The legendary rocket drag racer Sammy Miller raced Fuel Dragsters and Funny Cars before switching to rockets in 1974. Tony Fox, the owner of Pollution Packer asked Sammy to test in the winter of 1974-75. On only his second pass he hit 348 mph which officials refused to announce. After driving others’ rockets in 1975 he built the Spirit of ’76 Mustang, which was the first Rocket Funny Car and which ran quickly enough to cause consternation to the NHRA establishment following previous fatalities. At that time rocket cars were given strict elapsed time and speed limits, which the drivers routinely ignored. Track announcers would always announce the allowed times and speeds, not the actual times on the scoreboard. By the late 1970s Sammy was looking for other places to run.
Sammy’s second Rocket FC was the first Vanishing Point, a Vega-bodied car. It was with this car that he made his UK début in 1978 where he quickly made his mark running 4.40/290. Sammy recorded the first ever three-second pass in Florida in 1979, a 3.94, and his first 300 mph plus run in Europe was at Santa Pod in July 1979 at 307.6 mph. Europe became the beneficiary of the NHRA clampdown on rocket-propelled vehicles and Santa Pod in particular took him to their collective heart.
Following an incident at the 1979 Fireworks meet resulting in Vanishing Pointflipping in the dark at 234 mph, Sammy rebuilt it to run in 1980. In 1981 the Oxygen Rocket Dragster made its début and Sammy arranged the first ever rocket races, which were against Al Eierdam and which were also contested at Santa Pod. Sammy’s quickest time was in 1984 when he recorded a pass of 3.58 at Santa Pod Raceway which still stands as the absolute drag strip ET record anywhere on the planet. His biggest worry was whether he’d ever get the car stopped.
Sammy’s career had two hiatuses, between 1986 and 1994, and again for another seven years from 1995. The main reason was that the hydrogen peroxide fuel for rockets had become almost unobtainable. His last on-track appearance was at the Speedfreaks Ball at Santa Pod Raceway in May 2002. Following a low five-second pass Sammy put Vanishing Point into the field, as he had done previously when stopping became an issue. Ever the showman, he worked overnight to make sure he could run again on the Sunday.
Sammy was hugely popular with the fans, thousands of whom turned out to see his return in 2002. Off the track he was always friendly and approachable to fans and media alike and had a wonderful sense of humour. Stories abound of him running a rocket car on the street, waving at NHRA officials at 300 mph, and talking in a spookily accurate Donald Duck voice. But he was also a consummate engineer, building his own motors and helping budding rocket pilots such as Henk Vink.
What was Sammy Miller like at the track? He was one of the nicest guys you could meet and always had time to chat to the fans many of whom would stand wide-eyed in reverence at this living legend. He was also incredibly brave and knew only too well the risks he was taking with his body as the extreme G-Forces caused internal bleeding during his runs as a matter of routine. Those who witnessed his performances talk of the car moving as if fired from a gun.
Sammy was killed in an incident unrelated to any of his own work on Tuesday 29th October 2002 whilst working in the Texas oilfields for his company Applied Force. He was survived by his wife Edith and his five children. His death left a massive gap in the sport and in the hearts of his thousands of fans.
Sammy still holds quarter mile records in Canada, Denmark, England, Sweden and Mexico and eighth mile records in Belgium, Holland, England, Germany and Corsica. He also set a world ice speed record when he put skis on theOxygen dragster and recorded 247 mph at Lake George. He was also the first man into the fives, fours and threes in the USA and the first into the fours and threes in Europe.