Five decades ago – The 1964 International Drag Festival

1964 was a landmark year for British drag racing. The previous year had already seen the first American dragsters arrive in the UK after Dante Duce had challenged Sydney Allard to a transatlantic match race series. Duce then convinced Dean Moon to lend him his 600bhp Chevrolet Mooneyes dragster for the series that was later joined by Mickey Thompson who brought over his Ford powered Harvey Aluminium Special slingshott

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During the ‘63 series, Dean Moon and Sydney Allard discussed the need to build on this visit and Dean suggested bringing more American drag racers over in the future and Dean offered to pursue this once he returned to the US. Dean was a man of his word and once back in the US he discussed the idea with the NHRA’s Wally Parks and the idea of an International Drag Festival really took off

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In England, Sydney Allard and the newly formed British Drag Racing Association agreed to pay for the UK side of the event and to help cover the cost Sydney got the People newspaper and also Autosport magazine to sponsor the event.  Across the Atlantic, Wally and Dante were working their magic and soon had STP, Valvoline, Goodyear, Wynns, Mobil and Ford agreeing to sponsor the teams and to ship them to England.

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During a phone call between Allard and Parks some names of drivers who might be part of the inaugural U.S. drag racing team were discussed and on the 18th March 1964 letters were sent out by Wally Parks to the drivers he had chosen. The letters began: “I have been authorised to oversee a project in which 10 of the top US Drag Racing machines will be sent to England to represent this country in the 1964 British International Drag Festival. Your car is one we have selected as a possible entry.” The chosen teams were like the Who’s Who list of top drag racers of that time, they were: Don Garlits, Tommy Ivo, Tony Nancy, Ronnie Sox, Buddy Martin, Dave Strickler, Bill Jenkins, Bob Keith, Doug Church, Dante Duce, K.S Pitmann, George Montgomery, Bill Woods and Don Hyland.

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Here in England the RAF agreed to host the events on five of their runways, with two events to be held at Blackbushe and the others at RAF Chelveston, Woodvale, Kemble and Church Fenton. Entering the event from the UK was a small contingent of racers including several future UK drag racing stars like Allan Herridge and Nobby Hills. The format was quite simple; the first few runs each day would be demonstration runs, followed by an all-out race towards the end of each day. The US team would only race each other and the British competitors would do the same.

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Starting at Blackbushe on the 19th September and run over the following three weekends, British drag racing fans were treated to the wonderful sights and sounds of the colourful band of American drag racers blasting down our makeshift drag racing strips. From the onset they provided an extraordinary insight to the world of US drag racing, like the two factory experimental cars of Sox and Strickler, that ran four-speed transmissions but power-shifted so smoothly that most spectators thought they were running autos. The supercharged Willys Gassers of Montgomery and Pittman seemingly bounced their way to ten second times and over 145mph

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Tony Nancy impressed with his radical rear-engined Wedge II dragster. It was however, at the cost of 3 Plymouth blocks and his stunning 22 Jr. slingshot, which was crashed by Dante Duce at Chelveston.

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The big crowd favourites though were the two nitro-burning AA/fuel dragsters of Don Garlits and Tommy Ivo who gave the UK fans an unprecedented glimpse of ground pounding, low eight second, near 200mph races that not only left smoke trails the full length of the track but also left a lasting impression on the mesmerized spectators.

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At RAF Woodvale, Wally Parks advised the drivers to take it easy because of a bump in the track, which most of the racers ignored and after running 8.09 at 195mph on his winning run Garlits hit the bump, took off and later said that he “never felt so close to God”.

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By the time the series came back to the last race at Blackbushe on the 4th October the British entry had grown to 55 competitors although most were sprinters and hill-climbers. The home fans had something to celebrate at this event when Allan Allard drove the Allard Dragster to a win over Dante Duce in the ‘Moonbeam’ car with a 10.28 @ 150mph. This ended the most important event to date in British drag racing’s history. For something that was seen as a gamble by the organisers, the event turned out to be a success and the foundations of the sport in the UK were laid.

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The Festival had been watched by an estimated 100,000 people over the 3 weeks and thanks to the efforts of Wally Parks, Dean Moon, Sydney Allard and the British Drag Racing Association, drag racing had well and truly arrived in the UK. This and the following Drag Festival in 1965 are arguably Sydney Allard’s biggest achievements but unfortunately he never got to see how drag racing went on to develop in this country as he sadly passed away in 1966 – the year Santa Pod Raceway opened.

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