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Stu Bradbury's Nitro Years
The highs and lows of twenty-two years as Chief Starter at Santa Pod Raceway
18.2.06. To talk about the history of British drag racing and to miss out Stuart Bradbury; Chief Starter at Santa Pod Raceway for over 22 years, is like Murray Walker and F1 – the two are inseparable. Stu, a showman who has lived and breathed American culture for most of his life was never happier than when wearing his customary American stars and stripes outfit on the start line and having his senses blurred by two nitro guzzling top fuel dragsters.
Stu at Santa Pod circa 1970
Stu’s first encounter with drag racing came in 1964 at Woburn Abbey as an unlikely member of a pop group who had been asked to perform in the grounds of the Abbey by the Duke and Duchess of Bedford! With time to spare before the curtain he took a stroll around the grounds and bumped into a strange bunch of guys sitting on even stranger cars – these were the UK’s first hot rods and dragsters and they belonged to the British Hot Rod Association.
“The first person to approach me was a small guy with a big smile”, recalls Stu. “He obviously realised I was confused and began to explain the construction of the cars and what they were all about – he was Alan Herridge. His enthusiasm for the sport and the cars soon had me hooked and I wanted to know more, so I joined the club.”
Some months later, Stu received a letter from John Bennett, Chairman of the British Hot Rod Association (BHRA) who was looking to open a drag strip at Poddington’s old abandoned airfield just down the road from Stu near Wellingborough. Did he know of anywhere he could stay? “Too darn right,” thought Stu. “He can stay with us.” A few weeks later they were off to see the airfield with Stu more intrigued than ever.
“We arrive at Poddington to be met by Bob Phelps and a strange looking man trying desperately to extract the last few drags from a hand rolled cigarette,” Stu recalls. “This was Ernie Braddock the farmer who owned the land. As things progressed, Ernie was most concerned about how much of his concrete runway was going to be left after these hot rod nutters had finished, and where he would be able to dump the remains of his chicken coups. This we found out some years later was at the end of the drag strip.”
“On the next weekend, I push biked to the airfield to have a look round and to imagine what it would be like when it was finished. What I found was amazing. All the hangers were full of American trucks, fire engines, plane tugs, cars and so many Willys Jeeps that they would have stretched for miles put end to end. The whole place was in a time warp, nissen huts once occupied by American airmen were full of cups plates, clothes, boots and all manner of things forgotten and left on the day they abandoned the airfield. Inside one nissen hut was a beautiful painting on a wall of what many of those airmen must have experienced doing battle in the massive flying fortresses that operated from Poddington airfield. If you ever get the chance to visit Duxford aircraft museum you will be able to see this painting, which was removed and preserved for future generations.”
The next few years were spent putting together the drag strip. On race days Stu was given the job of controlling the crowds, but he really wanted a job on the start line where all the action was.
He eventually made it on to the start line as Deputy Starter in 1967 and took over as Chief Starter a year later when Brian Holms emigrated to the US and handed over the flags. “These original flags still exist and hopefully, one day, they will be put in a museum along with other artefacts from early British drag racing,” says Stu.
Stu in pre-christmas tree flag starting mode
(photo by kind permission of Acceleration Archive)
As time went by, Bob Phelps and all of the other helpers improved the raceway as money would allow. “I still remember dear old Bob in the pouring rain with his arc welder, construction the control tower,” recalls Stu. “That tower is still being used to this day over 30 years later. It’s easy to forget that if Bob hadn’t taken the risk all those years ago, Santa Pod as we know it might not exist today.”
Brits had a real taste of true US-style drag racing at Santa Pod when the American Commando’s drag racing team descended in 1968 and proceeded to blow us all away with the amazing speed, power and noise – drag racing had truly arrived in the UK and now had a permanent home. For the next five years the sport began to grow with more competitors and spectators. Drag racing travelled around the country utilising former RAF bases such as Wroughton in Wiltshire and there was a great international meeting that took place at Silverstone in 1972. But the home really was Santa Pod and a year later Bob put on the mother of all British drag race meetings.
For many drag racing aficionados the most memorable year at Santa Pod was 1973, when Bob Phelps managed to upstage the 1968 event with an all star bunch of American racers that included the legendary Don Schumacher, Tony Nancy, Paula Murphy and bike riders Tom Christensen (Hogslayer) and Danny Johnson (Goliath). Up against a strong contingent of British racers, including Alan Herridge, Clive Skilton, and Dennis Priddle, this meeting must surely go down as one of the highlights of British drag racing to date. Anticipating a large crowd, the Santa Pod team built a new full length banking for better viewing and the whole place was buzzing with anticipation. There was a huge crowd of spectators and the police turned hundreds of people away (the tail back stretched to junction 13 of the M1) so we’ll never know accurately how many people would have attended. Hundreds of people parked up miles from the track and walked in and there was even an announcement about the traffic problems on Radio 1. It was an outstanding meeting with many record breaking runs and speeds in excess of 200mph, all backed by outstanding summer weather.
Stu in the US with former NHRA Chief Starter Buster Couch
Off course, the sun also had its disadvantages at Santa Pod and this tale wouldn’t be complete without a story about the infamous loos.
“It was a warm summer evening and at around 2.00am in the morning after demolishing a crate load of Colt 45’s, we realised we were missing the drum section of our imaginary pop group,” recalls Stu. “Lead Guitar, rhythm, bass, harmonica were all there – but no drums. On asking around, our drummer was last seen going to the ladies toilets, so we all took a trip over there to try and find him, but he was nowhere to be seen. Someone heard a groaning noise inside the toilets so we went back inside for another look. The moaning appeared to be coming from inside the toilet block and on further inspection we found him down inside the toilets and up to his waist in IT. Apparently he was feeling ill and had bent over the toilet but had lost his false teeth in the process. On trying to recover them he had gone head first down the toilet. There was no words to describe the smell – it’s bad enough on a normal day with the lid on!”
“That was one of the more humorous recollections but equally there were some tragic moments I experienced as Chief Starter. I will never forget the November 5th meeting when we lost Bootsy Herridge. He had mentioned he had a problem with the steering on the jet funny car , but he thought he might have an idea as to what was the cause and could put it right. Sadly we will never know. I was at the top end of the strip after the accident standing there in total disbelief at what I had just witnesses. I looked over to Bob and burst in to tears along with everyone else. Bob said - that was it! That he was finished with drag racing. Bootsy was like a son to Bob and it had a real effect on him. Bob bowed out of drag racing soon after and Roy Phelps, his son, took over. “
For Stu it was also a great loss and he left the Pod in 1990 to work on another project with employer Dave Riswick, who had earlier been thwarted in his attempt to buy Santa Pod and the surrounding land to turn it into a motorsport park.
Instead, they set their sights on another track outside Stratford Upon Avon where Stu once again took the role as Chief Starter. The significant news was that it was to be run by the NHRA, the deal was done and the paperwork was being completed, but delays before Britain joined the EEC meant that it would now be more difficult to register the airstrip as a permanent drag racing venue. Additionally, it gave local residents more of a voice to object and when the health and safety officials discovered a huge gas main running near the strip, they feared the top fuel cars might damage it. In the end it would have cost much more than the backers were prepared to put in and the deal collapsed.
Story: Andy Kirk (first published in Custom Car)
Photos: Stu Bradbury