THE UK DRAG STRIP’S
This year Santa Pod Raceway celebrates its 50th Anniversary. Robin Jackson picks out 10 THE BEGINNING
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.