GOLDEN ERA OF TOP METHANOL FUNNY CAR

I recently decided to add posts to this blog that concentrate on what I consider to be a “Golden Era” in the respective European Drag Racing Championships. I thought it would be a great way to look back at some of the most exciting and closest years of racing we have seen in Europe. Those times where meetings were extremely hard to predict as the first round of eliminations would throw up pairings that could easily be the final round on another day. In the case of some classes it may be difficult to pick just one era.

I’m going to begin with Top Methanol Funny Car. Mainly due to the numbers sadly declining to the point where the class has now been merged with Top Methanol Dragster for 2017. I really hope to see the entrants pick up once more so the class can have its own Championship again in the future.

Top Methanol Funny Car – 2000 – 2002
Throughout 1998 and 1999 the Top Methanol Funny Car class was dominated by perennial drivers Leif Andreasson and Micke Kågered. The two Swedes were the stand out performers and their closely fought rivalry was such that they shared a European title each in that time. When 2000 began there were a larger number of teams competing in the whole Championship and producing quicker runs on a more consistent basis.

Fellow Swedish racers Leif Helander and Ulf Leanders along with Urs Erbacher from Switzerland and Dutchman Lex Joon had become event regulars and were all making improvements to their elapsed times, meaning each round of the Championship had become more exciting and far tougher to win. No longer was this a two-horse race; the increase in quality within the class meant that by the time the 2000 season was over, Europe saw its first all 5-second Top Methanol Funny Car qualifying field.

More teams finding ways to go fast meant consistency in eliminations was hard to come by. At various times in the five-event Championship Kågered, Leanders, Erbacher and Helander all made final round appearances. Despite the added depth to the category, Andreasson was the one driver who remained consistent right through the year, rising to the challenge and regaining the Championship.

The 2001 season saw the teams hailing from Sweden continue to head the standings over the course of the year. But this time the Andreasson-Kågered hold on the top two spots was broken by Ulf Leanders, who earned a couple of event wins and split them to claim the overall runner-up place.

On eliminations day at the 2001 European Finals at Santa Pod, those top three guys were joined by countryman Helander in winning through to the semi-finals. The event as a whole is an all-time favourite of mine and one of the highlights was watching Top Methanol Funny Car. In the morning’s first round Kågered set a new European record with a 5.799 run (Europe’s first 5.7), but it was Leanders winning the day beating first Andreasson in the semis and then blasting to a 5.816 to overcome Kågered’s sub-par effort in the final, proving his worth as a real contender. The event win was not enough to stop Andreasson from walking away with another European title.

During 2002 Top Methanol Funny Car saw regular 5.8-second passes – and a few 5.7’s – from the top guys. This “Golden Era” culminated at the 2002 European Finals, where four drivers entered with a chance at winning the Championship: Kågered, Joon, Erbacher and Andreasson. Leanders and Helander were there too but were out of title contention. Adding further strength to the entry list were two more drivers who joined the 5-second club in 2002: Swiss veteran Dezsoe Krivan and Jörgen Johnsson from Sweden. There was no doubt whoever came out of this one the Champion would have earned it, and it proved to be an exciting weekend.

In qualifying, Andreasson showed he wasn’t going to give up the number 1 easily, topping the standings with a 5.728 pass that, at the time, was the quickest ever in Europe. Erbacher was right behind him with an E.T. of 5.784 and in the 5.8’s were Joon and Kågered in third and fourth respectively.

By this time Kågered was an established Top Fuel driver, as well as running his Top Methanol Funny Car. Racing in two classes was tough, but at the start of eliminations on Sunday he still had the TMFC points lead.  His title chances took a big blow when he suffered a huge crash going through the finish line in his Top Fueller in first-round eliminations. He avoided serious injury but had to be taken to hospital. Of course, this put him out of Top Methanol Funny Car action too and his rivals set about reeling him in.

Andreasson’s chances of retaining the title fell with a shock defeat in the first semi-final to Britain’s Steph Milam. The second semi was a big one – Joon vs Erbacher. Both men still had a mathematical chance of overhauling Kågered. Off the start line Joon got out of shape and gave best to Erbacher, who charged into the final with a 5.829 run. One of many solid passes for Erbacher during the meeting.

