Regular contributor Mal Hawkins comes up trumps again with this excellent account of the rigmarole involved in starting a Top Fuel race in the sixties.
I often marvel at the production-line efficiency of current drag race events, particularly those in the U.S. This is a far cry from Santa Pod in the 60's where even though the race itself was over in 7 or 8 seconds, the pre-race preparation seemed to take forever and, for the keen racegoer, provided an ideal time for a hot dog.
The time required for pre-race activities in the 60's seemed proportional to the cost of the car with Commuter, in my opinion, holding the record! I guess when the next 3 month's mortgage payments depended on whether or not the engine turned ballistic then I'd take a fair bit of time too. Anyway, in the days before removable starters the procedure for getting a top fuel race underway went something like this .
Step 1 was to push both dragsters from the pits to the staging area. Initially Santa Pod didn't have a fire-up lane, but even when it did cars such as Commuter continued to use the track itself for starting. From the staging area crews would push the cars up the strip with the aid of their support cars or vans. A "push bar" sticking out the back of a dragster was essential equipment in those days, and if you ever spotted a Bedford van, Jag or Zodiac in the street with a wooden plank in place of a front bumper you always knew it belonged to a drag racer!
The journey up the strip was made with the engine off in the dragster, although many drivers eased out the clutch to check oil pressure and get everything nicely lubricated inside. I don't think this actually did anything really but it seemed like a good idea. The cars would come to stop in the shutdown area and be turned around by their crews ready for the whole process to be repeated in the reverse direction. By this time money was changing hands at the hot dog stand.
On the push back each driver would again ease out the clutch then turn on the fuel tap and flick the magneto switch. Hopefully engines would burst into life with that unmistakable thunder and whining from a blown V-8 running on nitro. Now came the tricky bit of turning both cars around again.
Trying to do "U turn" in a 200-inch wheelbase car with steering that was basically designed to go in a straight line was a mean feat. Especially for someone wrapped in a fire proof suit, goggles and face mask and sitting 15 feet from the bit that was doing the turning! Both cars had to be choreographed by the start line crew to avoid hitting each other as they turned in opposite directions. More often than not the combination of large diameter motorcycle wheels and extreme castor angles on the front end would result in front wheels flopping over to the point where the driver couldn't straighten them up again. The start line crew would then have to offer a helping hand.
At half way mark in the hot dog devouring stakes both cars would come into stage with pit crews madly scrubbing the slicks clean, checking for leaks and giving the obligatory thumbs up to the driver. No burnouts in those days and slipper clutches hadn't yet been invented, well not intentionally anyway. Finally, with the stage lights illuminated the Christmas tree began its countdown. Again, unlike today, the tree always flashed each yellow light in sequence before the green. Throttles would be blipped in time with the tree and then all hell would be let loose as both cars left the line in a spectacle of noise, fumes, rubber smoke and, on the odd occasion, bits of disintegrating hardware.
It's impossible to finish a half eaten hot dog with both hands covering your ears, so this was left until after the race!