THE UK DRAG STRIP’S

This year Santa Pod Race­way cel­e­brates its 50th An­niver­sary. Robin Jack­son picks out 10 THE BE­GIN­NING

Motor Sport News - - Santa Pod At 50 -

Ar­guably Amer­ica’s quin­tes­sen­tial home­grown mo­tor­sport, drag rac­ing had its Bri­tish ad­her­ents too by the early 1960s, mostly in­spired by read­ing the im­ported hot-rod­ding mag­a­zines of the era. Chief among the early con­verts was Syd­ney Al­lard, sportscar man­u­fac­turer and rac­ing/rally driver, who built the UK’S first drag­ster in 1961, partly to ad­vance his new-found sprint­ing in­ter­ests.

In 1964 and 1965, Al­lard and Wally Parks, founder of Amer­ica’s Na­tional Hot Rod As­so­ci­a­tion, brought all-star drag rac­ing teams from the USA to per­form on air­fields around the coun­try. Im­pressed by what they saw (and heard), a group of busi­ness­man-en­thu­si­asts de­ter­mined that Bri­tain should have a per­ma­nent venue for the sport, and se­lected a dis­used wartime air­field on the Bed­ford­shireNorthamp­ton­shire bor­der. They named it Santa Pod – ‘Santa’ to evoke vi­sions of Santa Ana, scene of Cal­i­for­nia’s first com­mer­cial drag race in 1950, and ‘Pod’ af­ter the nearby vil­lage, Pod­ing­ton.

Santa Pod opened for busi­ness on Easter Mon­day, April 10, 1966. With sad, supreme irony, Syd­ney Al­lard died two days later.

June 2, 2002 was a sig­nal date in mo­tor­sport – a rac­ing car ex­ceeded 300mph for the first time on a Euro­pean race­track. In fact, not just one car achieved the feat but two, run­ning side-by-side in an epic con­fronta­tion.

Top Fuel rac­ers Barry Sheav­ills and Andy Carter crossed Santa Pod’s fin­ish line along­side one an­other, each top­ping the triple-ton. Sheav­ills reached the line first and so is cred­ited as the first Euro­pean driver to break the 300mph bar­rier. In­deed, he punched it aside with speed to spare, clock­ing 304.71mph al­lied to an elapsed time of 4.970 sec­onds. Carter’s ET of 4.897s was the quick­est yet achieved in Europe, stop­ping the speed clock at 303.07mph.

Santa Pod is still Europe’s fastest track. In 2010, Carter hit a Euro­pean quar­ter-mile best of 320.19mph. In 2014, Thomas Nataas clocked 316.40mph over Top Fuel’s nowre­duced 1000-foot rac­ing dis­tance. Ev­ery­one loved The Barn. In 1969, a cov­ered ter­race was built be­hind the start line to af­ford fans a unique view di­rectly up the track. It’s a myth that drag rac­ing ma­chin­ery al­ways goes straight, and ev­ery twitch, wig­gle and squirm was vis­i­ble from this van­tage point.

“Ev­ery­one va­cate The Barn,” the com­men­ta­tors would in­struct as jet cars were towed to the line – and ev­ery­one would pile in, ea­ger to be smoked and blasted. It is with good rea­son that drag rac­ing is de­scribed as the most sen­sory spec­ta­tor ex­pe­ri­ence in mo­tor­sport.

For health and safety rea­sons, The Barn was de­mol­ished in 2007. To­day’s VIP Hos­pi­tal­ity units hug the start­line area on both sides, with a third unit at mid-track. In par­tic­u­lar, the Bank­side suites of­fer a close­ness to the ac­tion un­ri­valled any­where in the world. As home to a mo­tor­sport of such speed and me­chan­i­cal vi­o­lence, Santa Pod has ex­pe­ri­enced mer­ci­fully few deaths and se­ri­ous in­juries in its 50 years. But two tragic in­ci­dents are par­tic­u­larly poignantly re­mem­bered.

Al­lan ‘Boot­sie’ Her­ridge was a pi­o­neer of the sport, first as an in­de­pen­dent racer and con­struc­tor and later as Santa Pod’s res­i­dent driver/builder. Her­ridge was killed in 1983 when the jet-en­gined Funny Car he was test­ing crashed.

Dar­rell Gwynn was the ris­ing young gi­ant of NHRA’S Top Fuel scene in the late 1980s, an­other star brought from the States to Santa Pod. Gwynn was left paral­ysed from spinal in­juries when his drag­ster’s chas­sis broke at Easter 1990. He later launched the Dar­rell Gwynn Foun­da­tion to raise funds for fel­low spinal in­jury suf­fer­ers.

Al­lard, with his early drag racer, was a key fig­ure

Bank­side VIP area still pro­vides a great view

Carter and Sheav­ills both cracked 300mph

Her­ridge (left) died in ’83; Gwynn crashed in 1990

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