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Drag racing is one of the more unique forms of UK competition to run under the Motorsport UK banner and it is also one of the most extreme. In this excerpt from November’s Revolution cover story spoke to Top Fuel driver Susanne Callin and Santa Pod Raceway owner Keith Bartlett to learn how it feels to be behind the wheel.

Susanne Callin is one of Europe’s top dragster competitors. She drives in the Top Fuel category, which is the drag racing equivalent of Formula One, and for many who follow the sport she is a superstar. She is also the wife of the UK’s ‘Godfather’ of the sport, Keith Bartlett, the owner and operator of Santa Pod Raceway, which attracts crowds upwards of 30,000 to its Top Fuel events.

“When the car fires up, that’s when everything gets swept away. You’re in the zone, the car’s vibrating like hell, everything’s shaking. Even standing still it’s just ‘bub-bub-bub.’ Shuddering. Your body’s rattling around. You can feel everything. At that point, you know it’s just you now. After all the team’s hard work, it’s just you left to do this. Then, and as soon as the lights go green, it’s like being shot out of a rocket…”

Although drag racing may not quite align with more familiar disciplines like circuit racing, sprint, hill climbing or rallying, it is becoming increasingly popular. In the United States, events draw in hundreds of thousands and even in Europe, the recent Top Fuel event at Hockenheim attracted 54,000 spectators. That is more than F1 used to draw in during the non-Schumacher eras.

Santa Pod is the hub of it all in the UK, running events from ‘run what ya brung’, where anyone is welcome to bring their cars and drive the quarter mile as quickly as they can, all the way to the Top Fuel class driven by a highly selective group of brave individuals, where cars run from 0-100mph in 0.8 seconds and reach 280mph after about three seconds at an-eighth-of-a-mile and go through the finish line in just under four seconds at upwards of 320 mph.

That level of performance is unimaginable, and Callin concedes that there is very little that compares. “Nothing I have ever tried gets anywhere close to it, for sure,” she says.

** “You can’t compare it to anything. The first time I did it, I had no idea what I was getting into. I was so nervous, but I was also respectful. These cars are absolute monsters. Until you get in one you really don’t know what to expect. It’s almost worse afterwards when you know what’s going to hit you.”
– Susanne Callin
When she says ‘what’s going to hit you’ she means it almost literally. Because, for a Top Fuel driver who has driven hundreds of runs, it is actually not the getting going bit that is the most intense. It’s the stopping. “The start, you do get used to, but when the ‘chutes come out and you are coming down at 300mph, I don’t think you ever get used to that,” she continues. “You’re left breathless. You get winded. Totally. It’s like driving into a wall. You lose all the breath in your lungs. At the start, it’s 4-5G, so it’s really high. But it’s even more when you stop. That’s 5-6 in negative Gs. That’s worse. You can definitely feel it!”

Now, it is important to remember that not all drag racing is quite like that. That would be like saying competing in a Sprint race is like driving an F1 car. But whatever the level, there is still a similar feeling. Bartlett explains: “I’ve recently been driving a ten-second car, a 1950s gasser, that goes through the finish line at 135mph. Then I’ve got a street legal car that will run seven-and-a-half-seconds at 190mph. How does that feel? For a door body car, really fast. The wheels are up off the ground. It’s no comparison to what Susanne does, I am not going pretend it is, but it still feels really, really quick. It’s exciting and you get a real buzz.”

** Finding Focus
Callin has just finished her latest season in the FIA European Championship. After a year beset by mechanical issues, she still managed to finish runner-up. She nailed her personal best on the quarter mile, a rapid 3.885 seconds, topping out at 309.20mph, at the season-ending event in front of a fanatical home crowd at Santa Pod. To stand on the banks filled with spectators, two fire-breathing Top Fuel machines sit shaking and rocking on the start line waiting to go, is a visceral experience that hits all senses. Yet inside the cockpit, it is all rather serene.

“When you’re on the start line, you’re just so focused on what you’re doing you don’t really feel anything, that’s the one time you try to be as cool and feel as little as possible,” she tries to explain. “The whole process to get to that point starts when I put all my gear on, and when that all starts, I just want to be left alone. I think most of the other competitors do the same – we have our own routines: I put everything on in the same order, go and have my water.

“We have such thick suits, but even when it’s really hot I still like to walk down to the start line and get into the car early. At that point, I feel nothing. I don’t know any Top Fuel driver who does. You might expect it to be ‘whey hey, let’s have fun, let’s do this’ but it’s not like that. I know in other classes people are sort of skipping into their cars and being ‘oh, how exciting’ but I definitely don’t have anything of that.

“I mean, we are serious. But once I’m in there, that’s when my brain starts whirring and my heart rate, it starts going ‘boombadda-boom.’ It really goes for it, so I need to sit and just calm myself down. Sometimes I am like ‘oh my God, why am I doing this, should I really be doing this?’ That definitely happened in the beginning, but I’m more used to it now. Now, I just know that’s when you sit down and just do it, no matter what.

“I’d rather just sit in there and try to zone in and do my thing. If you’re not in sync, even getting close to the run, it can really screw up when you’re out there. It’s not like F1, where you can catch up or anything like that, you’ve got what you’ve got – and you’ve got one shot. You can’t redo it. You can’t come off the accelerator and go back on it. It’s everything, just now or never.

“When the team comes in and tightens up your belts, they do it so hard you can’t breathe, you almost want to hit them! But when it’s all about to start, I am so focused. Even though the bank is literally 30 meters to the right, I don’t see the crowds. And once it’s go, it’s a struggle all the way! If you look from the side, it looks pretty damn straight but when you’re in it, it’s a handful, I can tell you! But for me, it’s at the end of the run, when I get out the car, that the biggest adrenaline rush hits me.”

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