Frank H. Cicerale
February 21, 2007

You're at your buddy's house bench racing, and as legitimate members of the horsepower club, you talk about camshafts, cubic inches, and dyno numbers. A heated debate ensues over which power adder is best, which ultimately leads to the comment, "Oh yeah, let's race!" As you sit there, you meekly realize there is one minor problem to backing up the claim that your 750-rwhp, supercharged Mustang is the baddest in the land. You've never been to the dragstrip.

If you've always wanted to drag race but were afraid because you didn't know how, consider this your cheap drag racing school.

Before we delve into the detailed portion of our class, like anything else, you need to know the basics. First and foremost, a drag race is a competition between two cars on a track where they are able to run side-by-side. The race begins from a standing start, obviously at the starting line, and is a quarter-mile or eighth-mile in length (depending on the facility). The layout of a dragstrip is congruent, as each has a main entrance, staging lanes, a pit area, a refreshment stand, bathrooms, and, of course, the track surface itself, which consists of the prepared strip, the shutdown area, and the return road.

Before you take that first trip, call or check out the track's Web site and get some information such as which days you can run and what the start and end times are. You might even be able to pick up a track schedule at your local speed shop, or get put on the track's mailing list so the schedule gets mailed to you automatically. You don't want to show up in your Roush Mustang on Camaro Day, Mopar Weekend, or at a major NHRA national event. Find out other things such as prices for both participants and spectators, and what categories will be run that night. If it's a normal street-legal night, it's a run-what-ya-brung deal, so you can make as many runs as you can within the allotted time. If there are specific categories being run, check with the track and see which class your car will fit in so there is no hassle of trying to pick a class at the gate.

Stopping at the main gate and purchasing your tech card is the first thing you do when you show up at the track. Prices vary depending on the day of the week and the classes that run that day, but expect to pay between $20 and $30 to take a few jaunts down the quarter-mile.

The first thing you need to do once you get to the track is to stop at the main gate and buy your tech card. This is your ticket to race, and the entrance fee ranges from track to track and event to event. "For our regular Wednesday and Friday night programs, it is very affordable to race," says Old Bridge Township Raceway Park's Paul Bailey. At Raceway Park, for example, racing on a Wednesday night will cost you $28, and on a Friday night, $24. If you make three runs on a Friday night, you are spending $8 a run. With that said, most tracks are prepped so the line will be sticky and you can concentrate on driving, without the worry of police or other distractions.

Once you get through the gate, find a pit space for the night. If you have a question as to where to camp out, ask an official before you leave the gate or while you are on your way in.

Now it's time to get cracking. If you have to swap the street tires for slicks, safely jack up the car and switch the tires. If you brought everything with you, chaining the tires to an immovable object such as a light post will keep potential thieves from making away with your rolling stock. This would be a good time to pop the hood and allow the engine to cool down, and to check tire pressure. Keep in mind that the pit area is your home while you're at the track, so don't be afraid to take things out of the car that could roll or move around.

Once your car is prepped, make your way to the tech line. Depending on how early or late you get there results in how crowded tech can be. A lot of drag racing is hurry up and wait, so while you're chilling in line, feel free to socialize with others and ask questions of those who have been there before.

Once you're settled in, the next thing to do is fill out the tech card. Most tech cards for a regular test and tune consist of name, address, age, state driver's license number, some basic information about the vehicle, and a place to sign your name. With the tech card filled out and your John Hancock on the dotted line, proceed to the tech line, where a track official will look over your car and make sure everything is in order.

"When a car comes to tech, I look to see if it is solid and safe to race," Bailey says. "I make sure your tech card is filled out properly, that the driver has a valid license, and that, in the case of our street nights, the car has mufflers on and is within the decibel rating we specify.

"The best time to ask a track official a question is while you are at tech or in the staging lanes," Bailey says. "Also, you should pay attention at all times."

Make sure you have the proper safety equipment before you try to get through tech. You must wear a shirt with sleeves, long pants, and closed-toe shoes to not only race, but also to help out your buddy on the starting line. Double-check and make sure that your seatbelt works, too. Finally, a helmet is required to run your Mustang. "To get through tech, you will need a helmet that's K98 or better in rating," says NHRA Division 1 Technical Director Tony Romano. "For the average street enthusiasts, there is not a lot that you have to have, just basic things and a bit of common sense, like making sure there is nothing loose in the car and that everything is secure." One common mistake is to have a loose battery and no radiator overflow tank.

