Evan J. Smith
October 17, 2013

Getting your vehicle to accelerate quickly from a standing stop while applying massive horsepower can be tricky. In addition, the mental aspect of racing can make or break you, as you'll need intense focus to cut good lights and hit your shift points. Thankfully, drag racing is accessible. Virtually anyone with a driver's license can compete at the hundreds of tracks throughout North America (and the world), and with a little practice, you can be successful.

The major sanctioning bodies for drag racing are the NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) and IHRA (International Hot Rod Association), as most of the strips fall under their rules and guidelines. There are other sanctioning bodies that hold their own races, such as the FFW, NMRA, NMCA, ADRL, X-DRL, and others. The Fun Ford Weekend and NMRA are Ford-specific organizations. Details on any of them can be found online.

Whether you follow a series and run for a championship, or simply hit the local track to make time runs, unleashing the power on a track is not only thrilling, but a great way to enjoy your car in a safe environment. You won't be worried about tickets or other dangers found on the street.

In Part 1 we covered the basics, including vehicle preparation, mental preparation, burnout, staging, launching, and shifting. We gave you enough to get started. In this segment, we share tips to maximize horsepower and traction to gain a winning edge. We also take a look at MM&FF's newest associate editor, Kristian Grimsland, hitting the track with his mildly modded '98 Cobra.

Max Your Power

With today's advancements in nitrous, blowers, turbos, variable cams, and tunable EFI, Ford owner don't often struggle to find horsepower—but whether you have a stock 5.0 H.O. or a new GT500, you'll want your beast running strong.

To ensure peak performance, be sure the simple things are working right. Fresh plugs, fresh fluids, a clean air filter, and proper ignition timing can go a long way. As can good belts, tires, etc. Something as simple as loose shifter bolts can wreak havoc on your track outing. So periodically check your car if you race it often.

Additionally, you may want to have your Ford dyno tuned, as this will help you dial in max power, plus you'll see where your engine makes peak torque and horsepower (based on rpm), which will help you determine the best shift points and rear-end gearing. Your best performance will generally come when your engine is geared to be just under redline in the gear that is 1:1 (or closest to it) in the transmission.

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Max Your Traction

In drag racing, it's equally important to understand how your suspension and chassis work together so you can apply the power to the track. Unfortunately, there are no mail-order tunes for traction. To learn about suspension setup, and to practice your launch technique, you have to get your butt to the track and experience it.

The drag racing launch starts with the torque of the engine. As it is applied to the ring and pinion and the tires begin to turn, the suspension is slammed into action. Since every action has an opposite and equal reaction, when the tires are driven forward, force is applied to the rear housing which causes it to rotate opposite of the direction of the tires. Your rear trailing arm (also called control arms) are connected to the housing so force is applied to them as well. The lower arms are driven forward and upward, the upper arm (or arms) are pulled rearward.

Since the control arms are connected to the unibody (in a Mustang), the force is transferred to the chassis of the car. This force causes the weight transfer we so desire, which lifts the nose and helps to plant the rear. More torque (applied either by gear multiplication or pure engine torque) equals more force applied to the suspension links, and generally more weight transfer. Racers control this by altering the angle of the control arms and with shock dampening, and to a degree, spring rates.

In general, soft shock setting will let the nose rise quickly, but in the rear, it can cause spin if the tires rebound just after the initial hit of launch. If you car bites and then spins a few feet out, chances are you have the rear lower control arms at too severe of an angle and/or the shocks are too loose on rebound.

On Fox Mustangs and SN-95 models, I've found that dropping the attachment point of the rear lower arms is not necessary as it makes the rear react too quickly, leading to the spin described above. On S197s, the best traction seems to come with the rear bars dropped about 3⁄4 inch. Pinion angle should always be slightly negative, about -3 degrees, meaning the nose of the rear and the driveshaft are both pointing slightly downward.

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Buy the best tires you can afford. A racer friend once said, "Racing is expensive, so give yourself the best chance at winning." Too many times I've seen a racer complain about track conditions, and then state they are running two-year old tires that they bought used. The type (drag radials, radial slicks, or bias-ply slicks) will be determined by the class you and what fits your car or the setup. The current crop of drag radials are just plain awesome and can be used in most forms of drag racing. They can save you the trouble of having to bring a jack and swap tires trackside, which is a bonus.

To get the most of any setup, practice, take notes, and ask questions. Most experienced racers are willing to give up some secrets, so watch them run, pay attention, and take lots of notes.

Bracket Racing 101

While heads-up racing appeals to many, the cost of building a competitive car combined with the expense of actually racing it (including maintenance, travel, and so on) can be unrealistic. With that, bracket racing is a great alternative, as it takes virtually all of the same components of heads-up racing to be competitive, though it employs a breakout system to even the playing field.

To get started, you only need a good-running car (or truck). Whether you're running heads-up or bracket or open-comp racing, you'll still be doing a burnout, staging, and launching, but in bracket racing, you'll have the added element of trying to hit an established e.t. mark called a dial-in.

In heads-up racing, first to the finish wins, and that's it. It's fun if you are ahead or close, but if you don't have the power or you're late on the Tree, you're heading home. Since there is a dial-in, handicap start, and a breakout system, cars of different performance levels can race equally. Winning falls on driver skill combined with vehicle prep. Since we covered reaction time in Part 1, we'll focus on bracket racing/open-comp techniques to make you competitive.

