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The Price is right
ďI guess I was in the right place at the right time,Ē says John Price of his 20-year-plus reign as commentator at Santa Pod Raceway. ďBrian Taylor stepped down from the job in 1981, and I slotted in soon after.Ē
Nowadays, anyone who regularly visits Santa Pod will instantly recognise the forthright, knowledgeable commentary, combined with the friendly tone of Johnís voice, as it comes over the PA system. And itís not just on the drag racing scene where heís left his mark either, as John has commentated at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, and regularly MCs at American car and hot rod shows throughout the UK. In short, thereís no doubt John has been instrumental in helping to significantly raise the profile of British drag racing. After a couple of abortive attempts, DRC Review tracked him down in order to find out how he became involved with the sport.
Voiceovers are another speciality and here John is laying down a track in his local studio
How did you get involved with drag racing?
It was down to a friend, Nick Shanley, who most rodding enthusiasts will recall is a very active member of the NASC. In the í60s, I was a disc jockey and Nick got me involved as the resident DJ with the local hot rod show organised by the North Kent Roadsters. The first event I did was at Footscray Meadows, near Sidcup, in1977. After that, I worked at the NASC Nationals as DJ for a number of years. The event got bigger and bigger, and one year I met a promoter called Ron Clarke, who was involved with the major rod and custom shows in the UK. He took me under his wing, and as a result, I got to work at shows he promoted in Birmingham and Bristol. I particularly remember attending the Bristol show and driving my Pontiac with a four-wheel trailer in tow that had all of my sound gear stashed inside. It wouldnít tow properly, so I had to cruise all the way down at a steady 40 mph Ė it was a long journey.
Later, I did another car show in Leeds, at an old bus garage. This wasnít a particularly successful event, but I got to meet some of the people who at the time were working with Santa Pod Raceway, including Dave Prior, husband of Roz Prior. He said he was involved with a custom car show in Milton Keynes, and asked if Iíd be MC. I agreed, and the event was opened by none other than Rod Hull and Emu, and closed by Stirling Moss. People started saying to me that I should try to be a commentator in drag racing, which is a sport I found really fascinating, so I spoke with Roy Phelps to see if there might be any opportunities. I found that Santa Podís commentator, Brian Taylor, had just left, so the timing was right. I went along there, but to be honest, I didnít know anything - it was really quite frightful. This is why now, if people ask me to commentate on events where I have little knowledge, Iím more likely to say no if Iím not sure. I donít want to take money under false pretences and look a complete arse in the bargain.
Despite not really knowing what I was doing, everyone was really friendly towards me and that helped a lot. I think they had suffered a little bit with commentary in the past where people maybe had their favourites, but I have always made it a point never to have favourites. You have to be so unbiased. I have made lots and lots of friends in drag racing and hot rodding, and I like to keep it that way. You can have a laugh and a joke, but you mustnít be biased.
John at home with part of his toy car collection in the background
What was the drag racing scene like when you arrived at Santa Pod?
I came along at the right and the wrong time. Drag racing was definitely on the decline back then. One of the first things I did, strangely enough, was to work for the BBC at Santa Pod. They turned up at a meeting with a new outside broadcast scanner van within the first few days of the start of my career there. They wanted to borrow a commentator, and Roy Phelps, bless him, volunteered me for the job, but UK drag racing was at such a low ebb at the time, I can remember running the jets against the funny cars. This was at the time when Andy Hurdle had the Scorpion jet dragster, and Chris Filsell came along with Bill Sherratt and the ex- Chadderton/Okazaki funny car. Bootsie (Herridge) had run it as Gladiator, and I think Pete Crane as Hustler, and then it came out as the Rainy City Warrior. Later, Bill was shoehorned into the old Prudhomme Army car and won the first ever Cannonball event in 1981. Bill has always been one of my heroes.
Thatís what it was like when I entered the sport. Of course, at the time, you didnít know just how bad it was. Only on reflection can you see how it had lost its way. Now that Keith Bartlett is in charge, things have really moved on. Heís the man who had the vision and is now taking us forward in drag racing.
