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The Path to Drag Racing Righteousness
Trying to get started in drag racing? Confused on how to pick a class? Understanding how to begin requires no more than a little research and some careful planning
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Very few things in this world are as exciting as tearing down a dragstrip in a blaze of glory. Whether banging powershifts like a madman in your near-stock T-5-equipped Mustang or turning on the win light during a national event in a 6-second Pro 5.0 car, there is a place in this sport for everyone.
While the majority of MM&FF readers are intimately acquainted with the sport of drag racing, the late-model Mustang hobby is like a magnet for new, inexperienced performance enthusiasts. Let's face it, those '87 5L LX and GT ponycars we lusted after when new are now 16-year-old vehicles, and anyone working part time at Mickey D's can afford the purchase price and insurance for a legitimate 13-second used musclecar. Throw in those who are cutting their teeth on V-6s or hopefully, new GTs, Mach 1s, and Cobras, and there is wave after wave of first-time Mustang enthusiasts entering the hobby.
Drag racing is unusual in that you get to compete on the same surface the pros do. No other sport allows you to do this--imagine trying to rent Dodger Stadium for your Tuesday night softball league. Of course, that very prospect can make going racing seem quite daunting for the novice. But millions of people go drag racing every year and you can, too.
With the rise in popularity of illegal street racing, you may wonder why you need to bother going to all the trouble of participating at a sanctioned strip. Yes, it can be exciting, but sometimes for all the wrong reasons. Many people get killed in street racing every year, including a lot of innocent bystanders. Do you really need to worry about the prospect of facing manslaughter charges? Besides, even if you wreck and only hurt yourself, do you want to be laying injured on the side of the road without an ambulance around for miles? At the track, there are precautions taken to help ensure your safety and that of your competition. In a best case street racing scenario, you "only" get a summons from the police. And this will hardly endear you to your insurance agent.
In past issues, we scratched the surface on explaining how to race; we've touched on how different classes relate to different people; and we covered the ins and outs of how timing systems work on the race track. We will reprise those important topics, but will also focus on steering new racers down the right path to success. Taking it a step further, we will discuss the different classes in which one can compete and how much it might cost.
If you've read this or any other car magazine for any length of time, you probably know there are two basic types of drag racing, bracket (or handicap) and heads-up. The former begins with a handicapped start, with the slower car launching first, while in the latter the cars leave at the same time and the first one to the finish line wins.
But, before most get to that stage, the beginner will want to cut his teeth running time-shots in a non-competitive test-and-tune environment. Most tracks have time-only classes even on regular race days. This will allow you to familiarize yourself with the starting system and give you a feel for how to handle a car on the race track, which can be quite different than how it feels on the street. That quarter-mile can seem awfully long to a novice. You'll gain invaluable information on how to launch your car--especially if you're running on normal street radials.
For the first-time racer, the fun actually begins with admission into the pits. With the run card in hand, you first stop at the tech booth to prove the legality of your racing machine. Most tracks will check under the hood and inside the vehicle, looking for loose batteries, coolant-overflow containers, the proper safety gear, and so on. If you are competing with your 15-second daily driver, chances are you won't need more than a helmet and a valid driver's license.
According to the National Hot Rod Association's 2003 rulebook, any driver who competes at an NHRA-sanctioned track needs a valid state driver's license and be 18 years of age. A racer who is 17 may file for his/her racing privileges, providing the applicant's 18th birthday falls during the regular NHRA schedule or if the applicant holds a valid 9.99-second competition license.
Safety rules can vary from state to state. In certain states (such as New Jersey), helmets are mandatory regardless of elapsed time. In Texas, you don't need to wear a helmet unless you're quicker than 13.99. It's best to check with the tech staff at the track before even going to the races, though most facilities will rent you a helmet if you don't have one.
With tech card signed off and helmet in hand, it's time to make your journey to the staging lanes. Once there, track officials will guide you to your position. When the call comes out for your particular lane, you will fasten your seatbelt, slap on your helmet, and pull into the burnout box for the beginning of the pass.
If you are running on normal radial tires, a massive burnout is nothing more than a waste of rubber, although a quick hazing to clean debris off the tread surface is a good idea. For those running on slicks, DOT-legal street slicks or drag radials, the burnout process is extremely important to the overall result of the run. Its purpose is to wear away the outside dead rubber from the slick and to instill them with a slight amount of heat, making them sticky and less prone to spinning. Follow the instructions of the starter. He'll let you know when to start (and sometimes) stop your burnout.
