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Meet the 2000bhp road-legal dragsters

  1. Bad things are best done under the cover of darkness, and right now it feels like we’re about to do a very bad thing indeed. Six exceptionally powerful cars, all of which have spent the day howling down the drag strip at Santa Pod in Bedfordshire, covering the quarter-mile in as little as 7.5 seconds, should be sitting silently under cover waiting to hit the strip again tomorrow morning. But they’re not.

    Instead, engines - some of which are beefed up to, oh, 2,000bhp or so - are revving loud enough to slam waves of air into the chests of mechanics and pit crew. The last two drivers climb in behind the wheels of their cars, pull the doors shut and we’re off - straight out of the gates and onto country roads lit only by headlamps and the bad moon on the rise above us.

    Words: Angus Frazer
    Pictures: Dom Romney and Matt Woods

    This feature first appeared in Top Gear magazine

  2. Cheeky night runs are true to the spirit of how drag racing took shape in the late Twenties, with good ol’ boys in the American south outrunning the law in hot rods with trunks full of home-brewed hooch. Mind you, the only vehicle in our little posse that looks capable of carrying much in the way of contraband is a 1954 Chevy pickup that goes by the handle of Howlin Hauler, and packs 540 cubic inches - that’s a hearty 8.8-litres to you and I - of 1,500bhp V8 under its hood.

    This truly disparate, desperate ensemble of machinery spans a 70-year age gap, and includes a 2007 carbon-panelled Nissan GT-R 35 alongside a bright orange Toyota Supra, both of which would be more at home on the Tokyo ring road than the A509 to Dunstable. There’s also a red Ford Escort RS Cosworth that has blasted in from the Nineties, and a rather innocent-looking, but demon-quick, nitrous-snorting Ford Zephyr. TopGear is sitting on the wafer-thin carbon-fibre passenger seat of a mammoth Mercury Comet from the Sixties, worrying about the trouble we’ll encounter when the police eventually, inevitably, flash their blue lights behind us.

  3. “Absolutely none at all,” Matt Atkinson assured me earlier. Matt is the chairman of the Street Eliminator UK drag-racing class in which all the cars compete. “Every single one of these cars is completely street-legal,” he says. The rules state that the cars can produce as much power as their owners can eke from whatever engine they can fit under the bonnet, plus their choice of one performance aid, be it nitrous oxide, a turbocharger, a supercharger or a procharger (a belt-driven turbocharger).

    Oh, and a couple more, minor points. Each car must have an MoT test certificate. And display a valid tax disc in the window. “You can’t win just by being fastest on the track,” says Matt. “The cars also have to compete a 28-mile street cruise… and if yours doesn’t get to the end, you’re out.” The cars must also run on pump fuel.

  4. To prove the point, John Webster, driver of my Mercury Comet, leads our convoy of quite probably the world’s most powerful street-legal cars onto a petrol-station forecourt. The guy behind the till almost falls off his chair as the drivers begin to fill up (it can take a while).

    Back at the track, drivers in other classes will now be feasting on warm beer and soggy hot dogs. I imagine some Eighties rock will be pouring out of oversized speakers. Meanwhile, the Street Eliminator crew are queuing to pay for gas, wondering if their life would really be improved by a butterscotch air freshener. And the night is still young…

  5. “There’s a real technical challenge to Street Eliminator racing that you perhaps don’t get with some of the other classes,” reckons John. “You have to get street-legal tyres to work on the race track with all that power… and then you have to get a very highly tuned racecar to run on the road.” And surely there are easier cars to race than an old Yank tank with the aerodynamic qualities of a bungalow? “True,” says John. “But you just got to run what you got and hope you got enough.”

    Alan Williamson - or Mr Howlin Hauler, if you’re feeling a bit Smokey and the Bandit - reckons that variety is the best bit. “I love the fact that I can run my Chevy against something like the GT-R. And it’s pure racing. Some classes have a bracket or a limit, where you are disqualified if you go faster than the class allows. But here the fastest man in the fastest car wins.”

  6. But building the fastest car takes time, effort, ingenuity, money and more money. Anywhere from £20,000 to £120,000, if tonight’s anecdotes are anything to go by. Certainly the Smith brothers, who bring their Nissan GT-R and Ford Escort Cosworth to the track in a former Honda F1 transporter, have shelled out a few groats over the years.

    For Matt Smith, it’s money well spent, if only for the thrill he gets from hoofing his monster Nissan down the quarter-mile when the Christmas tree goes green. “When your rear tyres are squirming around trying to put 2,000bhp onto the tarmac, and your front wheels are in the air, believe me, that grabs your attention,” he says. “And even when you’re almost at the end of the track, the rear tyres can suddenly lose traction at 170mph.”

  7. Tanks filled, we exit the petrol station like good, law-abiding citizens… without so much as a squeak of tyres. I’m still trundling along at the head of the convoy in the big bad Mercury when John threads the car around a roundabout and the headlamps pick out a very straight and very empty stretch of road. He hits the accelerator. The Comet squats down on its rump and flings itself forward. My head flies back as the car’s nose reaches for the sky. My buttocks clench, but, alas, generate little grip on the slidey carbon-fibre seat.

    The rear of the car does a little wiggle and, a second later, we’ve leapt a distance that just cannot possibly have been covered in so short a time. John eases off the throttle. “So just how…” - I clear my throat in an attempt to find a lower, somewhat less castrato-like octave - “…far did you press the accelerator there, then, John?” John doesn’t say anything. He just holds up his left hand with his thumb and index finger about two millimetres apart.

  8. A few miles later, and its time for the second stop on our cruise: a carpet warehouse car park. It’s clear from the assembled hordes of mildly tuned Subaru Imprezas, Vauxhall Novas and Renault Clios that we’re entering local-held turf. As the drag cars roll to a halt, someone plays the stereo of their Subaru loudly in a show of teenage bravado. And then it falls ever so quiet. The locals know that while they might not be outnumbered, tonight they are most definitely outgunned.

    But, despite their bulging muscle, those powerful engines could now prove the drag racers’ weakness. The drivers must turn their cars off and let them sit for several minutes, before performing what rule-master Matt describes as a “hot start”. It may not sound much of a big deal, but these finely tuned engines can be utter pigs to restart once they’ve been switched off and left to sit and soak up the heat accumulated in the engine bay.

  9. “I love the cruise, but sometimes it scares me to death,” reveals Brian Payne, driver of the Zephyr. “It’s a great leveller, because you can spend as much as you like on your car and yet if the engine won’t start, or if something simple goes wrong like a blown fuse, then you’re out.”

    He turns the key. The V8 churns for a long, long time as Matt’s iPhone counts down the seconds. But then it coughs into life and he buckles up for the 10-mile ride back to the track. I click myself back into the four-point harness in the passenger seat of the Comet. And we rumble on through the moonlit night in the world’s most powerful street cars, just as legal as you like.

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