Some of you may recall my attempts to public verify my idiocy by almost wrecking a dragster. Incredibly, drag racing legend Frank Hawley managed to forgive me, and gave me another shot in one of his dragsters. I didn't destroy it, but I did lose a race. By being faster. I'll explain.
First, I should re-iterate that Frank Hawley, aside from being a drag racing legend, is a very forgiving man. After all, I did almost put one of his presumably very expensive dragsters into a pile of gravel. So, if you want some drag racing experience in an actual, open-wheel dragster, you should check out his school. He's worth a plug here, and also, fun fact, he was trained as an architect.
So, crammed and strapped once again into that long spear of a dragster, I made damn sure to pay attention and get off the throttle at the right moment. I'm happy to say I did, and managed all my runs without incident.
This is good, not just from a don't-kill-myself perspective, but also to try and get a better feel for drag racing. I still found it to be incredibly challenging in ways I never previously would have expected. It's still that unique combination of precision, timing, and raw power that doesn't really exist in any other sports until someone comes up with a speed chess/bear wrestling biathlon.
The mechanics of operating these detuned (think around 120 MPH) training dragsters isn't too difficult, though it is very different in almost every way from driving a normal car. What is difficult are a number of things: fighting your natural inclinations to lift as the speed increases dramatically, keeping your hands light on the little butterfly-shaped wheel while still feeling the track through it and making the almost unconscious and constant micro-corrections, and, most importantly, understanding the importance of staging, reaction times, and those first moments of the race.
As I already spoiled in the headline there, I lost my race. By 0.002 seconds. And, even more maddening, I was faster through the trap and my overall elapsed time was lower. So, if my car was actually moving faster, and took less time to cover the quarter mile, how exactly is it that I lost?
Let's look at the little race-receipt there. I was in car 20, my opponent in car 50. Note that my 1/4 mile time was 10.656 compared to his 10.689, and I was going 125.26 MPH at the trap, while he was loping along at a leisurely 124.80 MPH.
Actually, the difference in distance between the cars crossing the finish could likely be measured in a few inches. Still, my car was faster, and completed the 1/4 mile first. But that doesn't matter. The reason I lost is in the row titled "R/T."
"R/T" means "reaction time," and mine was 0.214 seconds while the other driver's was 0.179. That's a difference of 0.035 seconds.
Now, I had almost caught up by the 60 foot mark (1.543 sec for him, 1.544 sec for me) and by 300 feet I was already faster (4.373 sec for me, vs. 4.377 for him). But that wasn't enough. This is because the winner of a drag race is determined by adding the reaction time to the elapsed time, and I simply didn't make up enough time on the strip to cover the full 0.035 seconds I was slower off the line.
Here's the race in full, looking from my car, to my unknown opponent, who never took off his face-hiding helmet, had a fake golden pinky, called himself "The Blank Racer," and turned out to secretly be my long-lost brother. True story!*
This is why drag racing is so challenging. There's skills at play here that are very different than driving, and they're as important. We were using the type of Christmas Tree — the standing array of lights — that lights a pair of lights, then immediately the full stack of three, indicating you should go. The difference in good and bad reaction time is so small that every little trick helps. Look at the middle light, so you can see the pre-go lights in your peripheral vision without moving your eyes from the lights that will soon set you free.
So, at the beginning of the race, you roll up, full of adrenalin and behind the wheel of a strange, powerful, touchy car and the first thing you have to do with it is carefully, carefully line its front wheels into a small box.
This is the staging area. First you break an electric-eye beam, and cause the pre-staging light to go on. Then you roll a bit more to break a second beam, indicating your car is in the right place, and you're staged. Where you 'stage' in this box — shallow or deep — can affect your final results, especially when matched with a close competitor. Staging too deep in the box shaves a precious few feet from your run, but puts you dangerously close to going past the line, and getting disqualified from the race.
Stage too shallow, and you may be handicapping your own start. Figuring out the exact right place to do this is tricky. And, of course, while you're doing that, you're getting ready to watch the lights and then slam on the gas and haul ass down that track. You're worked up, ready, nervous, and on sort of a hair trigger.
Those moments in the staging box as you watch the dark bulbs on the Christmas Tree are excellent proofs of Einstein's idea that time is relative. Because those moments take hours. You have to be sure your equipment is ready — visor down, car in the 1st gear after just popping it into 2nd moments ago in the burnout area, all controls in ready, comfortable reach — all while coiling your body and mind to be ready to leap into action when that light turns on.
It's some of the most minutely intense moments of any sport, and then when that light goes green, it all explodes into noise and speed in something like what I imagine Mechagodzilla's orgasms to be like. From the moment of the light, you're intensely focused on the road ahead, throttle to the floor, fighting your own road-driving instincts to let off the gas, and also keeping your senses open for when to finally let off and brake, which I proved is trickier than you'd think.
Technically, I'm still a drag racing loser, but I don't really care. I have so much respect for such a deceptively engaging and unusual sport, one that takes types of skills more unexpected and subtle than I'd ever have guessed.
And, any sport where the slower car has a chance of winning is always welcome in my book.
* Details of opponent may not be true.