There’s a village in the flatlands of South Northamptonshire called Podington. Nearby is what used to be a US Airbase. In 1966, some locals decided to introduce the frankly weird and unsuitable US sport of drag racing to the abandoned runway and, in honour of its American roots, they called the track Santa Pod Raceway – borrowing some glamour from all those hot, dry Californian salt pans and desert strips, I suppose.
The school holidays are almost over so I took Olly (4) to Santa Pod’s ‘Easter Thunderball Pro Fuel Shootout’ on bank holiday Monday. A meeting like this is a kind of working class Henley Regatta, a huge family picnic with candy floss, an aerobatic display, dodgems, a Wall of Death and chip vans – all set to the utterly impenetrable howling and grinding soundtrack of the cars themselves. Whole conversations are conducted in mime. Hot dog vendors lip read.
The noise is the main thing. The only thing, really. It’s more than a noise. It’s a big shock the first time you hear it. Less like the rumble of a big engine than a huge, percussive grunt or crash with no apparent source – the gates of hell come to mind. It’s so huge and so physical (stuck for adjectives: acute? Cataclysmic? Shocking? Visceral?) that it makes you want to cry (like the opera).
Most races last 5 or 6 seconds. There’s a persistent smell of exotic substances (methanol, nitrous oxide) and burning rubber, the track is continually sprayed with an acrid degreaser (“cover your children’s eyes, ladies and gentlemen. Just a mild irritant”), a single run will use 40 litres of fuel. Crashes and engine failures are routine (although hardly anyone gets hurt).
Drag racing is the pursuit of a simple, 1940s teen pastime to its logical (but entirely unreasonable) conclusion. It’s all about prosperity, abundant free time, permissive traffic laws and cheap gas. It has to be the least environmentally-friendly pursuit on earth and it’s a total anachronism (I feel a bit dirty talking about it). The kids who raced their Chevys and Fords between traffic lights in little post-war Californian towns can have had no idea that such a rich and strange culture would result (huge in Norway, apparently). I think I’m addicted.
(tip: get some ear defenders for your kids. They sell them at the raceway).
Click on the small nine-frame pic above to confirm that I really didn’t manage to catch a dragster in a single one of those nine photos!
Some links: Some of those mind-blowing sounds from the US (although they’re a pretty pale reflection of the cacophany at the raceway). Some great and evocative pics of drag racing in the UK in the 1960s. Lots of pictures and videos of more recent UK drag racing. The Santa Pod site plays a sound when you load it and I think it might be the first one I’ve ever approved of.