This would end up being the closest FIA European Championship of all as when the final rolled around, Erbacher took the event and went even quicker, running 5.790. With this win he had finished completely level on points with Kågered…the Championship went to count-back! In this situation it was decided on Kågered and Erbacher’s head-to-head record, which showed the two had met twice that year and Kågered had won both races. So despite spending most of the day in hospital, Micke Kågered was European Champion once again.

It should be noted that as much as I will always wax lyrical about the strength of this three-year period in TMFC, Leif Andreasson and Micke Kågered were the only names winning the Championship. Showing just how good these two drivers and their teams were.

In 2003 some drivers moved on to new challenges. Leif Helander and Lex Joon moved into Nitro Funny Cars, Joon would go from there to race in Top Fuel and win the European Championship in 2005. Kågered decided to focus solely on Top Fuel and has a couple of official titles to his name – he is still racing in the class and chasing more Championships. Urs Erbacher stayed in TMFC for a few more years and grabbed his first Championship in 2003, in fact he made it a hat-trick by dominating between ’03 and ’05. In 2006 he also made the move to Top Fuel, where he has raced ever since, collecting three European crowns in that class too and running some of the most impressive Top Fuel passes ever seen in Europe.

Of the drivers who stayed in Top Methanol Funny Car, Ulf Leanders finally got his first European title in 2006. He and his team have always been among the strongest in the class and over the years he has amassed a total of four. Leif Andreasson has been the stalwart of TMFC and by adding Championships in 2012 and 2015, his total of five European Championships is the most in the history of the class.

All of these legendary drivers mentioned in this blog post have won multiple races and Championships in various classes. For those few years in Top Methanol Funny Car they all competed against each other.

And it was awesome!

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A SUMMER OF NOSTALGIA

The summer months always create a full schedule for Santa Pod as it’s a chance to take advantage of what should be the best weather of the year. With the European Championships away travelling around the continent, Santa Pod puts together various events for all kinds of motor racing fans and car enthusiasts.

Most of the meets that I attended this summer had a nostalgic feel that centred on the passion for vehicles from past eras, which I certainly have – I love old cars! These events were made even more notable as 2016 is Santa Pod’s 50th year. The milestone was celebrated with some huge entry numbers, especially at my first visit in July – Dragstalgia.

Dragstalgia is a weekend dedicated to historical dragsters and classic cars and hot rods. It has been going for a few years at the Pod but this was my first one, due to my kinships with Dragstalgia’s spirit it was about time! It was even better than I thought it would be due to the vast amount of things to look at. In the pits there was the “Show & Shine” area where you could walk amongst a large number of beautiful machines. The variety always strikes me at these events; all sorts of old sports car, hot rods, pickups and custom stuff with every style and colour represented.

There was a brilliant selection of classes racing on the track. From supercharged slingshots and outlaws to the doorslammers in classes like Superstock, plus the “Willys Wars” exclusively for anyone who wanted to race their Willys. It was all really enjoyable to watch with some great racing. Many historic drag bikes were also in attendance; I found it really interesting to see famous names like “The Hobbit” and “Pegasus” in the pits and it was a pleasure to see them run down the strip.

The highlights were the runs by the Fuel Altereds and Nostalgia Funny Cars. In America they often have large fields of these at meets and it would be great to see more and more of them in the UK. Two teams from the USA came over for Dragstalgia and were pitted against teams from Europe. In the first pairing American Randy Bradford in the family Fiat Topolino ran a 6.40 at 234mph to beat Holland’s Ramon Van Der Weurf in his 1971 Charger-bodied Funny Car, which went through the finish line in 6.48 at 208mph. The next side-by-side race was between two Altereds, Nick Davies from the UK in “Havoc” won on a holeshot against America’s Ron Hope in “Rat Trap”; 6.59 at 220mph beat 6.53 at 231mph. Both of these races were really close and excellent spectacles.

Throughout the day the teams returned for some more exhibition passes. Another Nostalgia Funny Car that I loved was Bob Glassup driving a newly built red Capri-bodied car. There was also a bit of history when the first Dragster ever built in Britain, the Allard Chrysler, did a slow run down the track for the first time since being restored.

Two weeks later I was back to Santa Pod Raceway for the Mopar Euro Nationals. I have always loved going to this event as this is the Pod’s traditional muscle car meeting and I have a passion for muscle cars.

