Like many history (and car) geeks I spend my time trawling the internet looking for original drag racing and hot rod photos. There’s nothing quite like the nostalgia conjured up looking back on evidence of the glory days of our hobby. Imagine my surprise, then, when I stumbled upon an advert for ‘Screamin’ Alley Raceway’. The old school paper cutting advertised a ‘run what ya brung’ event, with a leggy bikini-clad brunette draped over a dragster with the name of the raceway emblazoned on the side.
My immediate thoughts were “what a great advert”; I love anything to do with girls and cars. Then I looked again and saw the location: ‘Manston nr. Ramsgate’. I thought surely this must be an advert from the states, there’s no way there was a drag strip with such an American sounding name on an old RAF base in Kent. Being from Kent originally, around 50 minutes from RAF Manston, my curiosity was piqued right away.
At the time, I went on a small research mission to find out more about this drag strip that had seemingly been lost in the annals of time. No one in knew had ever mentioned this raceway to me, but surely people had to have experienced it. There were barely any photos online, and even less written information to be found. I joined a Facebook group called ‘Bring Back Screamin’ Alley – Manston, Kent’ however this had seemingly been forgotten too, with the last post dating from 2016 and prior to that only a handful of posts beginning in 2014.
I then made some enquiries on the ‘UK & European drag racing photos group’, and to my surprise I received some great comments from people who raced and spectated there and shared some fond memories with me of an unprepped, short, thin drag strip with ditched either side and a short runoff round a bend. I was also referred to the group ‘UK Drag & Sprint Strips that Time Forgot’ (wonderful group by the way) which had a post by Jerry Cookson containing a large amount of very useful information.
Here’s what I discovered about Screamin’ Alley Raceway.
For those who aren’t familiar with the Isle of Thanet, it’s a peninsula in East Kent that encompasses the coastal towns of Ramsgate, Margate and Broadstairs among others. Its close proximity to the English Channel meant that in 1915-16, early aircraft began using the open and flat farmlands at Manston as a site for emergency landings. Soon the Admiralty aerodrome was established on the site.
The RAF was formed in 1918, and Manston became an RAF airbase. Because of this, the site was unfortunately heavily bombed throughout the Battle of Britain, and was littered with unexploded bombs. The base has historical prominence as being used by Barnes Wallis to test his innovative bouncing bombs at nearby Reculver beach in preparation for the famous Dambusters Raid.
RAF Manston was used once again during the Cold War by the AUSF as a strategic Air Command base for its bomber, fighter and fighter-bomber units in the 60s. Like many other UK airfields, the presence of US military likely contributed to the prominence of drag racing and hot rodding in the UK and, in the case of some other airbases, the creation of drag strips.
From the 1960s, after the withdrawal of the USAF, Manston became a joint civilian and RAF airport.
Screamin’ Alley Raceway 1985-86
So the story goes, Screamin’ Alley was the genius of a local chap called John Walford. H approached the farmer who wowned the piece of land in question at Manston and a deal was struck for a small race strip to be configured on ‘the loop’: an area on the Western end of the runway on the North side. To begin with, the strip was 1000ft long, but this eventually was reconfigured to an 1/8th mile strip. Some people I spoke to recall that it was a narrow stretch of tarmac that was ever-so-slightly downhill, with long ditches either side. The purpose of the ditches was in order to protect the spectators from any wayward vehicles, and the earth from them was piled up in order to form a makeshift viewing platform.
The safety features were limited, and the shutoff area was round a bend. Spencer Reynolds, who raced his 302ci powered MK2 Ford Zephyr at the track, remembered that if you misjudged the runoff then you’d end up in a cabbage field! To add the possibility of ending up with a car full of cabbage, Scott Smith, who raced both a ’65 fastback Mustang and ’73 Cuda at Screamin’ Alley, recalled that there was a dip just after the finish line too where you had to keep your foot in it for ‘as long as you dared’ else you’d end up out of shape. Not ideal, however there’s something about a rough and ready strip that many drag racers and fans alike are so fond of.
The first RWYB meet was held in March 1985 where £3000 was taken at the gate; adjusted for inflation that’s around £9,149 in today’s money so this turned out to be an incredibly popular event! No doubt for many locals this was something they’d never seen before, or they’d heard about the action going on at the likes of Santa Pod, Long Marston (Shakey) and New York Dragway (also known as York York or Melbourne Raceway) however hadn’t made the trip to spectate or compete thus far. This new local strip must’ve been incredibly exciting, and undoubtedly an introduction to the modified car scene for many youngsters.
When the farmer caught wind of how much money was coming in from these events, he wanted a bigger share of the profits. John Walford sold the event to new owners for about £10,000 (around £30,000 today; I wouldn’t grumble at that). The new owners knew little about drag racing and the organisation of such events, so to begin with the meetings were slightly disorganised.
In 1986, it was announced that the NDRC (National Drag Racing Club) were to become involved with Screamin’ Alley, however it is unknown to what extent they were involved.
In the short time that Screamin’ Alley was established, it proved very popular for both drivers and spectators. The meetings were mostly in RWYB format, however there was also bracket racing on occasion. oMst entries were seemingly street/strip cars and bikes, likely due to the nature of the track and limited facilities, however there were some big guns that were known to have made passes. Dennis Chereden’s Mischief AA/FD would do demo runs there. One crew member, Duncan Harris, told me how he was guiding Chereden back for the launch when the main fuel hose broke at the barrel valve. Chereden didn’t want to shut the motor off as the hose was lashing enough fuel at the injector to keep it running, so as Duncan reached for the fuel pump he got a shower of nitro.
Another car that was a regular fixture was Philip Mannakee’s rail, as seen on the adverts for the strip. Philip moved down from London and lived less than a mile away from Manston (living the dream!). When the track opened in 1985, he was sponsored by the mobile home park where he lived and was a regular in the winner’s circle at the events he attended with his car: a dragster built by Philip powered by a tuned Citroen GS 1220cc motor running on methanol (later bought by Philip Colliver). Due to his success, he was asked if they could use his dragster for promotion, so it was painted with ‘sponsored by Screamin’ Alley Raceway’ and was exhibited at carnivals and shows, as well as being the poster star for the track.
The Track’s Demise
Despite its apparent success, the track was shut in 1986, and with the building of a new terminal in 1989 the site became known as Kent International Airport. This then shut in 1999, and now houses a museum with exhibits on military and civilian aviation.
There were, at one stage, hushed rumours of the site being developed for houses, however it has been retained as an airfield all this time due to having one of the longest runways in the country; it is of strategic and military importance in case of emergencies. It was announced last year that RAF Manston has now got the greenlight to become an international air freight hub and passenger airport.
They say that all good things come to an end, such is the case with Screamin’ Alley Raceway. For around 2 years, the strip was Kent’s answer to the past time we love so much: drag racing. Apparently, a part of the raceway is still there at Manston, so who knows, maybe one day there will be 11s laid on the tarmac again. It’s a shame that in the UK so many strips have come and gone, but we are thankful that we shave some left to race at nowadays.
Written by Niamh Smith
Photo credits belong to owners, credited where known