Dragfest Memories

I am very grateful to Gary Goodnight for this latest addition to the site. I have had much correspondence with Gary regarding the whereabouts of the Dos Palmos dragster, but the first mail I received from him was the following account of the Dragfests from the eyes of a competitor. Great memories and fascinating reading. Take it away Gary.........

In 1964, I was a member of a group of American drag racers on an exhibition tour that introduced drag racing into the UK. The tour was sponsored by NHRA and the old British Drag Racing Association. The tour was organized by Sydney Allard working with Wally Parks, and sanctioned by the RAC. Allard, Parks and NHRA used the tour to introduce and promote drag racing in the UK. That group was the first United States' Drag Racing Team, and the team was comprised of:

Don Garlits AA/FD (what else can you say?) Dodge powered

Tommy Ivo AA/FD Chrysler powered (yes, TV Tommy)

Tony Nancy AA/GD Plymouth powered. Tony brought over both his gas cars, 22jr and the Wedge (one of the early successful back-motor cars. I think he later crashed the Wedge in Ohio when it decided to fly). Both were gorgeous cars, typical of Tony Nancy and of Steve Swaja's body designs. The Wedge ran strong, but spun bearings in its Plymouth wedge engine on a regular basis. Dante Duce asked Tony if he could take 22jr for a pass (at Chelveston if I remember right) and drove it straight into a big timing light battery in the middle of the track at the finish line. He wadded the car into a ball but walked away. I had a great picture of Tony berating a very sheepish Duce on the way back to the pits.

Goodnight, Keith & Williamson AA/GD 400" Chevy mouse motor (my car, later sold to a group in Leeds)

K.S. Pittman A/GS '33 Willys (One of the wild supercharged gas coupes)

George Montgomery A/GS '33 Willys (Another famous gas coupe)

Ronnie Sox & Buddy Martin A/FX Mercury Comet 427" sohc Hemi Mercury (Factory Experimental, predecessors to the Funny Car)

Dave Strickler & Bill "Grumpy" Jenkins A/FX 426" Hemi Dodge (yep, they were partners then, with Dave driving. Both the AFX's ran 4 speeds that the guys power shifted so smoothly that the locals thought they were running automatics).

Doug Church's little rear engined Porsche powered dragster

Moonbeam Dean Moon's Devin bodied sports car with a crank-driven blown small block Chevy.

When we showed up, no one but a handful in the UK knew what drag racing was. We raced at Blackbushe, an old WWII airstrip (Really? That's what Wally Parks said) near London, RAF Chelveston, RAF Woodvale near Southport, another RAF base near Tadcaster (my memory's failing on the actual places-Church Fenton). We also placed the cars in shows in Leeds and Manchester. There were large crowds, brought out probably more by curiosity than anything else.

The cars were shipped over on the old S.S. United States liner. When Mr. Allard and crew arrived on the docks to tow them away, they found these enormous enclosed trailers that were stuffed (sorry...filled) with the cars, tires, engines, superchargers and tools. The tow cars were Cortina's and the like that didn't have enough horsepower to get the trailers to turn a wheel. Mr. Allard then disappeared, and reappeared with a fleet of like-new military lorries and started welding on hitches. He evidently had gone to a surplus yard and gotten them for around 200 quid each. We were in love with the lorries. We were told they had Rolls engines and they had 5 speeds forward...and 5 speeds reverse! They also had a roof hatch with a gun ring on the passenger side, and we liked to ride through the race day traffic jams sticking out of the hatch and checking for birds (a new word we had just learned...but we knew what they were, especially by the time we left for home). I guess we were here for 6 weeks or more, and had a lifetime's experience.

One other thing that sounds weird now. At that time, the FIA (or maybe the RAC) didn't allow advertising on race cars, and we had to get a special ruling since our cars were covered with sponsor's logos. That sure changed things for racing over here.

Mr. Allard had always had a fascination for American V-8's, if you remember his Cad-Allard sports cars of the early 50's. He had built a crank-driven blown Chrysler powered dragster that was beautifully built (stainless steel chassis) and ran well in spite of the lack of parts in the UK at that time. There were some interesting British cars at the meets. One of them was a four wheel drive Ferguson F1 car that was really fast for a non-drag racing car. And there was a Lotus 19 with a little 90c.i. BRM V-8 with sliding vane injectors that was fascinating but extremely annoying. It would buzz up to about 14 grand warming up. The vane injectors didn't like to idle, so the driver, a British hill climb champion whose name I can't recall, had to wing it constantly to keep it cleaned out. He got teased mercilessly about driving that noisy damned mosquito...but it could run!

