the same route as Christensen – and that started us on Pegasus.”
The big rival to Pegasus in the UK was The Hobbit, built and raced by John Hobbs. At last year’s Dragstalgia, Hobbs celebrated 50 years of drag racing and 40 years of The Hobbit.
Hobbs earned sponsorship from Motor Cycle (a weekly rival to MCN in the 1970s) which allowed him to build a supercharged, double engine Weslake which ran eights back in the day. This year, in his first run on the bike all season, Hobbs laid down a 9.1s @ 148.14mph. Still impressively quick.
Hobbs reckons he never ran over 60 percent nitro in the bike in the period but Chinn says the Pegasus team used to go to 80 percent in a bid to beat him – though they only ran on 65 percent for Dragstalgia.
Pegasus hadn’t run for over 30 years – it had been in the National Motorcycle Museum – and its re-appearance was plagued by niggling faults despite a lot of hard work. Chinn says: “Ian had rebuilt it, ready to race, before it went to the museum, so it’s got all the right components in it. We bought new tyres, changed the hydraulic seals and fitted new blower belts. We took the timing cover off to replace the crankcase seals too – lots of little jobs to get it to the stage where we could run it.”
Like many of the 1970s racers, both Derek and Ian were drawn into the sport after watching racing in the early days of the Pod. Derek recalls: “We came here to spectate in 1966 when EJ Potter, better known as the Michigan Madman was here [with a Chevy V8 motor slung across a bike frame, EJ deserved the moniker]. Ian adds: “I was a member of the Bedford Eagles motorcycle club and I can remember my dad telling me there was a sprint on at Podington and that I should go. I came here on my Triumph 350 in May 1965. I got the bug from that and we got started.”
Derek adds: “In 1967, Ian, me and Mick Butler built a 600 Panther. We were talking in a pub about what to do and Mick said he had a Panther behind the shed. He had planned to dig a hole and just rev it flat out as see what happened. Ian said, ‘don’t do that., let’s drag race it.’ We raced it for a year and guy called Colin Jefferies still owns it.”
The Pegasus crew quit in 1981. “John built The Hobbit and he had his two-speed transmission. We should have gone to a new chassis, new trannie, bigger rear tyre but we kept going with what we had and every two weeks the whole engine had to come apart. There was a lot of interest in the bikes back then. Henk Vink came from Holland and we went over there, and to Sweden. By 1981 though, we had businesses, young families and didn’t have the time to continue.”
It’s wonderful that so many original racers and their bikes are back in action at Dragstalgia but the event also proved there’s still plenty of youthful interest in classic drag racing.
Chris ‘Hem’ Emmens and a bunch of mates run a supercharged Triumph called Christal Methanol. Hem wants to run tens and says the motor has a Nourish crank, Carillo rods, modified T140 top end, Z-cams, Bewley two-speed box, Lees Engineering crankcases and an AMR500 supercharger. Focal point of the rolling chassis is a 1960s sprint frame that was discovered at an autojumble.
The rookie of the pack is 27-year-old Rory Adcock with a neat looking 1956 650cc Thunderbird that was originally raced between 1970 and 1974. Rory has a 750 Triumph Tiger he bought from the States with 6000 miles on it and uses it as his daily rider. He’s also built a 1960s Triumph chopper with a ’68 Bonnie motor. And has a 1983 XS650 Yamaha flattracker he built when he was 17.
“I was lucky to come across this Triumph,” he says. “A friend of mine was in Peter’s garage and noticed the rear slick of a bike under a sheet. Pete didn’t want to sell the bike at the time but became very ill and sold it to me because he knew I was interested in drag racing. He didn’t want it to go to a collector.” Dragstalgia is Rory’s first meeting on the Triumph but despite this he runs strong nines:
“It’s fairly stock inside. But it has big cams, lightened timing gears and runs on high octane fuel – not methanol and no nitro. It goes well so I’m not about to modify it. “It’s great how super-friendly everyone is in the paddock. I got chatting to one guy with a Weslake and that made my weekend.” So there it is, drag racing’s history circle completed with a couple of youngsters enticed to experience the heady nitro-fuelled mix of speed, noise, tyre smoke and competition on the quarter mile strip.