A Short History of Hot Rods and Drag Racing in the UK - Muscle Car

A Short History of Hot Rods and Drag Racing in the UK



Written by Elise

4th January 2021

A Short History of Hot Rods and Drag Racing in the UK
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A Short History of Hot Rods and Drag Racing in the UK

By Niamh Smith

What are Hot Rods and What is Drag Racing?

What springs to mind when you hear the term ‘hot rod’? Do you think of a Model A Ford with a custom flame paint job, a ‘55 Chevy with a tri-power, or a factory-ready hot rod, perhaps a 429ci Cobra Jet Mustang. The hot rod ideal is different for everyone. Put simply, hot rods are customised (usually classic) cars with modified running gear and hopped-up motors, custom paint and likely faster than the car was designed to go originally. 

Hot rodding is a hobby—and career for some—that has been around pretty much ever since the first car was created. It also happens to go hand in hand with drag racing, a sport that has been about ever since the second car was created. Drag racing involves high-speed racing along a straight line for a quarter mile, essentially ‘dragging’ your pro modified hot rod from start line over the finishing line. 

The desire to have a car that goes faster and looks better than anyone else’s runs in the blood of many, inspiring generations of hot rodders for the past century. 

In this short article, we’ll take a little look at the origins of these high-action past times and the volution of hot rods and drag racing in the UK. This article also includes a glossary section at the end for those who aren’t all too familiar with some of the terms!

How Did Drag Racing Begin?

While the 50s and 60s is the most well known era for hot rods and drag racing, it stems back much further. As long as we have had the internal combustion engine, we have wanted to tinker and tune and go faster. While the UK has had ‘hot rods’ as long as America has, we didn’t call them hot rods back in the day. 

In the 1920s, people started building what were known as ‘specials’. These cars usually had lighter bodies and modified engines on standard chassis, used for hill climbs and sprints. These specials were effectively the first hot rods: much to my hot-rod-hating, Vintage-Sports-Car-Club-member grandfather’s horror whenever my boyfriend calls his 1926 boat-tail Alvis a hot rod.

In the United States, traditional hot rodding as we know it owes its birth to the car crazy youth of America and the postwar preoccupation of hopping up dated, farm-fresh ‘32 Fords and other family sedans to go street racing with their pals. They wanted to prove their car’s superiority over another’s by racing from a standing start over a straight, level strip of road. This later led to purpose built drag strips being built.

Wally Parks, editor of Hot Rod magazine (the publication to get all your hot rodding and drag racing news back in the ‘50s) and dry lakes racer himself, began the NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) in 1951 to promote the “safety, sportsmanship, and fellowship” among hot rodders. Hot Rod magazine and the NHRA worked together to prove to the general public, and especially the police, that there was a difference between hot rodders and ‘shot rodders’ (reckless street racers). 

They began a tour of America, visiting hot rod clubs and promoting safe racing practises and showing them how to set up drag strips and run events. Since then, NHRA has been the largest governing body of drag racing in America and still runs many events to this day.

Drag Racing in the UK

Drag racing in the UK owes its conception mostly to Sydney H Allard, founder of the Allard Motor Company and rally/hillclimb driver. Allard was instrumental in forming the British Drag Racing Association after a series of match races featuring a pair of American competitors. 

Another player at the forefront of British drag racing was Allan ‘Bootsie’ Herridge, who had, for many years, been an avid reader of the American Hot Rod magazine. By the early ‘60s, Bootsie had seen his hot rod club and others form the British Hot Rod Association, and teamed up with partner John Harrison to form Dragster Developments, producing what was most certainly the first British-built rail in 1959 powered by a 322ci Buick motor

As the number of racing fans grew, the BDRA, assisted by Wally Parks of the NHRA, arranged the first big promotional tour of American drag racers in England: the 1964 International Drag Festival. It featured racers such as ‘Big Daddy’ Don Garlits (although not as well-known back in ‘64 as he would become) with his Wynns Jammer fueler, ‘TV’ Tommy Ivo with his Valvoline special, KS Pittman with his Willys gasser, Dave Strickler with a Chrysler and Ronnie Sox (of Sox and Martin fame) with a Mercury Comet. The tour started at Blackbushe and consisted of 6 meetings. 

These drag racing tours of American stars continued annually, and two weeks after the 2nd International Drag Festival, National Dragways LTD announced they were setting up a permanent drag strip at an old army airfield in Podington (in Bedfordshire). 

This drag strip became Santa Pod, which, since then, has been the go-to venue for UK drag racing events. Other drag strips have sadly come and gone (Blackbushe, Long Marston/Shakespeare County Raceway, York Raceway/Melbourne raceway which is now making a comeback after sitting abandoned for several years) but Santa Pod has always been the nerve centre of British drag racing.

