As told exclusively to
The American Invasion begins with Mooneyes at Silverstone.
Thanks to Shige Suganuma of MOONEYES for finding and sending photos and memorabilia from their Archives.
“If you don’t know what red tape looks like, you’re never caught in it...” This was the philosophy of Dante Duce the man responsible for bringing the first American dragster to the UK in September 1963.
For several years there had been efforts to bring American dragsters to the UK, but endless correspondence between automobile organisations in America and the UK had all become bogged down in red tape.
As early as 1958 Hot Rod Magazine editor and National Hot Rod Association founder and president Wally Parks was making plans to send a dragster to England for the Brighton Speed Trials. Wally had been instrumental in the formation of the Southern California Timing Association in 1937, an organization focused on conducting land speed record events on the dry lake beds and later at Bonniville. His love of land speed records meant that the very earliest British attempts were almost sacred to him and he dreamed about returning to the hallowed grounds of early land speed and endurance racing; the Pendine Sands, Brooklands Race Track and of course the Brighton Speed Trials which had been going since 1905 and was one of the foremost events on the international racing calendar.
Unlike American Drag Racing the Brighton Speed Trials were held over the standing start kilometre and the record was 23.34 seconds set in 1956 by Ken Wharton driving a 2 litre ERA R4D. Wally was planning to bring over the nitro guzzling blown Chrysler Hemi dragster of Calvin Rice which had won the 1955 NHRA National Drags. It had been renamed The Hot Rod Magazine Special and Calvin had just run an 18.10 second two-way average over the kilometre at March Air Force Base in California so stood a good chance of smashing the record at Brighton. Wally saw the ability to race in England as a chance to run for FIA International records.
These exciting plans were announced in the editorial of the August 1958 Hot Rod Magazine but sadly there was bad news the following month when it was announced that conditions of international unrest in the Middle East at the time had made it difficult to make the trip. Another problem was the Brighton Speed Trials clashed with the US Nationals, the biggest event on the NHRA calendar and the busiest time of year for Wally.
In 1960 US automotive writer Griff Borgeson had advocated the adoption of the quarter mile distance for international records and visited the FIA office in Paris to present his case. Sydney Allard wrote to him indicating a parallel desire in England and in 1962 Mickey Thompson wrote to Len Cole, secretary of the National Sprint Association...
“Received your letter this morning enclosed with correspondence from my good friend Griff Borgeson, I am very interested in acceleration records and would like to help in any way I can in arranging a world-wide organization for sprint of acceleration records. Would be glad to fly to England to discuss this with you and could possibly bring cars, for only expenses, to demonstrate”
In April 1963 Brian Sparrow received a telegram from Racing Car Show promotor Ian Smith asking Brian to meet Bob George who was over from America at the Dorchester Hotel. He was here to discuss bringing dragsters and custom cars over the big drink for a Show and Go and wanted to know about suitable venues to hold a show in London and somewhere to run demos at a later date. Unfortunately, difficulties with the RAC, the Sunday Observance Bill and not being able to find the right venues put the trip on the back burner and it wasn’t until 1966 and 1967 that Bob succeeded in bringing the US Commando Drag Team over to England.
Then in July 1963, Dante Duce, a 28-year-old Las Vegas Speed Shop owner and drag racer, managed to break through the red tape by taking matters into his own hands after reading an article about Sydney Allard's dragster in Sports Car Graphic. It mentioned that Sydney hadn’t had any competition from similar cars since building it in 1961. This got Duce’s attention so he simply phoned Sydney up and asked if he brought his own dragster over to England would he race him? Sydney said he would but pointed out that there would be quite a few problems bringing a car over and didn’t think he could do it in time to race that year. He sent Duce a list of possible dates, Duce picked one and said “I’ll be there...”
Duce was planning to use his own Potvin blown Chevy B/Dragster which had been Top Eliminator at the Nevada drag strips. He took it down to his friend and parts supplier Dean Moon at Moon Equipment Company to freshen it up. When Dean heard what Duce was planning to do, he offered the use of the beautiful Mooneyes Potvin blown Chevy powered Gas Dragster. Not only that but Dean and his team would come along too and further correspondence with Sydney Allard resulted in the trip developing into a series of four events over two weeks in September.
Dean mentioned the deal at a SEMA meeting held in California and Wally Parks suggested they put up a trophy for the winner, the SEMA Trophy. Wally would have loved to have joined the trip, but the 1963 US Nationals were consuming all his time as usual.
The Mooneyes dragster had been built in 1960 as a testbed for Moon and Potvin products. It had a Dragmaster chassis and had clocked a best of 8.97 but hadn’t been run for a while as it was now owned by Revell Model Kits who had been taking it round the International Championship Auto Show circuit. Revell were happy for the car to go to England and even offered to sponsor the trip. Other sponsors were Mobile Oil and Moon Equipment while Sydney kindly agreed to cover the costs of shipping, hotels, transport, etc.
Dean Moon, Dante Duce and the Mooneyes mechanics worked around the clock to get the dragster back into race condition, testing various engines with Moon speed parts until it was running stronger than ever, ready to take on the Allard machine.
On Sunday 8th September 1963 the first American dragster arrived on British soil at London Airport on a Pan Am jet from Los Angeles. Sydney was there to greet them along with the press as they unloaded the beautiful chrome and moon yellow machine.