When it's your turn, a tech official will come over, take your tech card, and look over your car to make sure it's safe and legal to run. He or she will then look over your safety equipment and make sure it's all in order as well. After getting your lane assignment and number for the night, you're ready to cruise into the staging lanes.

"As the car's performance level increases, so does the amount of safety equipment and items that are needed," Bailey says.

It is also a good idea to give your car a good look-over before you cruise to your local strip. Make sure that any leaks are fixed. If track officials see your beloved Mustang or fast Ford dripping fluid on the starting line, for your safety, they will not allow you to make a run. Check all of the hoses and lines, along with their respective connections, and make sure there are no cracks or frays that could possibly lead to a leak. Also, make sure your fuel lines are secure.

While you're at it, check all fluid levels and top them off accordingly. While most of the newer Mustangs come with a factory-installed coolant overflow tank, if you have replaced that tired 302 with a hopped-up 347 stroker and a new radiator, install a coolant overflow tank on your own. If you happen to run an intercooler with your turbocharged or supercharged powerplant, make sure the intercooler is secure and leak-free. The same thing goes for those running a nitrous bottle.

On the starting line are two beams: the pre-stage and stage beams. Each is placed about 6 inches apart from each other, and both are vitally important when it comes to starting-line procedure and recording your elapsed time.

"Typically, when we see a car that has a nitrous kit on it, we like to see the bottle outside of the passenger compartment," Romano says. Make sure the nitrous bottle is bolted down using NHRA-approved, manufactured hold-downs. We seriously frown on homemade bottle brackets and zip ties keeping the nitrous bottle in place."

Another item you will probably need is a driveshaft, or safety, loop, which is a simple metal device that is bolted or welded to the underside of a car to keep the driveshaft from falling to the ground in the event it or the U-joint breaks. The safety loop is required on cars running slicks and going quicker than 13.99 seconds, or on cars that go 11.49 seconds or quicker.

In most cases, you will be assigned a staging lane according to category. When you are ready to race, cruise into your assigned staging lane. We say cruise because there are certain things that are a big no-no in the pit area, such as excessive speeding, and doing burnouts or practice launches. Such things put serious frowns on the faces of track officials, and could cause them to end your night prematurely.

Once in the lanes, it is a good idea to stay with your car as your lane might be pulled quickly. When your lane starts to move, put on your gear and strap in. Make sure your helmet is tight, your seatbelt is on, and your window is rolled up. Go with the flow until you are next to go into the burnout box. Pay close attention to the track official, as he will signal you when to proceed to the burnout. When he gives you the go ahead, roll forward. If you do not want to do a burnout using water, then drive around the burnout box. If you do want water, then slowly roll through the box and stop when the official tells you to do so. We recommend that you position the mirrors of the car so you can see the rear tires. Whatever you do, do not open the door, lean out, and look backwards at the tires as you do a burnout. It is unsafe, to say the least.

Most every track in the United States and abroad is of the same layout, though distance may vary from eighth-mile to quarter-mile. In the center of the track you have the Christmas Tree and centerline, complete with Styrofoam timing blocks. The centerline separates the right and left lanes, and on the edge of each lane is a retaining wall.

A burnout is used to clean off and heat the rear tires for maximum traction on the starting line. While not as difficult as staging the car, the burnout can be a difficult part of the run as well. One of the decisions you have to make is whether or not you need to use water to do your burnout. The easiest way to know this is by looking at the type of tires you are running. If they are drag radials, slicks, or a tire composition that is made to maximize traction on the starting line, then using water to do a burnout is recommended. Trying to spin the rear slicks on dry pavement is possible, but difficult. If you are running regular street tires, it's probably best to drive around the water, as in most cases it's not needed. Also, water will stay within the treads themselves, and you will track it all the way to the starting line, where it will hurt you hooking up the rear tires. By the way, John Force-style burnouts are generally not needed. Most slicks, drag radials, and street tires need only a small burnout to clean them off and sticky them up. If you overdo the burnout, though, you will burn off more rubber than you need to, and you will draw the oil in the rubber to the surface, which will make the tires greasy. All that smoke may look good, but practicality will keep you and your wallet happy.

