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MON­STERS: DRAG RAC­ING THE ORIG­I­NAL Sammy Miller brought jet power to the UK drag strips. By Keith Lee

Motor Sport News - - Monsters: Venues - Pho­tos: Keith Lee Images

Drag rac­ing is all about show and go, and the ul­ti­mate in the go de­part­ment was un­doubt­edly pro­vided by rocket propul­sion, which proved it­self in achiev­ing the quick­est elapsed times and high­est speeds ever recorded for the stand­ing start quar­ter mile. Even more amaz­ing is the fact that the record marks were set over 30 years ago by the most fa­mous of these ex­hi­bi­tion ma­chines.

One of the most talked about driv­ers ever to race down the Santa Pod quar­ter mile dur­ing its 50 year his­tory was the late Slamin’ Sammy Miller. The ge­nial racer from New Jer­sey, Amer­ica made a huge im­pres­sion on all of those who first saw him come over to Europe in his Vega-bod­ied rocket funny car back in Septem­ber 1978. It was to be the first of many ap­pear­ances by the hugely pop­u­lar racer.

For those used to see­ing a fire-breath­ing Top Fuel drag­ster or funny car, where the noise hits you hard from the burnout prior to a run, a rocket is some­thing dif­fer­ent. There is no noise at all, apart from when the throt­tle is briefly hit to let the hy­dro­gen per­ox­ide prime the cat­a­lyst pack. Af­ter the fan­fare came the count­down by the com­men­ta­tor and crowd: 5-4-3-2-1-GO, and the guided mis­sile launched in a crescendo of noise in front of the star­tled on­look­ers. It would be the start of an ex­cit­ing pe­riod of demon­stra­tion rocket ac­tion at the home of Bri­tish drag rac­ing.

The amaz­ing thing is that on most runs the car is only fu­elled to burn for around 1/8 mile due to the prob­lem of stop­ping dis­tance if pow­er­ing through the whole quar­ter, when ter­mi­nal speeds would reach 400mph. On a few oc­ca­sions the car and driver ended up in the field at the end of the track. As it was not wheel driven, Sammy was not averse to run­ning on a track which would be deemed un­suit­able for a con­ven­tional drag­ster, so as not to dis­ap­point his fans.

Be­fore em­bark­ing on rac­ing rock­ets, Sammy had paid his dues rac­ing both Funny Cars and drag­sters – and got the scars to show for it fol­low­ing en­gine ex­plo­sions in com­pe­ti­tion. The risk of fiery ex­plo­sions was a thing of the past with the move to rocket propul­sion, but a num­ber of rac­ers were killed in the early days of blast power.

Sammy got drives in a cou­ple of rocket drag­sters, which he hoped would lead to a crack at the Land Speed Record with the Tony Fox-backed Pol­lu­tion Packer team. That came to noth­ing, so Sammy set to work, and de­buted the first ever rocket funny car.

The Spirit of ’76 sported a fi­bre­glass Ford Mus­tang bodyshell. This was fol­lowed by the first of a string of cars that would re­ally make his name – Van­ish­ing Point.

The sleek Chevy Vega-bod­ied pro­jec­tile wowed the US fans, and wor­ried the gov­ern­ing body with his speeds, be­fore com­ing across the pond to light up strips in Europe over the next few years. Amer­ica’s loss was our gain, as fans lapped up the chance to see the quick­est-ac­cel­er­at­ing car in the world, as Sammy clocked an ever quicker string of record set­ting runs.

Sammy was one of those char­ac­ters that was al­ways on the go, and look­ing for the next chal­lenge. Back in his home coun­try he had a newly com­pleted rocket pow­ered drag­ster sat in his garage, and still had a de­sire to set a land speed record. So he set to work on the sleek ma­chine in or­der to achieve his goal. En­joy­ing the chal­lenge of do­ing some­thing dif­fer­ent, some un­usual mod­i­fi­ca­tions were re­quired to the four­wheeled ma­chine be­fore go­ing record break­ing at Lake Ge­orge in nearby New York state. These mods in­volved fit­ting skis to the pro­jec­tile, as Sammy pre­pared to go for the ice speed record!

Ver­i­fied by Guin­ness, the blue Oxy­gen rocket hit 247mph in only 1/8 mile to claim the record mark. Later that same year he re­fit­ted the wheels, and shipped the ma­chine over to the UK to set up his lat­est spec­ta­cle. This in­volved side-by-side match rac­ing fel­low rocket man Al Eir­dam in an amaz­ing se­ries. Two rock­ets out on track re­ally is some­thing to ex­pe­ri­ence.

The high point of Miller’s rocket driv­ing came in 1984. Booked to ap­pear at Santa Pod for the July In­ter­na­tional meet­ing, Van­ish­ing Point clocked a record break­ing mark of 3.58s/386mph – a fig­ure that would stand as the quick­est ever quar­ter mile time recorded. To put it in per­spec­tive, the of­fi­cial NHRA record for Top Fuel Drag­ster at that time was 5.39s.

In the early 80s, Sammy teamed up with top Dutch drag bike rider Henk Vink to help build a rocket-pow­ered bike for the Dutch­man to ride. By 1985 it was the quick­est ac­cel­er­at­ing bike in the world, turn­ing mid-six sec­ond times.

The sport’s Amer­i­can gov­ern­ing body, the Na­tional Hot Rod As­so­ci­a­tion, strictly con­trolled top speeds of the cars due to wor­ries of how fast they were, com­bined with a num­ber of fa­tal accidents, which was a ma­jor fac­tor in Sammy spend­ing so much time in Europe rac­ing.

When he re­turned here af­ter a break be­tween 1986 and 1994, there was an­other big prob­lem in that sup­plies of the cor­rect pu­rity of high con­cen­tra­tion fuel were no longer avail­able to pur­chase for civil­ian use. This had a big im­pact on per­for­mance, and un­for­tu­nately for both Sammy and his le­gion of fans, he was never able to re­peat the ear­lier record per­for­mances on the track. Af­ter a break of seven years, Sammy came back for what turned out to be his fi­nal ap­pear­ance at Santa Pod in 2002. Just a few months later, he was killed while work­ing at an oil field in Texas.

More than a racer and show­man, Sammy Miller was one of those rare peo­ple who left ev­ery­one who met him with the feel­ing that he was their friend. He al­ways took the time to stop and chat with any­body, how­ever busy he was. A true leg­end in the his­tory of drag rac­ing, who will for­ever be re­mem­bered for his amaz­ing con­tri­bu­tion to the sport’s his­tory. ■

Jbk jkkb kjkb bkbkjk­bkjkb Van­ish­ing Point broke new ground

Sammy Miller was a true pioneer in drag rac­ing Jet-pow­ered car wowed the Santa Pod en­thu­si­asts

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