The noise in Northants

Happy Finnish drag fans at Santa Pod

There are two sounds on this earth that can make me spontaneously cry. There’s the sound of a great operatic soprano mid-aria and there’s the sound of a top fuel dragster mid-quarter mile.

The thing is, they’re both big sounds and they both bypass the usual emotional circuitry to make people cry or laugh or stand and shout. They both work some kind of endocrinal magic and produce a physical reaction without going through all that boring build-up. Opera and drag racing both short-circuit the brain and go straight to the baser organs (the gut? The liver?): I suppose it’s fight or flight or something – certainly something hormonal.

Look around you at an opera audience or at a drag strip crowd and you’ll see the same thing: involuntary facial expressions, tears, smiles, something like ecstasy. At the end of a five-second quarter mile you’ll hear spontaneous laughter, swearing, clapping, whooping and shouting.

Like I said, at the drag strip it’s all about the noise. Trust me: this is the biggest, deepest, most physical noise you will ever hear: a wild, crackling, grunting, noise that sounds more animal than mechanical. You have to hear it to believe it. Hear it once and you’ll understand what brings all those other people out to the retired military airfields of the world to listen to it. It’s an auditory drug.

Quite mad. Quite decadent and backward (outsized internal combustion engines? Nitro-methane? Deep-fried food?) but also some kind of cultural apogee: standing on the grass bank watching it all go off, you feel you’re watching the final days of the blue collar gasoline cult. This is where the (big, dumb) car will come to die.

We were up at Santa Pod in sunny Northants yesterday for the qualifying rounds of what they call The Main Event. We heard the noise (and I made a pathetic attempt to record it). I took some photos, obviously. You should get up there this season if you get a chance: they make a big effort to welcome everyone: kids get in for nothing, you can get right in among the cars and their drivers (almost all of whom are amateurs), there are monster trucks and air displays and a Wall of Death and the people are unbelievably nice (and you’ll meet a lot of sunburnt Finns).

I found a lot of old photos of dragsters, some videos and some most amazing sound files that you ought to run through your home cinema for best effect. Also a predictably superb definition of the sport from Wikipedia.

Blue collar thrills

Spot the dragster, win a prizeThe Santa Pod Easter Thunderball Pro Fuel Shootout
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.