The starting line on the first race day (Blackbushe) was congested with race officials who were either very important or just wanted to be close to the race cars, and we were getting frustrated with the time it took to weave through them and stage. In those days, we pushed the cars out and back down the strip toward the starting line to fire them, even in the States. Ivo had weedburner exhausts, low, swooping headers that ran out level almost at ground level (zoomies were just coming in). He lit off, came easing through the crowd of officials and cleaned it out with a huge rack of the throttle. I think he set about 10 official's socks on fire, and we had no trouble getting to the line after that.

We had dropped the boost on our little car to where it would perform adequately, but with no more stress on it than driving to market. Not the fastest, but during the week while Tony was putting new bearings in the Wedge, we were all over England or off to the Continent. Too much fun! That's when English bitter became one of my weaknesses.

There was another tour in 1965. By that time we had sold the small block car to the group in Leeds (we lost track of the guys who bought it, and I always wondered if they could keep rings in it. It had a 1" stroker and the pistons were so short, they wobbled in the bores and you had to change rings every 5-6 runs. We got so fast at changing rings, it was like changing spark plugs), and built a new Kent Fuller-chassied Chrysler powered gas dragster.  While the Chrysler was very quick for its day, Courtesy Chevrolet wanted to sponsor the car but weren't very enthusiastic about the Chrysler engine. So we built what became the very first blown, injected rat motor. It was originally a 396" block. The 396 had just come out. With a 1/2" welded stroked crank that we built and a 1/4" overbore, it ended up at 486" (I think...it's all a bit fuzzy now). Cragar had a prototype blower manifold being cast and sent it to us, Howard's Cams modified some aluminum Chrysler rods with the Chevy's bore sizes, Mickey Thompson made up a magnesium timing cover and fuel pump drive, Joe Hunt modified a magneto for us, (Mondello did a set of heads that were works of art!) a few more parts and we stuck it all together. We had no idea where to set the timing or jet the injectors, so...we guessed. Since the Chrysler was about 486", too, we thought, well, let's try 36 degrees lead in the mag and the same pill in the Hilborn's. We lit it off, and get back! It ran quicker and faster than the Chrysler right off the trailer, first run on the car. We were delighted, and the motor was a horse! We only broke it one time, at the old Hot Rod Magazine Championships at Riverside (where we had top time and low E.T.- 'Jet Car' Bob Smith was driving for us, his first return to driving (my partner, Bob Keith, who normally drove, had injured his back on a rough track) after running Romeo Palamides' jet car into a wall or barn, or something. Bob was like lightning on the starting line that day, and if I remember right, he beat Goob Tuller in the Freight Train. We broke in the lights with no real competion left for the final round. Oh well. Of course, it's like old baseball players say..."the older I get, the better I was".

In 1966, we made another tour, this time to Australia. New lands to introduce the sport, and perform close inspections of the monokinis on Bondi Beach. YOW! Were we having fun? You have to ask?

I always had the desire to return to England, and when the opportunity came for me to move over, I took advantage and left for Yorkshire. Maybe one of these days I'll wander by Santa Pod or York to or see what changes you've made after all those years.

I keep remembering more war stories as I read your UK drag racing pages. Like travelling through traffic in the team bus with Strickler rolling cherry bombs out the roof vent  off the back of the bus and under the following cars...or on a night out on the town with the motorcycle guys in their little van and the windscreen exploded...or Ronnie Sox biting into a pork pie from one of the concession caravans thinking it was a fruit pie like we have in the States, choking and looking for someplace to get rid of it and spitting a big mouthful into their pot of tea water. Pandemonium! Or Garlits in his little mini, racing us across a field at Blackbushe and tearing a hole in his petrol tank. We all wheeled back into the hangar where we were garaging the race cars (which was also in use by some small company), Don whipping off the gas tank and welding up the tear. The company was still evacuating the building in terror when Don bolted the tank back in and we all took off for London...across the field again... or arriving in Leeds for a car show with no rooms and having to sleep in Ivo's trailer. It was freezing, and I pulled on Ivo's fire suit to keep warm. Ivo's about four feet tall and I'm 6'3"...or Ivo taking a ride down the quarter mile in a motorcycle side car with a one-legged guy...or the stunning lady at a banquet in Ilkley who asked if I would knock her up in the morning (she must know by now that in the States that means 'make me pregnant'). I did my best, but got no reports back...or on the S.S. United States, Jenkins disappearing every night until we asked him where the hell he went every night. The first class section was completely isolated from the rest of the ship and we were the next class down. But Grumpy had found a freight elevator at the rear of the ship that went clear to the bottom hold. He could then walk the length of the ship to the front freight elevator and come up in first class. He had spent the trip rubbing elbows with the Captain. At least that was his story. The rest of us were tortured by a 3 piece Meyer Davis orchestra playing "Nearer My God To Thee".

Classic Ugly Americans. And on, and on, and on. I need a nap before I head back to the pub again. There's a lady there that's asked me to knock her up. I'll do my best.

Cheers. I'm off.

Gary Goodnight, UK