How I got started!
This is a short story of how a young lad, of 10 years old in 1970, eventually realised his dream in 1992. His name is Chris Hartnell……….
When I was 10 years old, I went to the Bristol Custom Car show. It was there that I had my first view of a Slingshot Dragster - WOW!
I went home buzzing and built an extra long Go-Kart with rope steering. That kept me going for a bit. Loads of British and American mags kept my interest growing.
At 16, I went to Santa Pod and Long Marston dragstrips and I did the normal spectator thing. The more I watched, the more I got hooked.
It's great seeing the new dragsters, but I have always loved the front-engined slingshots and admired the pioneers of the sport: Garlits, Prudhomme, the Surfers, etc; and Sydney Allard who brought Drag Racing to Great Britain.
I wanted a slingshot dragster real bad and in 1992, at the age of 32, I got one.
I had seen an ad in "Fire Up" magazine: "Slingshot Dragster Rolling Chassis for sale, with some bodywork, £250". I rang up and the deal was done!
As you can see, it needed a little bit of work - understatement (ha ha)!!
It then took me three years to get the dragster back to the track, acquiring parts and building slowly but steadily, resulting in my debut in 1995 at the Season Opener at Avon Park Raceway. On this first outing I didn't exactly catch the world on fire with my first run of 24 sec @ 24 mph in the plain red carburetted Chevy-powered "Backdraft", but it was my first ever pass down the quarter mile! And I was proud of it!
Things just kept getting better from then on!!! I have now been racing a fun-filled, action-packed 19 years, and so far "Backdraft" has evolved into a red metalflake gold flame-painted-methanol-burning-injected-Chevy-powered beast with a Best E.T. of 8.706 sec @ 152.25 mph! What a rush!!
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History of the Dragster
When I bought the dragster, I didn't know anything of the background or history of it.
First of all, I found out that it had been "Malibu Express" and was built in the late 60's. After this, I placed an advert in "Fire Up" magazine, asking if anybody knew of any history or had any pictures of the dragster.
To my amazement, a guy called Ron Fisher rang saying he had some cine footage of the car from this era and he would lend it to me! I was gobsmacked! Ron later became a good friend and an important part of my crew to this day.
The rest of the story I have pieced together since then:-
Malibu Express (1969 - 1973/4)
"Malibu Express" was inspired by the first Drag Fest (in 1964) at Woodvale. The car was originally built in 1969 by four friends: Kevin Burrows, Bob Spence, Jeff Morris and Geoff Fardell and named after the source of its Chevy powerplant.
It took the guys 14 months to build and took everybody by storm, sporting purple metal flake paintwork and an enclosed streamlined cockpit.
When the team brought the slingshot to the drags for the first time, they ran an impressive E.T. of 11.3 sec @ 130 mph!
The car was then campaigned at tracks from Woodvale to Santa Pod.
Pink Panther (1973/4 - ?)
The partners later sold the dragster to Malcolm Olley in 1973 or '74 and he renamed it "Pink Panther" and repainted it pink, of course!
We had heard a story that the fibreglass cockpit cover was broken when Malcolm picked it up on a trailer and that the cover had not been fastened properly and the wind took it and smashed it to bits! But on recently talking to Malcolm’s son, Junior Olley, we found out that this was actually a myth! Malcolm had not wanted to use the cockpit, so it became a very special bit of bodywork on Junior’s Go-Kart!!!
The car eventually ran a Best E.T. of 10.22 in this guise.
Unknown (? - 1992)
I have no history of the car after this, so if you know where the dragster was between 1974 and 1992, I'd love to hear about it!
Backdraft (1992 - present)
Then, as you know, I bought the car in 1992 and named it "Backdraft".
We had thought of quite a few names for the dragster before this, but when we went to see the film "Backdraft", we thought the flames were great, so hence the name! My favourite colour has always been red (surprise!), so the dragster had to be red with flames!!!
This nickname came from when lots of my friends used to come round to see how the car was getting on during the rebuild. They reckoned the thought of me sat over the rear axle meant I must be "crazy".
Kinda had a ring to it and it stuck!!
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While I was rebuilding the slingshot, the Wild Bunch Drag Racing Club was formed by Roy Wilding and John Guthrie.
The club is open to slingshots, altereds and dragsters with a nostalgia theme, and at Run-What-You-Brung events, run on a simple 4-round per event format where the winner is the one who records the lowest average of the difference between E.T. and Dial-in
I joined the association and became a committee member, and my Claire is the Treasurer and Timekeeper for the club, so we're both really involved. In 2002 I became Chairman of the club and I’m really proud to be part of such a great group of people and cars!