Successful racers prepare for each race—they don't just head to the line with no information. Assuming you're consistent on the Tree and you have a car that is predictable, you'll want to take in a few other variables.

Here are some tips. Take notice of the weather conditions: wind (speed and direction), temperature, barometric pressure, humidity and water vapor. Summit Racing Products (and a few others) sell specialized equipment for gathering weather data for drag racers. These factors affect the performance of your engine, and this is important since you'll be attempting to predict your elapsed time. By charting weather and performance, you can, over time, form a database and establish trends, which will improve you ability to select a winning dial-in.

This leads me to my next tip. Always dial a number you know you can run and always check your dial-in on the scoreboard before staging. Being overly optimistic on your dial is a major no-no, and once you stage, you've accepted the dial, so if it's wrong—which it most certainly can be—then you are out of luck. Frankly, you can always hit the brake to slow down, but if you can't run your aggressive dial-in, you're screwed.

"Holding" elapsed time in your dial-in by dialing a soft number is common practice, but know that if all goes well, you will break out, so it's important to be able to trim elapsed time to get a dead-on run if needed. Generally, racers may hold 0.01-0.04 depending on the circumstances.

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In a perfect world, you want to cross the finish line first by the smallest margin. This will give you the best shot at not breaking out. If you win by too large a margin, your chances of breaking out increase. Assuming you are ahead as you near the stripe, practice tightening the gap between you and your competitor by either blipping the throttle or dragging the brake.

In a typical 11-second car, winning by a margin of 0.055 is about a half a car length, which is considered too much by top racers. Winning by 0.020 to 0.030 is acceptable, and the best racers can win by just a wheel, almost making it a dead heat. Championship NHRA racer Sal Biondo once told me, "If you don't give one back every once in a while [meaning you try to make it so tight that your opponent gets to the stripe first], you're not making it close enough."

Let's change the scenario and assume you are chasing down your opponent—you determine that you will not catch him. What do you do? In this instance, your only hope is that he will break out. The proper technique is to keep on the gas and then cut him loose at the last second, letting him cross first. However, you want to brake to prevent a breakout on your part—the theory being you give him as little room as possible to brake and prevent his own breakout.

One of the worst ways to lose is to follow someone through when you know you're not going to cross first. This hurts, especially bad in a double-breakout (which is where both drivers break out), and that's because you can often prevent breaking out by hitting the brake.

An equally amateur move is to not look back and trim elapsed time when you're leading by a huge margin. I've seen the leading driver never turns his (or her) head and just power through the finish line, then break out when the opponent is broken on the starting line. With that, you should begin trimming elapsed time between the 1,000-foot mark and the first set of finish line markings—not once you've entered the speed trap. By then you have too much momentum and it will be too late.

Becoming a successful racer doesn't happen overnight, but the learning process sure is fun. You'll find a host of ways to lose, but eventually it will click, you'll go a few rounds, and before you know it, you'll be the one standing in the winner's circle with the cash and trophy.

The Grim Racer

Being the new guy on team MM&FF, I've worked hard to prove I can keep up with the crew. Visiting Bradenton on a Thursday night was my first chance to show that I had, in my opinion, decent driving skills. But like everyone new to the drag scene, there's always room for improvement.

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Editor Smith encouraged me to line up my '98 Cobra in the staging lanes and see what I could do. I've been to the track several times before, but this was the first time I would be critiqued. Previously I learned by trial and error.

I rolled through the waterbox and did a smoky burnout. I staged, set my rpm to 3,100, and waited for the Tree. I've never practiced power-shifting, so I stuck to what I knew—speed-shifting. On my first run, I bested a 13.49 at 105 mph, cutting a 2.0 60-foot time. I thought this was a respectable time, but after a few more passes, a 13.2-at-106-mph timeslip made its way into my hands.

Having watched my earlier runs, Smith had two pieces of advice, (1) stage shallow, and (2) raise my rpm to 4,000. According to Smith, I was launching "nice and smooth, with seemingly good feel and control," but I wasn't getting into my powerband quick enough. With my tire pressure set to 15 psi, I raised the rpm, launched, and hooked, peddling my way to the finish line.

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The timeslip showed a 13.071 at 106 mph, with a 1.86 60-foot. I shed 0.2 off my previous best just off the first run. Being able to stick with my routine but adjust one thing at a time proved to help. Unfortunately, as the evening progressed, the track conditions went away and I wasn't able to break the 12s. But you can bet I will be going back to fine-tune my driving.

Though I had previous experience racing, Smith's observation's showed me what I physically could not see. Technique and experience are two key characteristics to racing that should not be overlooked, and Smith clearly demonstrated that to me.

Kristian's Runs

1. 13.492 at 105.00 (1.98 60-foot), launched at 3,100 rpm
2. 13.342 at 106.58 (2.07 60-foot) launched at 2,900 rpm
3. 13.316 at 108.29 (1.91 60-foot), grinded Second, launched 3,200 rpm
4. 13.112 at 106.49 (1.85 60-foot), launched 3,200 rpm
5. 13.071 at 106.16 (1.88 60-foot), launched at 4,100 rpm