As told exclusively to
Ken joined the British Hot Rod Association and took his yellow '37 Ford Coupe to the historic first meeting in September 1962 at the Watling Street Cafe near Junction 9 of the M1. Thanks to Brian Sparrow who was involved with the National Sprint Association, cars were allowed to run at sprint meetings. Eventually, having already run at the Brighton Speed Trials cars had their own meetings and Drag Festivals took place. With all this activity, the RAC were involved in regulating the sport and Santa Pod Raceway opened in 1966 only a short time after the Drag Festivals.
In September 1960 Brian Coole and a few others started the British Hot Rod Association, so straightaway I want to join. What a great idea. There's a like-minded guy who wants to start a British Hot Rod Association. So, I wrote off to join this fledgling club, but didn't get a reply for a very long time. I was a bit disappointed. I thought this was a bit of a con. And it must have been six months before I got a reply. It was from his wife, she said he’s very, very busy, sorry he didn’t reply, but yes, it's such a long letter from you, I thought I better reply. So, I became a member of the BHRA and I got some black letters and put ‘BRITISH HOT ROD ASSOCIATION’ on the doors of my ’37 Coupe and on the bonnet, I put ‘239 CU IN’.
In September 1962 the BHRA had their first meeting at the Watling Street Garage Cafe just off Junction 9 of the M1 and I went in my Yella Coupe as it became known. It was a bit hit and miss at first as we didn’t know what to do. We’d decided to have this meeting which was central for all of us, so we could put a face to one another after all the letter writing and telephone calls. Brian Coole, Vic Outen, Brain Sparrow, Allan Herridge, John Harrison, Peter Bartlett, Rick Goodale, Alan Doyle and John Bennett were all there looking at each other's cars saying well what shall we do and what's our next move. The biggest consensus was we’d like to go drag racing. We want a drag strip like the Americans. Whether it was because of those who wanted drag racing like me, Allan and John were a bit more outspoken than the rest who were a bit shy, this probably had something to do with it. I don’t suppose the other guys really knew what they wanted to do. What could you do with a hot rod? drive it around town. We’d set our sights on drag racing.
We were all getting agitated, we've got to have a drag strip or something. We must have a drag race meeting or everybody's going to lose interest if you don’t. Will people start to try and put cars together or it's just gonna fold. We can't just go on like this.
Brian Sparrow was well in with the National Sprint Association, which were all motorcyclists, they did Sprinting and used air strips, a lot of famous venues which I can't remember but there were a lot of venues, like Duxford and Church Lawford and Long Marston. Best of all, they had timing equipment. So, with the help of Brian Sparrow, and Alan Nash who was a big wig with the NSA, and a couple of other blokes, we were actually allowed to run cars at some of their meetings.
One little sticking point with the NSA motorcycles was they all ran over the kilometre because in that era, 440 yards wouldn't have been long enough to build up the speed that they wanted, they would only be running about 80 mph. Nobody thought we'd ever go fast enough in 440 yards, which was the same in America when they started drag racing at Santa Ana in 1950. But CJ Hart said we’ll give it a few months and you'll soon develop a car doing well over 100 mph in the quarter and he was totally proven right.
So, I don't know where it was, whether it was Church Lawford or Long Marston. The motorcycle guys said what we'll do then is at lunchtime we'll move the timing lights back for a quarter of a mile. We'll run the kilometre for us in the morning. Then one till two we have a lunch break and after two we’ll move the timing lights back to a quarter mile for drag race vehicles. So that's what they did. We were all champing at the bit for two o'clock to come, wow we've got a quarter mile now we can run our cars. But there weren't many specific quarter mile vehicles. I mean, I doubt if there were a dozen cars, probably Derek Metcalfe, Harold Bull, Allan Herridge, me and a few more.
But there were a lot of other cars that ran the quarter don't get me wrong. Blokes had got sports cars, Jaguars and Allard's and stuff like that and there were racing cars as well. One or two circuit racing cars blokes who didn't do circuit racing too much, they did Hill Climbs and stuff. In fact, the guy I worked for had got an ex-Graham Hill BRM he bought for hill climbing at Shelsley Walsh, and he would run it on the quarter too.
