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The inside story of the first Five
by Graham Warley
Forty years ago, during the Easter of the long, hot Summer of 1976, an event took place at Santa Pod Raceway which still ranks as one of the most significant moments in the history of UK drag racing. For the first time since the Dragfest of 1964 Don Garlits, a legend and then current World Champion, was coming over from the USA to take on the best of the European drag racers, bringing with him his Swamp Rat dragster. Taking him on and trying to defeat this king of the quarter mile was a contingent of primarily UK-based Top Fuel dragsters. Among these, and potentially one of the leading challengers, was Peter Crane and his Stormbringer Pro Fuel rail.
I was one of the crew on this legendary car and although you can find a extremely informative account of the event on Pete's excellent web site and in his Eurodragster.com Feature, this is an account of what went on behind the scenes leading up to this seminal moment in UK and European drag racing.
Stormbringer, named after the demon sword wielded by Elric of Melniboné, The Eternal Champion in Michael Moorcock's fantasy tales, was originally built for Brent Cannon and Phil Soares, who raced it successfully in the USA. In 1974, Roy Phelps of Santa Pod arranged a deal whereby Pete and his partner at the time, Ray Edmondson, brought the rolling chassis across to the UK. The deal with Roy was that Pete and Ray purchased the chassis and Roy, under the auspices of Santa Pod Raceway, would provide the engine and running costs. This is why the car never ran anywhere else as it was essentially one of the stable of cars run by father and son, Bob and Roy Phelps. These cars would later include the Asphalt Alleygator, Highway Patrol and Maneater cars, built using a blueprint of the Stormbringer chassis. Initially the car was kept at Shortlands, Kent, where Pete had his business and was conveniently close to the Phelps business, Fibre Glass Repairs. Later the car was kept in one of the workshops near the Pod, overseen by the late Allan Herridge.
Pete made his licencing runs in the Firefly dragster and later said the car was so evil handling that it nearly put him off driving Stormbringer. However, once he got into the new car, with the engine behind him and a decent, modern chassis, he excelled.
During 1974 and 1975, the car ran with an Ed Pink hemi, based on a Chrysler block of 500 ci. Although we had an aluminium block, the heads were cast iron, as was common practice then. Although they added weight, they were far cheaper than aluminium heads. The heads were water-cooled, which entailed adding water into the jackets built into the heads and after a run, as the car was being towed back to the pits, we would open special taps attached to the heads and allow the boiling water to drain off. This helped to dissipate the heat build up in the engine.
It is worth noting that in those days, the emphasis was on reliability and trying to ensure breakages were kept to a minimum. The fuel cars, certainly the ones running under the Santa Pod banner, were competing but at the same time, acting as the draw to bring in the audiences. With parts being so expensive and having to be sourced from the USA, Stormbringer initially ran in a relatively conservative mode. However during this period Stormbringer made more passes under 6.50 than any other Pro Fuel dragster running at that time We did not have a Crew Chief as such and Roy Phelps made the tuning decisions, after all, it was his engine. Unlike today, once we had achieved a base set-up, we tended not to deviate from what we found worked.
Pete was always good on the lights and the performance of both car and driver steadily improved. Up to the famous meeting the best Elapsed Time the car had run was 6.18 seconds. Terminal speeds for Stormbringer were always around 220 mph. The car ran with the same final drive ratio with which it had arrived and was never changed while we ran the car. Other major differences between then and now were that all maintenance between rounds was done with hand tools. However, time between rounds tended to be over two hours so it wasn't the frantic turnaround which today's crews have to face. In those days we did not strip the engine down after each run, throwing away used pistons etc, but sieved the drained oil and assuming that we saw no significant pieces or metal we kept the heads on, readjusted the valves, refuelled and did other routine jobs.
The car had no reverse gear, which was normal in those days and after the burnout, which tended to be long and smokey, to get the fans going, the car had to be manually pushed back to the start line. I can well remember the effort needed to push back the car, made more interesting, especially if the wind was blowing down the strip, by a faceful of raw nitro pumping out about a foot away from my head and the noise threatening to tear my ears off! No respirators or ear defenders in those days. Several times, after an injudicious breath, a crew member had to break off pushing as he was coughing and choking on the fumes.