As with previous years and just like Dragstalgia, there was plenty to look at. Not only are there some amazing sights, but the awesome sounds of rumbling and cackling engines add to the atmosphere. Away from the display area, I always enjoy finding more nice stuff dotted around the rest of the pits and in the car parks and at the Mopars there was further variety, and I did notice how many Dodge Coronets were present; I don’t think I have ever seen so many in one place, definitely the car of the weekend!

It is always nice to see more unusual and unique cars and despite the Mopars being a meeting for a particular era there was a really good mix. All the classics were represented too like mid-60s Mustangs, ’57 Chevys, ’68 Chargers. They were all there and in such good condition.

On the track there was a special bit of nostalgia for me as Graham Beckwith was commentating. I grew up with Beckwith’s voice calling the action when I was visiting Santa Pod as a younger fan, so hearing him after all these years was really cool and all day he entertained.

The Mopars have added to the show on-track in recent years by including both Pro Modified and Top Sportman entrants. As a big doorslammer fan, it was great to see these two classes put on some excellent racing both in eliminations and the added test sessions they were allowed to take part in.

During both events it was impressive to see the sheer volume and range of the vehicles that attended. It’s nice to come away from them and not find it possible to single out a favourite car. These nostalgia events at the Pod are brilliant every time and long may they continue.

TOP MAIN EVENT PERFORMANCES

A couple of weeks ago Santa Pod hosted the start of another European Drag Racing Championship year at the Main Event. This annual race weekend has been round 1 of these Championships every year since their inception.

As always, the meeting produced some great racing and with it being the Pod’s 50th anniversary, there was also really good coverage in event programmes and around the venue detailing the history of Drag Racing at the track. This has inspired me to use this blog entry to look back at some of the best performances at the Main Event from over the years.

I am not necessarily including just record-breaking runs, but a brief look at a few racers who have won this opening round of the Championship and used it to show they mean business and go on to become Champion in their class for that year. Winning the Main Event does not guarantee a Championship – but it’s a good start!

Niclas Andersson, Pro Stock – (29th – 31st May) 1999

Niclas Andersson is one of the best drivers in European Drag Racing history. The majority of the Swede’s success came in Pro Stock where he won four consecutive Championships largely due to the quality of his driving. After winning his first title as a rookie in 1998, ’99 was his most dominant year and it began with him rolling into the Main Event with the number 1 on the side of his car, taking the top qualifying spot and fighting through a tough field in eliminations to get the win. Over the course of this season Andersson only lost one race (ONE!) and was Champion even before the European Finals, which he still won just to show off his superiority.

Kim Reymond, Top Fuel – (1st – 3rd June) 2002

The 2002 Main Event will forever be remembered for the amazing side-by-side passes in qualifying by Brits Barry Sheavills and Andy Carter that wrote all sorts of records. That run is its own story altogether that I will certainly tell in the future! While that excitement was taking place Denmark’s Kim Reymond was keeping his focus on his weekend. With Sheavills and Carter chasing after records, it was really cool watching Reymond and his team get to work in eliminations; beating first a broken Sheavills in the semis, then Carter in the final with a milestone run of their own – their first four-second pass at 4.994. Reymond was also victorious at the last two events of the year to seal the Championship.

Roel Koedam, Top Fuel Bike – (24th – 26th May) 2003

Dutchman Roel Koedam and his team were unstoppable at the Main Event in ’03. While other bikes were happy to run a six-second pass, Koedam ran consistent 6.2’s and 6.3’s all weekend to take the win. With its loud and angry burnouts and straight passes, the bike was awesome to watch and reached every final round of the season. Koedam got quicker and quicker all year and celebrated winning the Championship by running as fast as 6.04 at 235mph at the European Finals.

Roger Pettersson, Pro Stock Bike – (28th – 31st May) 2004

Roger Pettersson is Europe’s most successful Pro Stock Bike rider – winning nine European Championships between 1996 and 2005. The great man from Sweden had perhaps his most impressive year in 2004 when he dominated what was a strong field. At the Main Event his Suzuki always had an extra tenth of a second or two on his competitors, a theme that ran all year as he earned another title with a huge points haul. At that opening round, if he was still on a run by half-track you knew he wasn’t going to lose!