I have always found that promoters are an acquired taste. If you do your work professionally, youíre generally fine, but occasionally you get your knuckles rapped. Overall, I get on well with Keith, and without him, I wouldnít like to think where UK drag racing would be right now. He came into the sport with a vision, things went wrong a couple of times, but now the scene is on a huge up. The FIA Finals last year were massive. I didnít go to the fireworks meeting, but Keith said it was one of the biggest one-day attendance events theyíd ever had. Suddenly, the sport is becoming much more appealing to the masses.
I think heís got his brand right and he markets the events very well, but he knows he still has a long way to go. I know he wants to make more and more improvements, and he has a great team of people around him to help do just that. Every year you go to Santa Pod the facility has been improved. Keith is always the first to say itís not what he wants just yet, but heís getting there. I hope to be involved with the sport for a good few years yet. I think Iíve been through the lean times, and probably because of that, I love it when the place is packed. Itís just wonderful. The atmosphere is great, and from where I stand, everyone is so close that itís like talking down a corridor to 20,000-plus spectators.
So where else do you commentate?
I still do the motorcycle shows, lots of US-related car shows and street rod events. Many years ago, I worked for Radio Luxemburg as a Roadshow DJ, and they got me involved with the Road Racing and Superbike Show in the mid-í80s, so thatís how the bike connection came about. Iíve worked on the bike scene now for 20 years, which is almost as long as Iíve been at Santa Pod Ė 25 years. Thatís longer than most people stay married! My wife, Deborah, is my manager. I donít promote myself, and all of my work comes from word of mouth.
Weíre excited about going up to Yorkshire at the end of February, when Debs, my daughter and I are guests of honour with the Pennine Drag Racing Club, and Iím doing a half-hour talk on drag racing.
Do you own an American car?
I have always loved American cars. When I was a kid, I started working in insurance in London, and one of my friends worked at an American car dealership in St Martins Lane. I think it was called something like Home and Colonial Motors. It was the only company bringing American cars into the UK at the time. All the stars Ė people like Cliff Richard, The Shadows and Danny Williams Ė used to go there for their cars. As a result, I got to be taken to work in a great selection of American cars, and that was my introduction to US metal.
In the í70s, I worked for a guy who had a Trans Am, and when I left I bought myself a bullnose Firebird. This was followed by a Chevy El Camino, a Chevy Blazer and a few others. When I met Debs, we purchased a í69 Mustang Fastback, but it was a rot box and fell to pieces. Since then, weíve been American car-free, although weíve got a lovely old Daimler V8 (the same shape as the Mk 2 Jaguar) in the garage. Itís even got a Hemi motor, which sounds just lovely. I still appreciate old American cars, which is why I like the Pro Mod class Ė itís great to see all those lovely old cars on the strip. British classic cars are great, too, and, of course, I really enjoy toy trains. When I want to chill out, I just escape to the sanctuary of my loft and play.
John in chill-out mode with his beloved train set
Did you ever have a hankering to go drag racing?
I did once, with Radio 1ís Simon Bates, when I was working with him. I had a í67/í68 Notchback Mustang, which we did up in Radio Luxemburg colours. Roy Phelps repainted his silver Trans Am in Radio 1 colours, and we would match race. That was the only time Iíve raced, and I think I got down the quarter mile in 14 seconds. That was quick enough. I have no desire to go any quicker Ė it doesnít appeal to me. I also love old aircraft, but I wouldnít want to get in one.
Do you have a favourite class in drag racing?
I love all of the drag racing classes Ė they all do it for me Ė and the bikes are terrific. The sport has come on in such leaps and bounds, and itís one of the best shows youíll ever see. You can get up close to the cars in the pits, and itís a great spectacle to watch. With Keith at the helm, Iím pretty certain it will eventually get the recognition it deserves in this country. Iím sure it will continue to grow, and Iíd love to see it make terrestrial television Ė imagine that.
Iím also very lucky to work with Graham Beckwith. The two of us are good mates, and I blame him for my collection of toy cars and model railways. His history is in amateur dramatics, but heís always been a drag racing nut, plus heís got this huge humorous streak, so when weíre working together, itís a pleasure not a pain.
What are your future ambitions?
To watch my daughter grow up, and to remain around drag racing long enough to see it make the big time. I always tell people they must go at least once to a drag race meeting Ė preferably one of the international meetings Ė as there simply isnít anything else to touch it.
Story: Andy Kirk & Graham Jones
Photos: Andy Kirk
John looks on ominously as leaves on the line bring the 10.40 from Bristol to a halt!