When the burnout is complete, slowly roll up to the starting line, as it is time to stage-the most difficult part of a run for any new driver.

On the starting line are two infra-red beams: the pre-stage and stage beams. The pre-stage and stage beams are what signal to you and the starter that you are ready to race. They are each spaced about 6 inches apart. The stage beam starts the elapsed timer on the run, and is located after the pre-stage beam. To properly stage, roll forward slowly into what is known as the pre-stage beam. When you break this beam, a set of bulbs will illuminate on the top of the Christmas Tree, indicating you are almost ready. Then, gently roll forward until you see the stage bulbs light up. These bulbs are located directly underneath the pre-stage bulbs on the Tree. If this is a bit heavy for you, then it might be a good idea to let a track official know this is your first time and you need some help. Give the official your car number and ask to have the starter help you stage. This way, when you get to the starting line, the starter will be able to wave you forward.

Around the finish-line area are the scoreboards, where those on the starting line and in the stands will see the elapsed time and speed you just ran. If you look on the left side of the photo, you see the return road. The return road is an access road that runs parallel to the track and allows you to drive alongside of it to the time-card booth, where you will pick up your timeslip.

Once you are staged, the starter will activate the Tree. Normally, most street-legal nights run off a 0.500 Full Tree, in which each of the three amber bulbs will light separately with a 0.500-second interval. The three bulbs go on and off in sequence, and the green light comes on. (Experienced racers try and leave as the third amber comes on to gain a slight head start over their opponent.)

While street nights utilize the full Tree, there are other types of starting-line countdowns that can be used. As stated, the full Tree has each individual bulb come on at 0.500-second intervals. The other common form of the Tree's countdown is known as the Pro Tree. This is where all three amber lights come on at the same time and go off after a set amount of time, either 0.500 second or the more common 0.400 second. The full Tree format is mostly used in bracket racing, while the Pro Tree format is mostly used in heads-up and index-type bracket-racing competition.

Once the green light is on and you leave the starting line, focus on a spot straight ahead at the very end of the track, such as a gap in the trees. This will help you keep the car in the center of the lane, known as the groove. If you keep your eyes peeled on the track directly in front of the car, you are doing what's commonly known as "wheel driving." As you make your way down track, you will notice bright-orange Styrofoam blocks. These blocks are located on the centerline, or center of the track, and measure your elapsed time and speed at certain points on the course. The last block indicates the finish line.

When you get to the finish line, slow down and exit the track. Gradually lift off of the throttle and get into the brakes. Do not jump off the gas and slam the brakes. It's not necessary as you have ample room to slow down, and you could throw the car into a spin or other unwanted action. When the car is slowed down enough and you are near a turnoff, check your mirrors and your surroundings to make sure the car in the other lane isn't in a blind spot or about to take the turnoff the same time you are. If things are all clear, carefully exit the track and make your way up to the timecard booth where you get your timeslip. Once you have it in hand, slowly cruise back to the pit area and ready yourself for the next run. At no point while on the track should you take off your safety equipment. While you may think things are safe while traveling through the shutdown area, something untold could still happen. Take off your safety equipment only after you have exited the track and made your way onto the return road.

It's a good idea to perform regular maintenance and check-up work before you go to the track. A proper battery hold-down is a must for safety.

Prerace Prep

There are a number of things you need to take care of before you take the trip to the track. An easy way to find out what you need to run your car is to pick up a rule book from one of the major sanctioning bodies such as the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) or International Hot Rod Association (IHRA), or from one of the Ford-specific sanctioning bodies such as the National Mustang Racing Association (NMRA) or Fun Ford Weekend (FFW). A rule book normally costs about $10. Thumbing through a rule book allows you to familiarize yourself with the sport, what it's all about, and what you may need to go racing.

