Scene & Heard Issue 8

This month, we talk to the CEO of Trakbak Racing, and head honcho of Santa Pod, Keith Bartlett

How did you get into drag racing?

A neighbour of mine, who was into the racing, first took me to Santa Pod in 1967. I was impressed, but at the time I was rallying a Mini Cooper S. In 1971, I broke my foot very badly when I crashed into a tree during a Japanese Banks rally and, while in plaster, my girlfriend at the time suggested we go to Santa Pod. I went up the bank on crutches and watched Dennis Priddle in Mister Six racing Clive Skilton, followed by the Ivan The Terrible Pro Stock Mustang, and after being there for a couple of hours I knew that drag racing was what I wanted get into. I then went on to race in what was then called Street Modified, Production and drove a few Pro Stock cars that I was thinking of buying – on a few occasions driving them under the alias of the real driver.

How did you get from there to the big chair at Santa Pod?

In the mid-Seventies, I owned and operated companies in Dubai and Bahrain. I even tried to get drag racing off the ground in Bahrain in 1976, and got close to pulling it off. Upon my return from the Middle East, after my companies made quite a lot of money, I put that money into drag racing and ended up acquiring Slick Tricks – I made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. Stuart Vallance and I then set up Slick Tricks Racing together, while Roger Hornsby went his own way.

We then began drag racing almost full time. We purchased the ex-Pat Foster Mustang II Nitro Fuel Funny Car from the USA, along with some fast running production cars, plus we carried out many hot rod and drag racing car projects for magazines and custom car shows. This all bounced happily along until 1981, when I got a bit fed up with the politics within drag racing and the drag racing clubs – I thought at the time that the club wars were destroying drag racing, so I walked away from it, and sold all the race cars. In 1982 I set up a new company, which purchased a few London-based main dealerships with both VW/Audi and Fiat franchises, which were not doing so well at the time.

The first dealership (Fiat) in SE London was based next door to the race shop of Slick Tricks Racing, and we knew them well and took the gamble to enter into the world of main car dealerships. Within two years we turned it around, and it took off. Fiat told me about another failing dealership in Barnes, which I turned into a VW Audi dealership, and by 1987, Lonsdale had the Fiat dealership and four VW Audi franchises. I then had an offer from a public company, who bought the whole group out.

By then, Lonsdale was into racing, and Lonsdale Racing had two Top Fuel cars, the famous black VW-bodied Funny Car that Norm Wilding drove, and a few Production cars. Lonsdale also got involved with Blacktop Promotions, which set up the running of Avon Park. I sold Lonsdale in 1988, but the buyers soon got nervous about how much money Lonsdale Racing was spending, and asked me to separate the racing from the main company. I helped where possible, although Lonsdale kept one race car. In 1990 I went to meet with Carl Olson at the NHRA in America, telling him I wanted to set up a proper Top Fuel series all around Europe. In that same year, I set up the European Top Fuel Association (ETFA), and, in 1991, we had a proper pan-European championship, which legitimised Top Fuel in Europe and ended the match-racing.

I ran the ETFA, much out of my own pocket, until 1995, and it was very successful. Santa Pod was struggling at the time, and so I bought it in February 1996. The first operational company under my management running Santa Pod was Power Racing Communications Ltd. Power Racing had a structure and a board that I was unhappy with, so I shut it down and set up Trakbak in February 1997. It remains, operating as Santa Pod Raceway, to this day, and has grown substantially. We not only own Santa Pod, we also own the rights to the whole FIM European Drag Racing Championship, and are just renegotiating the rights to the whole FIA European Championship. In September 2016, I secured the rights to the FIM World Drag Bike Championship. There will be a World Cup event this year, most likely at the European Finals, and a full season in 2019 including races in America.

In association with the other tracks, we are attempting to make some big improvements across the FIA Championship structure, especially some of the SFI construction rules which, as good as they are for the safety of the sport, mostly apply to American racers that run 22 times a year for their National Championship, and shouldn’t necessarily apply to a car that only runs five times a year in Europe. In most cases it’s very necessary, but in other areas it should be removed or simplified to allow certification in Europe. If we cannot reach agreement with the FIA, we will have no alternative but to leave the FIA and organise, operate and run own title series. It’s that simple. We did it in 1990 with the ETFA, and we can repeat that for all the current professional classes.

There’s plenty of construction work happening at Santa Pod – what’s changing?

The last year has seen us make a number of commitments to improving the facility. Over winter, we’ve spent £1 million on upgrading the strip to a new concrete track, changing the spectator bank layout, and improving spectator facilities. That will all be finished by Easter, and should hopefully be ready by Dial-In Day.

