The history of Santa Pod Raceway began when John Bennett announced plans to establish a permanent drag strip on Podington airfield, near Wellingborough at the British Hot Rod Association’s 1965 annual meeting. A new company, National Dragways Ltd., leased part of the airfield and operated it as Santa Pod Raceway – ‘Santa’ to evoke visions of Santa Ana, scene of California’s first commercial drag race in 1950, and ‘Pod’ for Podington. The founding directors were Bennett, Bob and Roy Phelps, Ted Peddle and landowner Ernie Braddock.
Staging its first event on Easter Monday, 11th April 1966, it was the first permanent drag strip sited anywhere in Europe and for the first two seasons, the start line stood close to where today’s finish line is located, the current track layout being completed at the start of 1968. It is impossible to overstate the importance of Santa Pod to the history of British drag racing, and arguably European drag racing as well. To every UK legend of the sport, Santa Pod has been the cradle. And visitors from the homeland of drag racing have been in evidence from the beginning.
In June 1966 a team billed as the ‘American Commandos’ headlined one of the earliest meetings. Led by Al Eckstrand, it included the Ultra-Sonic AA/Fuel Dragster driven by Bud Barnes plus the eccentric biker EJ Potter, ‘The Michigan Madman’. Bud returned in 1967. Since then, the numerous American luminaries to have graced the track have included Don Schumacher and Paula Murphy, who together gave Britain its first, thrilling experience of full-tilt US Funny Cars in 1973. Don Garlits raced at Santa Pod in 1976 and 1977. Other American stars include Ken Annesley, Marion Owens, T C Christenson and Danny Johnson on their bikes; Sammy Miller and Al Eirdam with their rockets; Raymond Beadle, Gordie Bonin, Tony Nancy, Frank Hawley, Tommy Johnson Jnr, Darryl Gwynn, Leroy Chadderton, Dale Emery, Gene Snow, Don Prudhomme and Al Segrini with their fuel dragsters and funny cars. And let’s not forget Melanie Troxel in her Pro Mod. Scandinavian racers became a regular and valued addition to the ranks as early as 1970. At this year’s The Main Event, no fewer than 16 continental European countries were represented. Entrants from further afield have ranged from South African Arthur Christie who raced a fuel dragster on the track in 1971, to 2016’s debut European appearance of a competitor from the thriving Arabian Drag Racing League, Pro Mod racer Hussain al Shammari of Kuwait.
Santa Pod has been run by three distinct management teams in its half-century of history. After John Bennett stood down in 1969, the Phelps family assumed full control, with Roy Phelps accepting sole charge after father Bob retired in 1983. Don Brister and Bo Meftah acquired the venue in 1989 and the current team, led by Keith Bartlett, took over in 1996. For 50 years of continuous, and sometimes challenging, operation, Santa Pod Raceway has served as the bedrock and the heartland of drag racing in Europe. It is for this single and abiding achievement that Santa Pod is inducted into the British Drag Racing Hall of Fame.
Profile by Robin Jackson