Mark Houlahan
Brand Manager, Mustang Monthly
June 26, 2012

Drag Car Build

If you're the type that likes to go in a straight line as fast as you can, then drag racing is most likely your deal. Going to the dragstrip with your daily driver or late-model ride is fun, but having a dedicated drag car means you can be more competitive and if something goes wrong, you don't have to worry about how you're getting to work on Monday. For drag racing, two key attributes are a good power-to-weight ratio, and being able to put that power to the track surface. A heavy daily driver with big wheels, air conditioning, and other comforts only adds weight and slows you down at the track.

We reached out to the Erich Bollman and the folks at Christiana Muscle Cars (CMC) to discuss building a drag car on a budget. If Erich's name or the CMC name rings a bell you're probably remembering it from their '69 custom SportsRoof "Nasty" that we ran late last year. What you probably didn't know, though, was CMC does plenty of race car prep for customers and even campaigns one of Ford Racing's '08 Cobra Jet Mustang drag cars. With credentials like that, we knew CMC would be able to give us some direction on building a drag car on a budget.

Chassis setup is a top priority in a drag car and even on a budget, things like subframe connectors, traction bars, and welding up the unibody for strength are all low on the spend-o-meter. A good rollbar, such as a bolt-in four point, will not only increase the chassis rigidity and help with weight transfer and traction, but is an important safety aspect as well. Depending upon how fast you ultimately go, you might need a six-point rollbar or more, so talk to your track officials to confirm what you'll need. As the budget increases, you can do more with the suspension, including a multi-link or ladder bar setup in the rear and free-moving control arms with 90/10 shocks up front. Even if you're only putting out 300 horsepower, you still have to get it to the ground to move the car, so concentrate on your suspension setup first.

Once your suspension is planned out, you have to consider your drivetrain. Will you be running 1?8-mile or a full 1/4-mile? What is your track's elevation? Do you want to run an automatic or a manual trans? You get the picture. Our preference leans toward an automatic, as you have more consistency in your launch and your shift points, but some guys just can't get over the thought of putting an automatic in their car. If that's the case, just be sure you have a manual trans that can handle your engine's output. We generally like to think of the manual transmission's clutch as the "fuse" in the driveline, as it is much cheaper to replace a clutch than a broken gearbox. What's under the hood is important, but like a track car or a daily driver, it shouldn't be where you focus your money on. Sure horsepower makes the car faster, but you have to get that horsepower to the ground first. Build your foundation with the budget you have and make the car consistent, then add horsepower as money allows.

It might be strange to hear someone say braking isn't as important with a drag car as it is with a track car or daily driver, but it is true. With a daily driver, you have to deal with emergency maneuvers and high traffic flow. With an open-track car, brakes are the utmost importance, which we'll explain in that section of this story. Generally speaking, the dragstrip's braking area is more than adequate for even a drum brake system (Some old school racers prefer drums for their lower weight and less rotational friction). However, if the budget allows, a decent solid disc drag setup will not only stop the car better, but will shave weight off of the car. Make sure your brakes are up to the task for the trap speed you are carrying, and upgrade as necessary to maintain safety. Otherwise, it's money that can be saved or moved to another line item on your budget.

Interiors for drag cars are spartan to say the least. There's no need for big, powerful audio systems, air conditioning, or even a back seat. Anything that can be removed (without compromising safety) means you're saving weight. Less weight means a better power-to-weight ratio, and thus the faster you can get down the track with the power you have. Ditch the back seat, the spare tire, the console, heck even the carpet. This is a drag car and you don't need that stuff to go fast. A safe, high-back racing seat, a four-point or greater harness, properly mounted to the chassis and rollbar, and the minimum of instrumentation, lighting, and so forth installed and all reachable by the driver with their belts installed and tight. The one caveat to this might be power windows, or at least a power window on the passenger side. When you're all strapped in and sitting in the staging lanes for 40 minutes on a hot day waiting for your lane call, it's nice to be able to easily roll the windows down without unbuckling your harness and wiggling out of your race seat enough to reach the passenger window.

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