Drag Racing Basics - Feeding Your Need For Speed
Take Your Classic Ford Drag Racing
From the February, 2011 issue of Modified Mustangs & Fords
By Mark Houlahan
Photography 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.
Before leaving for the track,...
Before leaving for the track, determine how long you're going to be there and what, if any, changes/tuning you plan to make so that you can pack accordingly. A small cooler with snacks and drinks helps on a long, hot day and a selection of tools in a small toolbox will help with any underhood work while trackside. Of course, don't forget the important things like driver's license, some cash for entry, and a cell phone.
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.
We know these old cars aren't...
We know these old cars aren't the most comfortable place to be on a hot July afternoon, but don't expect to pull into the racetrack in board shorts and flip flops thinking they'll let you take your car down the track. At a minimum, a pair of jeans, socks, and sneakers should be worn along with a short sleeve shirt. If you get the bug and really start hitting the track, we suggest investing in at least a driving jacket, if not a full suit.
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.
When you enter the track one...
When you enter the track one of the first things you'll have to do is complete a technical inspection of your car by a track official. Some tracks are more critical than others due to their sanctioning body agreements. Don't think the track official is picking on you. His sole job is to ensure your ride is safe to go down the track. The last thing officials want is for you or someone else to get hurt. If there's a problem, it'll be noted on your tech card so you can fix it before you're allowed to race. Typical no-no's are only a single throttle return spring, broken or missing wheel studs, no coolant recovery tank, and so forth. If you're running hub caps or steel wheels with trim rings, they'll most likely ask you to remove them. Grab an NHRA rule book to see what you should be concerned with.
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.
Driving position is important...
Driving position is important as well. This isn't the Saturday night cruise-in at Big Boys. You want to be able to reach the shifter, ignition, pedals, and any safety equipment with ease while fully belted in. Adjust the seatback for a clear view of the track too. Also, consider a helmet mandatory. Yeah, we know most tracks are fine without a helmet for the slower cars, but get in the habit of wearing a full Snell-approved helmet, you won't regret it if something bad happens. Current Snell ratings of SA2005 or higher are what most tracks require, but new SA2010-rated helmets are now becoming available.
Once you've paid your entry...
Once you've paid your entry and had your car inspected by a track official, it's time to stake out a place to pit your car. At bigger events there are usually specific areas where you will pit by class, but on a typical test night anywhere convenient usually works. We like to find a spot near the track PA to listen to announcements/lane calls, lighting if we'll be there into the evening, and also by a fence or other permanent object we can secure toolboxes, street tires, and other items to with a bicycle lock.
Some tracks assign a car/class...
Some tracks assign a car/class number during the technical inspection, while others have you take your tech card to another location (often the main timing tower/office) to be issued a number. The number you are given will need to be displayed on your car. It's common practice to place the number on the side of the car that faces the tower as well as the back window of the car. Placing it on the front glass is optional for most test-and-tune nights. Make sure the numbers are large and legible for the track officials. You can use shoe polish but there are several window marker products available that do a better job, or you can get static cling numbers.
Before you make your first...
Before you make your first pass down the track take the time to get familiar with the track's facilities. The first thing you'll see are the staging lanes. These lanes are numbered and you will be told which lane to stage in, as most tracks sort street cars from full race cars, dragsters, motorcycles, and so on. When in the staging lanes, stay with your car. If they call your lane and you're not by your car, it holds the other racers up and delays the program.
The starting line is the next...
The starting line is the next place you'll see and this is where the Christmas tree is located. Starting line personnel will guide you where to go for your burnout and to stage your car for the race. If you're on street tires you can just drive around the water box; if you have street tires on the front, but slicks or drag radials on the back, you can drive around and then back into the water to do your burnout.
We could do a whole separate...
We could do a whole separate story on burnout techniques, so don't be embarrassed to ask fellow racers and track personnel for the optimum burnout for your car's setup. There's plenty to consider, including overall tire diameter, rear gear ratio, vehicle weight, and more. For street tires, a simple spin to clean them off is good, but if you have drag radials or slicks then a proper wet tire burnout will put down some rubber and help your launch. There's no need for a 300-foot Pro Stock burnout either. That's the quickest way to be asked to leave the track.
As the starter waves you forward,...
As the starter waves you forward, you might not know exactly where the starting line is. Now is the time to concentrate on the Christmas tree. The seven lights on each side play an important part in getting you race ready. Shown here are the pre-stage and stage light photocells on the track surface (arrows). Your front tires will block these and illuminate the proper light on the tree.
The first photocell you'll...
The first photocell you'll come to is for the pre-stage light. This pair of yellow lights at the top of the tree tells you that you're almost to the starting line. Just a few more inches (7 to be exact) and you'll be blocking the stage beam and ready to start the race.
Rolling forward to the point...
Rolling forward to the point you illuminate the stage lights at the top of the tree tells the starter you are ready to start the race. Most tracks encourage courtesy staging, that is, one driver pre-stages, then the other pre-stages. Going in and "double bulbing" someone by lighting up the pre-stage and stage bulbs before your opponent is ready isn't cool.
If you roll just a bit farther...
If you roll just a bit farther (and you must do it carefully) you can do what is called a deep-stage. Deep staging is when you roll far enough into the starting line that the pre-stage lights go out. This will actually raise your e.t. (make you slower), but will help your reaction time. For test-and-tune nights, it's nothing to concern yourself with, but if you get into competition it's something to consider, as many races are won by reaction time.
Once both cars are fully staged...
Once both cars are fully staged the starter will initiate the countdown clock. Most of you will see what is called a "full tree" with each amber light illuminating for a half second, counting down to the green light start. Most street cars can usually leave on the last amber light, but as we said earlier you can wait for the green light to illuminate and not worry about reaction time right now.
While we've never seen it...
While we've never seen it used in test-and-tune practice, you might have seen a much faster countdown when watching a race. This is called a "pro tree" and the amber lights all flash at once and then 0.400-second later, the green light comes on. If you get the urge to go class racing you might come upon a pro tree, so know the class rules.
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.