Eventually we thought we had enough cars to run our own meeting and forget the NSA. Brian Sparrow and Vic Outen got the use of Church Lawford for a drag race meeting in August 1963. We had all the entry forms printed and posted but amazingly not enough people entered.
Brian Coole and the other guys were all disgusted, they had spent a lot of time organising the airfield, the clocks and everything, which was all done voluntary. Everybody was saying yeh we want to go drag racing but then after getting it all organised there were not enough entries. The RAC said you couldn’t run a meeting with too few entries, they required 25 entries for a meeting to go ahead. Myself, Allan and a few others were really disappointed as we had tried so hard to get others to come out racing and to get the sport going in those very early years. The timing lights and equipment were borrowed from the NSA and I remember returning it all to Alan Nash who had organised this for us.
We believed the RAC were very anti American therefore weren't interested in Drag Racing. A lot of comments as to why so few people entered which came out afterwards was because they said our car is not fast enough. Brian Coole said we should give it one more try and if this fails, I’ll resign straight away and dissolve the association...
In 1961 I went all the way down to Brighton Speed trials in my ‘37 Coupe to see Sydney Allard make his first runs at Brighton with his Allard Chrysler Dragster. It didn’t run well because it stripped a gear. It popped and banged; the engine wouldn’t rev because of the big gear but I was impressed with it I must admit. I heard that blown Chrysler run, I couldn't imagine a big engine rev that hard and sound so loud. I was very impressed with the throttle response and could see the potential even though it ran rough on the day.
Then in September 1963 Allard arranged for Dean Moon to bring his Mooneyes Dragster over to race at Silverstone which I went to on a Tuesday. Then on to Brighton on Saturday where Mickey Thompson turned up.
The following Saturday they were at Church Lawford and I got a great photo of me talking to Mickey Thompson. I blagged an original Moon tee shirt off the Mooneyes Team, I still have it upstairs. Looked inside and said it was made in Japan, but I was very proud of it. I would have to say a lot of people there were so impressed they were jumping up and down like monkeys when they saw this thing run. Although I was impressed, I was ready for it and knew it was going to smoke the tires.
But of course, the big thing was when Garlits and Ivo came over for the Drag Festivals in 1964. I’d written to Don Garlits so I knew who he was and had been a fan of his since the 1950s, watching him grow up through drag racing and he sent me some decals to stick on my hot rod. I liked him because he wasn't a Californian and the fact that he built and worked on his dragsters.
When Sydney Allard built his Dragster and ran it at Brighton, we thought well we’ve got a figurehead now, everyone knows Sydney Allard he’s a Monte Carlo winner, he’s a car manufacturer, with him we can go places, he wants to start Drag Racing right? Let's contact him. We've got 600 members in our little club, the British Hot Rod Association, who all want to go drag racing. We’ll get together with him as a king pin, join forces and get it off the ground. So, Brian Coole, Allan Herridge and one or two others approached Sydney but he didn’t want to know. He wanted to be the sole inventor of British Drag Racing, it was going to be him and nobody else that did anything. It's me, I've discovered drag racing, I've built a dragster. It’s going to be easy; you're just following me. So, we were all disappointed. That went on for quite a bit and people were saying well haven't you approached Sydney Allard haven't you had a word with Allard? Yeh, but he doesn't want to know. Really? Yeh...
Then Allard started building his Cortina powered little dragsters, Allard Dragons he called them, in kit form. You could buy a chassis and you could buy all the parts to build one or buy it ready built. Chris Pattison won one in a competition, the prototype basically. When Allard started building these little cars he instigated another club, the British Drag Racing Association.
So, he had the British Drag Racing Association with Gerry Belton as his number one man and one or two others. We were the British Hot Rod Association, struggling to have a bit of clout to get venues. It backfired a little bit because he didn't sell any of those little Dragons really, they never caught on. It was a bit of a damp squib. I think he lost interest, it was a shame really, because he would have had some clout, he really would. Unless it was just a commercial thing and he just wanted to sell dragsters. It's a shame but there you go. That's life.