The club members have a great time at the dragstrip running several different Series with event Spot Prizes and trophies and season trophies, including the prestigious "Don Garlits Spirit of Drag Racing Shield" which I was privileged to win in 1999. We run at Shakespeare County Raceway, Santa Pod Raceway and York Dragway.
The Wild Bunch also compete at national MSA events at the APIRA Series at Shakespeare County, and the Easter Thunderball, Summer Nationals and National Finals at Santa Pod on a bracket-style elimination format.
We have several sponsors and over 50 active members, with another 50 plus registered on the books.
We're a friendly bunch and everyone helps each other with parts, tools, towing, advice, etc.
It's a great club to be part of! so Check out the Wild Bunch Website
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"Backdraft" has appeared in the following publications:-
Over the 19 years I have raced so far, I’ve managed to break a few parts along the way:-
I'm also on the second gearbox - I had completely worn the first one out by 1998! I had lost second gear, and after stripping the box down at home, I found out that almost everything had either disintegrated or worn out. So we borrowed a TCI race-prepped Powerglide, which we still have in the car today!
I’m now on my fourth engine (all small-block Chevys). Twice I’ve had con-rods out of the block with engine bangs. The first one was in 1996 while going through the top end @ 128 mph and BANG! - rods out of the block, camshaft in 5 pieces, disintegrated pistons; oil and smoke over me and the slicks - sideways, sideways and even more sideways - the tyre tracks showed to prove it! WOW, what a ride!! The fire crew was there as I stopped, reassuring me and checking things over. THANKS to the F.A.S.T. crew! I also got the "Wildest Ride" Spot Prize at the event and the Wild Bunch "Big Bang" trophy for 1996 for this incident!
The second time, in 1998, was less exciting but just as expensive! This was in the pits - free-revving engine, crap oil - Whizz, Bang, sudden stop! A large hole in the sump, hole in the block, camshaft in 3 pieces, con-rod in half. But I rebuilt once again!
The third time, in 2004, was really expensive! This was in the shutdown area at the top of the track, immediately at the end of a run at the Mini Nationals in July – and no-one even realised!!
Before this happened, I had been thinking of upgrading the crank and some other improvements over the winter, but thought that it was a good time to ‘go for it’ and get a really good engine, and quickly if possible! So we asked around, and it turned out that Neil Grant from Bristol had a block with a lot of good parts, in pieces in his garage, that he had decided not to build. We bought this and I began assembly! With only 3 weeks to go until the York event in August, it was a tall order, and we just missed being ready after a couple of delays on parts, and some extra machining to be done. But we made it to the Allstar Nationals in August, and two more events before the end of 2004, only to suffer a few more gremlins, and only get ONE run at each event! One more problem that materialised was a defective coil! And at the beginning of 2005, we ended up having to get another liner put in one of the bores! So off we went to the track for our first event in April 2005, where on the very first run, I recorded the best run of my career so far, the 8.885 @ 150.03 mph!!! (And later discovered that it was on 7 cylinders! I then fixed that problem!!)
Over the years we have had other assorted breakages and gremlins. We couldn’t trace some sluggishness in 2003, but discovered that some of the wiring had corroded after a good 8 years use! Lee soon had the car re-wired and it was back on form! In 2004 we had various distributor problems, with wandering timing being one of them. We cured this too! We also went through a spate of starter motor breakages, and flywheel teeth getting broken, but eventually solved these problems. Then, in 2005 we experienced problems with the bell-housing cracking because of the wheelies. I cured this with a rubber mount for a while, but some harder launches and landings cracked the bell-housing again. I then installed an Ultra-Bell which alleviated this!
In 2006, I built a 9" Strange Spool axle, in an attempt to cure the one-wheel burnouts, and go straighter. I tried this up at the York event, but the car just kept turning violently right, so I soon discarded it and went back to the Sherpa. But, determined to try and make it work, I re-measured and re-jigged the mountings, and during 2007, I decided to try out the Strange Spool axle again. The car sure did go straight, but the axle just totally zapped the power, and I could not get the engine up on the cam (hence only a best of 9.5 at 141 mph that year), and worst of all, could hardly pull a wheelie. I also changed the slicks, as the old ones were now different circumferences due to uneven wear. I gave it a good go all season, and even tried different gear ratios, until the possibilities were exhausted. So in 2008 I went back to the good old Sherpa axle. I adapted my pattern of launching, started pulling great wheelies again, and lowered the E.T.’s so that I am back down into the 9.0’s now. (The difference from the 8’s could be the tyre diameter, and a few other factors, so am hoping to get back into the 8’s in 2009!)
