Sir William Lyons Award 2008, Article 1: Interview

14 07 2009
Brian driving Desperate Dan in the 80s (source unknown)

Brian driving Desperate Dan in the 80s (source unknown)

Below is my first article for the 2008 Guild of Motoring Writers’ Sir William Lyons Award. The brief was to interview someone involved in the motorsport or motoring industry. I chose Brian Armistead, a local farmer who’s also an international motorsport champion (conveniently, he’s also a relative).

He reaches a top speed of 40mph, his races last ten seconds, but 54-year-old Brian Armistead, a humble farmer from Lancashire, is a national and international motor sport champion with over 300 trophies to his name. Brian is a tractor puller, the driver of ‘Desperate Dan’.

Sat back on an old grubby chair in “the lads’ mess, as it were”, Brian, who does resemble the Desperate Dan character, cheerfully sips his coffee. “So, what d’you want to know”, asks Brian. I suggest he starts at the beginning. “It all began when I was workin’ for a lad called Tom Loftus…We started building sleds ‘n’ it’s gone on from there really.”

After building a handful of tractors, the Desperate Dan trilogy began. “Ran the first Desperate Dan which had a Griffon V12, 37 litres, 3 cylinders, for two years.” He means three point seven litres, yes? “No!”, he chuckles, “37 litres!”

The first Desperate Dan was followed by a tractor that ran on methanol and which Brian and his team turbocharged. This was followed by the third and most famous Desperate Dan. “A mate in the States was sellin’ his called Dollar Devil.” This has four 8.8 litre Cheverolet engines, producing a total of around 6400bhp. In the 4.5tonne class, the team adds an 8.8 litre Arias Cheverolet V8, supplying Desperate Dan with an additional 2000bhp. Top speed? “Wheels do 150mph on track.”

But, there’s more to a pull than Brian putting his foot down. “A lot of it’s to do with these guys…lots of preparation…altering various things before the pull – tyre pressures, boost pressures, balance.” Brian is clearly unselfish in the team’s success. Indeed, when I arrived at the farm, I found a shed with two tractors in, Desperate Dan and Little Dan (Brian’s son’s tractor), surrounded by four blokes ready to work. An additional four or five committed helpers are scattered about the surrounding countryside.

After all the preparation by the committed team, on race day the pressure falls to Brian: “The clutches are centrifugal, lock in automatically…you give it it at the right time! Feed it in so the clutch locks in, as it’s biting you give it more revs. It’s got independent brakes – that’s the steering. So if you were going one way you brake the opposite wheel ’cause if you go over the white line the job’s nowt.”

Considering all the work and effort, I’m surprised when Brian says: “Doesn’t pay…extension of the business, whatever you like to call it. Engines are £30,000 each, and we build ’em all up ourselves. Get parts from the States.” Parts aren’t the only cost. Desperate Dan isn’t too frugal with fuel, “12 gallons of alcohol for 10 seconds.”

I ask Brian, why do it? “Must ‘av the bug. Get a buzz…buzz is unreal…the speed ‘n’ the power. Got to treat it with respect.” When I ask, “What’s it like?”, I get an eloquent and philosophical response. “It’s like a swarm o’ bees up yer arse!”




2 responses

14 07 2009

This is a really interesting interview… and I can’t really say I’m a fan of motor sports! It’s not too long but you really get a sense of what this guy is like.

16 09 2009
Joe Jeffries

Great articles, Peter. I’ve just sent off my entries, fingers and toes now crossed to the point of premature arthritis. It’d be interesting to read what you’ve been up to since winning the award 🙂

All the best,


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