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Learning Drag Racing Basics - The Driver Mod
Part 1: Learning the basics of drag racing can make you lightning quick.
Fact: drag racing is addictive.
The rush of acceleration and challenge of driving fast keeps us searching for low e.t.'s and round wins. If you're new to the sport, you will learn the scoreboard doesn't lie, and finding a lower e.t. is not always easy.
Often, racers are left wondering: What will my car run? Is there a quicker e.t. left in there? The answer is an astounding yes—you can run quicker. Actually the challenge of running quicker is part of the fun. Successful racers are forever fine-tuning; rookie racers must start with the basics.
Reaching your goal will take an understanding of your vehicle and its mods, track and weather conditions, combined with driver talent. You'll need a keen eye to read the track, and skill to launch hard and make quick and precise shifts. Knowing a bit about tires, suspension, and the track's timing system won't hurt either.
I learned the importance of these variables long before I was a magazine editor. Actually, I was a cash-poor student craving low elapsed times. My '87 5.0 LX five-speed Mustang was my daily driver/college commuter so I couldn't afford to break it. This meant no sticky tires, no nitrous, no blower. I learned to launch on street tires, drag radials didn't exist. Becoming proficient required a smooth clutch release with aggressive, but controlled, throttle application, and a feel for what the car was doing.
We put our money where our mouth is by enlisting Brad Adler, our video guru, who daily drives his '11 GT to hit the track. The goal was to see if Brad, a total dragstrip rookie, could improve his performance with coaching from your humble scribe. In P**art 2, Associate Editor Kristian Grimsland, who owns a mildly modded '98 Cobra will get his chance.
Brad's GT wears a Boss intake and exhaust, 3.73 gears, a cold-air intake and a tune.. Both guys drove on drag radials, which offer lots of traction without the hassle of swapping tires trackside.
Before hitting the track, it's important to have your car in good running order. If you're fighting mechanical issues, you won't turn good numbers and you won't be able to focus on driving. Inspect the lugs, battery hold-down (and connections), fluid levels, brakes, the accessory drive belt(s), and tires before you go to the track. If you have confidence in your car or truck, you've won half the battle.
Being prepared mentally is as important as having horsepower. Extracting the best elapsed times consistently and having the ability to win races takes skill and mental focus. Once you have knowledge, experience, and confidence in your ability, you'll be able to whip other racers.
Good runs don't just happen, they come from being prepared and by giving yourself the best chance for success. This means having a routine for your burnout, staging, launching, and driving in the most efficient manner. Place tasks in order and accomplishing them one at a time. My routine goes like this: before each run, I charge the battery and fuel the car in the pits, then in the lanes I check tire pressure (right side, then left), then slide in, attach my harness (same order for the belts every time), then my helmet, and finally my gloves last.
After firing the engine, I check the gauges; then I pull the belts really tight (lap belts first, then shoulder belts). After years of racing, I don't often think about this routine—it just happens. With this, fewer things will clog your mind, so you can focus on the Tree and the actual race.
As a rookie, you may feel pressure to hustle through your burnout and stage quickly. Resist the urge. You may be worried about holding up the guy in the other lane, but chances are you are not. Relax and complete each task as best you can. A quality burnout leads to better traction, and staging consistently leads to good lights, and to consistent (and predictable) e.t.'s.
There are dragstrips with various lengths (eight-mile, 1,000-feet, and quarter-mile), but we'll focus on the good old 1,320. Before heading out for your track outing, check the track schedule. This will prevent you from showing up on VW day. Second, we recommend making your debut at a test-and-tune and not at a major event. You'll get more runs, it will cost less, and there will be other newbies.
After paying your entry fee, you will fill out a tech card, and then proceed to tech inspection. The inspector will look for the basic safety items, such as a radiator overflow tank, seat belts, helmet (if required), and a proper battery hold-down. If your car is capable of running low 11s or quicker, you will need advanced safety items such as a six-point rollbar (or cage) and harness system. Consult nhra.com or ihra.com for specifics on building a track-legal car.
F) If the beams are set up properly, there will be 7 inches of rollout from the pre-stage beam to the stage beam, and 11.5 inches from pre-stage on to stage off.
Every track will have a slightly different layout, but all will have a pit area, staging lanes, burnout box located behind the starting line, and the actual track where you will race, plus a shutdown area and a return road. Always ask if the track broadcasts the PA announcements over the radio so you can pay attention.
The timing system incorporates infrared beams with reflectors and a computer system with a Christmas Tree for staging and starting each race. Most tracks will give you reaction time, plus your incremental e.t. at 60-feet, 330-feet, 660-feet (eighth-mile), eighth-mile speed, 1,000-feet e.t., and quarter-mile e.t and mph. Your elapsed time is measured in seconds and is the time it takes you to cover the track's length, your speed is measured through “speed traps” that are 66 feet long—one at half track, the other beginning 66 feet before the finish line.
