This blog has been quiet of late, but there’s just one reason for that: I have been planning and filming my first documentary film about drag racer, Nigel Holland of Aveago Racing. Nigel has Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease (CMT), a condition that affects the peripheral nerves causing motor problems and muscle wastage. It’s hereditary, very rare and he's had it all his life.
Nigel describes himself not as a disabled driver, but a driver with a disability. It’s an important distinction, because so far Nigel has taught me that to be a great drag racer (and he is), is it’s not so much about your mental attitude, but your attitude to life.
In this sense, Nigel is exactly the same as any other drag racer – they all share the same ethos and this is: ‘Why not? Have a go. You only live once.’
Well that and, ‘I want to go very fast, because fast is fun.’
Last Saturday I went with Rich from Cox & Jones to film Nigel race in the Nationals at Santa Pod. Nestled on a hill in the middle of Bedfordshire, Santa Pod is the spiritual home of British drag racing. This tailor-made two lane black top has drawn drivers from all over the world to race not against each other, but against themselves.
Think drag racing and you might think of two guys leaving the starting line to make it across the quarter mile mark first. But that’s not drag racing. That’s American Graffiti. That’s Hollywood. Drag racing is about racing against your dial in time. Before a run, a driver will say how quickly they'll complete the quarter mile. So if Nigel dials in 14 seconds, he has to get as close to 14 seconds as possible. A run of 14.1 or .2 is good. But if he races 13.9 he loses. I can't think of any other motor spot where you race against a pre-determined figure. It's pretty abstract.
The science of predicting your dial in time can run from simply sticking your finger in the air (to guess which way the win blows), to running all sort of computer controlled tech. One racer simply asks his 14 year-old son: 'he's never been wrong yet.' But essentially, the driver who knows his car best, wins.
People race all sorts of cars. On that Saturday there were pro teams who would think nothing of spending thousands on exotic fuel and then stripping their gleaming engine down to the pistons after each run. But there were also teams who were simply dudes with cars. All week they'd go to work until Saturday when it came to move the Megane away from the garage and roll out their lovingly restored American muscle car. Except the one guy who actually races his Megane. He was pretty good too.
This means drag racing is a very equal sport. Anyone can do it as long as they have a ride and a driving licence. Most of the serious teams started out as Run What You Brung enthusiasts. Or they got into it via junior dragging – racing the track from age eight in scaled-down cars capable of 80 miles an hour.
This 'have a go' attitude was everywhere at Santa Pod. The pits were full of teams who would think nothing of taking time from their busy schedules to tell you everything about their cars, their tactics or simply what they thought of the sport. I met at least two husband and wife teams. There were plenty of kids running around and a fair few were racing.
Drag racing is loud. I mean louder than a Sunn O))) gig
Film on the track and expect to get covered in rubber and oil
If you're an idiot, like me and stand behind a car during a burn out, expect a faceful of gravel too
Get near a top fuel car, get sprayed with methanol
You will smell burning rubber for the rest of the week
You can turn a Fiat 125 into a drag racer
The jet car is about the scariest thing I've seen in a long time and whoever drives it must be as crazy as they are deaf
Some teams flavour their fuel – chocolate, grape, strawberry – there's no reason for this except it smells nice
Right now I have 5 DV tapes to upload and go through. The I have to work out how to put this film together. I'm entering a 26 second edit into the London Design Festival with 26 and IVCA. But I want to do a longer cut. I'm also filming again next month.
But I must say none of this so far would have be possible without Nigel Holland and his family and friends all devoting their time freely to what is essentially a personal project and my first film. Everywhere I went on Saturday, people could not have been more accommodating. It wasn't so much, 'why are you filming me?', more 'why aren't you filming me!' It was an incredibly positive place to be.
I must also say a big thanks to Jo Harris and Santa Pod Raceway who've made everything happen so easily. I couldn't have asked to deal with a more pleasant and reasonable bunch of people.
So better do a good job of the film then eh? No pressure.