drag racing ? what me ?
to be brutally frank, drag racing had never really appealed. whilst the artistry and skill in other forms of racing lies in the mid corner balance of throttle and steering, flogging a car's guts out from a standing start seemed pretty banal; an overblown traffic lights grand prix for those grown out of their xr3s. this perception was reinforced when i was offered a lift to a car show by one of britain's top drag racers who then contrived to demolish the front of a public house in cirencester.
It was only while recently testing sports cars in the USA that I began to appreciate the skill in launching a car off the line quickly and cleanly for the all-important quarter mile time. As Michael Schumacher sat impotently on the grid in Suzuka that year, title aspirations and car stalled, he was probably ruefully pondering the same set of considerations. I had found my way to the marginally less glamorous venue of Santa Pod, spiritual home of British drag racing, in order to be shown how to effect the perfect getaway. My tutor for the day was Chris Bates, a competitor in the Super Gas class, who was bringing his Ford Sierra. Vauxhall had provided me with a Vectra, so I'd initially believed it could be quite an equal contest. Then I saw my opponent's car.
With a lightweight fibreglass body, oil drum wheels, a methanol swilling Chevrolet engine bulging from the bonnet and with a savagely sculpted chin spoiler, this truly was the Jocelyn Wildenstein of Ford Sierras. I chuckled with relief, knowing I had a massive horsepower deficit to fall back on as a ready excuse. After a few runs up the quarter mile in the Vectra, my 17.4 second time was being beaten by all comers. Chris pointed out my mistakes. You're still getting too much wheelspin at the start. Try less revs and let the clutch out quicker. Don't hold onto the gear so long. You'll be quicker changing up earlier. Drive straight. Anyone would think this was difficult. Soon the time was down to 17.1 and I was feeling confident. Get suited up, you're riding with me now barked Chris, striding off towards Jocelyn.
Something about having your arms lashed down to prevent them breaking the window lends certain gravity to the situation. I had sunken into a deep bucket seat, strapped in with a six-point belt and was wearing a thick neck roll, gloves and full-face helmet. Chris climbed in beside and ran through his pre flight procedure before pressing the button. At this point, the big block Chevy engine clattered into life causing a vibration that prevented me seeing straight. It was like being bound onto a pneumatic drill with two tins of ball bearings lashed to your ears. I could not physically focus when the engine was gunned for the burnout as we approached the line.
The Sierra span its back wheels in water to heat up the tyres and to fill the cabin with noxious gases. The sweet smell of the sherry scented methanol filled the cabin. Sherry reminded me of an old aunt who always wanted to kiss me when she was plastered. At that moment I'd have taken Auntie Nelly over what was to come. The timing light showed three ambers and then gr.
An almighty surge scrambled my senses as the huge gumball tyres found a purchase on the VHT glued track. I'd expected to feel pressed into my seat, but all I could register was the savage, brain scrambling vibration. The shaking increased by an order of magnitude, Chris fought to maintain control whilst changing gear and then we were across the line. All in the time it had taken me to yell one wide eyed expletive, which Chris couldn't possibly hear above the manic din.
Back at the 1320 Motorsports trailer, Chris let me know some background. "I started with a Mark 1 Capri, and became addicted. I fund it all through sponsorship and my day job as a tiler. This car will run 0-60 in 1.5 seconds and will do the quarter mile in less than nine seconds. It scared the hell out of me the first time I drove it." I asked the inevitable question. "Yes, I have crashed once. The throttle stuck, I crushed all the timing gear and found myself in a ploughed field." At this point, I declined a second run and wished this certifiable man all the best for the forthcoming season. As I exited the trailer, he appeared at the doorway with a grin. "And I did hear what you said in the car." Touche.