Also during 2008, at the June Shootout, I bent part of the front chassis and cracked the front axle! (Could be all those wheelies!). Many thanks to Roy Wilding for helping me rebuild a whole new front chassis and axle in under two weeks, so I could make the ‘Summer Nationals’!
In 2009, at the ‘National Finals’ at Santa Pod, I had been leading in the Wild Bunch Series and guaranteed 1st or 2nd Place for the year. To win the Series for the first time, I just had to stage in the Final, as Ed from the Dog’s Bollocks team, running “RamRaider” had made it to the Final. I had a Bye run in the Semis, and only had to stage to get through, but as always, I took the full run. At the top end shutdown area, I heard a big noise, and quickly shut off! When I looked at the front of the engine, the timing chain had punched a hole in the cover, and there was a small trail of oil behind! Oh well, WB 2 for 2010 then! But I feared a lot of internal engine damage. The next week I was really chuffed to find that the crank, cam, pistons and block were all intact, apart from some witness marks on a couple pistons. The timing chain was snapped, plus the hole in the cover, and there were some bent exhaust valves, but luckily not a great deal of damage!
In 2010, at the York event, I heard a really big noise at the top end after a run. I wondered if this was a half shaft, or the diff or even the gearbox, so coasted to a stop and towed round the corner, before going back to the pits to get spanners to investigate. It turned out I had broken the coupler! Luckily this was in the shutdown area, and not during the run! And I had a spare for the following event. I also broke a front wing support on that run, which was easily repaired for the next meeting.
2012 was a pretty tough year for us, as the car suffered major engine damage on a burnout at the Main Event in June. It turns out a rod bolt had let go, and we threw a rod (through the sump!). Luckily the block was okay, and just needed a rebore. But we had to order new pistons, rods and rings, bearings, valves, sump and in the end, a new crank. All the parts took some time to arrive and we ended up missing 4 events including the Nostalgia Nationals and Dragstalgia, which was real tough. But we then had all the parts we needed by the end of July (many thanks to Kenny Gomez of Superpowerunlimited!). I rebuilt the motor and we fired up in time for the Open Sports Nationals at Shakey! We held our breath to see how the car would run and were really chuffed with a new Personal Best ET of 8.706 at 150.79mph in qualifying!! Well happy with the rebuilt engine! However, after this run we discovered we had a 4-inch slit in the inner sidewall of the slick! A real shame as it put us out of competition, but real lucky that it hadn’t gone on a run! With the Euro Finals less than 2 weeks away, a hasty order was put in with Ed of DSRacewear, who once again came through with a new pair of slicks (thanks Ed!). We made that event and qualified #5 in Super Pro with .007 off Dial! But on our 5th qualifier, before the burnout, we threw the timing chain! Oh no! We wondered if we could fix the car again for the last 2 events! I got to work and thanks to Mike Oates who had a timing cover, and Rich Walters who loaned us rockers and more, I was able to fix the damage in time for the Hot Rod Drags where I made it to the 5th Cacklefest! Fantastic! We also made the National Finals where I won the event on one round by being Closest to Dial-in! Great! Through all these efforts, we not only received the Wild Bunch ‘Big Bang’ trophy for 2012, but also the Wild Bunch ‘Perseverance Award’! As well as the APIRA Iris Page Memorial Trophy, a great honour!
Last year wasn’t so bad, but on the third run at Dragstalgia in July 2013, we broke the torque converter! This was really disappointing as we had been running so well. (Many thanks to Rich Walters for letting us know that Bob Glassup had one for sale!) We were quickly back in business again for the following event!
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I had to make a new awning after the previous one had bent in the wind, so I made a new frame out of 1" X 1" box section. Normally, to load the frame properly I have to put the poles in the trailer first and then put "Backdraft" in on top of the frames. But on this occasion, I thought I could put the poles alongside the dragster, instead of getting the car out of the trailer to load them, so that's what I had done.
So, off we went to Shakespeare County Raceway. When we pulled up in the pits, one of the kids saw that there was a trail of oil behind us. First I thought it was the tow truck and then I noticed it was caramel coloured. We looked under the trailer and it was dripping from everywhere - OOPS! We pulled the dragster out to find that one of the awning frames had slipped under the sump and punched two big holes in it! After carefully removing the car, we had to put lots of cardboard and carpet in the trailer to soak up the oil - a gallon of alcohol-emulsified oil sure does make a heck of a mess! I then took the sump off, borrowed a welder, cleaned the sump out and welded the holes up. I then refitted the sump and had another good weekend's racing!
