(Well dogs actually we spend a weekend with Nobby Hillís Houndog team)
Two things about drag racing. First, the majority of the paying public part with their hard-earned shekels to see the big fuel cars In action. They may be a spectacle, they may be a circus but they are what the real excitement of drag racing is all about. Second, those big fuelers aren't just wheeled off their trailers to pull six second runs out of the hat. We spent a weekend with Nobby Hill's Houndog digger and funny car outfit to see just what makes a successful team tick. We had surprises, upsets and above all -lots of action. We begin on Saturday, 20 September, one of the year's biggest and best supported meetings.
10.00 Saturday. The first paying customers of the weekend are slowly filtering into Santa Pod Raceway, home of lousy loose even worse commentators and the best drag racing in Europe. Nobby Hills has been there since Friday afternoon when he trucked up with the, funny car of from his home in Ware and he's stayed overnight in the caravan that he keeps at the Pod. He's had an irritating week. The digger lost three pistons winning top fuel at the last meeting and it's been touch and. go whether he'd get replacements from the States in time. The pistons finally arrived from Ed Pink on Tuesday; on Wednesday the whole engine was rebuilt with a lot of sweat and hours of lost sleep.
The first autograph hunters of the day have presented Nobby with a huge stick of rock in return for a few snapshots of himself and the funny car. The three ladies of the team wax down the funny car's fibreglass shell and shine up the chrome on the big Ed Pink prepared motor until it glitters in the morning sunshine. Alan Bates, chief wrench for the funny is crouched down at the back of the car working on the wheel nuts, leaving nothing to chance. Bins full of spares, cans of oil, plastic carboys full of nitro and enough tools to equip a chain of garages are strewn around the pit area. Nobby's a bit worried though-no sign of the digger yet-but the sun's shining, the stands are filling and the Houndog team's in there with a very good chance of carrying off some of the glory.
Nitro Alley begins to fill up. Chief threat number one, the Chadderton and Okazaki Vega has arrived, with LeRoy Chadderton himself over from the States to drive it. The Stardust pit area looks like it's been hit by a hurricane. A new Milodon block arrived for them only last night and a frantic rebuild is in progress. Meanwhile over in the Houndog corner, work proceeds in a calm, unhurried way. Nobby, a big, amiable guy with a mop of black hair and a greasy Houndog Tee-shirt passes the, time with well-wishers and keeps an eye on things. Alan, small, wiry, preoccupied, worries the car into perfection. A man from American Automotive brings the new plastic kit of the funny car over for the guys to look at. Fame at last, a 1/125th-replica all of their own.
11.30 Owen Hayward,. driver of both Houndogs arrives with the digger In tow. Apparently some joker had let down the tyres on the trailer and jerked out all the electrical leads. 'Amazing how far the opposition'll go', Owen jokes. The long rail is gingerly manoeuvred out of its close fitting trailer and immediately the polishing ladies do their, thing on it. Big Alec, chief mechanic for the car fits the airfoil to the back end and starts to prepare the as-yet-untested engine for its first warm up run.
12.00 And the long wait in the queue for scrutineering begins. Priddle's arrived and he chats amiably with Owen who's leaning up against the railings signing autographs. After all the waiting, the actual scrutineering is over in a matter of minutes and it's back to the pits for an oil pressure warm-up on the funny car engine. Down the road, Chadderton, fires up his motor. Owen and Nobby are soon over there watching the show as a big crowd gathers, drawn as if by magic to the sound of the big Milodon. The motor sounds very strong, it's loud even for a funny car engine. Chadderton looks relaxed, confident as he makes minor adjustments on what must be the engine to beat. You get the impression that he does this. sort of thing every day in the States. Chances are it's true.