With the smoke ritual completed, you need to stage your ride. This is done by creeping up to the Tree with the nose of the car. It will display two beams on top, one for the pre-stage portion and the other for staging. Your front tires will break an invisible beam of light directed across the track. With the stage beam interrupted by the front tires the car is set and the starter will send down the Tree. For the record, the staging procedure is the same for all styles of racing.
(Rookies please note: Watch what you are doing and do not stage with your rear tires. You'll never get a kiss from the trophy girl by doing that, and your friends will tease you mercilessly.)
If you are running racing tires, at the green you mash down the gas pedal and keep it depressed until you cross the finish line. On street rubber, it is smarter to squeeze down on the throttle to prevent wheelspin. On a full Tree (the three amber lights illuminate individually) it's critical to react when the third yellow light comes on. If you wait until the green light shines it will be way too late and your overall reaction time will be horrible.
One quick note: if you're just getting familiar with racing and performing time shots (as opposed to competing) the reaction time is not important right away. Once you gain valuable on-track experience and are ready to compete, the reaction time will become something to concern yourself with. For now, the main objective for the beginner is seat time.
After you cross the finish line, the run is over, roll out of the throttle and begin braking. You generally have a good quarter to one-half mile to slow down, but we've seen inexperienced racers never lift and end up going off the end of the track. Very bad mistake. For safety's sake, never unbuckle your helmet or seatbelt(s) until you are back in your pit spot. Even though you may have finished your run, your opponent may not have and the possibility exists he could still go out of control in the shutdown area--so could you for that matter. Always look out for the other car before turning across the track to the return road.
After receiving your timeslip, you can view it to see where you and your machine stack up. It will display your reaction time, 60-foot time (how quickly your car covered the first 60-feet of the race track), the 330-foot e.t., 660-foot e.t. and speed (1/8th mile), the 1,000-foot e.t. and the 1,320-foot e.t. and speed. It also tells you who won the race, you or your opponent, and by how much.
With the first run under your belt you will be itching to do it again and again. Before long, with practice, careful planning and experience, you will be pumping out killer reaction times and will, no doubt, in short order be crowned king of Podunk Raceway.
Picking a Class
With the exception of exhibition machines, there are two basic types of quarter-mile racing: bracket and the more thrilling heads-up competition. At some events, a third style of racing is gaining favor, Open Comp. Here, you qualify your vehicle like a heads-up racer, and you receive an index based on your best qualifier (usually one-tenth of a second quicker). This index stays the same for the duration of the event. Bracket, heads-up and Open Comp all have their pros and cons and differ noticeably. Before you decide to whip out the credit card and order a host of go-fast components for your street-driven steed, you must first determine what class best suits your budget and skill level.
From a 6-second Pro 5.0 pilot to your parents' 17-second grocery getter, anyone can enjoy and be successful in bracket racing. Horsepower means virtually nothing in a bracket race; the sole purpose is consistency. Because the slower car leaves first, it has the opportunity to red light, meaning the faster car can win before the light ever comes on. We know a number of successful bracketeers who have won tens of thousands of dollars with extremely slow automobiles. Naturally, the quicker your car, the potential for fun goes up exponentially. Some handicap racers, however, think the fun is in competing (not to mention cashing the payout checks).
During a bracket race, two drivers line up with predicted times displayed on the sides of their vehicles (usually in the form of shoe polish on the windows). The main objective? To predict the time you and your car will run and perform as close to that dial as possible, without running quicker.
The slower car will have the handicap start while the quicker car will have the task of waiting until his side of the starting line Tree flashes the big green light. The driver who runs closer to his/her predicted dial-in will then win the race. At least in theory.
It is critical to run as close to your predicted dial-in as possible. However, if you don't understand the importance of being able to pull off a good reaction time, you will never turn on the win light, no matter how consistent your ride is. By having a slow reaction time you are, in essence, giving your competitor a head start to catch up to you. He can actually run slower than his predicted time (compared to you), but can still win the race due to his superior reaction time. Confused? If so, allow us to clarify.
Racer A has a 12-second Mustang and will be taking on Racer B and his 14-second Ford F-150 pickup truck. Racer A dials a solid 12.00 while Racer B comes in at 14.50. The slower truck of Racer B will get exactly a 2.5-second head start with the quicker Mustang pilot having to wait for the chase to begin. In the interest of simplification, let's say that both drivers run right on the predicted dial-ins (12.00 and 14.50).