I’d like to think we’ve raised the bar with the new concrete track, because the bar needs to be raised. Also, the Tierp Arena in Sweden took some records away from Santa Pod last year, and I’d like to bring them back! With this new concrete track, both my crew and the racers have to understand that it’s a new ballgame – most of them are only used to running on asphalt, so the race cars and teams are going to have to redial into the new track, plus our track crew will have to learn to prep concrete, which is quite different from asphalt. Concrete holds temperatures very differently to asphalt – it holds heat better, as asphalt goes away quicker in hot weather, but concrete also holds cold better – so you have to prep differently, but we’ve prepped concrete for other tracks and organisers, so we’re well prepared. The spectator bank will be laser-leveled, and at a better angle for the spectators’ viewing. I’m confident that, by mid-summer, we’ll have a bitchin’ track.

What does the uncertain future of Shakespeare County mean to Santa Pod?

The impending demise of Shakespeare County is very sad for drag racing. People seem to think that I’d be quite excited about that because it brings more business to us, but quite the opposite – we need four or five operational drag strips in this country to develop the sport, so I’m not so happy about this situation with Shakespeare at all. But, rather than see all the events disappear from Shakey, the NSRA came to us and we have taken over the Nostalgia Nationals and Hot Rod Drags – same promoters, same events, same atmosphere, but we’re going to help them to grow and develop both events.

For me personally, the new Doorslammers event being held at Santa Pod in May, the week before the FIA Main Event, is my baby. We are putting a lot of weight behind it. I started off street racing; when I had Slick Tricks back in the Seventies, mid-week and weekends, we’d go street racing with cars that we’d built for the track. I was one of those very early guys trailering cars out for 2am street races down in south east London! Some of the cars Stuart and I raced were customers’ cars that we were building or restoring! The reputation of Slick Tricks carried us quite well in those days…

The calendar is pretty packed for 2018 – how important are the ‘lifestyle’ events?

The lifestyle events are important, because they introduce people to drag racing. A percentage will come to Bug Jam, for instance, see the Funny Cars, and come back for the European Finals. Bug Jam, USC, the two FIA rounds, plus one-day events such as The Fast Show and the Flame & Thunder event, all attract unbelievable numbers. We have events every weekend from the beginning of February to the beginning of December, plus some mid-week stuff, so we only have January and August Bank Holiday off from racing. I’ll sort January out in the next two years, too – we’re going to start running in the winter. I want to have a New Year’s Day Jet Car extravaganza!

How do you get the drag racing message out to the unconverted?

We’ve worked so hard on social and new media over the last three years that it’s not wrong to say we’re ahead of the game, and that we’ve seen huge growth in our social media. When we do our live streams, which we produce to a very high standard, we’re getting between 450,000 and 650,000 unique viewers for an average of 26 minutes, and our Facebook Live has attained a reach of over 8,000,000 at peak events.

I despair when I speak to other drag racing promoters who say that gates are going down, when what we are seeing is increasing attendance. With that said, my team and I work very hard to continuously promote Santa Pod – you’re only as good as your last event, and we strive to improve all the time. If a drag strip is going to be successful, it has to be run as a professional enterprise; many of the drag strips across Europe are run by the racers and their clubs, groups and people working part-time, and if that’s the case it’ll never be a successful business. Santa Pod has 35 permanent staff along with 200-plus seasonal event staff. When I purchased Santa Pod in 1996, there were only 12 permanent staff.

What does the future hold for Santa Pod?

We’re not sitting on our laurels, there’s a lot more yet to be done, and I have a five year plan from 2017 for huge improvements to bring Santa Pod into the 21st century. Then, ideally, we need see if it will be possible to get more drag strips open in Britain. We first need to look for a new permanent facility in the north. Noise restrictions are the sole problem, as with any motorsports facility – but where there’s a will, there’s a way.

There have been proposals for new housing near Santa Pod – along with many opinions on the matter. Most of the views and posts on social media sites are incorrect, and in most cases posted by people who have very few facts to hand. What I will say is that I do know everything about this project, and we are not about to be shut down – not now, or in the future. As for 20 years time? Who knows what legislation and local government policy will apply by that time. The housing development close to Santa Pod is not certain, by any means, and is all subject to government proposals, plus it’s just one of four schemes in the Bedfordshire area which may or may not get the go-ahead. Either way it will mean gains, not losses for Santa Pod.

As a result of this winter’s massive investment in laying the new track, the museum project has been pushed back at least nine months. I was hoping to start that off in autumn, 2019, but it’ll now be the spring of 2020, though I’m already buying exhibits. For example, cars that we own like Henry Hi-Rise (Slick Tricks Racing) will end up in the museum, among others, if I don’t smash them all up racing on the street… I’m also keen to get ‘Roarin’ Rat’ back, too, then I’ll have the two project cars that got me back into drag racing in the late Seventies…

So what’s the next step?

The next step is to try and earn some money to pay for it all! The tower complex will be the next thing we look at. I thought we might blow the old one down with the Jet Car, but we might save it and put it outside the museum – as with the old finish line gantry!