Exclusive interview with Darren Prentice

We interviewed International Race Director Darren Prentice by e-mail in the week leading up to the 2000 FIA European Finals at Santa Pod Raceway, at which he would of course be in the hot seat. Darren gave us a fascinating insight into the work involved in running a race meeting, and we are very grateful to him for giving us his time in what is always a particularly busy period for him.

Eurodragster: How and when did you become interested in drag racing?

Darren Prentice: About fourteen years ago, at the mere age of sixteen, I started work for a local company in the boot and shoe trade, where a kind man known as Jon Cross took me under his wing. Jon as you will all remember was the Race Director before me. As our friendship grew he said "You'd get on really well up at the Pod". That weekend, off I went to a place I'd never even heard of before and here I am now. Oh, and I am still at the same boot and shoe company!

Eurodragster: It would be improper to ask about European racers, so tell us who are your favourite racers in the USA?

Darren Prentice: I have only been to the States once and that was to work alongside the NHRA to get a better idea of how they ran their meetings. So with what I saw there and what I've seen on video, I would say Kenny Bernstein, John Force, Joe Amato, Eddie Hill and the rest of the 'old timers'.

Eurodragster: What was your career path to becoming Race Director?

Darren Prentice: Well, as I said, Jon took me there and I began on Run What You Brungs. Then the IDRF was formed which did pretty much the same thing at the time. Then along came the IHRA banner, which we went under. This is where we started getting serious: beforehand I went along and stood in the tower and watched the BDRA at work, but I was now finding myself on the start line working as an Assistant Starter under the guidance of John Hackney, whilst learning about pits and spotting, pairings, bleachers, the list just goes on. Then the Fire Chief, Jon Cross, offered me a spot on the fire crew, which I took, and I learnt the trade from startline fire marshal to fire diver and all the other jobs. I stayed there for a few years where I became very happy and was really enjoying myself. Carlo Gandolfi offered Jon a job as Assistant Race Director; that was when I was made up to Chief Fire and Safety Officer. A couple of years later, Carlo resigned having taken full responsibility for the track surface balling up with rubber, and Jon became Race Director. I was asked to start on the Race Director's ladder along with John Hackney.

Eurodragster: Could you explain what the Race Director's role involves?

Darren Prentice: I can explain the role of the Race Director in brief, or we could be here some time - so we will go brief! The Race Director has overall responsibility for the general conduct and control of an event in accordance with the regulations. That's all I can say about that - if you want a fuller explanation read your MSA or ACU rule books.

Eurodragster: What is the difference between a Race Director and an International Race Director? Is it just the word or do you have to qualify?

Darren Prentice: The difference between a Race Director and an International Race Director is experience. When you start you become a Probationary Clerk of Course and can only work as an assistant at Club or National B level, where you would have to do six meetings before being allowed to upgrade. Then on to a Clubmans Licence, then National B and National A, doing so many events depending on status and how many events you have to do to upgrade each time. Then if all goes well you gain a recommendation to get your International Licence. All of this takes about four to five years.

Eurodragster: Does your work start at 9am on the first day of a meeting, or are you involved in the build up to a race?

Darren Prentice: No, my work starts about a month before each event. It's slow at first, then as the weeks draw in all hell breaks loose and I can find myself in two or three meetings a week. Sorting out running orders, scrutineering times, pit plans, briefings - all this and more have to be fitted in after work hours. I must say it doesn't just involve me: there are a few other people behind the scenes that all work as hard. Then at the race I'm up to the track for 7.30 to 8.00am, working right through until at least 11.00pm on a good day.

Eurodragster: We know that final decisions rest with you, but who do you have to help you (with information, etc)?

Darren Prentice: I find myself very lucky to work with a team of people who work extremely hard and love our sport with a passion. I do have a team of people that I call my Chiefs, they are:

Also I have the Tech Crew, which is lead by Geoff Martin, and the ACU and MSA Stewards, but most of all there is Kjell Petterson who works as the event co-ordinator. All of these people are very important to me when making a decision, as some of them are also judges of fact. To work without these people would be like losing a limb. They have all become very good friends, as well as experienced specialists in their given field.

Eurodragster: Do you need to know the rule book inside out, or do you have an overview of it and a copy handy, just in case?

Darren Prentice: No, I don't know the rulebook inside out but I do know how to use one! I believe that the best way to make a decision is to take a little time to think for a moment then look in your rule book, then state your decision and stick to it. Sometimes I find it easier to find a ruling in the book and then get the racer to read it. By doing this they answer their own questions (99% of the time, that is). I have too many rule books to memorise them all: for the European Finals I will be working from four of them - the MSA, ACU, FIM and FIA rulebooks. Most of the rules are the same but there are some that differ, maybe just a tiny bit, to suit Pro or Sportsman classes as appropriate, so it always pays to check things out.

Eurodragster: How do you approach appeals and protests? Is there a formal routine you have to follow or do you have the leeway to judge each case on its merits?

Darren Prentice: I treat them as they come. If someone wants to protest one of my decisions they can, and we give them as much help as we can to make that appeal. There is a very strict way in which clubs have to deal with appeals. First you have to pay to appeal, then if the Race Director still sticks with his decision you pay to see the Stewards. They gather all of the facts and make their decision. If they decide in your favour you get your money back. I never take it personally, it's a job and someone has to do it. When you play in pairs as we do in our sport and you have to make a decision, someone goes away upset.