One good thing the BDRA did was organised practice days at Graveley. Which was wonderful really and was a big help as you’ve got to try your car somewhere. I really thank them for that, but they never did anything about getting a permanent drag strip. That was left to the BHRA. Once that happened then Sydney died before it opened.
The BDRA lost money at the 1965 Drag Festivals due to the rain. They then wanted to amalgamate with us and call it the BDR & HRA which we did, but Alan Allard, Gerry Belton and all that lot just drifted away. We were lumbered with their name and they weren’t involved anymore. It was a shame. I never did join the BDRA. Gerald Cookson joined and I assumed Derek Metcalfe and Harold Bull did because they were more into drag racing than hot rodding. But people like me, Allan Herridge and John Harrison and the rest of us were the original core of the BHRA.
In the meantime, John Bennett, Bob Phelps, Ted Peddle and a couple of others who were all members of the BHRA started the rumour that they're gonna have their own drag strip at Podington. We were all a bit surprised really. But of course, it did turn out to be, with Ernie Braddock, the Land owner and all the rest of it. Come the end of 1965 they announced that they'd got a drag strip and it was gonna be called Santa Pod. Wonderful, Amazing. Yet when you look back and look at it, when we first turned up it was just a desolate landscape. You can't imagine what it was like, it was just an airfield. In fact, you couldn't actually find the strip you had to cruise around a little bit, saying where are we? There was a half-finished control tower by the start line, and wooden boxes filled up with hardcore each side of the strip which was just the main runway with all the weeds growing out of it.
But it was wonderful, I can't tell you what it was like. It was ours and it was a drag strip and we haven't got to give it back. We can do what we like with it. Nobby Hills was still welding up some bits on the control tower at the first meeting. He hadn't got his new car running yet but he was still there busy arc welding. The toilet was just a trench with a cover over it and as it filled up, they just backfilled the trench and moved the cover a bit further on.
We loved it honestly it seems so stupid now but it was just an old airfield and while the racing was going on there were contractors breaking up the perimeter track and there were lorries going backwards and forwards in the shutdown area digging out hardcore because Ernie Braddock was selling all the perimeter track for hardcore, he just kept the main runway. The lorries would dash across, they'd see you coming and when you'd gone, they'd nip across the drag strip quick because it was better than going all the way around. When some of them went across they shook clouds of sand, cement and hardcore onto the shutdown area which had forever got bits in it. Oh, it was incredible, all the joins in the concrete, it was lovely!!! I brought home some hardcore in the cockpit of the dragster and used it to build the fishpond at the end of my garden.
But it didn't matter, it wasn't an airfield it was a drag strip. You were conscious it was an airfield; you're just driving on an open piece of land. Just because he got this little bit of barrier and there's a little bit of a control tower, it was a drag strip. It just seemed wonderful. Honestly, it was so exciting and childish. Got up on Monday morning thinking been down a drag strip, got a drag strip and it’s going to be there next weekend.
When Santa Pod first opened, we asked why we had to have the RAC and can we get rid of them? It was a case of having them because of insurance. Do we have to have insurance if the stock car boys are doing ok without it? The excuse was the RAC were not interested in stock car racing because of the shorter distance of their oval tracks, supposedly because they were less than a quarter mile, whereas we ran a quarter of a mile so the RAC had to get involved.
Another snippet of information; the RAC wouldn’t accept the fact it was a standing start. They said because you're three or four inches behind the actual start line when you trip the clocks you’ve already moved three or four inches so it’s a rolling start. They wouldn’t accept it for years insisting it was a rolling start therefore we couldn’t set official records as a standing start. To do that you had to have a block behind the back wheel and a template across the front wheel on the line to line it up accurately, then that was a standing start, you didn’t roll back, they’d except the time as an official time. You can’t piss about doing that when you’re drag racing, you’ve got to do it automatically with lights.
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