13.45 The two Houndogs are, fueled and ready to run. Nobby painstakingly checks and rechecks the nitro content of the fuel as £90 worth goes into the tanks. He's decided to tip the can a bit and for this meeting, the digger and the funny running 90 ant 84 per cent respectively. The rear end of the funny car is jacked up and Owen wearing his face mask in case, climbs in. Nobby connects the 24 volt electric starter, Alan stands by with a fire extinguisher, ready for instant use In the event of a blowback. The engine is turned over with the ignition off, stopped, petrol is squirted into the butterflies and then pow!-the amazing sound that only comes from a big blown engine on a heavy nitro load. A crowd gathers as the noise and hot nitro fumes fill the air. Nobby jabs the throttle, Owen cheeks out the clutch and reverser. After it's over the silence is deafening. The crowd moves on to the next bit of action and Nobby looks well satisfied.
15.00 The rail is pushed into the queue on the fireup road ready for an oil pressure run. After a ten minute wait we're at the head of the queue and get the signal to go. The push car accelerates hard down the tarmac until, with hardly any road left, the big Chrysler fires up. Owen is popular with the crowd and gets a cheer as the digger wheels gently round on to the strip. This run is only to warm the motor, so there are no burnouts, just a stately progress down the strip. As soon as were back in the pits, Big Alec is at work, preparing the motor for a qualifying run later in the afternoon.
16.45 The engines of both cars are just about ready for qualifying. The street plugs used for the warmups have been changed, the valves and ignition have been set and the clutch of the funny car had been torqued down to a final setting. Nobby flits from car to car. He likes his mechanics to be in charge of their own cars while he keeps an overall eye on how things are developing. He isn't entirely happy with the funny car motor, thinks it's running rich but he'll wait until he can take a look at the plugs after the next run before changing the settings.
17.25 Alan takes the funny car down to the start line for its first qualifying run. We park in the spectator side of the bleach box as a seemingly interminable series of bike eliminators are run off. Nobby keeps a close eye on the state of the track-"not much traction there yet" he comments.
17.45 Liam Churchill's funny car, The Sting, is on the fireup road. It's not generally, regarded as a serious threat but Nobby elects to let it go first to see what track conditions are like. Churchill and Owen get together for a friendly chat. They make quite a contrast; Churchill big, bluff and affable, Owen small, quiet and slightly reserved. Not the kind of guy you'd imagine piloting a 200mph funny car. There's no grudge match atmosphere, the two seem the best of friends. Churchill, 'the burnout king' pulls off a couple of scorchers and puts down a good qualifying time. 'We'll go out and show them how to do a real burnout now', says Alec.
18.30 Owen is suited. up and strapped into the claustrophobic recesses of his car. The engine, fires beautifully and the lid', goes down over him. The team go into a well rehearsed routine; Alan's up there with the bleach for burnouts, Nobby runs up the track to guide Owen back on to his tyre marks and Alec guns the engine of the push car, ready to race up the strip as soon as the funny car lets loose. Two amazing burnouts leave dense white smoke billowing over the track as Owen inches the straining car into stage. The Christmas tree lights hit green as the engine noise reaches a crescendo, and suddenly it's over and the push car's accelerating down the strip towards the parachute billowing in the distance.
'Anything Liam Churchill can do, Owen Hayward can do better' says the commentator, as the funny car, wisps of smoke still coming from its headers, is towed back down the long road to the pits. "That was a good one. That was a really good one", says Alan as the push car comes up to the timekeeper's hut. He reaches out for the timeslip; won't tell anyone what's on it at first. 'Six, sixty one, two hundred and ten miles per hour!' Pandemonium breaks out in the push car,. Owen's just done the quickest run in Europe. There'll be something to celebrate tonight.
20.00 There's been no resting on laurels back in the pits. Owen reckons that the funny car's engine has been idling too fast and adjustments have been made. Most of the team members are sitting around the transporter sipping tea and snatching what for most of them is their first snack of the day. It's dark and the lights are on, giving the strip a greenish-white hue. The Chadderton car makes its qualifying pass, six foot flames shooting from the headers. It sets a disappointing time however. Owen gets suited up and the rail is brought out for its qualifying pass. "The old bird's looking sharp in this light", Alee reckons as he straps Owen in, and indeed the digger is looking immaculate under the glare of the floodlights. Jim, Alec's helper, carefully lets air out of the sticks until there's hardly any left in them and the digger's ready to race. Fuelers in the daytime are amazing, at night they're something else. After another tremendous burnout, Owen sits on the line, long blue-white blames blasting out of the headers. All you can see of him as he goes are two white flickering dots receding into the gloom. Another good run, another firstname.lastname@example.org. Low ET of the meeting.
