Throwing caution to the wind, Alister Morgan tries his hand at drag-racing in deepest Bedfordshire - and lives
It has been said that if you can remain calm, while all around you is chaos, then you probably haven't completely understood the seriousness of the situation. Sitting in the passenger seat of Chris Bates's dragster car, my ears stinging from the deafening roar of engines, I was living proof of this particular maxim.

At Santa Pod Raceway, I'd been watching vehicles travel from 0-60mph in less time then it takes to fasten a seat belt. The safety of the grandstand seemed a long way off sitting in the car in fireproof overalls.

"The car is 80 per cent fibreglass with 700 horsepower engine," Bates had explained earlier. "Press the line-lock to hold the front wheels before performing a 'burn-out' [a crowd-pleasing manoeuvre that sees the rear wheels spin violently while the car remains stationary in a cloud of smoke] to put much-needed heat into the tyres for extra grip. We start in first gear - there's no clutch to drop, just two pedals with an automatic set- up."

As a mechanic checks my helmet and tightens my four-strap racing safety- belt, I begin to recall a few more of Bates's facts and figures.

"This car is a converted Ford Sierra that runs on methanol - a fuel that ignites at a cooler temperature than normal petroleum... The faster your car burns fuel, the faster the engine will run and the faster we go..."

The mechanic secures my arm to my torso with a strap to prevent it from falling out of the window in the event of a crash. Just when I think I'm ready to go, he returns with a neck-brace. Trussed up like an ancient mummy, I'm not certain whether it's for prevention or cure but I haven't too much time to mull over safety precautions as the car inches towards the start line.

Chris starts the burn-out. I can't see the wheels moving but I can feel the vibrations as the car drifts a little from side to side. The roar of the engine is so deafening that I want to press my hands to my ears, but with a helmet on, doing so would be a total waste of time. My nostrils fill with the heavy aroma of burning rubber before a cloud of thick smoke surrounds the car.

As wisps of smoke drift inside the vehicle and waft across my visor, it occurs to me that smoke is often a precursor of impending doom - not at all like the charming stuff that puffs out of children's steam engines. Smoke and the smell of burning rubber are everywhere and, for the life of me, I can't remember why I thought that doing this would be a good idea.

Suddenly we're off and I simply don't have time to worry about my ringing eardrums. "Depending on the conditions of the car and track, you're looking at 0-60mph in about 1.5 seconds and 0-120mph in around five," Bates had told me. Now all I can hear is the deafening roar of a straining engine as we accelerate at pant-wetting speeds.

An involuntary wail spews from my mouth; part exhilaration, primarily blind fear as the car literally flies across the track. Powerful gravitational forces fling my head and body backwards against the seat and we're accelerating so fast now that my arms and legs instinctively grasp around for something to grab.

There's a 4ft-high concrete wall a few metres to my right and another a few car-widths on the other side. We're accelerating so quickly that I half- expect the front of the car to take off. There's not much steering involved in drag-racing, but the car must stay on the straight and narrow as there's simply nowhere else to go.

I'm still exhaling my first desperate shriek when we pass the quarter- mile point and, without warning, start to decelerate. I'm thrown forward a few centimetres before my belt takes up the strain and now I'm pressing both feet to the floor in desperate sympathy with the car's braking system. My wail ends in mid-scream but my mouth remains open as I contemplate a braking failure at this velocity.

Slowly the car slows down and my body begins to relax as the G-force subsides. Now we're travelling at around 10mph and turn back towards the pits but, every time we edge a few yards forward, the car's engine screams loudly as if impatient for more speed and another work out.

When we reach the pits, I'm speechless and completely exhausted. The whole experience lasted just under nine seconds ... and I think I want to do it all over again!

Based upon motorsport's most seductive element - speed - drag-racing is hugely popular in the US and is attracting increasing numbers of British converts to its unique style of racing. Forget refuelling, lightning-fast tyre-changes and hairpin corners, drag cars only race in straight lines. It's the ultimate quick-fix of engines, competition and extreme acceleration, but there is more to it than just raw speed.

Vehicles are paired off depending on engine-size and fuel. The cars race within certain time-brackets, meaning that if the specified time for the quarter-mile course is nine seconds, the cars have to run as close to that time as possible without clocking a time over the specified bracket - 8.89 secs is good, 8.95 secs is better, but a car clocked at 9.01 secs will lose the race, regardless of finishing first, if the other car registers any time below 9 secs.

With races finishing in the blink of an eye (the Santa Pod course record stands below 5 secs), successful drivers require razor-sharp reactions to beat their opponents.

Once my heart-rate had decreased sufficiently, I was given the chance to test my own drag racing-skills (racing brand new Vauxhall Vectras - for our own safety) against other journalists. I won my first race, clocking a pretty respectable time of 20 seconds during my first run.

With my car purring on the start line, waiting for the next green starting light, I was completely focused on my next race and next win. While contemplating a possible career change, the lights flashed to green and with lightning- quick reflexes I floored the accelerator - and stalled the car.

After proving that my car's considerable artificial intelligence was no match for my natural stupidity, I watched the rest of the races standing beside a huge man in fireproof overalls named Geoff.

"I'm the Suicide Man," he informed me with a smile. Spying a huge sheathed knife on his belt, I was a little confused but took him at his word that any ensuing violence would be directed towards himself.

After further exchanges, I learnt that, as the "Suicide Man" or "Fire Diver", Geoff's job actually entailed rescuing trapped drivers from their stricken cars. Sometimes drivers have to be cut free from their seat-belts.

"If the driver can't get out then it's my job to get in there and pull them out. Accidents like that happen very rarely but you have to be prepared for the worst in this job," he explained. Sitting with an ambulance and fire truck at the finish line, Geoff can reach drivers as quickly as possible in the event of an accident.

Geoff receives no payment for his considerable bravery. The chance to watch the cars he loves is payment enough, but ordinary spectators can watch dozens of drag-racing events at Santa Pod throughout the year, admittedly from a slightly less impressive viewpoint but without any obligation to dive into burning cars.



Race your own car at Santa Pod during 'Run What Ya Brung Days'. Admission is pounds 8 per person, plus pounds 10 for unlimited runs (a full driver's licence is mandatory). The next RWYB Days are on 8 August and 5 September.

For those who prefer to watch, the next major professional competitive event at Santa Pod is 'FIA European Drag Racing Finals' (10-12 September).

Three-day tickets cost pounds 43 (pounds 35 in advance) and include free camping; two days cost pounds 35 (pounds 30 in advance), and single-day entry costs from pounds 10- pounds 20 depending on the day. Entrance is free for under-16s. Contact Santa Pod Raceway, Unit 5 Airfield Road, Podington, Bedfordshire NN29 7XA

(tel: 01234 782828).