Crazy Horses The History of British Drag Racing by Brian Taylor

Crazy Horses The History of British Drag Racing by Brian Taylor
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with a foreword by Don Garlits
Review by Richard Parks, photographic consultant Roger Rohrdanz

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Brian Taylor has researched and written a wonderful book on British drag racing from the very beginning until the present. The book is called Crazy Horses; the history of British drag racing, and is a hard bound book 224 pages in length and measuring 8 ½ by 11 inches in size. The paper is first class bond, but not as slick as some pictorial book use, still the photographs were clear and crisp. The book is not bound at the spine, but glued in, so you need to take special care so as not to have any damage occur to the pages. The dust cover jacket is well done and enhances the look of the book. I have mentioned this to you before; over time the dust jacket will be worth half the cost of the book itself. The dust cover jackets are often worn out, lost and discarded. Always take excellent care of your dust cover jackets. Crazy Horses; the history of British drag racing, contains introductions, acknowledgments, author and photographer information and a nice foreword by Don “Big Daddy” Garlits. There is a very good index covering four comprehensive pages and an addendum for British Hall of Fame drag racing inductees. There are 240 color and 49 black and white photographs. I didn’t see any graphs, pie charts or other graphics other than the photographs. Some of the photos were full page, a few covering two pages and some rather small, but the overall quantity and quality fit the text very well. I would have loved to see more black and white photographs, indicating more age and history for the subject. Roger Gorringe took most of the photographs and they are extremely good. There is a substantial amount of text, and the captions are satisfactory. The book has cross-over appeal. It can be enjoyed as a coffee table book for its photographs and visual appeal, read for the interesting content, is a crisp historical reference and appeals to both an American and Europeanaudience. It’s rare to hear about drag racing outside of the United States and thus Crazy Horses will peak our interest.

Pay attention to the list of acknowledgments, because that will give you a clue as to how thorough the author was in doing his research. All of the sources are excellent, but a few names jumped out, including; Gordie Bonin, Don Garlits, Tom Ivo, Paula Murphy, Carl Olson, and Steve Swaja. Taylor used magazines, books, libraries, websites and newsletters as well in researching the roots of British drag racing and you can see his enthusiasm for his subject. Don Garlits supplied the foreword and described the 1964 British Drag Festival and the participation of the American Drag Racing Team sent to England by Wally Parks and the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA). Garlits tells about the wonderful support the British racers and public extended to himself and the other American racers. Garlits is now as fervid and committed to saving the history and heritage of drag racing as he was a ferocious and feared competitor on the dragstrips of yesteryear. Taylor was wise to select Don Garlits to set the tone for the rest of the book. Chapter One is called Roots and of course this is the author’s first effort to bring out the real history of drag racing in the British Isles. Here Taylor starts out with a history of American hot rodding and time trials, morphing into modern drag racing. That’s fine and important for a European audience, but I found it unnecessary. Also, there were a few errors, very minor, but nonetheless easily picked up, such as the mention that Wally Parks was regularly winning on the dry lakes of southern California in the SCTA time trials in the 1930’s. He was an official and administrator and we have few records of Parks running for time at the dry lakes. Winning is the wrong word to use anyway, for it was the attempt to break and set records against the clock that time trials are known for. Still, there weren’t many of these slip-ups and the story continued, this time discussing early British drag racing history.

The author spends about a half of one page to describe British time trials, similar to timed land speed trials in the United States, covering six decades in a short space. Even though this isn’t technically drag racing, I wished there had been more. But Taylor is in a hurry to tell the whole story and British drag racing is rich in history and lore, though on a smaller scale than in the U.S. Taylor states that the roots of British hot rodding and thus the beginnings of drag racing began in the 1950’s around London, about two or three decades after the development in America. A decade later, on September 1, 1960 the British Hot Rod Association (BHRA) is formed, and the man who would be the icon of this new sport was Sydney Allard. Besides his promotion of drag racing, Allard was also a car dealer, sports car manufacturer, oval and hill climb racer. Early drag cars were every bit as innovative and sophisticated as American cars. The Brits were proving to be every bit as original and tenacious in automotive racing as any other group of people. A reorganization of the BHRA occurred in 1962. Two years later the British Drag Racing Association (BDRA) formed to operate a series of races featuring the American racing teams on tour. If some of the cars shown in the book seemed a bit strange, think back to the late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s in the United States and you can equate that with the experimentation that the Brits were also doing. Chapter Two tells of the American “Invasions” of the middle years of the 1960’s. It was bound to happen. England was becoming a European center for drag racing and Americans would have to travel there and find out for themselves how the sport was expanding. Dante Van Dusen drove Dean Moon’s gas dragster in England. Wally Parks urged SEMA to put up a trophy, Mickey Thompson and other American racers wanted in and the U.S. sent drag racers east to partially make up for the Brits sending the Beatles west.

