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PEGASUS - Mythical horsepower redefined!

10.1.05. Here at DRC Review, one area that has been neglected in our coverage of Drag Racing has been the contribution of Motor Cycles to the UK scene.  In an effort to correct this we are featuring in our nostalgic section this month, one of the best known UK drag bikes of the Sixties and Seventies - PEGASUS!

As Keith Lee, one of the former commentators at Santa Pod Raceway and a Drag Racing journalist put it, “Many bikes and riders have come and gone over the years – but few built up a reputation to match that of the bikes raced under the name of PEGASUS. Who can forget those smoky duels with Dennis 'Stormin' Norman in the late 60’s & early 70’s and later the titanic battles with John Hobbs on 'Olympus'? Smoke-engulfing quarters were the order of the day, and the fans loved it. With its blend of quality engineering and good looks, PEGASUS was really the ultimate ‘show and go’ machine and a crowd favourite.”

But before we get carried away with drag racing nostalgia we should remind ourselves how it all started. Derek Chinn, Mick Butler and Ian Messenger were friends who shared a passion for motor cycles in the “Mods & Rockers” era of 1960’s Britain. It was about that time when Santa Pod had just opened its gates to the unsuspecting public. Our three intrepid heroes were instantly hooked after seeing EJ Potter “The Michigan Madman” performing one of his truly awesome runs aboard his Chevy Corvette powered motorcycle – literally bouncing from one guardrail to the other!   The die was cast - the guys knew this was their destiny, (but hopefully without the guardrail contact!)

Their initial entry into the rarefied world of drag racing was powered by a 30 year old 600cc single cylinder Panther “Sloper” engine, usually employed in the sedate field of motorcycle & sidecar combinations. Although not challenging the established ‘stars’ of the day, “Long Rod” as it was christened, did muster a 13sec quarter – faster at the time than an E-Type Jaguar!  Thus earning itself the title of the “Fastest Panther in the World”

This experience focused their minds; it was time to get serious. They sold their beloved road bikes, pooled their resources and “Team Pegasus” was born. The fact that Derek was employed as an apprentice at the Cranfield College of Aeronautics had the added bonus that certain other resources could be ‘diverted’ to the new project. In affect, the British Government became the lads first sponsor - albeit unknowingly!!

Competing at Zandvoort, Holland to a packed house in 1969 with Derek aboard

Initially a normally aspirated 998cc V-twin Vincent engine was chosen, but it soon became apparent that to make ‘real’ horsepower you needed a blower. Inspired by the likes of George Brown, John Lloyd & Ian Ashwell, in 1969 the team debuted their first supercharged machine, again entrusting the V-twin Vincent engine for power and housed in a tubular frame. Later adding such innovations as an exterior flywheel to aid the inertia of a single speed - tyre-smoking launch of the time. Racing in Top Fuel Bike (or Top Bike as it was then known) was fiercely competitive with any number of riders able to qualify for the eight bike field. But eventually PEGASUS proved itself, recording 9.83 sec at about 150mph for the standing quarter. This at that time was well below the officially recognised world record for the distance. But a world record was a goal that was to cruelly elude them during the team’s existence. Every time the annual speed binge at Elvington came around they were beset with mechanical woes. By the end of 1971 they had won the British Drag Racing & Hot Rod  Association and National Drag Racing Club Championships, successfully competed in Holland and became the first Top Fuel bike, along with Dennis Norman, to match-race in front of widely enthusiastic Swedish fans. As a consequence of their endeavours, a sponsorship deal was announced with John Woolfe Racing, the Bedford parts supplier.

Ian at SPR in 1970.  On this run PEGASUS was credited with a 164mph top speed - the fastest time in Europe, but it turned out that the front wheel had lifted through the top end lights, giving a false speed!  

However in 1970, another memorable moment arose when they were invited by NHRA to compete in the US Nationals at Indianapolis. Again along with Dennis Norman, this was a “First” for a British Team to compete at an NHRA national event. Unfortunately this adventure did not have a fairy tale ending. The bikes arrived two days late for qualifying, which left precious little time to dial-in a set-up for such unusual (for them) conditions. The Teams had to be content to receive the “Long Distance” award on the Indianapolis start line. Not the outcome they hoped for, and with their dreams shattered they headed back to the UK. The award was later presented to Bob Phelps (owner of SPR at the time) in recognition for his financial assistance in making the trip possible.

Receiving the Long distance Award at the 1970 US Nationals.  Dennis Norman accepts the award from NHRA Vice President Steve Gibbs

Derek using up another slick at Santa Pod Raceway in 1971 while taking the BDR & HRA Championship

Original team member Mick Butler winning the NDRC Championship at Blackbushe in 1971 - a great shot from Alan Holland-Avery

To see some old archived footage of Ian racing Pegasus in 1969 - CLICK HERE
(2.00mb download)

By 1972 with Derek’s engineering expertise, the trusty Vincent engine had been stroked & bored out to 1500cc. This was motivated by seeing the large capacity Harleys on their trip to the Indy Nationals. However, ultimately this proved unsuccessful as the rest of the machine was beginning to show its age and the decision was made to sell the bike and concentrate on building a “modern” replacement.

At the same time Mick Butler decided, understandably, he wanted his independence. As the three members of the team were taking turns to ride, it would be in everyone’s interest if he left Derek and Ian to carry on with Team Pegasus while he pursued his own ventures.

Unfortunately in 1972, realty bit with a vengeance as it soon became apparent that Derek & Ian lacked the funds to build another bike, especially considering the new speed equipment that was becoming commercially available for drag bikes. They spent the year building engines for other people to help fund construction of a new bike. In a strange twist of fate they were nearly persuaded by a certain Roy Phelps (co-owner of SPR) with large financial inducements, to abandon competition and construct and run a demonstration bike using a Milodon V8 engine from a Funny Car – ala “The Michigan Madman”!

Sanity prevailed (well almost) with Derek and Ian encouraged by the achievements of TC Christenson’s “Hogslayer” double engined Norton in the ‘States. It was decided to use two 750cc Norton engines - especially as the factory was still producing motorcycles - each with its own blower. As the project was gaining momentum the reduced Team Pegasus had a major breakthrough in the sponsorship department with EMAP’s “Bike Magazine” coming in as primary backer, which in turn brought them to the attention of the Norton factory. The offshoot of all this was that the engines used were 828cc units, and not the planned (discontinued) 750cc units. All this was possible because of the driving force of Bike Magazines well respected editor of the time, Mike Nicks.

Derek competing at Santa Pod with the first double Norton in the original 'Bike' magazine livery

To be continued.......

Story: Elliot Jacobs
Photos: Ian Messenger

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