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Inside Revolution: Inside the Mind of a Drag Racer

Monday 28 November 2022

In this month’s edition of Revolution, we spoke to Top Fuel driver Susanne Callin and Santa Pod Raceway owner Keith Bartlett to learn how it feels to be behind the wheel in a drag race. Drag racing is one of the more unique forms of UK competition to run under the Motorsport UK banner and it is also one of the most extreme.

Revolution is available online, as a PDF download and on the Revolution app (for both iOS and Android devices). 

Susanne Callin is one of Europe’s top dragster competitors. She drives in the Top Fuel category, which is the drag racing equivalent of Formula One, and for many who follow the
sport she is a superstar. She is also the wife of the UK’s ‘Godfather’ of the sport, Keith Bartlett, the owner and operator of Santa Pod Raceway, which attracts crowds upwards of 30,000 to its Top Fuel events.

“When the car fires up, that’s when everything gets swept away. You’re in the zone, the car’s vibrating like hell, everything’s shaking. Even standing still it’s just ‘bub-bub-bub.’
Shuddering. Your body’s rattling around. You can feel everything. At that point, you know it’s just you now. After all the team’s hard work, it’s just you left to do this. Then, and as soon as the lights go green, it’s like being shot out of a rocket…”

Although drag racing may not quite align with more familiar disciplines like circuit racing, sprint, hill climbing or rallying, it is becoming increasingly popular. In the United States, events draw in hundreds of thousands and even in Europe, the recent Top Fuel event at Hockenheim attracted 54,000 spectators. That is more than F1 used to draw in during the non-Schumacher eras.

Santa Pod is the hub of it all in the UK, running events from ‘run what ya brung’, where anyone is welcome to bring their cars and drive the quarter mile as quickly as they can, all the way to the Top Fuel class driven by a highly selective group of brave individuals, where cars run from 0-100mph in 0.8 seconds and reach 280mph after about three seconds
at an-eighth-of-a-mile and go through the finish line in just under four seconds at upwards of 320 mph.

That level of performance is unimaginable, and Callin concedes that there is very little that compares. “Nothing I have ever tried gets anywhere close to it, for sure,” she says.
“You can’t compare it to anything. The first time I did it, I had no idea what I was getting into. I was so nervous, but I was also respectful. These cars are absolute monsters. Until you get in one you really don’t know what to expect. It’s almost worse afterwards when you know what’s going to hit you.”

When she says ‘what’s going to hit you’ she means it almost literally. Because, for a Top Fuel driver who has driven hundreds of runs, it is actually not the getting going bit that is the most intense. It’s the stopping. “The start, you do get used to, but when the ‘chutes come out and you are coming down at 300mph, I don’t think you ever get used to that,” she continues. “You’re left breathless. You get winded. Totally. It’s like driving into a wall. You lose all the breath in your lungs. At the start, it’s 4-5G, so it’s really high. But it’s even more when you stop. That’s 5-6 in negative Gs. That’s worse. You can definitely feel it!”

Now, it is important to remember that not all drag racing is quite like that. That would be like saying competing in a Sprint race is like driving an F1 car. But whatever the level,
there is still a similar feeling. Bartlett explains: “I’ve recently been driving a ten-second car, a 1950s gasser, that goes through the finish line at 135mph. Then I’ve got a street legal car that will run seven-and-a-half-seconds at 190mph. How does that feel? For a door body car, really fast. The wheels are up off the ground. It’s no comparison to what Susanne does, I am not going pretend it is, but it still feels really, really quick. It’s exciting and you get a real buzz.

Finding Focus

Callin has just finished her latest season in the FIA European Championship. After a year beset by mechanical issues, she still managed to finish runner-up. She nailed her personal best on the quarter mile, a rapid 3.885 seconds, topping out at 309.20mph, at the season-ending event in front of a fanatical home crowd at Santa Pod. To stand on the banks filled with spectators, two fire-breathing Top Fuel machines sit shaking and rocking on the start line waiting to go, is a visceral experience that hits all senses. Yet inside the cockpit, it is all rather serene.

“When you’re on the start line, you’re just so focused on what you’re doing you don’t really feel anything, that’s the one time you try to be as cool and feel as little as possible,” she
tries to explain. “The whole process to get to that point starts when I put all my gear on, and when that all starts, I just want to be left alone. I think most of the other competitors
do the same – we have our own routines: I put everything on in the same order, go and have my water.