Before making a pass, it is best to do a burnout—yes, even if you are running street tires. Burnouts are fun, but more importantly, they prepare your tires for launch. The length of the burnout is dependent on track and weather conditions, and the type of tires you are running.
The burnout cleans debris from the surface of your tires, and prepares the surface for the next launch. Too much burnout wears out your tires prematurely and can bring oils within the compound to the surface making them greasy. By burning out properly, the outer most layer of the tire is shaved away and a fresh surface is revealed. Additionally, the tire heats up and gets sticky. On hot days less burnout is needed, on cold days you can heat them longer.
Here are a few things to avoid: Don't do a burnout with your tires in the middle of the water puddle. Of course you want the tires to be wet (as this helps them to get spinning quickly and easily), but always roll through the water box to the front or just out of the water before burning out. However, don't roll too far, because the track gets very sticky just ahead of the burnout box due to the cars powering out and laying down fresh rubber. Some tracks are so sticky between the burnout box and starting line that attempting a burnout there can break an axle or melt a clutch in seconds. Pay attention to the track officials, and with your tires wet, begin the burnout.
No Line-Loc, No Problem
To get 'er done, place your left foot on the brake and your right on the throttle. Apply enough brake pressure to keep the car from moving, then feed in throttle to spin the tires. Nailing the throttle will jerk the car forward—you don't want that. Aim your side-view mirrors at your tires to monitor the smoke; keep the rpm steady. Generally, 3 to 5 seconds is enough to clean and heat the tires. Release the brake, feed in some throttle, and drive forward under power.
This is tricky because you have to work all three pedals with only two feet. As described above, first, get the tires wet, roll forward and stop. If you have 3.55s (or numerically higher gears such as 4.10s or 4.30s), do the burnout in Second gear—and don't upshift. (With 3.08-3.27 gears, use First gear.)
Rev the engine between 4,000 and 5,000 rpm, snap your foot off the clutch, and quickly grab the brake—however, use just enough brake pressure to hold the car in place. Applying too much brake can bog the engine, so it's likely you'll have to feed in throttle to keep the revs up. Getting this right takes a bit of practice. Remember, you only want enough pressure to hold the car for a few seconds. Wait until you see ample smoke and then release the brake—but (now listen, this is critical) add throttle and drive out of the burnout box under power!
It's important to keep ‘em spinning in case there is any residual water in front of the tires. Drive it out, and then get the clutch in and stop the car. I recommend coming to a complete stop, then collect yourself and engage First gear. Try not to roll directly into the pre-stage (or worse) the staged beam without stopping and taking a deep breath.
Staging places your car on the actual starting line so the timing system can be activated to start the race. By staging, you are essentially saying you're ready to race. How you stage affects both your elapsed time and your reaction time, so it is important to understand the procedure.
Pre-staging and staging occurs when your front tires block the infrared beams on the starting line. This is indicated by the bulbs on the Christmas Tree. As you roll forward, the front of your tire will block the beam causing the pre-stage and then the stage lights to come on. However, the beam doesn't act like a On/Off light switch. You can actually roll forward with both the pre- and staged lights on and still be staged. This is called rollout.
By staging shallow (meaning you barely turn on the stage beam), you can get a running start at the timing clocks, which equates to free elapsed time. By staging as shallow as possible, you can run a quicker time than if you staged deeper in the lights. The actual amount can be a couple of tenths—11.99 sounds a lot better than 12.00 any day.
A Quick Note on Reaction Time
With a 0.500 starting system, there will be 0.500 (or half a second) between the last yellow and the green light. Since it takes time for your brain to signal your leg and the car to actually move forward, launching when you see the last yellow should provide the time to actually break the beam just after the green light. Consequently, the e.t. clock doesn't start counting until your car breaks the staged beam—in other words, you can sit there all day or red light and it won't affect your elapsed time.
The moment of truth has come. Your heart is pounding, your eyes are glued to the Tree, and you're waiting for those yellow bulbs to drop. Despite the urge to try and be perfect, I recommend making a few runs without thinking about it too much—just experience all that encompasses making a run. Only then will you know what to expect so you can get down to business.
Assuming you've done a nice burnout and staged shallow, you'll want to get the revs up and be ready to let out the clutch. Reaction time isn't a concern—a smooth application of power is your goal. The ultimate launch will be hard, fast, and smooth. A launch that is overly aggressive can lead to tire spin, wheelhop, and a slow e.t. Bogging isn't the worst thing when you're learning.
Start at a comfortable rpm (2,500-3,000); trade feet quickly and smoothly, but don't jerk the clutch out. And roll on the power—don't jam it. During this transition you will need maximum “feel” to know whether the car is bogging, spinning, or hooking perfectly.
