The Nitro Years

Ray and I had decided to sit back after our Pro Stock adventures. Then, one day, I had an offer from Bob and Roy Phelps to move up to Top Fuel. The deal was that we bought the car and they supplied and maintained the motor. They sourced a dragster through Ed Pink from Cannon & Soares. Before our car arrived I drove Firefly to obtain a fuel competition license. It was a nightmare to drive; it just didn’t want to go straight and was always pulling to the left.  Worse still, I couldn’t see where I was going because of the height of the injector hat.  How could Bootsie drive the car with such confidence when he was shorter than me?  It’s just as well we bought Stormbringer before I drove Firefly; otherwise I might not have gone ahead with it. I completed my 3 observed runs without any dramas.

After we imported Stormbringer Roy Phelps asked if he could copy our chassis, Ray and I agreed and Roy built a number of other cars based on its chassis.  These were Asphalt Alleygator (Allan Herridge), Highway Patrol (Ronnie Picardo), Man eater (Roz Prior) and the ill fated Blonde Bombshell rocket car (Barry Bowles). Bob and Roy Phelps put a lot of money and effort into the cars and teams at this time.

We had a lot of success with Stormbringer, the name was taken from the book by Michael Moorcock (Ray was a big fan). The car ran under 6.5 more than any other dragster or funny car of the time and from day one was always closer to the five second target than any other dragster. (In 1975 my best et was 6.18.)

Prior to the 76 Garlits Meeting, Roy Phelps borrowed the car in order to use it in an advert for Philips Philishavers. The result was a national poster campaign featuring the car. The car was returned in the trailer; a few weeks later Roy said he wanted the car for the Crystal Palace show. We agreed, and they took the car away. I had not looked at it since it was returned from the ad photo shoot. I then learnt that Roy was upset because the car was filthy, which must be the condition it was when they returned it from the photo shoot. In fact he was so upset he took his motor back and said our deal was over. After long discussions about what had actually happened he changed his mind and we were back. Except, Ray and Ron Edmondson (Hunter Plastics) were less than pleased with the way they had been treated. Ron, who was a real hands on team member pulled out and Ray decided not to take an active part, but left his financial interest in the car for now.

In the run up to the big meet, which was Santa Pod’s 10th Anniversary, Roy and Bootsie completed Asphalt Aleygator and it was the focus of Roy’s attention.

Easter 1976 was a really big meeting, so big that the Police closed the approach roads because they couldn’t deal with the sheer volume of traffic. The spectator banks were full and the crowd numbers were well in excess of 50,000. There were eight top fuel dragsters who qualified. (All were British teams apart from Garlits.) An 8 car fuel dragster field didn’t happen again for 20 years. 

We had decided to revert back to our original clutch settings for this meeting and when I qualified on pole with a 6.21. I knew we were on target for some good numbers. Garlits was experiencing some problems and qualified fifth  with a 6.89 ET @215mph. This meant I would be the first to race him!

The big thing about that run was that it was not only beating the world’s number one Top Fuel driver and reigning NHRA Champion. I was also the first person anywhere outside of North America to run a five (beating the Australians by a year). Add to this the fact that we backed it up on the following run (a 6.03) and you have history made. Unlike Priddles 6.04 “World record for front engined dragsters” which was not backed up and coincidently it was John Dickson who reported it in Autosport as a “World record”!

On the day, when I realised I had beaten Garlits my joy was ecstatic but when Jim told me I had run the first five as well I cannot express the feeling I had. As we drove back to the start line and the crowd was cheering I started to realise how much support there was. It was like no other race that I had run or attended. Fantastic! Even after 30 plus years people who were there, still tell me about the impact it had on their lives. Some were spurred on to become drag racers; others became lifetime supporters of drag racing and those whose first meeting it was were completely blown away.

Don Garlits had mechanical problems at the event. We were told he had damp in the magneto – if this was true, why didn’t he just borrow one from another team? 1976 was known as one of the hottest summers ever. We never actually found out what the problem was.

My actual ET was 5.966 recurring which was rounded up for the record. Peter Billinton took a photo of the clocks. My car was subjected to a stringent technical examination to make sure everything was correct.

Whilst I backed up the five in the semi final, Clive Skilton beat me with a hole shot.  What most people don’t know is that I had tremendous tyre shake on that run and broke the windshield and mirrors on the car but also cracked the chassis near the front engine mountings. If we had won that round we would have had to withdraw from the final round as we didn’t have time to weld the chassis. Clive was really up for it though; he even borrowed Revolution III back from Trevor Young to enter the event. Priddle however had also sold his dragster so he was just a spectator at this event.

The final was Skilton against Owen Hayward which is not how this event was reported by Mike Hill (published in Motoring News and Custom Car). In his version Skilton beat me in the final! This in his view was the highlight of the meeting, completely ignoring the 5 and Garlits’ defeat!

Below is some video footage of the event.

My only regret about that race was the Garlits red light. It was bizarre, as when we were in the fire up road prior to the race, I asked him if he knew how our lights worked. This was because I was at the meeting when Tony Nancy pulled a red light and he went ballistic! Blamed everyone and our timing lights! Garlits response was: “Yes, they go yellow then green.”

