SEMA Challenge Trophy On Tour

Attracting plenty of interest from all walks of life at Santa Pod’s Dragstalgia was the display of historical drag racing trophies and memorabilia assembled in association with the BDRHoF, National Motor Museum, Beaulieu and Santa Pod Raceway.

Above: The SEMA trophy, not seen outside of the National Motor Museum, Beaulieu since its days at the Brighton & Hove Motor Club. Photo Jerry Cookson.

Taking pride of place inside Dragstalgia’s Historical Marquee was the SEMA Challenge Trophy, dedicated in 1963 by America’s then ‘Speed Equipment Manufacturing Association’ to the winner of the first AA/Fuel Dragster race series to be held on UK soil involving Americans Dante Duce and Mickey Thompson and ‘the father of British drag racing’, Sydney Allard.

Various automobile organisations in America and England had been trying to bring American dragsters over to England since 1958 (one of them being the nitro burning dragster of Calvin Rice to run at the Brighton Speed Trials), but without success. Things, however, changed when Dante Duce, a young Las Vegas Speed Shop owner who had read an article about Sydney Allard’s dragster, managed to break through the red tape and took things into his own hands. He simply placed an overseas phone call to Allard himself on July 23rd 1963 challenging him to a match race in England whereupon an invitation followed. 

Duce was planning to use his own dragster until he mentioned the challenge to his friend and parts supplier Dean Moon who offered the use of his Mooneyes supercharged petrol burning Chevy powered dragster. Not only that but Dean and his team would come along too. Moon mentioned the deal at a SEMA meeting held in California and Wally Parks suggested they put up a trophy for the winner, the SEMA Trophy.

A copy of Allards original press release welcoming curious onlookers to Silverstone

The tour began with a demonstration for the press and VIPs using Silverstone’s Club straight on 10th September. The cars ran together a couple of times but Allard who had been clocking 10 second runs since 1961 could not better a 13.81s and with Mooneyes running 4.40 gears their performance was not exactly earth shattering either. However, for the last run of the day the Mooneyes team swapped in a set of 4.11 gears and fitted fresh slicks. It worked, and Dante Duce blasted off the line to run the quickest and fastest quarter mile outside the USA, recording our first single digit elapsed time of 9.48 seconds at 167mph!

Famed motor racing journalist and competitor Denis “Jenks” Jenkinson witnessed this from the start line and was particularly impressed with what he saw, later writing in Motor Sport magazine that “It was the most earth shattering and exciting thing that I have seen for quite a long time, the noise and smoke from the tyres being more than a whole Grand Prix field can put together at a start. The black marks on the track ran for two-thirds of the measured quarter-mile.” Drag racing’s smoke and thunder had arrived, and the Mooneyes team had left their mark.

BDRHoF member Allan Herridge gets some seat time in the famous Mooneyes dragster with team member Brian Chucbua explains the controls. Also in this picture are BDRHoF members Ken Cooper and Roy Phelps. Photo from the Brian Sparrow Collection.

Also there that day were posthumous BDRHoF members Allan Herridge and Tony Densham with their home-built dragsters. They didn’t have the budget and facilities available to Allard, they were just basic Hot Rodders taking their dreams from the pages of Hot Rod Magazine and building their cars to the best of their ability with limited funds. Allan’s straight eight Buick powered dragster took on Tony’s blown 1500cc Ford powered machine both taking a win each clocking 14 second quarters with speeds just nudging the ton.

The following Saturday the series moved to the 58th Brighton Speed Trials. Drag racing and Land Speed Record legend Mickey Thompson had taken everyone by surprise when he turned up completely unannounced with his dragster, the Harvey Aluminum Special, made possible by the US Air Force. Thompson’s 427 cubic inch Ford powered machine was a genuine AA/Fuel dragster, supercharged, fuel injected and running nitro! Thompson had been at the SEMA meeting and didn’t want to let one of his speed equipment competitors, Dean Moon, win the trophy and get the resulting publicity so he joined the challenge at Brighton and became an instant thorn in official’s sides, informing them that they were “doing it all wrong” with reference to their archaic staging procedures.

Dante Duce burns rubber in front of a packed Espanada, Maderia Drive, Brighton. Mickey Thompson shows British officials how it should be done.

On the day RAC officials restricted the dragsters to short wheels up smoky blasts along Madeira Drive, yet these were sufficient to completely blow the minds of the British spectators and many new drag fans were made that sunny day on Brighton seafront.

 The following weekend the tour moved to Church Lawford where times were down as the strip was more than just bumpy, it was reported that moss grew from some of the joints in the surface, not exactly conducive to high speeds and slicks! The lightweight Mooneyes car ran 13.25 at 115mph while the heavier Allard sped to 127mph in 11.34 seconds developing a bearing failure in the Chrysler Hemi. Mickey Thompson also ran, thrilling fans each time he fired up yet could only muster a 10.64 at 141mph. 