The first move is to get the vehicle moving and to make it transfer weight. As the nose lifts, you can apply more power and release the clutch all the way. If you do it right, the car will launch out, then bog a little, then go hard. The perfect street-tire launch will have the tires on the verge of spinning, and they will make the eeek, eeek, eeek sound.
The beauty of drag racing is that you get a timeslip immediately and there can be lots of practice. I recommend taking notes—recording tire pressure, track conditions, launch rpm, shift points, and so on. From this point, it's about gathering feel and experience.
Kickin' and Stickin'
Another make-or-break piece of the go-fast puzzle is shifting. There is granny-shifting, speed-shifting, and powershifting. The difference between granny-shifting and powershifting can be two to three tenths, so buck up if you want to go fast.
Powershift is shifting with your right foot planted to the floor—that's right, you launch and never lift. Keep your right foot buried to the firewall as you kick the clutch and ram the lever through the gates. Those who can jam well gears see only a 50-100 rpm jump between shifts.
Laying down three clean powershifts brings pure bliss. You'll feel alive and oh-so much a part of the acceleration process. If you've never powershifted, try it at a low rpm. If you miss, the engine won't be all up on the rev limiter. If you are all over the limiter and hitting gears, back down your shift rpm or time your shifts better.
No run is complete until you're back in the pits. As you cross the traps, you must slow down and make a safe turnoff. Brake accordingly and note the location of the competitor in the other lane. You don't want to cut off another driver or be cut off yourself. Don't speed on the return road or in the pits, and pay attention until you're back in the lanes or your pit. And most of all, have fun!
Part 1: Learning the basics of drag racing can make you lightning quick.
B-Rad the Racer
Despite only owning two muscle cars in my life, I consider myself a car guy. With that said, I have never taken the opportunity to go down the track in a serious way. Part of my procrastination was my desire to be instructed and do it right from the beginning.
We all think we're great drivers, but I have been to the track often enough to know this isn't the case. Those lanes and lights are the great equalizer of reality. So I've been asking my lifelong friend Eeditor Evan Smith to school me.
That lands me at Bradenton Motorsports Park on a Thursday night of test-and-tune to cut my teeth. I was first given the basics about how to get down the track employing good tactics. Smitty, being the coach, suggested I make a couple of passes to see what he was working with and what needed to be fixed.
Now understand, even though I am good friends with the crew at MM&FF, I was more nervous than a senior on his way home from the prom in a limo with his date. On the first pass, I did a burnout that wasn't nearly long enough and I didn't drive out of the burnout under power. At the lights, I left around 2,500 rpm and bogged a bit. I was not aggressive on my shifts and managed to miss Fourth going into Sixth, resulting in a 12.97.
On the second pass, I did the same thing and missed Fourth, earning a 12.91 (how embarrassing), but I was far from giving up. I just needed to get rid of my nervous energy.
On my fourth pass, I tried to do a more substantial burnout and I powered out. Evan turned my rearview mirrors down to the tires and told me not to let up till I saw a good cloud of smoke. I returned to the lanes with a 12.71 and a third miss of Fourth gear. I attribute this to trying too hard. I made a few more passes but I will spare you the details on those.
Before my seventh pass, Evan and I discussed what I was doing wrong. He felt I was ready to give it the needed burnout, launch much harder, and stop thinking about dialing Fourth and getting the busy signal. He also said it is imperative after the burnout to come to a full stop, gather yourself, take time pre-staging. Then again come to a full stop and take a deep breath before rolling forward to stage.
On my next try, I revved the engine to about 6,000 rpm and jumped off the clutch. I maintained a solid burnout with a fair amount of smoke, and I powered out hard. I will say it felt like I was in the gas much longer, so maybe that's why I was letting out of it too early in my prior passes. I did all of these things, then staged and launched at about 4,500 rpm.
I laid the gas pedal to the floor with purpose but avoided putting a hole though the firewall; I focused on clean, quick shifts at 7,200 rpm. Having a qualified person show me the ropes worked exactly as I had hoped, which resulted in my 12.18 at 113 mph! With a fairly heat-soaked engine, I was able to back this up with a strong time of 12.21.
While I have a way to go before being able to maximize the car's potential, I came away from the experience knowing I had been shown the basics and could build off the experience. —Brad Adler
1. 12.979 at 99 mph (1.92 60-foot), missed Fourth, bogged, no rollout after burnout
2. 12.970 at 100.8 (1.93 60-foot), missed Fourth
3. 12.548 at 112.89 (1.90 60-foot), weak burnout
4. 12.710 at 98.82 (1.79 60-foot), missed Fourth
5. 12.185 at 113.05 (1.74 60-foot), all fell into place, better burnout
6. 12.245 at 113.45 (1.74 60-foot), all fell into place