Looking back, one of the scariest aspects of running the car, which never occurred to us as the time, was the low capacity of the fuel tank. Needless to say, the engines in those days consumed far less nitro than today, but as I recall the fuel tank capacity was only about seven gallons (thirty two litres) and after each run there would be less than half a gallon left in the tank. Thankfully, Pete never got held on the start line for any significant time as I now shudder to think of the result if the engine had run out of nitro under full power. On one occasion, Allan Herridge had a tremendous blower explosion, which lifted the body off his Funny Car, due to running out of fuel. For that run he had made not one, but two half track burnouts and his fuel wasn't topped up on the line.
One procedure, which still seems to hold good today, was that Pete always packed his braking parachute. This is a job he wouldn't trust to any other crew member, which was not surprising as if it malfunctioned then potentially the car and Pete could be badly damaged running off the end of the strip into Ernie Braddock’s fields. The chute did fail on one occasion due to the release lever breaking and failing to pull the pack. Pete had an interesting time trying to stop the car, only achieving this by ending up with a huge broadside slide in the dust at the end of the strip. Not to be recommended in a fuel dragster.
Coming into the Easter weekend of the five-second pass the car had run a best of 6.18, so why did we suddenly make the big leap forward in performance at that meeting? The answer, as expected, was not one, but a combination of circumstances which all came together at the right time.
We had run Stormbringer successfully for over two years and Roy Phelps was spending less time with the car as he could trust that we wouldn't do anything stupid. It was at this meeting that he and Allan Herridge débuted Asphalt Alleygator, a car based upon the Stormbringer blueprint, but with an extended wheelbase and for the first time, a reverser. Roy was busy with Allan sorting out the usual problems of a new car and very much left us to make our own decisions. As it happened, in the first round Allan performed the burnout, reversed back but couldn't get the car out of reverse and he had to be shut down.
However, for this meeting Roy had also obtained for Stormbringer a brand new Ed Pink-built all-aluminium 500 ci Milodon motor. This engine also featured Stage 2 aluminium cylinder heads. Although this was a significantly more powerful motor, it had its drawbacks in that it was difficult to work on, especially the bottom end. To hold the crankshaft and conrods to the block there was an aluminium girdle running between the block and bottom end. This had to be removed before anything could be done with the pistons, conrods, bearings or crankshaft and added considerably to the time taken to service the engine.
As well as our new motor, for the first time, the strip had been treated with traction compound, so was giving more grip that had ever been seen before.
Having been left to make our own tuning decisions, we considered increasing the nitro load, but as we were anxious not to blow up in qualifying, experimented instead with the clutch settings, to trying to repeat the previous best ET of 6.18. This is probably the key component in any good run and we had not really altered the settings, simply adjusting for wear. The clutch on Stormbringer was a slider or slipper Scheiffer set-up, but although operating on the same principal of sintered iron plates held apart by springs and counterweights, it was not a centrifugal clutch like the Crowerglide. We had felt that with the settings we had been using the car was bogging down slightly off the line. The car rarely, if ever, went up in smoke and so we reckoned that by adjusting the counterweights and springs to give a harder launch this would improve performance. Thankfully we were correct in our assumptions and recorded a 6.21 ET, thus ending qualifying in the number one spot.
Come the day of the race the place was packed out, with people abandoning cars all over the surrounding countryside as they struggled to get into Santa Pod.
As luck would have it, Don Garlits, who had Ron Barrow, one of his chief mechanics with him, had been experiencing problems. He later reckoned he had a duff magneto, possibly damp from being in the car on its sea voyage over to England. But as we were experiencing one of the hottest summers on record, I personally doubt this explanation, although the motor was certainly dropping cylinders on his qualifying passes. In his autobiography Don also states that Pete in Stormbringer beat him in the second round. Sorry Don, it was the first! Suffice to say he qualified with a 6.89-second run which put him in fifth place.
So we were to meet Don in the first round and to say we were both excited and apprehensive would be a complete understatement. After all here we were, a bunch of enthusiastic amateurs, about to take on the World Champion. However, over the weekend a lot of rubber had been laid down and, allied to our new settings, we felt we did have a chance. At that meeting, for some reason, instead of the faster qualifier getting lane choice, it was decided among the eight qualifiers by the toss of a coin. Don won and chose the lane we would have picked, the spectator or right hand lane. Seems unfair now, but there you go.
