The last light on the tree...
The last light on the tree is the dreaded foul, or red light. If you leave the starting line before the green light illuminates the red light comes on, disqualifying you. But we said leave on the last yellow; won't that give you a foul? Not exactly. Most street cars are slow enough that by the time you react and the car moves forward, the green light comes on as your tires leave the starting line. Practice will tell you when you can leave the starting line with your combination, but like we said, don't worry about reaction time right now.
Once you've left the starting...
Once you've left the starting line, the timing system takes over. As you head down the track there are a series of additional photocells and reflectors that your car will pass through (orange boxes shown here). These include the 60-foot time, 330-foot time, 1/8-mile speed with 1/8-mile time 66-feet later, 1,000-foot time, and finish line speed also followed by the finish line time 66-feet later. It's important to remember that when you pass the finish line speed photocell that the race is not over yet. The true finish line is 66-feet farther down the track. A lot of first timers slow down in this zone, but it will hurt your time and speed.
After you pass the true finish...
After you pass the true finish line you can get on the brakes to slow down. Look for the track's return road (if you followed our advice of checking out the track beforehand you already know where it is). Most tracks have more than one return road entrance, so if you can't stop for the first one there's usually a second turn off. The turn off might be on the opposite side of the track, so watch the other racer to ensure you're not cutting him off, as he might not be slowing down as quickly as you.
As you travel the return road...
As you travel the return road back to your pit area you will come upon a track official handing out the timeslip for your run. Keep to the posted return/pit road speeds, take your timeslip, and head back to your pits. Don't read it there or while driving back to your pits; it can wait until you're safely parked.
We recommend keeping a log...
We recommend keeping a log book of your timeslips, including weather conditions and any changes/upgrades to the car. Other notes should include launch speed, shift points, tire pressures, and so forth. A good log book will help you to determine what to do at future track sessions. Now that you've made a "full pass" you can get comfortable with the idea of concentrating on your techniques and practice, practice, practice!
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.
|Burnout||To spin the rear tires to heat them, effectively cleaning the tread surface and heating the tread for increased traction|
|Christmas Tree||Found at the starting line, the "tree" is used as a count-down timer for both drivers in a drag race|
|Deep Stage||To 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 Time||The time it takes you to travel the track's distance from starting line to finish line|
|Foul Start||If 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 Tree||This 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|
|Holeshot||When racing another car and you leave the starting line before the other car by reacting to the Christmas tree faster|
|Pre-Stage||The 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 Tree||The 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 Time||The 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 Time||Simply 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 Trap||The last 66 feet of the measured racing surface before the finish line; this is where your mph is measured|
|Stage||The 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:
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.