The track at Debden the next day was vastly superior and although it was a ticket only event, around five thousand fans reportedly managed to talk their way in and what a show they got. Wowed by the smoke and wheelstanding antics of Mooneyes they found themselves almost wilting as the Harvey Aluminum Special was fired up. Thompson had added some nitro to the tank or as drag aficionados would say “tipped the can” and for the first time UK fans learned the true meaning of nitro power. The ground shook and the air came strong with nitro fumes as the silver machine took off, thundering down track ahead of a wall of tyre smoke to record the quickest and fastest quarter mile outside of the USA, 178mph in 8.84 seconds! 

Meanwhile Sydney Allard was still having problems after rebuilding the hemi and couldn’t better 13 seconds.

This side-by-side run between Mickey Thompson and Dante Duce was to be the fitting climax of the 1963 Dragster Challenge at Debden. Dean Moon, seen in this picture, is the flagman holding on to his Stetson. Photo from the Gavin Allard Collection.

Then an announcement was made that the two American dragsters were going to race. Eager fans thronging the track or at least as close as they could get! Dean Moon handled the flag start and Dante Duce smoked off the line. Moments later Mickey Thompson unleashed the power and fury of his AA/Fuel dragster hard off the line, soon passing Duce and burying Mooneyes from view.

Motor magazine reported “Duce got away first in a cloud of blue tyre smoke, front wheels clawing the air, but Thompson took off in pursuit and by half-way had caught and passed his rival.” The report continued, “Then Thompson’s Harvey Aluminum Special veered to the left in front of Duce’s Mooneyes blinding the pilot with smoke from the still spinning tyres. Duce veered off course and had to pull the ripcord of his parachute to slow enough to be able to steer through the finishing gate.” 

At the end of the day Mickey Thompson expressed the desire to make a run at the 250mph barrier over the half mile. Following his earlier smoke down, such a run was deemed “suicidal” by RAC stewards who replied in a single syllable – No!

Thompson had recorded the quickest times and fastest speeds in his nitro burner, but at the end of the series Allard and Duce called their challenge a draw and the SEMA Trophy was presented to Sydney Allard.

Although the Americans had only made a couple of short blasts at Brighton and only a few quarter miles passes in front of spectators, their visit received tremendous coverage. It left fans clamouring for more, arming Sydney Allard with the knowledge that the future of British drag racing lay in making such a spectacle available to a larger audience. The 1st International Drag Festival was announced in January the following year.

The SEMA Trophy remained with the Allard family until 1970, when Sydney’s son Alan (then Chairman of the British Drag Racing & Hot Rod Association) donated it to the association to be awarded to the winner of the annual international events. The names of Bjorn Andersson, and BDRHoF members Clive Skilton and Dennis Priddle joined Sydney’s on the trophy. When Dennis won the trophy for the third year in succession in 1974 it was given to him to keep. Sometime after this Dennis gave the trophy to his long time sponsor Brian Glockler of Queensway Travel of Brighton who gave it to the Brighton & Hove Motor Club for display in their club house on Madeira Drive, Brighton. There it remained, hidden from all apart from club members.

BDRHoF Historian Nick Pettitt (left) and member Peter Crane get a quick photo with one of the world’s most famous trophys on collection from the Brighton & Hove Motor Club.

Eventually, the sport forgot about it until the late Brian Taylor picked up the story during research for his book Crazy Horses – The History of British Drag Racing.   After forming the Allard Chrysler Action Group to restore Sydney’s dragster owned by the National Motor Museum, as the group’s chairman, Brian asked the ACAG South East England Regional Officer and BDRHoF member Peter Crane to make contact with the Brighton & Hove Motor Club to see whether they would donate the trophy so that it could be reunited with the trophy’s first winner – the Allard Chrysler dragster. Brighton & Hove Motor Club Chairman Tony Johnstone became interested in the restoration project and the committee immediately agreed to the idea. The trophy has now become an official National Motor Museum exhibit.

The SEMA trophy on display at Dragstalgia with the original packing case and American licence plate, accompanied by some of the BDRHoF team who brought you this marvellous collection of memorabilia. Photos by Jerry Cookson and Andy Willsheer.

In celebration of its 60th anniversary year (1963 – 2023), BDRHoF made contact with the National Motor Museum through John Hunt of the Drag Racing Historians Group and gained their kind permission to display the trophy for all drag racing fans to see at Dragstalgia.

Many thanks to all involved for making this happen.

Additional information and photos kindly provided by BDRHoF Historian Nick Pettitt

Jerry Cookson
HoFTalk Editor