22.00 Qualifying, over for the day, time to relax. Nobby stokes up a glowing barbecue between the caravans. Lots to eat, lots to drink, lots of tall stories to swap. You-think you've heard every, corny joke in the book? Try a Houndog BBQ sometime. Foodís nice, jokes are excruciating 'but then after a hard day's racing anything's funny. The company is varied. Besides the team and their ladies, there are helpers, 'friends, well-wishers, officials and even the odd motoring journalist with a bit too much to drink. It's nice sitting on upturned nitro containers round a hot fire rapping with nice people and watching the stars overhead in a cloudless sky. The fire goes down and it's time for bed. The lucky ones have caravans or hotels to sleep in while the rest either stay in tents or bed down for the night in sleeping bags inside the empty transporter. It's an eight o'clock start in the morning with lots to do.
08.00 Sunday A bad start to rate day. Two new slicks for the funny car were fitted without inner tyres so they have to be taken back to the M and H enclosure to be properly fitted. Luckily the trouble was discovered in time to do something about it.
11.00 It's been a busy morning on the funny car. Alan has taken the oil pan off to cheek the bearings on the engine. The clutch on the dragster is stripped down because Nobby reckons that there's a dished pressure plate in there somewhere and the valves are being reset on both cars. The pits are packed with onlookers-looks like a capacity crowd for the afternoon. The rail's back together and ready for a warmup and oil pressure run. The engine is really hot this time. Nobby plans to run it on ninety per cent nitro for the first round in which he'll be up against Priddle. A tough prospect.
13.20 And the funny car is towed down the fireup road for the first eliminator against The Sting. The crew sits on the tow car, watching the racing and sunning themselves. Liam Churchill and his crew are down early, and the two projectiles sit on the tarmac, lids up,- waiting to go.
13.40 The cars fire up for the first round. Houndog fires perfectly, does two heavy burnouts and stages with the minimum of fuss. There's only one nasty moment when the engine nearly dies as the car is reversing back to the start line. Churchill keeps them waiting with a protracted series of burnouts. "That was a bit naughty of him" says Nobby afterwards in what must have been the biggest understatement of the day. Still, the Houndog motor is well richened and running from cold so there's not too much danger of it being demolished. The actual race is a foregone conclusion. Owen leads right from the, start but midway up the strip the big car veers hair-raisingly towards the barrier. Owen steers out of trouble and goes through the traps wheels up. He wins but there's no time available. Back to the pits and frantic preparations for the next round in ninety minutes time which will turn out to be against Priddle's Avenger. Two plugs have been lost on the run and they have to be replaced along with yet another oil change.
14.30 The dragster goes down for its run against Priddle. On times from yesterday Owen has the edge, but events prove otherwise. Priddle gets off the line first but by the halfway mark Owen seems to be overtaking him. When the win light goes on in Priddle's lane, there's disbelief in the Houndog pushcar. Alec's disappointed-"I thought we really hid him there", but by the time we reach the car at the end of the strip, Alan's congratulating Priddle who's still waiting for his pushcar. Apparently Priddle said that he was going to take things easy on this run but that's what psyching the opposition's all about.
16.30 Round Two of the funny car eliminator. Amazing burnouts leave smoke clouding the entire strip and Owen pulls a perfect holeshot to leave Priddle behind. Three quarters of the way up the strip there's an ominous puff of smoke from the underside of the car but as Priddle overtakes his car too belches flame. Owen gets the win, but as the pushcar pulls up alongside him things look nasty. Alan rushes across, "you OK Owen? Bleedin' hell what a mess'. The clutch has demolished itself, taking a sizeable chunk of bellhousing with it, and the interior of the car is smoking and covered in grime. Owen's covered in muck but unhurt and calm. "Did I win?" he says. He climbs out of car, comes out uncharacteristically with some highly deletable expletives and brushes himself off.
