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Endless Summer: Drag Racing in England With Master Tuner Roland Leong

Automobile logo Automobile 5 days ago Elana Scherr,Dean Smith
a black truck sitting on top of a car: Drag-racing-in-England-12.jpg

PODINGTON, England—Roland Leong was bored. Bored and cold, despite it being unusually warm for July in England. He was huddled down in his seat on the Thames River tour boat, his personalized racing jacket pulled tight over a bright blue shirt that read, "Hawaii: Where my story begins." While our fellow tourists marveled at the Tower of London, Leong stayed buried in his phone. I looked over his shoulder to see what could possibly be more interesting than Big Ben and the shining panels of the London Shard.

Research

"Head gasket? Blower pressure? EGT?"

Leong's text read.

When you've spent more than 50 years tuning drag-racing cars to faster than 300 mph, perhaps the pace of history feels like just a drag. Leong didn't want to see the sights; he wanted to go racing.

As his T-shirt stated, Leong's story started on a dragstrip in the Hawaiian Islands, but this chapter found the famed Funny Car tuner in the British Isles—there by invitation to help set up a 1971 Camaro flopper for an English racer named Tony Betts. Tuning a nitro Top Fuel engine is more than just loading a laptop program; it requires balancing the fuel, the clutch, gear ratios, and pulley sizes to keep everything on the edge of too much, but not over. It's a tricky gig, and losing sight of a tune can mean years of testing to get it back. Leong loves the challenge, but there were several days to kill before the races, which meant he got to be bored on the riverboat, bored in a pub, bored in an Elizabethan village square, and bored at a train station, where we had to grab him when our train pulled up because he'd wandered off and was on the phone talking about exhaust-gas temperatures.

a small plane parked on the side of a road© Dean Smith

"They had big dreams for me ... and here I was, wanting to be a drag racer. My dad didn't speak to me for years. "

Betts wanted Leong's help preparing his car for nostalgia drag racing, starting with a retro racing meet called Dragstalgia, about 70 miles from London. If the Goodwood Revival is sports car racing meets fancy dress party, Dragstalgia is its rough and tumble drag-racing equivalent. The mindset is the same: Let's dress up and flog some old cars. Only instead of road-racing a Mercedes Gullwing, you'll find a Gasser Volvo P1800 with a big-block Chevy in it, or in Betts's case, a Hemi-powered, orange and black Camaro with "Venom" written on the side and an injector scoop big enough to swallow a softball or three.

a car on a race track: Drag racing in England 13© Dean Smith Drag racing in England 13

Island Hopping

If you're still chewing over the vision of drag racing in Hawaii and you haven't even processed the idea of it in the English countryside—let alone that it has gone on long enough to have a historical revival—let's go back to World War II. American hot-rodding took off after soldiers came back from Europe with knowledge of small cars, big engines, and power adders like nitromethane fuel and superchargers. They combined those with the lingering adrenaline of war and built big-engine, lightweight cars for racing. The racing moved from dry lakebeds to unused airplane runways at Air Force bases, and in the '50s and '60s, servicemen brought their love of straight-line speed and stripped-down cars to anywhere they were stationed, including Hawaii and England. The locals caught the bug, and after the bases closed, many were made into dedicated drag racing facilities.

© Dean Smith

These days, Roland Leong spends more time tuning from a laptop than out in the pits, but he can still turn a wrench on a Hemi in need.

It was at one of these airstrips turned racetracks—Kahuku Dragstrip on Oahu—that a teenage Leong first experienced the thrill of wide-open throttle. It was no nitro car, just his mom's heavily modified Oldsmobile. "I'd changed the cam, opened the exhaust," he said. "It was lopey and loud! My mom didn't know what happened. My sister saw me racing and tattled on me, and my mom eventually said she'd buy me a Corvette if I would put her car back to stock."

The Corvette led to a dragster, the dragster led to a job in a Southern California chassis shop, and Southern California led to a lifelong career as a tuner and crew chief at the highest level of drag racing—in the nitro-powered dragsters and Funny Cars—all with his parents' begrudging support. "I was the only son in a Chinese-Hawaiian family," he said. "They had big dreams for me. My father was the only Asian person in his class at Harvard. My mom got a degree from the University of Hawaii. They were respected businesspeople on the island, and here I was, wanting to be a drag racer. My dad didn't speak to me for years."

Leong's driving career was short-lived, which worked out well for another famous name in drag racing, Don "the Snake" Prudhomme. Once Leong was living in California, he decided to switch from his gas dragster to the faster nitro class. "I went to get a license," Leong said, "and I guess I was supposed to only go half track? Nobody told me! Anyhow, I couldn't find the parachute, and I crashed it, and Keith Black, he was my engine builder, he said he wasn't going to build anything for me if I drove it, so I should hire Snake and become a car owner. I always tell Prudhomme, 'Hey, sucker, you're lucky I wasn't worth sh-t as a driver.' "

a person is walking down the street© Dean Smith

Meanwhile, on a Different Island

While Leong was crashing cars and disappointing his parents—both time-honored drag-racing traditions—English "sprint" racers were captivated by tales of American drag cars, written in magazines like Hot Rod or told to them by locally stationed USAF crews. Sprint racing was straight-line racing, but like time trials or land-speed racing, it was a single-car run against a clock. What drag racing offered was the thrill of head-to-head competition. The deceptive simplicity and the raw power of early dragsters caught the imagination of a sports-car racer and builder named Sydney Allard, who had been building cars for hill climbs, rallies, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In the early '60s, he switched gears and had his shop start work on a dragster inspired by a magazine story he read about "The Chizler," a record-setting dragster campaigned in the States. A few other racers were also building drag-race-style cars, but they were still being run solo at sprint events, and rules governing their safety and competition were out of sync with the American National Hot Rod Association (NHRA), by that point already 10 years old and comparatively well established.

a group of people standing in front of a red car© Dean Smith

BLOWERS AND BLOWOUTS: Santa Pod breaks all the expected rules and looks good doing it.