Urban Johansson, Pro Mod – (26th – 29th May) 2006

At the beginning of 2006 Urban Johansson from Sweden was not considered a European title contender; in fact he did not even appear in the official Main Event programme notes! By the end of the race he had everyone’s attention. Johansson’s supercharged ’63 Corvette took maximum points from the round and repeated the feat at the next event to take full control of the Championship and stayed at the top all year. He was an impressive watch at Santa Pod with smooth, fast runs that were consistent – he would make three or four of the best runs at each race I saw him and continued to lower the European record throughout 2006. A great season.

Andy Carter, Top Fuel – (22nd – 25th May) 2009

Andy Carter had a brilliant Top Fuel career that produced many firsts in Europe. At the 2009 Main Event, Carter produced a series of strong runs and never looked like being beaten, especially in eliminations where he made his best passes of the meeting. And this was against a tough field of past and future Champs. He carried that form right through the entire season and dominated in what might have been his best campaign of all, becoming the first driver to successfully defend the European Top Fuel Championship in the process.

Ulf Ögge, Pro Stock Bike – (28th – 31st May) 2010

Ulf Ögge was one of the first riders in Europe to enter a Buell in Pro Stock Bike. They always bring a nice contrast in sound to the class compared to the higher-pitched Suzuki engines. In 2010 the bike categories began their Championships in Hungary so were already up and running by the time they arrived at the Main Event. Ögge was top in the standings after winning in Hungary and he did the same at the Pod, fighting through four rounds in eliminations with the quickest runs of the day to take control of a Championship he would dominate all year.

Jimmy Ålund, Pro Stock – (24th – 27th May) 2013

Sweden’s Jimmy Ålund is the most successful driver in European Pro Stock racing. I’ve often thought he looks invincible at Santa Pod; it’s fun seeing a driver get close to him as you just think to yourself “Jimmy will come out and lay down an even quicker number” in response, which he usually does. Of his multiple Championships, 2013 was not his largest winning margin but it was his most impressive. Having lost the number 1 plate the year before – something everyone is used to seeing him own – he was under a bit of pressure to reclaim it. Against strong competition at the Main Event, Ålund showed no sign of pressure and reset the ET and speed records in taking the win. He kept up that imperious form all year, shaving another tenth of a second off the ET record and regaining the European crown.

Going back through the past twenty years it was noticeable how few Championships have been completely one-sided, which can only be a good thing! The title races that are the closest are always the most thrilling and I’m expecting 2016 to be no different. For those that cannot attend every FIA/FIM Championship event, the best way to follow the racing and get the latest news is at eurodragster.com.

There will be loads of stuff added to the blog this year. I’m hoping to focus on all kinds of topics like drivers past and present, the history of the various classes, favourite Drag Racing memories and more. Plus I will be attending as many meetings at Santa Pod during its 50th anniversary.

See you on the spectator banking!

LINDBERG WINS NHRA CHAMPIONSHIP

Some years of Drag Racing in Europe have more highlights than others. There are years which involve a really dramatic Championship battle; others include memorable side-by-side racing or record-breaking runs.

What also adds storied excitement is when a European team travel to America to race in the NHRA Championships. The USA is the spiritual home of Drag Racing and the NHRA represents the most historical and toughest challenge in the sport, with much larger events, teams and prize money. So it’s always cool to follow the Europeans who decide to go and race out there.

Normally these teams will only go out to the States for an event or two before or after their European schedule and I can only think of a few who have pulled off an event win. It’s always satisfying to those of us on this side of the Atlantic to see these teams go out and prove to the Americans that we also know how to Drag Race!

One such European racer who went out to the USA this year was Sweden’s Jonnie Lindberg in his Top Methanol Funny Car (Top Alcohol Funny Car in the USA). Not only did Lindberg win an NHRA event but he raced there for the entire season and produced this year’s highlight for European Drag Racing with something unprecedented – he became NHRA Champion!

The first time I came across Jonnie Lindberg he was crewing with his Pro Mod team and his brother Johan was the driver. I quickly became aware that they were a good, solid team and within just a couple of years they earned a Championship in that class.

The team stepped up to Top Methanol Funny Car with a two-car team, one driven by Johan and one by Jonnie, and put together some strong seasons that saw both brothers win a European Championship each. Two years ago I watched Jonnie Lindberg run some incredible numbers at Santa Pod that were right up there with some of the best in the world.