Two days later the Allard/Mooneyes series kicked off with a demonstration for 200 press and VIPs using Silverstone’s Club straight on Tuesday 10th September. Joining the Allard and Mooneyes machines were Allan Herridge and the Dragster Developments Team with the straight eight Buick dragster, also Tony Densham and Harry Worrell had their blown 1500cc Ford powered Worden dragster there. George Brown was invited along with Super Nero, his 1000cc blown Vincent sprint bike and completing the line up three Allardettes which were Shorrocks blown Ford Anglia saloons set up for rallying by Allards.
The Mooneyes Team stood out in their smart white trousers and shirts with Revell Mooneyes Racing Team emblazoned in red and black on the back and they had white Stetsons and yellow jackets all with Mooneyes emblems.
Although this was strictly a press day several Drag fans had managed to sneak in to catch a first glimpse of the Mooneyes machine including Ken Cooper and Nobby Hills. Nobby had slipped in through a hole in the hedge and nearly got thrown out by Gerry Belton. Ken had driven down in his ‘33 Ford Cabriolet Hot Rod and was allowed in as he was now the Midland Division Secretary for the British Hot Rod Association. John Bennett was also there with his Spa Engineering Oldsmobile pickup helping out the DD Team and bike sprinters Neville Higgins, Alf Hagon and Jack Terry had come along to see what an American dragster could do.
Roy Phelps turned up with the Fibre Glass Repairs Plymouth pickup which was spotted by the Mooneyes team, and they loved it. They asked Roy to push start the dragster and he was then invited to stay with the team for the whole series and so started the Phelps’s involvement in Drag Racing.
Sydney had laid the meeting on well; everyone got a seven-page handout containing information on the cars and drivers and inside the restaurant a table was covered in Revell model kits. Lunch was served free of charge then halfway through the dragster demos everything stopped for afternoon tea!
Things got underway at 2pm as Sydney and Duce came up to the line in a pair of Allardettes. Dean Moon waved the flags as Duce got a good start taking the win in 17.47 seconds at 81mph. Then Tony Densham put his WW2 helmet on, fired up the Worden using batteries and ran a solo, clocking 14.66 at 88mph. Next up Allan Herridge who after his usual hand push start, fired up the DD Buick and improved on Tony’s time with a 14.41 at 97mph.
George Brown bumped the big Vincent into life and ran an 11.14 at 139mph. Then Sydney came out for a solo but with a very high gear fitted he was slow off the line and could only muster a 13.81 at 129mph. Next it was Dante Duce who left the line well with tyres smoking but got out of shape halfway up slowing to a 14.69.
Bootsie and Densham came out for a race, the Worden taking it with a 14.33 at 92mph. Tony in the lighter car was much quicker off the line but the DD Buick nearly caught him up at the top end. The NSA were using their Hird-Brown timing equipment, but it was only one set of clocks meaning only the first over the finish line got a time. George Brown came out again, hooked up and shot off the line with the front wheel in the air for the first 60 yards recording an excellent 10.86 at 136mph.
Then it was time for the big race. The two dragsters made plenty of noise as Sydney and Duce came up to the line. Duce shot ahead then slowed as he got wildly out of shape again. Allard was slow off the line but gaining at the top end both cars crossing the finish line together in a disappointing 17 seconds. Dean Moon decided to change the gears on Mooneyes and in five minutes flat showed how quick a Halibrand quick change really was swapping from 4.40s to 4.11s, the racers choice.
The Mooneyes team needed more air in their tyres, there was no air pump at Silverstone, so Roy Phelps loaded up the Plymouth and headed off in search of a garage. The garage attendant when seeing the slick tyres told him “It’s a waste of time mate, you need new tyres”
For the next demo run the press were asked to film the start line as Duce engulfed them all with smoke. Then they were invited to head for the finish line for a demonstration of dropping the laundry. Duce did it with perfection, the chute popping at the finish line pulling the front wheels off the ground while Sydney couldn’t get his chute out until he had stopped. Bootsie and Tony came out again and this time the DD Buick took it with a 14.40 at 96mph as the Worden lost a blower belt.
George Brown came out for a third solo upping his speed to 141mph in 11.02 seconds.
To end the day Duce came back out in Mooneyes for a final blast and he did it in style, running arrow straight and smoking the tyres for the full quarter in 9.48 seconds at 167mph, the quickest and fastest quarter mile outside the USA and our first single digit elapsed time. Famed motor racing journalist and competitor Denis "Jenks" Jenkinson witnessed this from the start line and was particularly impressed with what he saw, later writing in Motor Sport magazine that “It was the most shattering and exciting thing that I have seen for quite a long time, the noise and smoke from the tyres being more than a whole Grand Prix field can put together at a start. The black tyre marks on the track ran for two-thirds of the measured quarter mile.”
As Duce came back to the line he was given a standing ovation and the NSA awarded him with a plaque for running the first nine second run. Also, both Dean Moon and Dante Duce were offered honorary membership of the BHRA.
Silverstone silent video... click here
Mooneyes at Silverstone video... click here
The following Saturday the series moved to Brighton and a surprise was in store...
Gallery: click thumbnail to enlarge, click back to return.
Back to pioneers index
Back to News page