Mark Walton on the supercar power wars, CAR+ February 2016

Published: 20 January 2016

► Bugatti announces Chiron will have 1500bhp
► When will the supercar power battle end?
► Vanishing Point set precedent in 1984 

Fifteen hundred horsepower!? The recently announced Chiron, Bugatti’s Veyron replacement, will have 1500 metric PS apparently (or 1479.28994082840237 British bhp – I can see why they went with the PS figure). Really? Is that necessary? It begs the question – again, the same question we asked when the McLaren F1 came out, then the Veyron, the P1 and the LaFerrari and the Koenigsegg One:1 etc etc etc – where’s it going to end? Two thousand horsepower? Three thousand? 

I’ll tell you where it’ll end: at the Vanishing Point. Who remembers ‘Slam’n Sammy’ Miller and his famous rocket dragster of the 1970s and ’80s? He was a hero of mine back in my teenage years, every since I discovered he strapped himself into his car (called Vanishing Point, please keep up) then pressed a button to release the rocket fuel and passed out, because of the brutal G-force. He would wake up after the parachutes had deployed, a quarter of a mile down the road. We told stories at school, about how his nose and ears bled every time he drove the car. 

I don’t know whether any of this is true – back then, ‘Slam’n Sammy’ and his Chevy Vega-based rocket car were as much a myth as they were the science of burning military-grade hydrogen peroxide fuel. You could have told me Miller’s rocket was stolen from an experimental Soviet space shuttle, found abandoned on the dark side of the moon, I would have lapped it up. 

There’s evidence that he did pass out: in Cole Coonce’s 2002 book Infinity Over Zero, Miller’s friend and fellow drag racer Brent Fanning is quoted saying, ‘He [Miller] had the brake handle rigged with a brass knuckle type grip (it was a push brake), so his hand would stay on the brake should he black out when the car ran out of fuel, which it had been calculated to do at just past the 1/8th mile. Then the deceleration would move his arm and brake handle forward, applying the brake… thus slowing the car until he regained consciousness.’

What a way to earn a living. 

Myth or not, what is absolutely beyond dispute is that Sammy Miller and Vanishing Point set the fastest quarter-mile time ever recorded on a drag strip, anywhere on earth. In 1984 he did a quarter mile – accelerating from 0-386mph – in just 3.58 seconds. The 0-60 time has been calculated at 0.16 of a second. So Bugatti has a way to go yet.

What’s remarkable is that Miller wasn’t in California or some Texas sports arena – he set that record here in the UK, at a miserable grey airfield near the village of Podington, about 15 miles out of Bedford. Also known as Santa Pod, Britain’s premier drag-racing venue since 1966.

And you can still watch it on YouTube. Not sure if it’s the period video quality or Podington itself that’s so grainy, but if you search for ‘Sammy Miller 1984’ you can clearly see Miller leave the startline like an elastic band flicked across a room. I can’t find any footage of him being lifted from the car at the end of the runway, eyes half closed and covered in blood. If any reader was there in the 1980s and can confirm the myth, please write in. If none of this is true, just keep it to yourself.

Sadly, Miller died in 2002. When he wasn’t driving a dragster, he ran an oil firm called Applied Force. He was killed in an oil-field explosion in West Texas, aged 57. Shame – if he was still alive today he’d probably be a special guest at the Festival of Speed, blowing all the windows out of Goodwood House as he celebrated 40 years in the record-breaking business (Miller’s first rocket car – the first rocket-powered Funny Car in the world – was called the ‘Spirit of ’76’). (He drove it in 1976. Oh please keep up.) 

Anyway, all of this came to mind when I heard about the 1500bhp Chiron. Maybe in a few years Bugatti will develop a partially autonomous car, which takes control once the driver’s passed out during a 0-60mph acceleration? Three thousand, 4000bhp… where will it all end? It was estimated that Vanishing Point had 20,000bhp. But maybe that was a myth too.

By Mark Walton

Contributing editor, humorist, incurable enthusiast