Ready. Steady. Go...
Two lane grey top
Back in 1966 two important sporting events occurred. Both were groundbreaking, but perhaps one more so than the other. Especially if you were one of a growing band of fans and competitors whose need for speed was taking a new direction.
Of course the other event involved a certain World Cup, but no point dwelling on that because we all know the score.
Let’s get back to the band of brothers who had assembled in North Bedfordshire at a strip of concrete. Originally it had been the main runway for RAF Poddington an airbase built in the early 1940s. However in 1942 its operation was handed over to the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) and the runway was lengthened in order to accommodate the B17 that were to operate from there.
As you approach the venue now, its place in history is marked by a memorial to servicemen and women of the 92nd Bomber Group who were stationed there.
After the war the airfield, as did so many, fell into disuse and it subsequently became a storage depot for millions of surplus sand bags. Eventually though, with the bottom falling out of the sand bag market, the MoD sold the site in the 1960s to a group of visionaries in the form of Bennett, Bob and Roy Phelps, Ted Peddle and Ernie Braddock who together created what we now know today as the Santa Pod Raceway.
Stealing the thunder of the still yet to be run World Cup, the raceway held its inaugural meeting on Easter Monday, 11th April 1966 and in doing so became the first permanent drag strip in Europe. But how did it end up with the name it has today?
In short it was simply an hommage. The ‘Santa’ made a nod to Santa Ana, home of California’s first commercial dragstrip. The ‘Pod’ for Podington the nearby village which had given its name to the airbase.
Incredibly the strip rapidly captured the imagination of fans far and wide, not least over the Atlantic. So much so in fact that within a few months a contingent of racers had made their way across ‘the pond’ and so began a regular stream of visitors from ‘over there’. Don Schumacher, Don Garlits and Don Prudhomme (no we don’t know why Dons featured so largely in drag racing) were but a few of the big names who left a lasting impression on the relatively still nascent British racers. Equally impressive were the woman racers, which in motor sport in general were few and far between. Paula Murphy and Melanie Troxel were just two examples that proved that guts and glamour were not mutually exclusive!
While the visitors continued to come, the strip underwent a significant change in the early seventies as the original concrete runway was asphalted over. This new surface laid the basis for racing into the next millennium and subsequently became the fastest strip using this type of surface in the world.
About this time, the Pod also experienced its first visitors from another part of Europe where the sport had taken hold. So began the Scandinavian Invasion. Intrepid competitors who have formed a big part of the European drag racing scene ever since and are warmly welcomed every time they make the pilgrimage to Santa Pod.
Over the years, the strip has been witness to ever increasing speeds and indeed still holds the world record for the fastest ever 1/4 mile run on a drag strip, an astounding 3.58 secs with a terminal speed of 386 mph a time set by Sammy Miller in his rocket-powered funny car in July 1984.
Records like that have helped cement the reputation of Santa Pod as the home of drag racing in Europe and the premier venue. As such it now hosts both the opening and closing events of the European championships which means over 250 competitors alone will arrive at the strip at the end of May to test their mettle (and metal!).
In the the timeline of Santa Pod, 2018 will mark a significant (quarter?) milestone as history turns full circle and the track returns to its early roots. Over the winter of 2017/2018, the old asphalt track was excavated and a new all concrete surface took its place. The replacement augurs well for racers as concrete is by far the most popular surface for strips in the USA as its greater consistency as a surface in general delivers faster times.
So a great year in prospect for the home of British drag racing and a year that marks the eighth that NGK has been proud to be associated with. Not only as supporters of the venue but also as the preferred choice of spark plug for the vast majority of competitors.
TrakBak Racing, the owners and operators of Santa Pod, have invested heavily over recent years in developing the raceway and hopefully are now seeing a well earned return on their investment as the popularity of drag racing continues to build which it certainly deserves to. We can think of few sports that deliver more spectacle, yet remain so accessible to its fans and supporters.