We know the thought of heading out to a drag strip for the first time can be both daunting and intimidating. This past weekend we did just that when we were invited to the second annual Ford Racing Invitational to try our hand at the straight-line game of drag racing. Having always focused more on the curves and less on the straights, this was your author's first time in front of a Christmas tree. As such, we figured it might be the perfect time to show you the ins and outs of running a car down the quarter-mile. Hey, we came in third place, so we guess we can't be too shabby at it.
For starters — unless you're running evenly-matched top fuel dragsters against each other what you'll do down at your local drag strip isn't actually "drag racing." It's really called "bracket racing" which is a form of drag racing that allows for a handicap between predicted speed of the two cars running side-by-sde. Basically, it means that even if you're running your mom's Honda Odyssey on the strip, you can still win running next to a Ford Mustang GT because of a premium placed on consistency of performance of the driver and car rather than on raw speed. With that said, here's the official "How To"
Step 1: Pay Up
Drag racing ain't free. The first step, once you've arrived at the dragway, is to pay the folks in charge. Different classes carry different charges, so it's a good idea to call ahead and find out how much you'll be paying. Once you've paid for entry and track fees, proceed to the pits
Step 2: Park and Unload
Pit areas vary wildly. You'll find everything from beautifully laid concrete marked with trailer lanes to muddy grass perfect for sinking into. If you've brought your drag toy in a trailer or plan on working on your car there, it makes a lot of sense to show up early and get a prime piece of real estate — it can make the difference between a comfy dry weekend and a messy pain in the ass. if you've just driven in, take all your junk out of the car and give it a once over. Make sure it meets all the safety requirements of the class you're running in and give it a little clean-up.
Step 3: Inspection
Now it's time to take your car over to the inspection booth. These guys are here to make sure the car you brought won't pose a danger to either you or the rest of the race field. They'll go through your ride with a fine-toothed comb and point out things sub-par, or they'll give you the thumbs-up. When your car has passed, you'll get a color-coded inspection sticker proving you're safe to run. Another thing they'll do is have you fill out your race card. The race card is where you declare the class you'll be running in, your personal info, details on the car, and whatever other details you think the commentator in-booth might like to know about when adding "color to the strip."
Step 4: Wait
After you have your car all approved and registered, return to the pit area and wait. It takes a while for the rest of your competitors to make it through the process you just did. The track crew also has to prepare the surface for maximum stickiness, and, in general, everybody just has to get up and get going. So while you wait, put your number on the car, maybe do a little decorating, take a nap, do a little tuning on your car, check out the competition, have some track food, or just hang out and enjoy the breeze. But keep your ear listening out for your class, because there's nothing worse than hearing an announcement of your license plate and that your car's being towed. That's not the kind of dragging you're here for.
Step 5: Practice.
When the time is right (usually a scheduled time), the track will open for practice. This is an open competition lineup where you pull through the staging lanes and give your rig a try. Drag racing is a lot trickier than you might think. It's easy to mash the gas and go quick on the street, but when the clock is running, it's a lot more technical, so practice makes perfect. In fact, let's go to video:
This was my third run, so I'd gotten the jitters of the first time down the track through and I was starting to learn how to react and launch. As you can see, you get slotted in lanes. Each lane is numbered and corresponds to a staging path. When you enter the staging area, a track official will ask your class and point you into the lane. This track has three staging lanes, and each lane is divided into two sides. There's a lane 1L and 1R, 2L and 2R, etc., for lane one, left side, lane one, right side, and so on. As cars ahead of you move up, you pull forward. When the track official waves you forward along with your running buddy, you have to make a choice: to burnout or not to burnout.
Ahead of the starting line there's a concrete pad called the "water box." Track hands hose it down with water to make burnouts fun and easy. The purpose of the burnout is to clean the crud off your tires and heat 'em up for maximum stickiness. A standing burnout doesn't make much sense if you're running street tires, so either drive around the box to avoid wet tires, or just do a peel out to get the funk off.
Next, you pull up to the line. Make sure your helmet is strapped on tight, traction control is off, and the windows are up. As you advance, there are two sets of staging lights — called by some the "Christmas tree" — your tires need to be between them before the Christmas tree lights will start. Advance the car 'till the first set of lights goes on, then slowly move forward until the second set lights up — then carefully inch forward until the second set turns back off. A this point you've found the front of the lights, and you need to back up just enough to turn that second set on again. Now wait for your opponent to do the same.
When you're both set to go, make sure your car is in the forward gear of your liking. Hold the engine at optimum RPM and pay attention to the Christmas tree. Depending on your class, the tree works differently. For bracket racing, they use a "five hundred tree" or a set of lights that takes half a second to go from yellow to green. For this tree, it's recommended to launch as the final yellow light goes off in order to achieve a decent reaction time. If you jump the gun, you "foul," and your run, no matter how good, doesn't count for squat.
So the lights go and you're off. In a manual tranny car, carefully watch the tachometer and know where your shift points and engine cutoff are at. Shift as quickly and accurately as possible. If you're driving an automatic, just mash the gas and point the car in the right direction.
In this run, I managed a 0.67 s reaction time, which isn't great, but far better than the 1.01 s. the other guy got. And, due to the magical vaugeness of the Hurst short-throw shifter on this car, I managed to hit second gear instead of fourth — not what you want when shifting at almost a hundred miles an hour. Nonetheless, despite my supercharged GT being at a 140 HP disadvantage to the GT500 car and me stinking up the shift, I only lost by 0.8012 seconds with a 14.29 time. This is why it's called practice.
After you've crossed the finish line and are all excited, don't forget to slow down. You've got to make the turn off the track and go to pick up your time slip. This will tell you what just happened so you can critique your performance, think about ways you can improve and have bragging rights back at the pits.
Step 6: Qualifying
Like above — do what you just did in practice, but do it better because this time it counts. In qualifying, your times are used to slot you in your class brackets — when bracket racing, the important part isn't speed, it's consistency. If you can run 13.9 all day every day, you'll do very well in your class. Why? Because bracket racing uses offset timing on the lights to equalize fast cars against slower ones. Speedy cars will be delayed at the line and have to catch up and pass to win.
Step 7: Mark Your Dial-In Time
Dial-in time is that great equalizing figure we just talked about. After you've made a couple runs, you should get an idea of how fast you go. This time gets written on your windows so the tower workers can read them and put them in the timing computer. In this way, the race is offset on the fly. Depending on the class, you may or may not be able to change your number as you go. The important thing about your dial-in time is not to go faster than that time — otherwise you "break out." The break-out exists to prevent guys from saying they're slower than they are and effectively cheating to victory. Now is it becoming clearer why consistency is all-important?
Step 8: Have fun!
Now sit back and relax while listening for the track announcer to call your class. As you're called, proceed to the staging lanes and the track workers will assign you a lane and your opponent will line up next to you. When you're at the line just remember the lessons from earlier in the day and be careful to race against yourself, not the guy in the other lane. That's a great way to lose your concentration and mess up.
Here's a run from the first round of our bracket, where everything clicked and I won against a Shelby GT. The other fellow wrote up a dial-in time substantially lower than mine and couldn't quite make up the ground. A little longer track and he would have had me. But how fast was I? Pretty decent with a 0.31 s reaction time (which doesn't matter in bracket racing — only the time from light-to-light counts) and 13.95 second quarter-mile at 100 MPH. Far from my best run though.
So there you have it folks. How to drag race. We found out although it's still easier than running 'round the windy stuff, it's a lot more difficult than just pointing the car down a track and hitting the gas. We recommend checking out some of the events in your area, if not to race, then at least as a spectator.