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One Fast Lady
2.2.06. Last year saw the 75th anniversary of a pioneering British woman, Amy Johnson, whose solo flight from Britain to Australia in 1930 was a major achievement then, and continues to be to this day. Last year also saw another British woman make history. This time, though, it was on the drag strip, when Stephanie Milam drove her “She Devil” Top Methanol Dodge Avenger funny car to a top speed of 238.09mph, making her the fastest British woman over the quarter mile – indeed, the fastest British woman anywhere on a track. Milam, a travel agency manageress from Crowborough, Sussex, took the record from Roz Prior, Britain’s first lady of drag racing, who set the previous mark, of 229 mph, back in 1983. "It's great to have one part of the record," says Steph. "All I need now is to beat her 6.205 to take the ET part of it as well".
What makes this record so special for the husband and wife team of Steph and Dave Milam is the fact that it was achieved on a limited budget, with limited technology, and with a completely home-built car, constructed by Dave in their normal-sized garage.
“We both got into drag racing in 1976, when we went to see it for the first time at Santa Pod,” explains Steph. “Don Garlits was there and we really got the bug. We were sat in the pub one night, and Dave said, “I could build one of those cars.” We started out racing a Mustang at Run What You Brung meetings, with Dave and I taking turns to drive. Some time later, Dave suffered a back injury, which curtailed his racing exploits, so I inherited the driving. He built a much-modified Austin A30, complete with big-block Ford power, which we ran with success in 1985/86, before progressing to a front-engined dragster. We purchased the old Pat Cuss Rat Catcher chassis and dropped in our Ford motor, ran it on methanol, and later injected it. After that, we wanted to go faster, so Dave built a new, longer chassis for which we purchased a blown 354 Hemi. The car eventually ran 8.22 at 165 on methanol.
“We used the dragster as a stepping stone to go to funny car racing, but really it was going to be a fuel altered originally. At the time – about 1988 – we purchased a funny car chassis with the intention of building a fuel altered. It was at a time in the UK when there was so much talk about fuel altereds, or perhaps I should say great promises about them. It was at the time when Bill Felsted was trying to get a bunch of fuel altereds together, but it never happened! We bought loads of parts, but the car never went anywhere. It just sat in the garage for years and years, and in the end, we decided we’d bring it out as a funny car. In theory, it was meant to be out in 1988, but for one reason or another, it took 11 years to get it on track - the car was eventually wheeled out in 1999.
“We ran it with a Daytona body for three years, and then took last year off to revamp and upgrade everything. The body was from the ex-Tom Hoover car and has been around for a very long time. It’s also had its fair share of repairs and, as a result, is very heavy. The Avenger body we now have is much lighter. It came in two halves, so it was interesting putting it back together. For 2004, we set ourselves a wish list – a new PSI supercharger, new magneto, new starter etc, and we got to the bottom of the list by the end of the year. We now have most of the parts we need to go fast, but have to find out how to get the best from them. We knew we had to upgrade the car, as it had reached its potential on its Roots supercharger, so we were going to go for a Whipple or PSI screw-type. The fact that the PSI unit is now so popular sort of decided it for us, and that’s the one we chose. You can get more pressure from a screw-type supercharger like the PSI unit – up to 60psi, I believe – whereas the Roots-type will only go up to about 45psi.
“We debuted the new-specification car at the 2005 Easter Thunderball at Santa Pod, and I put in a check-out pass on Saturday. We were the first car out, so there was not a lot of traction. We ended up going sideways and I got out of the throttle a couple of times. On the Sunday afternoon, we were hoping for a high six, but surprised ourselves by going 6.43 at 230mph - a tenth above our best time ever, and 11mph faster than our previous best. We were very pleased, and I knew it was fast when I hit the ‘chutes. Monday I messed up and cut a bad light, but overall, we were pleased with our progress. The clutch didn’t feel right on the launch, but it made up speed at the top end.
“For the Main Event at Santa Pod, we upped the blower drive and lowered the compression, as we wanted to try out this new combination. That’s where we set our personal best of 238.09 in qualifying for Round One of the 2005 FIA Drag Racing Championship. We were knocked out early in eliminations, but that run was worth the effort alone as far as we were concerned.
“In theory, the engine specification of the car is now on a par with the best in Europe. We use a 526 cubic inch Keith Black motor, which develops about 3000hp. We don’t have the best cylinder heads, but they work fine. Drive is through a three-speed Lenco with 4.33 gears. We do virtually everything ourselves in-house – well, actually in the garage. We work 24/7. Basically, I come home, we have dinner and then start on the night shift in the garage. We work every day and all weekends. People don’t come to our house and expect us to be in. In fact, most of our friends have never been in our house – but they do know our garage very well!”
For 2006, the Milams are looking to take the honour of having the first British Top Methanol funny car to dip into the 5s, along with Trevor Capewell and Doug Ripley. “We know the car is capable,” says Steph, “and after changing the gearing towards the end of last year, it gave us a much stronger launch.”
Look out for the bright red “She Devil” Avenger at all the usual Santa Pod rounds this season, including the British FIA events, as there’s every chance you might see a little more history unfold!
Story: Andy Kirk
Photos: Andy Kirk & Roger Gorringe