To build enthusiasm for the British Hot Rod Association and to encourage the adoption of the U.S. rules, Allard and his fellow dragster enthusiasts worked with the NHRA and visiting American drivers to showcase the crowd-pleasing attributes of fire-spitting nitro cars and side-by-side competition passes. After visits from showmen like Tommy Ivo and Don Garlits, interest in drag racing grew, and England got its first permanent dragstrip in 1966—Santa Pod Raceway, built on the site of the former Podington USAF base. Santa Pod still runs today, and British drag racing has enough followers to hold not only a contemporary nitro championship but also a vintage series. That's what the Venom team was preparing for and what interested Leong more than the London Eye.

Funny Business

We met Betts and his team at the track. Like everything in the area, the road to Santa Pod is hedgerows and horses along a narrow lane freckled with red poppies. At the end of the lane, the road turns and opens into a vast expanse of grassy fields. It was still full of horses, only now there were thousands of them, neatly packaged in V-8s and tucked between the fenders of cars you'd expect, like Dodge Chargers and shoebox Chevys, and ones you wouldn't, like a 1962 Rover with a big-block Ford in it, or a gaggle of Mk II Escorts, one also with a big-block Ford in it. It had been raining, but where racers in the States would have packed up and headed home, English racers wouldn't ever have a meet if they let a little drizzle stop them. Santa Pod has multiple jet dryers for the track, and the second the sun peeked out, the pits boomed and crackled with the soundtrack of high compression.

In the Betts pits, the smell of Earl Grey was soon overwhelmed by the wasabi burn of nitromethane. The fumes made a green fog beneath the awning, and the team looked eerily like the servicemen who used to be here, in gas masks and headsets, preparing for battle. Leong stood in the middle of the cloud, bare-faced and unprotected. He squinted slightly, made an adjustment, and then sat down and sipped his tea while a cloud of spectators cheered and choked, holding their phones up with one hand and wiping tears with the other.

© Dean Smith

A tall man of the sort who knows everything and appears out of nowhere to tell it to you—here with an English accent—said the engine sounded stout and would surely be quick. "Cracks me up when people say that," Leong said with a little shrug. "I can't tell by the sound, but hey, I've been wrong before."

As it turned out, the tall man was wrong; although the engine did indeed sound fine, after a couple of test passes that Leong decried as "weak-suck," it became clear the two-speed transmission had been previously damaged, and the parts to fix it weren't available. "That's one of the challenges we face racing here," Betts said. "We have to order everything from the States, there aren't enough of us doing this to share parts, and everyone has a different combination."

Despite the early end to the race, Leong took his job of helping Betts seriously, going over data with the guys, demonstrating proper throttle setup and timing techniques, and repeatedly emphasizing the importance of consistency. "I don't care what you do," Leong told them, "just do it the same every time."

He quizzed Betts on his burnout technique, acting out the process with rapid arm movements and rolled Rs. "You can't go rrr rrr rrr one time and rrr rrr rrr rrr the next. You'll heat the clutch up. It won't repeat." Weirdly, it made total sense, and Betts nodded, looking like he'd just received the word from on high. In a way, he had.

Nitro fumes burn like tear gas and the engines sound like gunfire, so teams need to wear safety gear. After being scolded by his daughter, Leong begrudgingly wore a mask.

Leong began winning in 1965, and he kept winning through the '70s, '80s, and early '90s with his dragster and then with his Funny Cars. Every time he retired, someone would call him up and get him back in the game, whether that was Prudhomme needing a crew chief for Ron Capps in the late '90s or Tim Boychuk needing a tuner for Nostalgia racing in 2013. It was a big deal for the Venom crew to have Leong in their pits, and they knew it.

"He isn't what I expected at all," crew member Joey Harris said of Leong. "I mean, he's a legend, and he's sitting here explaining spark plugs to me. He wants us to learn it." Harris is right. Leong really does want the team to learn it. He wants the car to run well, but he isn't egotistical about it. When he casually added a dash of methanol to a nitro mix and got the proportions right on the first try after Betts had been working on it all morning, Betts let out a good-natured groan.

"I measured three times and was still wrong!"

Leong did his little shrug again. "I haven't done this for a few years, but before that, I did it for 50."

Even with the Venom car out of competition, Leong stood watch over the remaining Funny Cars as they ran through eliminations. No mask. No ear protection. He just turned down his hearing aid and stuck his fingers in his ears. From the stands he was a small figure, shrouded in tire smoke, adjusting the setup in his mind, arms crossed and jacket pulled tight. Still cold but definitely not bored.

Wherever there's a dragstrip and a nitro car to run, the Hawaiian is home.

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