Eurodragster: What is the single biggest problem you come up against in the course of a race meeting?

Darren Prentice: The weather. It's very unfriendly to drag racing.

Eurodragster: If you could ask one thing of the racers to help a meeting run smoothly what would it be?

Darren Prentice: It's hard to say really. You can pick out odd racers for odd things but as a group and on the whole they are pretty good really, maybe just to get in to the fire up road a bit quicker.

Eurodragster: Is there anything which racers do which you wish they wouldn't?

Darren Prentice: One thing which really annoys me is staging battles. I understand them to a point when you are trying to gain a psychological advantage, but not in qualifying. The real humdinger for me is when Sportsman racers on a Sportsman Tree do it - especially when one is going to leave a couple of seconds before the other one.

Eurodragster: Although it's a hard and occasionally-thankless job, there must be funny moments too. Are there any humorous stories you could retell which wouldn't get us both sued?

Darren Prentice: There have been a few but normally they involve me, as I can be quite a foolhardy clown especially after a couple of whiskies. As for something which happened at the track, it did not seem funny at the time but now I am typing it out I find it amusing or maybe this is my sick sense of humour. Jon Cross was Fire Chief at the time, and he was on the line when something happened up at the top end of the track. This was in the days when when we would put oil-dry bags out flat in the back of the truck, so as it passed we would just dive in and have a fairly soft landing. The fire truck pulled round to pick Jon up to take him to the incident, but as Jon dived in the driver of the truck floored it, leaving Jon in mid air with no truck below him so he came down face first onto the tarmac and rolled away. All I could see was that the ambulance, which was now following the truck, nearly ran Jon over. Even now when I see the Pope kissing another airport runway I think of our very own Pope Jon.

Eurodragster: What about great moments? Have you a favourite?

Darren Prentice: There are three great moments in my life in drag racing which stand out above all the rest.

The first would be when we had to deal with Leena Nystrom's Pro Stock crash. Thankfully Leena got out with minor injuries but the forty-odd feet of three-layer armco which she wiped out was not in such good shape. We had to replace that and it took the fire crew about five hours of solid hard work. Looking back at what they achieved I really think that if this had happened a year or two earlier, the meeting would have had to have been cancelled. Later that night, the last run of the day was a jet car which also turned left and took out about fifteen feet of armco a little further on from the site of the Pro Stock crash. Now, this was a great moment in my life not because of the crashes, of course, but because of the team effort that the crew put in and above the call of duty, which kept us working until the early hours of the morning so that we could race the next day. I have never felt prouder of belonging to a band of people than I did when we finished that event.

The second moment would be Barry Sheavills' four-second pass, for me it has done a lot for our sport. I was glad to say that I was there, I saw it, and I felt the Tower explode with joy when the scoreboard flashed up that magic number...

The third would be my trip to America to work alongside the NHRA, with Jon Cross, Bob Day and Kjell Petterson. We had a great time, we had to share rooms with key members of their team, travel to and from the track with them - it was an unbelievable experience, one I hope to repeat.

Eurodragster: If you could have one wish granted in drag racing, what would it be - or are you already living it?

Darren Prentice: One wish would be sponsorship deals not just for the tracks and promoters but for the clubs and the racers too, which I feel would then make our sport even more viable and more exciting than F1. As Ian would say, "We drive straight to the finish line, not round in circles looking for it".

Eurodragster: How do you see the future shaping up?

Darren Prentice: I hope to continue as Race Director, and to see if I can improve on a few key points. I tend to leave stuff to the last minute and then rush it. I hope to stay on the Committee at the Santa Pod Racers Club and to help to carry on the work that is being done between the clubs and the promoters, who are all really pulling in the same direction. I think - and this is my own opinion - that the National Championship is in the best shape it has been over last couple of seasons. A lot of hard work and behind-the-scenes effort goes into making the Championship work: it's not as easy as people think.

Eurodragster: Does a Race Director get a private life?

Darren Prentice: My family are very supportive and realise how much this sport means to me, so if I have to turn down the odd family function in order to be at the track they do not seem to mind too much, though I would like to see more of my relatives. When I first started at the track my mum said "It's only a fad, it will pass", well all I can say is that this is some fad! My wife Nicola has to put up with a lot it can't be easy in the weeks leading to a event, they are very hectic with countless meetings and phone calls that take up a lot of my home life. When I am at the meeting Nicola just stays clear because the pressure is more than most people realise and the stress level is really quite high. At the end of a weekend's racing I stop off on the way home, pick up a bottle of scotch and some lemonade and have a good drink (at this point I would like to thank my Aunt Pauline for getting me into the taste of whisky). I find it a great relaxant and to helps me come down to Earth with a bang knowing that the next day I will be Darren Prentice, 3226, kicking out shoes and boots for a multi international company - the two places are miles apart in respect to work. This is meant to be my hobby - I must out of my mind.

Eurodragster: In closing, could you sum up your relationship with drag racing?

Darren Prentice: The thing that drag racing has done for me, most of all, is the chance to meet a lot of people from all over the world, many whom have become good friends. Not just marshals but racers, commentators, press and photographers - the list is endless.

Finally, I would like to say Thank You to the marshals who work so hard for me. If I had to write it out a thousand times it still would not be enough.

I would also like to thank Eurodragster for taking time out to do this interview.

Eurodragster: Thank you Darren! We'll see you at the track this weekend.

Interview ©Eurodragster.com

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