Drag racing on Madeira Drive

Madeira Drive
©Tony Mould:images copyright protected

‘Skeletal’ racing cars

Many motor or motorcycle races have been held on Madeira Drive, over the years. One of the most exciting, perhaps, was drag racing, in the 1960s. The drag car had huge racing tyres at the back and it stretched out to two, tiny wheels at the front. The build of the car was ‘skeletal’. There were no brakes on the front wheels. Breaking was achieved with the help of a parachute that shot out of the back of the car. These were in no sense cars for the road. In those days, the cars were built for drag racing and were not modified road vehicles. 

Did you ever attend races or speed trials on Madeira Drive? Share your memories by posting a comment below

Not really races

Using a huge engine and a terrifying amount of power, the driver shot off the starting line and the front of the car rose up from the road and continued in that way for quite a bit of the drive. Speeds were incredible, as was the amount of tyre left on the road. From the pier end of the drive you could see the car, with its front wheels now on the deck, finishing the measure course. The parachute was released and the car slowly came to a halt. These weren’t ‘races’ in the traditional sense. One driver went off at a time and the aim was to get the fastest time over the measured course. I think, too, that these were more demonstrations than actual time trials. 

Serious accident

On one occasion, standing near the pier, we saw a huge plume of smoke rising at the Peter Pan’s Playground end of Madeira Drive and the racing was stopped. Later, we read in the Evening Argus that there had been a major accident, and that a drag car had smashed into the railings. I believe that the crash was a fatal one for the driver. After that, I think all plans for drag racing were shelved. I know that, later, other forms of racing were held on Madeira Drive but, perhaps, none as dramatic or foolhardy as this. 


Comments about this page

  • The “Drag-fest” as it was called, took place in (I believe) 1964 and the dragsters being referred to here were in fact driven by a group of American drag racers invited over to demonstrate drag racing at various venues around the UK, of which the Brighton Speed Trials was just one. They were well received and returned to do it again a few years later. That was really the start of a burgeoning drag racing and custom car scene that took off properly when Santa Pod Raceway, the first proper drag strip in Europe, opened its gates in 1968. Many of the first dragsters to race there were, in fact, the very same cars that had been left behind, sold on, by their American owners who’d entertained us and gone back home. The rest, as they say, is history.

    By Jester (07/07/2015)
  • Santa Pod Race Way became a great hit with a group of Brighton lads in the 1970s. We would travel up to the pod most Bank Holidays for the meeting. In those days  there was not the fast connecting roads so the journey took ages. My mate Barry always did the driving as he worked at the Ford garage at Preston Park. He had nice cars down the years. The pod craze started to grow and vans and on one occasion a 15 seater mini bus was hired. That meeting 42 people from Brighton made the journey.  I will always remember the mini bus going through the gate with three people inside, the others laying in the roof rack under waterproof cover just to get off the £5 entrance – crazy days. Every one enjoyed the big pro fuel  dragsters and the  funny car classes. We always  gave Bob Horam a cheer as he took the start line in his car Red E. We knew he was from Sussex. In the evening we would go down to one of the small towns to the popular  pub The Nags Head run by a guy called big Bob. The Nags had a great night club where we had our evening entertainment. When the colder weather came a small group of us would book rooms at the Nags under canvas  for the firework meeting was a no no. One of the funniest things I remember after a night down town was about a dozen lads in 73-74 with no clothes on doing the streak down the strip as Ray Stevens said don’t look Ethel.  Just to add one of those guys is now a retired policeman. Crazy days, loved the pod and those days.

    By Ken Mcneill (08/07/2015)
  • Madeira Drive features in American James Orlando’s classic car thriller Jade Nomad (Brighton in the 1950s & ’60s).

    By Peter Mitchell (08/01/2017)
  • There was a mixture of vehicles which used to sprint down Madeira Drive. Motorcycles with v8 engines, Bentley V8’s and most combinations of wheels and engines.

    Sadly, there was a death, Ian Ashwell, a motorcyclist and the whole proceedings became far more regulated and calmed down.

    By Alan Digweed (05/12/2021)
  • Two things I recall about Drag racing on the sea front. 1 A special hot rod with a Rolls-Royce Merlin V 12 Cylinder aero engine. The other was an Aerial square Four motor bike that stood on it’s tail when the driver let the clutch out turning right over and sadly killing the driver..
    I preferred the “Old Crocks” race and The Concourse D’Elegance.

    By John Snelling (06/08/2022)
  • John,
    I have a still from a 16mm cine film of Michael Wilcock in his 27 litre Rolls Royce Merlin engined special at Brighton in 1953. The ‘Swandean Spitfire Special’. That car is now in the USA.
    The other Rolls Royce engined car was the Lloyd Jones Triangle which only had a 21 litre engine but he was a bit faster than Michael.
    Also a photo of my Grandfather’s special Bentley 4.1/4 litre at the Concours in 1951.
    Can’t seem to be able to post them on here though.

    By Tim Sargeant (06/08/2022)

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