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I had started off with a basic set-up in 1995:-
(And eventually I progressed to where we are now - see 'Specs' and 'Achievements')
With the carb set-up we had a Best E.T. of 10.94 sec @ 122 mph, but when I fitted the injection system running on alcohol - WOW - she really started to fly!! Wheels-up launches ("Just like it used to be!!"). This eventually resulted in my first trip into the 9-second bracket (WOW, what a personal achievement for me!!).
(At one stage, before I got the injection system, I ran McCreary cheater slicks, which gave me an incredible couple of seconds; then eventually I got the current 31" X 12" Goodyear Eagle slicks. We had a lot of help setting up the injection system - Paul Stubbings, Jim Seward, Mitch, and Vince Shaw.
A big thanks to these guys - they saved me a lot of head scratching and gave me more fun track time. With the present injection set-up I eventually ran my then Best E.T. of 9.416 in 2000. I have since lowered this to a 9.236 in 2002, so looking forward to trying to lower that in 2003!!
I have been gradually tuning the engine and fuel system ever since, and, with the Enderle injection set-up I eventually ran a Best E.T. of 9.126 @ 146.10 mph in 2004. I have since changed from the trusty 355 SBC (which lasted a good 5 ½ years) to the bigger 377 engine and to a bigger Crower injection system and lowered my E.T.even further……to my first 8-second pass at over 150 mph, an 8.885 @ 150.03 mph! This was on my very first run of 2005, and I went on to lower this further to an 8.747 @ 151.08 mph at Santa Pod in June of that year. Since then, I had experimental years in 2006 and 2007 with a spooled axle, which actually slowed the car right down, to 9.5 seconds! After going back to the trusty Sherpa axle, I made steady progress again, until we threw a rod in 2012. After acquiring a nice Brodix block, I built another engine, and eventually ran a PB of 8.706 with that! And in 2013 raised my best speed to 152.215mph!
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Highlights - My First 10 Second Run
After progressing from that first 'momentous' run of 24 seconds and working my way down through the 12 and 11-second brackets, I was regularly running low 11's in 1997. And after running 11.1's for quite a while, I ran a 10.94!! (Still with the carb set-up). Guess I could say I changed something on the engine, eg. carb, cam, etc; or I launched harder, changed gear later or earlier. But I didn't. It just happened. And only the once that year. It was a good feeling to run my first 10 and Ron wrote a story about…guess what?? - "10"!!
The Contenders were poised in the pairing lane. The crew attended to the task in hand; preparing their driver with his face mask and helmet. He climbed into his racecar, and nestled into the slingshot cockpit. Now in his third season of racing, no longer a tenderfoot, he was content that he could handle the potent machine. The five point safety harness was fastened around him, like tentacles, holding him secure. The signal made, and the engine was started. He listened to the pulsing of the motor and his senses began to rise in acuteness until he could feel everything. The dragster had become an extension of himself. He was guided tentatively through the water box, then he hit the throttle. The tyres grew as they spun; whisps of smoke whitened to clouds as he crossed the start line. He corrected the car's tendency to pull left in the burnout, then braked and stopped. Having been guided back behind the start line, the final checks were made by the competent crew. The tension was starting to build. Amid the spectators, his family watched on tenterhooks; would it be a strong, safe run? Creeping forward, he staged and raised the engine's speed from the tenor throb to a higher pitched rumbling. The light turned green, and this became a full-blooded roar. The dragster squatted on its rear, momentarily flattening the slicks, then shot forward. His opponent had beaten him off the line and started to pull away. But he had the tenacity not to concede the race. Could he find more latent power within the heart of his machine? His right foot forced the throttle against its batten stop, his tendon rigid. He was intent on catching and passing he other dragster. By the eighth mile he had eaten into its lead, and at three-quarter track he held a tenuous lead. He maintained the tenet that he could win, and crossed the finish line first, just as intended. He slowed and turned off into the return road, as he had often done before. Back near the start, the crew strained to hear the commentator. Their attention focussed on the nearest loudspeaker. The track announcer confirmed the win and reported the elapsed time and speed of that winning run ………. 'Crazy' Chris Hartnell had just achieved his first ten second run. There was no pretence at his excitement, nor that of his family and fellow racers.
JULY 5, 1997 at AVON PARK RACEWAY
"BACKDRAFT" Slingshot recorded 10.944 seconds @ 122.962 mph.