Drag racing only grew more popular throughout the sixties and into the seventies, seeing many racers join the ranks of the British Drag Racing Hall of Fame. Top fuel and funny car driver Dennis Priddle made the first 6 second pass outside of the US in 1972 (earning him the nickname Mr Six). Sylvia Hauser started street racing in a 1966 Ford Mustang. Inspired by seeing Paula Murphy race at the Pod, Hauser went on to become the first driver to win all 5 National Titles in one season, a feat which she repeated in 1979, 1981 and 1983 driving a series of 440 six pack Dodge Challengers. The Stone family’s race team stable consisted mostly of Chevy powered cars, including Mustang II bodied funny car Stardust, the chassis of which was infamously stolen from the Santa Pod site a few years ago. 

Nowadays, there are still many nostalgia drag racing classes in the UK, including the class we race in, UK Nostalgia Superstock, which comprises some of the best classic muscle cars in the UK. While old school is the best, there are plenty of opportunities for new school drag racers to have a go on the track too, particularly at Run What Ya Brung days and FWD (front wheel drive) drag series’. 

Drag racing championships have since spread all over Europe and there is a FIA European championship, some of which events are held at Santa Pod, including the finals. It has particularly taken off in countries such as Sweden and Malta (it’s always fun to see the Maltese bring over their crazy little rotary-engined MK1 Ford Escorts). 

Some international teams are pretty much permanent features at Santa Pod, such as Kirsten van Croonenborgh, from the Netherlands, with her ‘70 Plymouth Cuda ‘SuzyQ’.

Hot Rodding in the UK

While hot rodding in the UK has been around since the twenties (ish), it didn’t take off as we know it until the sixties and seventies with the formation of the BHRA. This was almost certainly helped along by the founding of the National Street Rod Association in 1972. To this day, the NSRA remains the UK’s largest hot rod association, and organises annual hot rod weekends, nostalgia drag racing events and swap meets (great if you’re constantly on the lookout for drag racing wheels, like us). 

In the seventies, indoor car shows really took off, such as those at Ally Pally, Bellevue and Doncaster Custom Show. On display were some of the best hot rods and street machines of the era, including the ‘Pinball Wizard’ Ford Pop (built by Mickey Bray and later owned by Paul McCartney), ‘Revenge’ C-Cab Ford Model T built by Nick Butler, Mick Cooke’s ‘67 Chevrolet Camaro ‘Silhouette’ and ‘Small Fry’ Austin Ruby built by John Baldachino. ‘Henry Hi-rise’ (Ford Consul) and ‘Roarin’ Rat’ (‘57 Chevy) are two cars that started out as show cars that crossed over into drag racing, and are still about today, now owned by Santa Pod Raceway. 

While the states had The Beach Boys and ZZ Top as their celebrity hot rod patrons, the UK wasn’t lacking in them either, with all the stars wanting a piece of the pie: Dave Lee Travis, radio 1 DJ, raced both a top fuel dragster and a Chevrolet-powered Escort called ‘Tender Trap’, John Bonham of Led Zeppelin drove a hot rod Ford Model T, and Jeff Beck has an absolutely insane hot rod collection including three Chevrolet Corvettes.

To Summarise British Drag Racing and Hot Rodding History…

While drag racing and hot rodding are seen as very American hobbies (which they are), the UK has a vibrant history of car building and racing, producing some of the best custom cars around. 

As a lifestyle that has lasted now for a century by being passed down generations, I hope that it is something that will last another century. Who knows, maybe the electric cars of the future will get a V8 transplant from one of those ancient, gas-drinking, piston-clanking, air-polluting, smoke-belching, four-wheel buggies from Detroit City.

Drag Racing Glossary:

Here’s some of the handy terms you might need to know!

Alky: alcohol (methanol) is one of the power boosting fuels used in the spor

Altered: short for competition-altered (drag racing class)

Bracket Racing: a complicated form of racing in which a wide variety of cars can compete and aim to run their dialled in time

Burnout: the ritual by which the rear slicks are heated by spinning the wheels for better traction

Bye run: when a car, during eliminations, makes a run alone because their opponent was unable to make it to the startline or the ladder falls so they have no opponent

Cherry: when a driver red lights when launching

Christmas tree: slang for the tower of lights at the startline

Digger: a dragster

Doorslammer: a full-bodied car with conventional doors

Funny car: a fibreglass flip-bodied car. Usually the body style is elongated and altered

Gasser: originally any car that ran on gas would race in the Gas class making it a gasser

Match race: cars/drivers paired up to race, usually for entertainment as opposed to competition

NHRA: National Hot Rod Association

Nitrous Oxide: also known as laughing gas, NOS is rich in oxygen so is used as a performance booster when injected from a compressed gas cylinder directly into the induction system of an engine

NSRA: National Street Rod Association

Rail: dragster

Slingshot: a dragster design in which the driver sits just behind the rear axle and the engine is in front of them, hence it ‘slingshots’ the driver forward

Top Fuel: the quickest type of dragsters and the top class, fuelers run on fuel (nitromethane) as opposed to gas (petrol)

Original photos taken at Santa Pod circa 1970s used with permission from Ian Connelly

Author: Niamh Smith

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