The name given to the tour was the 1964 British International Drag Festival. Some good friends went on the tour and decades later they still talk about the people, races and hospitality that they received. Men like Don Garlits, Tom Ivo, Tony Nancy, George Montgomery, K.S. Pittman, Sox and Martin, Strickler and Jenkins, and bike guys like Bill Woods and Don Hyland. Years later my father, Wally Parks, told us many wonderful memories of that tour and the Brits who returned the favor and came to race in America. A rich crosscurrent of cars went back and forth across “the pond.” One of my father’s secretary’s, Shirley Bunce hailed from England and she always introduced me to British drag racers when they came to see the NHRA races. Chapter Three tells us the story of the development of Santa Pod Raceway, at Podington Airfield in Northamptonshire. This was the first permanent dragstrip and a place of historical pride for drag racing Brits. I could never get an answer from the Brits as to why they used the name Santa Pod until I read the book and found out that they were honoring the old Santa Ana, California, drag strip the first professional drag racing facility in the world. American racers continued to come to England on scheduled tours for several more years and the Brits quickly standardized their sport by observation and their own unique hot rodding talents. A casual observer would be hard pressed to know whether he was watching a drag race in England or America, except for the accents of the people themselves. By 1967 the BDRA and the BHRA merged to form a stronger association to promote and sanction drag racing. At this point Taylor tells the story by year and the appeal of drag racing is growing.

By the end of the 1960’s the Brits are touring Sweden and showing their cars to the Swedes. The growing pains of the 1960’s were not always pleasant and many organizations rose up to contest for leadership. Taylor states in Chapter Four that the 1970’s would be the decade of unprecedented growth with England becoming the focal point of drag racing in Europe. Other countries would also develop their own forms of drag racing, rules and safety, but all would look back on this decade as the golden age of drag racing. The Americans again sent a team to tour England in 1973 that included Paula Murphy, Don Schumacher, Tony Nancy and Danny Johnson (bike). Paula has set drag racing, land speed, jet car and other records among women. Murphy tells me stories to this very day about her tour of England. Many other drag strips opened up throughout the British Isles. The elapsed times and speeds were becoming very competitive and fast, with the first 5 second run in 1975. Chapter Five tells of the development of drag racing throughout northern Europe, especially in Scandinavia, Britain and Holland and crowds at Santa Pod reaching 50,000 fans. Don Garlits tours England in the mid-1970’s and won the July 1977 Internationals. Santa Pod and British drag racing was squarely on the map. European records continued to fall. In 1979 Sammy Miller in his rocket powered funny car set a record of 4.2 ET at 307 mph. The thrill of speed was just as infectious on the other side of the “pond” as it was in America. They also have their unique brand of sex appeal as Paula Derbridge lines up Russ Carpenter’s dragster clad only in a very skimpy bikini. Even our Jungle Pam Liberman never wore a bikini outfit quite that revealing. The enthusiasm for drag racing is as avid in England as it is anywhere.

The Golden age of drag racing came to a rather sudden end in the 1980’s as the racing clubs and sanctioning bodies began to argue and the world-wide economic turbulence took a toll. Growth of drag racing throughout Europe grew faster than safety and sanity would suggest. Perhaps this was simply a breather, waiting for another time in which the sport would thrive as it had in the ‘70’s. Taylor presents sidebars from well-known and influential people; including land speed and drag racer Carl Olson, announcer John Price, British racer Dennis Priddle, Alan Allard and many more. Though the book is broken down into chapters, Taylor gives us a year by year breakdown on the drag racing scene in Great Britain. As we reach the end of the 1990’s the actual content starts to decline to half a page or less per year, hardly enough to whet our appetite. However, the purpose of the book is to give a historical perspective of British drag racing and in this Taylor succeeds. There is far more to drag racing in the British Isles than most of us have ever envisioned. The speeds, competitiveness, desire and effort rival any other country or region. The Brits have much to be proud of and I sense that Crazy Horses, part 2 would fill in many of the gaps in the story. No history can tell it all. Authors research and write on what they know and after the book reaches print they find other avenues that they wished that they could have explored and written about.  The same is true with Crazy Horses. Taylor has penned a compelling history and he may not be finished yet. We can only hope that part 2 is in his mind to do. 

Crazy Horses; the history of British drag racing is a book that should be in the library of any drag racing fan who truly loves the history of the sport. Hopefully we will see another history of drag racing throughout Europe, for that story needs to be told as well.  

I rate this book a 7 out of 8 sparkplugs.

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