© Ron Fisher, July 1997
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Highlights - My First 9 Second Run
Well, I had worked quite hard on the engine over the winter of '97/'98: methanol injection, etc, so it wasn't if, it was when I would do my first 9-second run. I spent the 1998 season testing and tuning (and unfortunately blowing up the engine at the Nostalgia Nationals) so I only finished up with a Best E.T. of 10.175 (8/10 ths off the previous best!). My first run in 1999 after the rebuild, and with the injection system, was a 10.08 - a ¾ checkout pass. I checked the oil and plugs, etc in the pits.
The next run was 9.89! WOW! It launched real hard then! As I said before, a lot of people helped me with the injection system.
We've run nines ever since and played a lot with the pills etc, and there's still more to come! And we're even starting to get quite consistent now!
Highlights - My First 8 Second AND 150mph Run
We had been trying for most of 2004 to run quicker and faster in “Backdraft”, and were hoping for some PB’s, especially after I had installed the newly-built racier engine, and we were on tenterhooks every event, looking for that magic 8-second pass and trying to break the 150mph barrier, my long-time dream. We had only had 3 runs on the new engine in as many events, so did not get much tuning time, but did get quite a few gremlins sorted out! (And got within 3½ mph of the 150!). Over the off-season, I installed new rings and bearings, just to keep things fresh, so off we went to the first event of the season for us, the “Power Nationals” in April to get back out there and have fun. We fired the car up on the Saturday morning, and the engine had sounded really strong and powerful! For the first run, I decided to Dial in at 9.10, as this was just under my PB of 9.126, and if we broke out, we’d be pretty happy with that! Lee towed me down to the fire-up road, and I was due to be in the second pair out, but Dave Ward in the “Rampage” funny car had shut down, and then so had Sarah Howells in Bernie Nicholas’ “Destiny’s Angel” altered, as a plane had suddenly landed on the strip!!!! As it turned out, Dave was a bit too hot to run straight away, so I paired up with good friend Sarah in the other lane. I did a few blips of the throttle and launched well, but with no wheelie. Well… we have often heard other racers talking of the legendary ‘off the trailer’ great runs, and never experienced anything like it. And on this run we not only ended up with an ‘off the trailer’ run, but also a ‘straight out of the container from Finland’ run (must be even rarer!) as I recorded an 8.885 @ 150.03 mph pass!! I was absolutely over the moon, and Claire was ecstatic, deafening half of the fire-up road in the process! Lee, Mark and Claire drove down to the top end to meet me, and Lee had all the hazards flashing and the horn blaring, joking ‘Did you have the brakes on, Dad?!’! And I couldn’t believe it when they told me what I had run! Also at the top end joining in the celebrations were good friends Sarah and Darryl Howells, and we were all really chuffed, to say the least!
The run caught us all by surprise, probably because we had spent so long last year hoping that it might happen, and not thinking that it would on the first run of the year! It still only started to sink in a few weeks after! Many thanks to all the people who came up and congratulated us, phoned, texted, and e-mailed, and got almost as excited as us!! And thanks to good friend Darryl for videoing our scoreboard at the end of our side-by-side run, and for being so excited that he missed wife Sarah’s time! Kiitos!! Thanks also to Sharkman of eurodragster for a great pic of the scoreboard at the top end with those magic numbers – that’s really something to treasure, along with the timing ticket, which we keep having to look at!! Wow! What a feeling, achieving two big goals with one run, it’s a dream come true! Absolutely thrilled! Several people asked us what we were gonna do now, and we replied that we’ll just have to try to keep on doing it!! And hopefully win a couple of races along the way!! So really looking forward to the rest of the year!!
2009 was a double celebration for our team: it was the 40th Anniversary of the original build of the car, and our 15th season of racing Backdraft! One highlight of the year was the debut of our re-created canopy, like the car used to run when it was “Malibu Express”. Many thanks to Spud for the many hours of help with the fabrication and to Skippy for the purple metalflake paint job! We used the canopy all year in the pits, and I finally got to run with it on “Backdraft” at the Hot Rod Drags. Wow! It was a great experience, and it’s like having two different cars! In 2010, we had the canopy sprayed in metalflake red (which was a 50th Birthday present from a friend). And I have used it at every event since, and it’s awesome.
Last year on the 4th April we celebrated another special anniversary – 20 years since we bought the car!! Last year we were in touch with 3 of the various guys who built the car, and we are eternally grateful to them for building such an amazing car, way back in 1969!
The “Festival of Power” at Easter in 2014 will see the start of our 20th season of racing! An exciting achievement for us!
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