A few minutes before the eliminations began, as we were sitting in the fire-up road (our car had no self-starter) before we push-started Stormbringer down what is now the road at the side of the strip for support vehicles, we debated whether we were sufficiently prepared. I’m still not sure who suggested it, but we realised this was the chance of a lifetime and we would never have the same opportunity to beat a man who still stands head and shoulders above virtually all other drag racers.
The nitro loads we ran at that time tended to be in the 70-80% mark. Peter Billinton from G-Max would mix the fuel for us and we simply tipped it in. We didn't possess a hydrometer, so we trusted Peter to give us the right mix. Only a few minutes before we were due to run, we made a decision. Given the circumstances, what the hell, let's go for it! As I recall we probably already had about 89% nitro in the tank, but we siphoned off about a gallon of this and tipped in a gallon of 100% pure nitro. I'm sure one could calculate how much this increased the nitro load, but given the small tank size, it was obviously somewhere well north of 90% by now.
Don had a self-starter and had pushed on down to the start line. We got the signal and headed down the fire-up road. The start procedure was that Pete would open the throttle fully for a second to prime the motor, incidentally showering all the crew who were crouched in the back of the push truck in pure nitro. He then closed the throttle, hit the magneto switch and the car fired up. We swung round at the bottom of the fire up road and manoeuvred the car back to get to the pitside lane, Don moved to the spectator lane and both cars did their burnouts. Obviously we could hear nothing above the sound of Stormbringer, but apparently Don seemed happy his car was firing on all eight.
Then, as they say, history was made.
Pete cut a great light and all we could see from the start line was the car disappearing down the strip, weaving slightly but under a full, hard pull. At this stage we paid no attention to Don, but when the win light went on in our lane, the whole place erupted. When the commentator announced the time of 5.97 seconds at 218 mph, remember there were no gantries with times showing up at the end of the strip back in 1976, the noise got even louder, if that was possible!
Matters got a bit blurry for a few minutes, but we motored on down the strip in the push truck, waving at the fans cheering wildly from both sides of the track. We got down to Pete and there was much hugging and back-slapping. The car was turned round and we made our triumphant way back to the startline where Pete conducted an impromptu interview with the commentator. As I recall, it was only about now we found out that Don had redlit, not that it mattered to us, we'd beaten him fair and square. Don took the defeat as a good sport, although he later thought that there was an issue with his car, set up for USA start lights, and the system at Santa Pod. However, our view is that he knew that he had a sick car and tried to pull a holeshot, but lost. Additionally, Stormbringer was also a car built in the USA, complete with an offset front axle, which helped to keep the car in the staging beams and Pete never had any trouble staging.
It would be nice to conclude by reporting that we went on to win the event but sadly in the second round, against Clive Skilton, matters went awry. Due to the time we took celebrating with the car at the startline, we had to rush to get prepared for the second round. Roy Phelps believed we had hurt the engine, so we had to perform a complete teardown to check the pistons, crank and bearings. However, we duplicated all the settings, including the nitro load and were once again, ready for battle.
Pete admits that after all the celebrations, it seemed everyone in the pits wanted to shake his hand and offer congratulations, his concentration wavered and he simply cut a poor light. Clive, who had never run quicker than a 6.3-second pass, got a huge holeshot and despite Pete running 6.03, which thankfully backed up the 5.97 run, we lost the race.
However, as can just be seen in the admittedly poor quality films of the meeting, Stormbringer twitches to the left during this run. This was due to severe tyre shake, which broke the flyscreen and more critically, snapped a top rail in the chassis. Even if we had won, it's therefore unlikely that there would have been time to get the chassis rail repaired. Brent Cannon, the original owner of the car, later admitted to Pete that the same thing had happened when they raced the car in the States.
Finally, it would also be good to report that Stormbringer still exists, but a few years later Pete sold the rolling chassis to Dave 'Grumpy'
Wilson who lengthened the chassis, fit a reverser and campaigned the car in what was then called Pro Comp, but is now Top Methanol Dragster.
Unfortunately he suffered a catastrophic axle failure at high speed after pulling the parachute and the car was written off, which is a sad end for the
dragster had which made one of the most significant runs ever in the history of UK drag racing.
Peter Crane's web site
Eurodragster.com Feature on Peter Crane
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