“We have such thick suits, but even when it’s really hot I still like to walk down to the start line and get into the car early. At that point, I feel nothing. I don’t know any Top Fuel driver who does. You might expect it to be ‘whey hey, let’s have fun, let’s do this’ but it’s not like that. I know in other classes people are sort of skipping into their cars and being ‘oh, how exciting’ but I definitely don’t have anything of that.

“I mean, we are serious. But once I’m in there, that’s when my brain starts whirring and my heart rate, it starts going ‘boombadda-boom.’ It really goes for it, so I need to sit and just calm myself down. Sometimes I am like ‘oh my God, why am I doing this, should I really be doing this?’ That definitely happened in the beginning, but I’m more used to it now. Now, I just know that’s when you sit down and just do it, no matter what.

“I’d rather just sit in there and try to zone in and do my thing. If you’re not in sync, even getting close to the run, it can really screw up when you’re out there. It’s not like F1, where you can catch up or anything like that, you’ve got what you’ve got – and you’ve got one shot. You can’t redo it. You can’t come off the accelerator and go back on it. It’s everything, just now or never.

“When the team comes in and tightens up your belts, they do it so hard you can’t breathe, you almost want to hit them! But when it’s all about to start, I am so focused. Even though the bank is literally 30 meters to the right, I don’t see the crowds. And once it’s go, it’s a struggle all the way! If you look from the side, it looks pretty damn straight but when you’re in it, it’s a handful, I can tell you! But for me, it’s at the end of the run, when I get out the car, that the biggest adrenaline rush hits me.

Tuning Up

As you would expect, given the performance of the Top Fuel machines, the power they pack is immense. The engine has around 11,000bhp, which means, Bartlett points out, that the power inside two cars sat on the start line is equivalent to the power in an entire grid of F1 cars. Just take that in for a moment. That deserves a lot of respect.

Of course, however, just like in any other form of motorsport, there are many levels below that pinnacle. From Pro Mod, which is like a fast touring car, down through the drag racing equivalents of F2 and F3, right the way to the 30 ‘run what your brung’ sessions held at Santa Pod over the year, where all you need is a driving licence, a car with an MOT and some insurance.

Even children as young as eight years old can have a go in Junior dragsters on an eighth of a mile, and Bartlett proudly explains: “Our two daughters aren’t even old enough to get driving licences – but they are driving 80mph Junior dragsters. At the distance they run, a supercar wouldn’t live with that. They’ve learned to get into a concentration zone and think nothing of it, and I am the same in my cars. I don’t feel scared or apprehensive. But Top Fuel is different. The average person would be scared. Some years ago, I put Tiff Needell into a Top Fuel car on Top Gear. He swore blind he would never do it again – and he didn’t even do a full run!”

There is a similarly large gulf in preparation between the Top Fuel cars and the less powerful machines. At lower levels, a few simple tweaks and some engine checks is all that is needed. At the top level it takes a crew of around six people to run each car and they pretty much strip and rebuild the entire engine between every run, with just an hour and a half to turn it around. If you consider there are 3-4 qualifying runs and a similar number of rounds to reach the final, that is a lot of engine rebuilds, a lot of parts and a lot of expense.

“They may be push rod engines, but they are extremely complicated,” says Bartlett. “I used to regularly have F1 teams come to do straight line runs at Santa Pod before they tightened up on testing and they would be blown away by Top Fuel cars in terms of the complexity and how difficult it is to get them to run. It’s one thing producing 11,000bhp, it’s another thing to put that to the ground to make a good run.

“There are so many elements to it. The clutch feed comes in via electronic timers and it locks up at different stages. You put ignition in, take ignition out and you’re putting fuel in and taking it out as the car goes down the run. So you are taking fuel away and leaning the engine out as it goes down. That is compensated with electronic ignition giving more blower on the superchargers, more drive or less drive, so it’s extremely complex.

“Even if the car only runs 50m, it all has to come completely apart, every time. Things need to be replaced all the time, they might have pistons gone, rings gone, the bearings are gone on nearly every run, spark plugs are used up. To run a Top Fuel car without any breakages, just normal wear and tear, costs between £3,000 and £5,000 each run. That’s without damage, and there’s always damage.”

Quick on the Lights

Things are intense on the quarter mile whatever the level, and what many like most about it is the simplicity of the whole competitive process. “It’s a bit like tennis,” explains Bartlett. “The qualifying runs decide the positions in the draw for the first round, and after that it’s a one against one knock-out; it’s just win or lose. Coming second in an event, it almost means nothing! It’s all about the winner. If you are losing semi-finalist, people don’t remember that. They only remember the final and who won.”