They felt confident enough this year to tackle the NHRA and 2015 began perfectly for Lindberg as he won the opening round of the Championship at the Winternationals in Pomona, California. Not long after that he won another national event, the 4Wide Nationals in Charlotte, North Carolina. At this event Lindberg ran record-breaking numbers (the first 5.3-second-runs ever in the class), the quickest being a run of 5.361, which certainly seemed to get the attention of everybody and showed that they needed to be taken seriously.

The longer the season went on Lindberg decided as he was still in contention for the title that he and the team would remain in America and fight for the Championship, which culminated back in Pomona at the NHRA Finals. As his rivals lost throughout the day, Jonnie Lindberg reached the final round and had scored enough points for the 2015 NHRA Top Alcohol Funny Car Championship. An awesome achievement.

Watching the event on the TV was one of the sporting highlights of my year and seeing a guy who I’ve watched race go and win a Championship on the biggest Drag Racing stage there is was pretty enjoyable. Jonnie Lindberg and his team’s effort should never be underestimated.

BITTEN BY THE BUG

For as long as I can remember I have had a passion for all things cars, bikes and Motor Sport. I basically taught myself to read as a young child by watching various forms of racing on TV or looking in magazines, and throughout my life I have attended all kinds of Motor Sport events all over the UK. There are drivers and riders from across the world who I would call icons of their respective Motor Sports. But there is one that is closest to my heart. DRAG RACING!

Saturday November 6th 1993 was a hugely significant day. This was the day that my dad took me to my first Drag Racing event at Santa Pod Raceway. I had little knowledge of the sport at the time, only footage from America on some VHS tapes that I used to watch, but the chance to go and spend the day looking at fast racing cars was enough to excite 7-year-old me. The event was Santa Pod’s traditional Flame and Thunder Show, which they still run annually. Back in ‘93 it was a day of bracket racing and I remember being fascinated by the variety of vehicles going head-to-head down the track.

The other thing that was instantly special, and remains special to this day, was the feel of the venue itself. I was in awe of it all: Santa Pod’s iconic finish line gantry with SANTA POD spelt out in huge letters right across the end of the racetrack, back up the other end there’s the start line area with the Christmas tree starting lights, which are completely unique to Drag Racing. And the crowds as long as I’ve been visiting the Pod and sitting along the spectator banking have always been brilliant, it all adds to the wonderful atmosphere of the place.

My overall memory of that whole day is not great. One of the attractions was stuntman Eddie Kidd jumping through fire on his bike. I can also picture a few of the runs, although I cannot remember many specific cars or bikes that raced. I was certainly impressed by the power and speed, especially when a Jet Car fired itself off the line and set off some alarms in the car park. These are fond memories I will always have of this first visit.

In August 1997 I returned to Santa Pod for the Summer Nationals event and saw many of the faster classes of the sport for the first time – Top Fuel Bikes, Top Alcohol cars and Pro Mods to name a few. But the real reason this event was so notable was that I got my first experience of Nitro!

The Summer Nationals that year had three Nitro Funny Cars on the entry list: John Spuffard driving “Showtime”, Alan Jackson and the legendary Gary Page. I watched two of them burnout and reverse back to the start line. The sound was incredible, I was wearing ear defenders and it was still the loudest thing I had ever heard. Then they exploded away down the track, both getting far enough down the ¼ mile to make a huge impression on me. The acceleration was amazing and the air vibrated; the ground felt like it was shaking. It was one of the greatest things I had ever seen.

In Drag Racing the saying is “Bitten by the bug”.  And with the speed of that run and the feel and smell of Nitro, I had been bitten. Drag Racing has become a large part of my life; I have never missed a big event at Santa Pod since. When an event is announced it is like a pilgrimage for me – there’s no question whether or not we can go, we’re going!

I have an appreciation for all forms and classes of Drag Racing. Watching a strong performance from a Top Fuel Dragster brings me as much joy as a great race in a bracket class. I have never been able to pick a favourite class or Championship, my passion is for Drag Racing as an entire sport. I aim to keep this blog going with reports on events I attend in the future, as well as recounting memories I have from past visits to Santa Pod. As always, I cannot wait for the next one!