In Brian Taylor’s TV commentary he says “the design of Garlits car caused it to red light” That car never red lit during practice or qualifying or when he returned the following year or even when Priddle drove it.

I believe that Garlits probably over staged or took a tad too long to stage. It was clear to everyone there that even if he hadn’t red lit his performance on the day was not up to the challenge, and when Garlits returned the following year he still did not manage to run either a five or a 6 flat or even close.

My 5 second ET also stood as a Santa Pod record for 10 years until it was beaten by Monica Oberg in 1986. So I am still mystified as to how Dennis Priddle had the nerve to call the rear engined dragster that he debuted in 1981 “Mr Five”

Priddle ran a 5.99 in 1982 at Santa Pod his first five but not quick enough against my 5.97. It wasn’t until 1984 did he run a 5.87 backed up with a 5.89 but this was at Mantorp Park in Sweden. (Even though Skilton had gone to the States he continued racing but although coming close he did not make it into the fives.)

Pete Crane Ticket

On the back of my performance (rated 33rd in the world), I was invited by the NHRA to the US in 1977 to run the Winston NHRA championship, but we decided it was a step too far – I would have had to buy my own motor as the one in the car was the property of the Phelps family and I had lost the Hunter Plastics sponsorship. In addition I was running two businesses here and my team also had various commitments of their own. We tried to see if it could realistically happen but it didn’t add up and would have been financial suicide. You have to remember we were amateurs and not full time professionals like the Americans.

As a result of the robbery after the 1976 meeting, the Phelps’ were in real financial trouble. We all tried to help, I returned the prize money for running the first five and many other racers dug deep too. Garlits had embarked on his museum project so was pleased to be able to have the opportunity of getting his car back in the future.

When Garlits returned the following year I no longer had the same motor and the stage was set for him to regain some of his dented pride. This was part of the price of using a borrowed motor, but it was that or not run.

So in 1977, when Garlits came back, Stormbringer was not as competitive. As luck had it I broke the diff in eliminations. So Roz Prior in the “Maneater” car substituted for me and raced Garlits. He didn’t run a five at the meeting, running a best of 6.17 ET. In the final he defeated Roz. The Phelps had bought the car from Garlits and, for reasons unknown to me, they let Priddle drive it. His best ET was 6.50 and he never pulled a red light it in either!

I had lost the Hunter Plastics/Edmondson sponsorship, but I managed to get sponsorship from “Dindy Cassettes” and the car was repainted in their livery. Unfortunately they went into receivership before they paid me anything. Things were not looking too bright.

I ran Stormbringer during the rest of 1977 and brought it out again in 1978.  However, by then I was looking to move to funny car.

Stormbringer was sold and rebuilt as a Pro Comp rail called “Krypton” and debuted by Rod George at Easter 1980.  However, it was crashed and written off early in its new guise and by the time Dave Wilson assumed the driving of the Krypton car, it was in a new chassis, one that was to run for over 25 years.

It was at this point Roy Phelps said that if we were Dave Lee Travis’s team for “The Needle” he would give me a funny car ride. In the end DLT ran pretty well, with a best 6.69 ET @ 220.5mph. The car was specially built for him and was bigger than it needed to be, even for DLT. So when I stood in for him I needed cushions to be able to drive it!

The funny car turned out to be the Hustler Funny Car. We ran this between 1979 and 1980 with essentially the same team as Stormbringer (but without the Edmondson’s and Hunter Plastics). The team was: Jim Hone, Graham and Eve Warley, Mike Barrington and Norm Bristow.

The funny car was the old “Gladiator” Vega, which had first been imported by SPR in 1975 from Leroy Chadderton.  By 1979, it had become quite battle-scarred, including having been rolled by Bootsie.

The body repair work undergone made it so heavy that whereas most Funny Car bodies could be picked up by one person, the Hustler could only be lifted by two people. It was painted in bright yellow and Frank, the sign writer from FGR, wrote “Yellow Peril” on it as a reference to the old motorcycle days with Bill Bragg.

The motor for the Hustler was cobbled together from parts that were available and as a result did not have the power needed to be competitive. As a consequence it was unreliable from the start. On one run I had a small fire resulting from using cracked heads so I set the fire extinguishers off, but was castigated for doing so. It dawned on me that you should not run a funny car unless you have the best equipment as any engine failure will result in a life threatening fire, whereas in a fueller it is behind you and not in your face.

The crunch point came at the 1980 World Finals when I failed to qualify. I asked for an improvement, and was told there was no alternative. I had become so disillusioned I quit there and then, with the full agreement of the team who had put in so much time and effort.

The majority of the problems I faced in my time racing were down to money. In order to run any fuel car you needed a lot of finance (Ed Pink once said to me that he used to ask his prospective customers “How fast can you AFFORD to go?) And even if you had the financial support needed, you were still at the mercy of the promoters. This created its own problems as their motivation was entirely different.

In spite of everything, I enjoyed racing nitro cars and there was no other way to do it at that time. But for me winning was what it was about.

Recently there was an interview with John Price (the commentator) in which he emphasised the importance of being independent and unbiased in his reporting. Some of what you have read here clearly show what happens when personal favouritism and prejudices’ creep into reporting. I have tremendous respect for John’s integrity and am pleased to see his continued success.