Not taking the thousands digit into account, who will wind up winning the race? The driver who generated the quicker reaction time. If driver A had run .02 seconds slower than his dial (compared to driver B and his dead-on run), but had a .05-second better reaction time, he should still take the race by approximately .03 seconds. This is why the reaction time is just as important as the run itself.
There is much more to bracket racing than meets the eye. Most of it is very confusing and there are a host of tricks racers pull out from time to time. Sandbagging is a common term used when a racer dials the car much slower than it is capable of running.
Why sandbag? The theory is the "sandbagger" will catch his opponent sooner, rewarding him with more finish-line room in which to work with. This trick works only if you have experience hitting the brake pedal at the finish line, commonly referred to as "driving the stripe" and the chance for a breakout is huge. It is a complicated technique and should not be attempted by beginners.
Deep staging, which will usually reward the driver with a quicker, more consistent reaction time (especially in slower cars), is another strategy where the driver will bump his car past the pre-stage beam on the starting line. Why? To reduce the overall rollout. Reducing rollout equates to a better reaction time for the driver (his front wheels can exit the stage beam quicker), but hurts the overall elapsed time of the car by eliminating its rolling start.
For a better understanding on how rollout affects reaction time and on-track performance, check out the January 2002 issue of MM&FF, specifically, "Rollin', Rollin', Rollin'," to get the lowdown. Deep staging and sandbagging are two of the methods being used in racing but, for the weekend warrior running in the beginner or trophy class (no prize money), these antics are unlikely to be used.
If this has you frustrated, confused, and thinking about taking up fishing or a career as the head coach on your son's football team, don't panic. There's another option: heads-up racing. Heads-up racing takes all of the above mentioned information and throws it out the window. Both competitors leave the starting line together and whoever gets to the finish line first wins. It's that simple. No tricks, no horseplay, just two racers battling it out to the finish line stripe.
Before you attempt to become the next John Force, though, there are a few key elements that need to be taken into account. In bracket racing any driver and car has the possibility of winning, but heads up competition usually requires gobs of horsepower, tons of money, and extreme dedication.
We called upon some pros in the Mustang business and asked some key questions on the costs of chassis and engines. "A typical Pro racing chassis will be anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000, depending on hardware used, and will take up to three to five months to construct," explained Keith Engling of Skinny Kid Race Cars in Highland, Michigan. "If Pro is not in your budget you can mini-tub and cage your existing Mustang chassis for between $12,000 and $15,000. This upgrade will take approximately one month but, regardless, chassis building (in the heads up classes) is not cheap."
The highest quality chassis money can buy is worthless without a potent engine. Scott Amesse of Livernois Motorsports in Dearborn Heights, Michigan, gave us the rundown on racing engines. "A complete Pro engine (sans turbo or supercharger) will run the racer between $45,000 and $50,000. For that you get a 400-plus inch Brodix Neal-headed mill that takes six to eight weeks to construct, and will be capable of making up to 2,000 hp.
"Stepping down a bit, our FFW Street Warrior engine combo comes in at $7,800 and requires one month to build. This combo consists of aftermarket pistons and rods, among other improvements, and is good for 450 hp. For the average weekend warrior we have a budget short-block for around $3,000. It consists of off-the-shelf hardware and is rated at a conservative 300 hp. These short-blocks can be used with power adders or for factory replacements." On the plus side, both Fun Ford Weekend and the NMRA have entry level heads-up classes that allow you to go at it on a pro Tree like the big boys, but without having to outspend the Pentagon. New for this year on the Fun Ford circuit is Superchips Street Stang, which allows for very few modifications.
You now see not all classes are created equal. With high horsepower being the key element in heads-up racing, having the proper components is a must. This is one reason why bracket racing is the wise choice for the budget racer. A competitive 13-second Mustang can be had for as little as $2,000.
Most heads-up classes race on a pro Tree as opposed to a more conventional full tree. The pro Tree illuminates all three amber bulbs at once and is the preferred style for the heads-up scene. Reaction time still plays a key role in heads-up racing, but horsepower is the real king.
Whether you are an 18-year-old high school graduate or a 65-year-old retiree, the thrill of blasting down a race track is equally rewarding. And, at the conclusion of the racing day, maybe you'll even luck out and make a few extra bucks. So get out there and have some fun.