In Pod We Trust
In 1943, an aerodrome known as RAF Podington became home to the 92nd Bombardment Group: one of the first squadrons of the US Air Force to be based in the UK during World War II. This was the first occasion this sometimes quiet corner of Bedfordshire became home to a slice of American life. But it wasn’t to be the last.
21 years after VE Day, long after the air crew and B–17 bombers had headed back across the Atlantic, the abandoned runway became home to another quintessential piece of Americana, becoming Europe’s first permanent drag racing venue.
Now better known as Santa Pod, this quarter mile of tarmac is witness to outrageous feats of automotive performance and incredible bravery (some might say madness). Many of these drag racers are accelerating faster than a Formula One car. Faster even than a jet fighter catapulting off a carrier. In fact, such is the explosive force experienced that the closest thing it has been likened to is take off in the space shuttle.
The closest thing it has been likened to is
take off in the space shuttle
Experiencing such speed doesn’t come cheap.
A typical Top Fuel dragster boasts around 8,000 horsepower (yes, eight thousand horses) roaring behind the driver’s head. The engine gulps an exotic mix of Nitromethane and Methanol at a rate that would give Formula One engineers nightmares. During a typical burn out and run, lasting 4 – 5 minutes max, between 12–14 gallons are burnt at a cost of £5 a litre. The fuel bill for each run alone is around £300.
The engine that generates this prodigious thirst
is obviously a beast
The engine that generates this prodigious thirst is obviously a beast. Loosely based on a 426 cubic inch (cu in) Chrysler Hemi with a maximum displacement of 500 cu in, the blocks are made from billet aluminium, oil cooled and run to around £4,000 each. By the time you’ve added intake manifold, heads, supercharger, fuel pumps and magnetos you’re talking around £60k. Then depending on how high you’ve turn up the wick, you may well need more than one to complete a competition. Plus, there are the ‘consumables’ such as pistons, rods, valves and the like which will all be replaced on a strictly cyclical basis along, of course, with the spark plugs.
But the dragsters, impressive as they are, are just one part of the story. The final complication to getting your beast off the line is the track itself. Attend a drag meet and the all pervading smell you’ll experience is not burnt burgers, but burnt rubber.
Attend a drag meet and the all pervading smell you’ll experience is not burnt burgers, but burnt rubber
Laid down spectacularly by every competitor, those dramatic burn outs, much loved by spectators, add grip to the track and also warm the tyres. That rubber layer increases during the course of the meeting, adding to the grip. In fact, it’s truly fascinating to see how much care the track crew take of the surface. They’re constantly fettling the tarmac to ensure it gives as equal and consistent grip as possible for all competitors. And when your ability to accelerate faster than the guy alongside is the key to success, grip is king.
At this point we enter the world of tyre shake
And that’s where the tyres and tyre control comes in. At this point we enter the world of tyre shake.
Tyre shake is a problem where the tyre is “falling over” itself on the track. Getting the balance between grip and slip is fundamental, so balancing clutch release, power balance, engine revs, tyre pressure and temperature and track condition to get the right wheel speed is the ultimate aim.
The result can spear a car or bike sideways into the barrier
in the blink of an eye
The perfect balance is to get the tyre over-rotating, or slipping, by a factor of between 5% and 8%. And keeping it slipping not just the first few yards but for the whole run. That’s why keeping the track clean down the complete length of the quarter mile is vital. When you’re travelling north of 200mph the last thing you want to make a special guest appearance is unexpected wheel spin. The result can spear a car or bike sideways into the barrier in the blink of an eye.
So where does all the money come from
to fund this orgy of power?
So where does all the money come from to fund this orgy of power? This spectacle of speed?
Here in the UK the sport is mostly dominated by self-funded ‘amateurs’. The multi-million pound funding afforded to other motorsports hasn’t quite found its way to Santa Pod, which is as much of a surprise as it is a disappointment. When it comes to providing non-stop entertainment, it’s hard to find a form of motorsport more accessible than drag racing. The sound is visceral. The performance visible. And you can see each race from start to finish. Even if they only do last seconds.
As an example of the range of drag racing’s appeal, you’ll probably find more female racers at Santa Pod than in any other form of motorsport we can think of. This is the case at every level from Top Fuel downwards.
Beyond the spectacle of the run, Santa Pod is an incredible exhibition for the sheer variety of ways that people try to go fast. Not just cars but bikes too. Each an individual expression of the desire to go faster, quicker. And some perhaps the result of a very sharp sense of humour. A V8 powered Morris Marina van being a perfect example!
The standard of preparation and presentation of even the smallest competitors makes the competition as good to look at as it is hear.
(Word of warning: ear defenders are a must! If you thought Formula One used to be loud, wait until you hear the monstrous output these are capable of. Simply awesome.)
A glorious, sometimes seemingly insane rush of horsepower, combined with lightning reactions and nerves of steel
So, the spectacle is great; the competitors friendly. But ultimately what makes Santa Pod so different is the race to the line. A glorious, sometimes seemingly insane rush of horsepower, combined with lightning reactions and nerves of steel to keep the throttle wide open. And the skill to retrieve things when they stop going as planned.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is drag racing in a nutshell. Add it to your bucket list. Better still, make a date in your diary for the next meeting and experience the strangely alluring smell of burnt rubber first-hand.
Just head for that little piece of the US of A in Bedfordshire and witness the fastest (and noisiest) motorsport in the UK.
Published on 3rd October 2014