Mark Houlahan
Brand Manager, Mustang Monthly
December 9, 2010
Photos By: The Modified Mustangs & Fords Staff

There was a time when dragstrips and road courses across America were bustling with the sounds of screeching bias-ply burnouts and solid-lifter crackling, and lead-infused fuels burned under high compression. The muscle car era was in full swing, and the manufacturers waged war in battles of horsepower and cubic inches.

At some point though, it seems like those with the vintage cars threw in the towel and stopped showing up, leaving the late-model crew to have all of the fun. Now we're not saying that you should be hanging out at the track all the time, but you should be able to enjoy all of that high-horsepower hardware that you've installed under the hood, and taking your car to your local racetrack offers that opportunity in a very safe environment.

For some of you, going to the track may be old hat, but for others, it could be your first time. In either case, this story will be both a good refresher, and a basic introduction to drag racing. Once you have your feet wet in full-throttle, straight-line fun, you can check out your local road course to see if there might be even more fulfillment in turning at speed, and we'll be covering that end of the spectrum at a later date.

Sure, you'll hear a lot of people talk about how valuable the cars are, and that it's not the best idea to drive one in such a manner. Our cover car this month certainly bucks this trend, and the vision of this relatively rare automobile melting rubber will certainly cause some anguish for some, but cars were made to be driven. Their sole purpose on this planet is to get us from Point A to Point B. So what's the harm in getting there fast?

If you think this sounds crazy, think again. More and more enthusiasts are enjoying their classic cars in more exhilarating ways. If you get a chance, check out an NMRA or NMCA race that may be close to you. You'll find a lot of very nice vintage firepower in the staging lanes.

Follow along as we take a classic Mustang out to the track and show step-by-step what goes on at the dragstrip. Once educated, you won't feel so intimidated and you'll enjoy the experience that much more. To find your nearest racetrack check out the links at the end of our story and then call the track to find out its track schedule. Be sure to write us and let us know about some of your on-track racing exploits.

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Dragstrip Dictionary

While it's easy for us to let certain terms roll off the tongue, since we've been going to the track for years, we felt it would be helpful to list the most common track terms and what they mean. We hope these will help you be at ease trackside and when talking to your fellow racers.

BurnoutTo spin the rear tires to heat them, effectively cleaning the tread surface and heating the tread for increased traction
Christmas TreeFound at the starting line, the "tree" is used as a count-down timer for both drivers in a drag race
Deep StageTo roll farther into the stage beam, turning off the pre-stage light, which places the car farther down the track, which will raise elapsed time, but help your reaction time
Elapsed TimeThe time it takes you to travel the track's distance from starting line to finish line
Foul StartIf you leave the starting line (meaning start the timer clock) before the green light has lit, it's a foul start and the red light will illuminate
Full TreeThis is the typical starting line setup used at test-and-tune and Sportsman racing, where each amber light is lit for 0.500-second in sequence, followed by the green light 0.500-second later; a perfect start is a 0.500 light on a full tree
HoleshotWhen racing another car and you leave the starting line before the other car by reacting to the Christmas tree faster
Pre-StageThe first row of small yellow lights on the Christmas tree, these light as you approach the starting line, letting you know you're about to enter the staging beam
Pro TreeThe pro tree is reserved for higher levels of heads-up competition and has all three amber bulbs light simultaneously, followed by the green light 0.400-second later
Reaction TimeThe time, expressed in thousands of a second, that it takes your car to clear the stage beam after the last amber light has flashed on the Christmas tree
60-Foot TimeSimply put, how long it takes your car to travel the first 60 feet of the dragstrip, which reflects how quick your total run will be
Speed TrapThe last 66 feet of the measured racing surface before the finish line; this is where your mph is measured
StageThe stage light is the second row of yellow lights and indicates your tires are directly on the starting line. Once both drivers have lit the stage lights, the countdown timer will begin as activated by the track's starting line personnel

For more information on events, points series, safety equipment, and tracks in your area:

  • www.ihra.com
  • www.mdra.com
  • www.nhra.com
  • www.nmra.com
  • www.pscaracing.com
  • www.sfifoundation.com
  • www.smf.org

The Most Common Problems

While at Gainesville Raceway in Gainesville, Florida, snapping the majority of the photos for this story, we spoke with some of Gainesville's track officials to find out what the most common issues are they see when people come to the track for the first time. We thought for sure they would include people staging their car in the wrong place, turning around and coming back down the track surface, and other "OMG!" moments. But while these things happen occasionally, they see a much bigger problem with the three main issues listed here.

Concentrate on your elapsed time and mph first. Reaction time is not important for test-and-tune nights. You want to know what your car is capable of, not so much your reaction to the lights. Waiting for the solid green light to leave the starting line means you'll never red light (foul) and you can work on shift points and launch techniques. Once these are optimized then you can sneak up on reaction time.

Make only one change at a time. First time racers seem to get a little anxious, the track guys tell us. They'll make a pass, then go bump the timing, change the tire pressures, and launch at a different rpm all on the next pass. Make one change and then make a few passes to ensure consistency before you make another change, no matter how minor.

Be aware of your surroundings. There's a lot going on at the track, and not just on the racing surface. The pits are busy with race cars, pit bikes, pedestrians, and more. On the track surface, always watch the track officials, especially the starter. He's in contact with track spotters and the tower and if there's an issue with the track or your car he'll wave you off. This is for everyone's safety, so pay attention to all track personnel.