That said, while progressing through to the final is all about beating the person on the other side of the track every time, the satisfaction for many comes in beating your best time against the clock. Callin adds: “Even if they lose, people will be super happy if they’ve done a better time. They will still come off smiling and not really caring if they got beaten. At the end of the day, we’re all just chasing that little bit quicker time.”

Given that a run lasts just under four seconds in a Top Fuel dragster, you would have thought a big chunk of that quicker time could be found in the driver’s reaction to the lights. That, however, is not necessarily the case. “There are always ways to practise, to improve reaction times as a driver,” says Suzanne. “But actually the reaction times in European Top Fuel, none of us are brilliant, because the cars don’t really react as quickly as other cars.”

The Top Fuel cars are so complex that there is not a direct reaction between the driver’s foot and the car getting off the line – so there is more to getting off the line than pure reaction speed. It is in classes like Pro ET and Super Pro where reaction time is everything, as Bartlett explains: “They clearly don’t have the same power of acceleration compared to the Top Fuel machines, but in terms of getting it off the line, the actual transfer of energy is instant. And some of those young kids that come into those classes are unbelievable on the lights.”

The engineering complexity of the Top Fuel cars also makes them extremely sensitive, so things can often go wrong. “These cars either go quick as hell or not at all,” explains Callin. “There’s a lever under the throttle that sets off the clutch and the air systems, the fuel system, the ignition, and all of that, and it’s either on or off. You can’t even lean on the throttle, because if you even lean on it by half a millimetre that’s 4,000bhp right there. So, you have to have the throttle full on, and there’s no backing off.

“There are no second chances in any of it. You just have this one go at it, and it’s so extreme, everything is pushed so hard to the limit. When the car fails to get traction, we shake, the tyres get wrapped underneath themselves and the car starts jumping forward. That is so violent, you actually black out a lot of the time. You lose your vision. Out of the blue.

“It can be really, really violent. If you don’t react quickly to that, your whole engine will go ‘kaboom!’ If you get off the throttle, you have to do it really quickly, bam-bam and come back on. You can’t think about it because the whole engine’s completely full of nitro-methane so you could explode the whole thing. We’re used to it not going right a lot, but when it all clicks– it’s actually quite a smooth ride.”

In the Zone

Sometimes, however, that ride is not so smooth – and that’s when things can start to become spectacular. “I rolled six times once,” says Callin with zero hint of concern. “I also
crashed into the wall at 200kph. And the number of times I have caught fire, well, that doesn’t even count!”

Despite such dramatic sounding incidents, none of which fortunately occurred in the Top Fuel class, Callin says that it is very rare anyone gets hurt, adding: “It’s very low statistically on injuries, even though it’s a hard impact at proper speed. People crash in the lower classes, several at every event, but you see them afterwards and no one has actually had any injuries that have made me really question everything.”

Just as time often slows down when you are faced with a dramatic or dangerous situation, the same happens inside the cockpit, however the run is going. “It never feels like four seconds,” says Callin. “People say ‘it’s so fast, how do you have time to do anything’ but I have time to do millions of things! It all slows down, even though you are going faster and faster.

“These cars never stop accelerating, so the second half of the track goes so quick. The last 100m goes in just over a second, and the quicker it goes, your vision also gets narrower and narrower and narrower. The whole experience is just incredible. It still is. In fact, even people who have been involved in drag racing for all of their lives, no one ever, ever, ever has got used to Top Fuel.

“Every time those engines start, you can’t help but be affected. Even if you bring someone who hates any car or motorsport with a passion, they are not going to leave and be unaffected. They are going to say ‘holy ****, what was that?’ The ground shakes. Your heart actually changes rhythm, just watching it. It’s definitely not a great TV sport, but wow, can you feel it when you’re there.

“There really is nothing, nothing, nothing like it. At the end of a run, I’m out of breath. I can’t even get out of the car. I struggle to even stand up – which you wouldn’t think after that short distance! But after that, when the rush hits you, it’s amazing. These cars often break and don’t run, and a lot of the time you are working so hard and spending so much money for nothing, there are so many damn low lows. But the highs… they are so high they compensate for it all.”

To learn more about Drag Racing in the UK, visit www.santapod.com and check the next event.

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