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