Up at the other end of the strip Nobby figures out what's happened and he's immediately on to Roy Phelps to get hold of spares. To an outsider, the situation looks hopeless. The crew however show no signs of even thinking of throwing the towel in. "Got a proper job on now lads" Alan says as he raises the body and surveys the mess inside.
17.19 Anyone who reckons that drag racing is dull should be in the Houndog pits at this moment. Alan and his assistant Bob Barker are frantically disassembling the wrecked clutch, helped by the rest of the team. Up the road, the crew of Stardust are carrying out much the same operation in reverse. In a losing run against LeRoy Chadderton, Stardust has broken its reverser, and Roy Phelps is letting Nobby have the clutch off the Santa Pod car. The time factor weighs heavily against the swap however. The final's set for 18.45 and Priddle's all set to step in if Houndog can't make it to the start line. Nobby heaves out the still smouldering clutch assembly and tips out so much scrap. There's a lot of work ahead getting that together again.
17.50 While the funny car is the centre of attraction, the digger still -has to go out for third place in top fuel against the ageing Firefly. Of necessity, there's a reduced crew this time round. Alec drives the pushcar and signals the dragster after its burnout. Jim stands by with the bleach and takes the air out of the slicks while yours truly gets is moment of glory standing by with the fire extinguisher. The nitro percentage is down to 86 this run; Nobby reckons that it was too high last time. It turns out to be an ideal setting as the car easily beats Firefly with a 6.59/ 223.2 run.
18.35 Ten minutes to go until the final and touch and go whether Houndog will make it. Priddle thinks it won't. He tows his car down to the bleach box, ready to step in and replace Owen in the almost certain eventuality of Houndog not being ready. Nobby's not giving up yet though. As Priddle's mechanic keeps a discreet eye on the proceedings, the new clutch is in place and being adjusted. Roy Phelps and Alan Herridge are in there helping and a big crowd is gathered around us. Owen gets suited up and repacks the parachutes. No such problems for LeRoy Chadderton. His times have been getting consistently lower through the day and he seems set to win.
18.45 The final-and Houndog makes it in the nick of time. The three ladies polish the car until the last possible moment and it hardly looks as if it has undergone such a disaster. The engine fires up easily and the clutch keeps together through two violent burnouts and then-trouble. Owen loses fire after the second burnout as Chadderton waits on the line. The crew bundle into the push. car and rush up to the inert fueler. The body is jerked up and a desperate attempt made to restart the engine with the portable starter. Miracles-the engine restarts but the car won't go into reverse so a motley collection of track marshals and crewmen have to push it back. By this time Chadderton's car is overheating. Houndog finally stages but won't go into first and dies on the line. It's all over. Chadderton roars off, only to have the overheated engine explode on him in the traps. A truly memorable final.
19.15 Finito. As the stands empty, Houndog is towed down the strip while the bits of Chadderton's engine are cleared off the other end. The raceway looks strangely empty already as Nobby and his men begin to pack the cars on to their trailers. An exciting weekend. They haven't won but they've seen some good racing and come out creditably. Anyway, there's always a next time - chances are the Houndog team will be there.
Nobby and his team have been to a lot of drag races in their time and they'll go to a lot more. They are one of Britain's top three teams and they've paid their dues - starting out many years ago with a Jaguar powered rail, working up through various cars and finally hitting the big time a couple of years back. Ego trippers they aren't. In a sport which does tend to attract outsize egos they are remarkably modest and unassuming to a man. You get the impression that they are there to enjoy the racing and put on a good show for the people as well as carrying off the loot. Nice guys. Go and see them win next season and, if you like what you see, remember that they've got their own fan club, indefatigably run by a guy name of John Lees. You can find out all about it by sending an SAE to him at 86b Cotswold Avenue, Bushey, Herts.
Custom Car, December 1975