Blast from the Past. 70’s, 80’s Drag Racing

I began watching drag racing in 1976.  In those days a Top Fuel (nitro) car would run the 1/4 mile in about 6 seconds with speeds of 200mph.  The times and speeds achieved today could never have been imagined back then but as with everything technology moves on, who would have dreamt of PC’s or digital photography in the 70’s!

The late Lee Anders Hasselstrom in his Fuel Funny Car sponsored by the Swedish Air Force

These images are not great.  They were taken with a Zenith ttl 35mm slr and cheap 200mm zoom lens.  I have scanned the old prints and tried to improve them on the computer.  No 5 frames a second burst shots then or auto focus, I would focus on a certain point and hope for the best!  Then the film was sent for developing and I would hope to have some decent images, all very expensive.

‘Stardust’ a popular Mustang bodied funny car

Nitro funny cars were very popular, a big number of entrants came to the International meetings.  The track at Santa Pod was nowhere as good as it is today so the machines used to perform huge 1/8 mile burnouts to get some rubber down to aid traction on the launch, super entertainment!

The late,great Allan Herridge known as ‘Bootsie’ burns out in ‘Gladiator’

The drag bikes were so much fun back then.  These machines would range from a 350cc Honda to 3 750cc 2 stroke Kawasaki triples, 9 cylinders!  Car engines were used, almost everything would be tried to achieve more power and faster runs.  Perhaps the most successful motor was the Triumph, usually matched with a supercharger (blown).  Eventually more racers turned to the ‘ujm’ universal Japanese multi, Honda, Kawasaki and Suzuki all producing big capacity 4 cylinder 4 strokes all capable of huge power.

The big variation in bike power plants is shown here. Far side Brian Chapman’s ‘Mighty Mouse’ a 500cc blown Vincent single verses John Lloyd and ‘Freight Train’ 3 Kawasaki 750cc triples. Both ran 8 second passes
Tom Vivian and ‘Tomfoolery’ a blown 750 Triumph, not much comfort there!

As today there were many different classes with lots of wonderfully diverse machines, from street cars to altereds and dragsters.  Everyone has their own favourite, one of mine was ‘Al’s Gasser’ a Chevy powered Ford Pop which was wild, it would run 10 seconds no mean feat in the 70’s.

Al O’Connor working on the Gasser in the Santa Pod pits
Two legends in the sport. Nearside Dennis Priddle v Allan Herridge in a Top Fuel shootout 1980

In the early years many of the U.S.A’s top teams would come over to compete.  Quite often they would then sell their machines. This helped build the sport in Europe.  Very soon the Scandinavians became dominant and great racing ensued, big crowds and brilliant atmosphere.  Some of the Americans who visited are true legends in drag racing history, Don ‘big daddy’ Garlits, Don Schumacher, Ray Beadle (the blue max), Don ‘the snake’ Prudhomme in the fuel cars, and on bikes Elmer Trett, Danny Johnson and TC Christenson plus many more.

1981. One of America’s top stars Tom Hoover in the’Showtime’ Corvette funny car goes up against Lee Anders Hasselstrom of Sweden

One of the best remembered American visitors of this period was not a racer, he was Sammy Miller.  It was what Sammy drove that was jaw dropping it was a Vega bodied funny car called ‘Vanishing Point’ powered by a rocket engine!  It blasted down the 1/4 mile in under 4 seconds at over 300mph, these are the speeds and times Top Fuel dragsters achieve now, 40 years later.  Sammy also had a rocket dragster  ‘Oxygen’.  A really nice man whom I met in the pits, he stopped and chatted for ages telling me how the car works, that’s drag racing, everyones so friendly.

Top Sammy in ‘Oxygen’ Btm His rocket powered funny car

Not all cars were powered by big V8’s.  A lot of machines known as altereds used the Jaguar 3.8 straight six.

Rob Turner in his altered with a Jaguar engine
Another Jag powered altered ‘Moonshadow’ driven by John Chubb. Winner of several meetings in the early 80’s

In 1981 Santa Pod launched a new format for funny cars at it’s July meeting.  Called ‘Cannonball’ after a film of the time.  Both nitro and methanol funnies would compete against each other over 3 rounds, the times were added together and the two cars with the best accumulated times met in the final.  Although the nitro cars were much quicker they were also more temperamental and much more difficult to get down the track, so the methanol cars had a chance with 3 good runs.  This proved very popular and ran for many years.

Bill Sherratt winner of the first Cannonball event in an appropriately named Arrows nitro funny car
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Sweden’s Anders Lantz in a Monza bodied methanol ‘Pro Comp’ funny

The early 80’s saw the start of jet dragsters.  I have to say these were not my favourite machines, what I did not like most was the noise of the turbines as the revs increased.  Today there is a new breed led by the ‘Fireforce’ team, great entertainers, loads of afterburner blasts and flames!

‘Hellbender’ & ‘Vampire’ two early jet dragsters in a match race
In the Santa Pod pits. ‘Mighty Mouse’ the supercharged 500cc Vincent single of Brian Chapman gets some tlc

The picture above is ‘Krypton’ a Top Methanol Dragster which ran in the Pro Comp class.  This is the mark 2 version, the original was destroyed in an accident at New York Raceway in 1980 badly injuring driver Dave Wilson, here it is being driven by Steve Martyn.  Dave Wilson known as ‘Grumpy’ started racing in the late 70’s and was still going strong in 2016, age is no barrier in drag racing, many of today’s racers have been in the sport for many years.

Pro Street Honda in the pits

One of the nice things about the machines in those days were the names they were given.  The Scandinavians in particular using names from Norse mythology, nowadays the top cars rely heavily on sponsorship so bear their logos.

‘Ragnarok’ a future battle with the death of many Gods. The nitro funny car of the late Hazze Fromm of Sweden
‘Bifrost’ the Norse burning rainbow bridge, the Corvette of Martin Hopp
‘Blue Samurai’ a Datsun bodied Pro Comp (methanol) funny car driven by Ronnie Picardo, one of his many rides
1980, this Swedish Comp Altered was owned by Stefan Braun & Michael Malmgren and was powered by a 455ci Oldsmobile. It appeared at the Pod courtesy of wining a competition in their homeland. Michael is now a top Pro Stock driver
Drag bike racing was big in Holland, this is Cees Van Dongen who was also a motorcycle Grand Prix circuit racer.  His machine here is a 6 cylinder Honda CBX
Lee Anders Hasselstrom with a later paint scheme
The fuel bikes started performing rolling burnouts, this the mighty twin Weslake engined ‘Hobbit’ with Jonny Munn on board
Rico’s model T Altered

The car above has an interesting story.  In 1981 a young German by the name of Rico Anthes visited the Pod for the first time, it was the September ‘World Finals’.  He reached the final of Super Comp but on the launch completely destroyed the starting lights (xmas tree)  the car was pushed here behind the timing tower.  After this dodgy start Rico’s drag racing career took off and in the late 90’s he was twice European Top Fuel champion.

Mighty Mouse

Already featured in a couple of shots, this is Brian Chapman on board ‘Mighty Mouse’.  The amazing 500cc single cylinder, supercharged, nitro burning Vincent Comet.  At the end of it’s development in the late seventies it ran a best of  8.81 seconds at over 150mph.

Sadly I have no more images from the period.  However every year at Santa Pod there is a big meeting called ‘Dragstalgia’.  This is a great chance to see machines from the past being used in anger.  Here are some shots from 2013 taken using a digi compact.

Gasser Circus, love them jacked up fronts!
Supercharged Outlaws
Wild Bunch altereds


To be continued….     Check out the HOME page for modern machines at various meetings.