Each rule book has an overview of the sport, along with rules and specifications for each category that competes. For the average street enthusiast, however, there are some basic things to know. Make sure you have a valid driver's license as you won't be able to race without it. The age to race is dependent upon each state's legal driving limit, and in certain states, such as New Jersey, your age also determines how fast you are allowed to go. For example, in the Garden State, if you are 17, you cannot record an elapsed time quicker than 12.00 seconds or run a car that is not equipped with DOT-approved tires. Once you turn 18, you can go as quick as you want, granted that you have the proper credentials to do so. Also, if your car runs quicker than 13.49 (convertible) or 11.50 (hardtop or coupe), then a rollbar is needed.

If you plan on using the tires you drive on daily at the track, check their condition and tire pressure. If your shoes are showing low tread or a few cords, they might not be safe to run on. While checking the tires, pull out a torque wrench and double-check the lug nuts, and make sure all of the wheel weights are still in place. At high speed, a wheel weight that has fallen off can cause serious vibrations that lead to numerous problems. If you plan on using slicks, make sure the sidewalls are not cracked and there are no flaws in the tires themselves. Also keep in mind that, if your slicks are tubeless, metal screw-in valve stems are required on cars that run 11.99 or quicker. Also, make sure the wheel studs are long enough to protrude or enter the lug nuts by at least 7/16 inch. If the studs are too short, you won't pass tech.

Don't Forget...

In addition to all the necessary gear, such as your safety equipment, you might want to bring along a few other things. If you plan on swapping tires at the track, then an electric impact gun, a torque wrench, a jack, and a pair of jackstands will aid you in changing the tires quickly and efficiently. A small tool set isn't a bad idea either. Bring along a spare set of shoes, as well as a jacket or sweatshirt in case it gets chilly at night. Bring some sun-block to protect yourself from the sun and from what racers call "asphalt tanning," and if you don't want to spend a ton of cash, a cooler with cans of soda and a few sandwiches is an awesome idea. Spare parts such as a supercharger belt, accessory belt, and a spare battery might be items you want to include, too.

It's all About the Numbers

OK, you finished your run, did everything the correct way, and have your timeslip in hand. Unfortunately, to you it's just a bunch of gibberish, as you have no idea what the numbers mean.

Each timeslip reads incremental times for both the left and right lanes. If you were in the right lane, look at the numbers underneath where it says "RIGHT" on the timeslip, and vice versa if you were in the left lane.

The first number you will see is your car number, which is what the track uses to differentiate you from Joe Heck next to you. Underneath that is "RT," or reaction time. Reaction time is vitally important to competitive racers as it measures the time between the green coming on and your car leaving the stage beam. It has no effect on your elapsed time whatsoever, as your front wheel will start the timers when it moves out of the stage beam. Having a good reaction time can help a driver in a slower car win against a driver in a faster car.

The next number is the 60-foot clocking, which measures how long it took for your car to go 60 feet. Your 60-foot time often indicates how well your car is hooking. A 60-foot time in the 2.00-1.90 range is good for street radials. Underneath that is the 330-foot time, and then your half-track, or eighth-mile, e.t. and speed. Next is the 1,000-foot time, and following that is the quarter-mile, or finish line, e.t. and speed.

Making the Move

While running time trials on a Wednesday or Friday night is awesome, eventually you may want the thrill and excitement of competition. With that thrill of victory and agony of defeat comes trying to figure out how to get started into competitive drag racing.

A good way to get your feet wet is to try bracket racing, where you predict how quick your car will go. While we could take this entire issue to explain the intricacies of bracket racing, the key to it all is having a good reaction time and running as close as possible to your prediction, known as your dial-in, without running underneath it or breaking out. For example, say you dial an 11.50. Running an 11.50 would mean you hit the dial dead-on. If you run an 11.52, you are two-hundredths of a second slower than your prediction, giving your opponent the opportunity to beat you. By the same token, if you run an 11.48, you are two-hundredths of a second under your dial, thus you have broken out. If you break out, you will lose, unless your opponent breaks out by a larger margin. Confusing, yes, but bracket racing is an affordable way to get into competitive racing, and its format allows those with slower cars to be competitive against those with faster rides.

If you want to give heads-up racing a try, keep in mind that the higher-echelon classes will ultimately cost you more green to go racing. Sanctions such as FFW and NMRA have low-buck heads-up classes such as Street Stang and Mod Motor. The easiest way to find out which heads-up class is for you is to check out the rule books and see how quick some of the competitors in each respective category are running.