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Drag Racing:  Tips and Slips

Originally conceived by the Impala SS folks; edited for application:

This "tutorial", originally from Jeffrey Tyler, does a pretty good job of explaining the ins and outs of going to a drag strip.  To anyone who hasn't gone: give it a try!  It's a blast!  There's probably someone else on the list who will meet you there and swap stories with as well.  It's a great way to gauge the effectiveness of the modifications you make to your car.

General Tips

1.  If you don't know, ask!  Everyone at the track knows what it is like to be a first timer.  After all, nobody was born there.

2.  If you can find someone that has gone, go with them.  If not, then go to watch your first time.  Pay the extra $, and get on the pit side, you aren't going to learn much otherwise!  When you are ready to try your luck, most tracks have "test & tune" nights, or "street nights" where it is open for anyone to make as many passes as they want.  This is a great time for newbies to get out and try it without being under pressure.
Front Gate to Finish Line

1.  At the pit gate, pay your entry fee, and get your "tech card".

2.  Find a pit spot.  The pits get full later, so don't hog up a ton of spaces. Remove any loose items in your car, and fill out your tech card.

3.  When the announcer calls for tech inspection to be open, listen, and go where you are told.  If you don't understand, ask someone.  If you get there after tech has started, the attendant at the entrance can tell you where to go.

4.  Usually, even a relatively highly modified late model car can pass tech easily.  If you're running a 13.99 or quicker, you'll need to have a helmet with you.  The tech inspector will write your cars number on your side and front windows where it will be visible to the tower.

5.  When the announcer calls for staging lanes to be open, pull into your proper lanes.  Smaller tracks only have two.  Bigger tracks have different classes split to different lanes.  Again, ask, or refer to any documentation that you were given when you paid your entry fee.

6.  Once you are in the lanes, stay with your car.

7.  When it's time for the cars in your staging lane to pull forward and be positioned to race, a track official at the front of the lanes will direct you.  It is very, very important to pay attention! Watch the track officials at all times for proper direction.

8.  After you have been paired up out of the staging lanes and pull up next to the timing tower, be ready to go.  The track official at the water box will check to make sure your windows are rolled up, seatbelts are on, and if it is after dark, your parking lights are on. Even on a well lit track, it is hard to see you at the other end if you have turned off or not.  It would be a bad thing if you broke at the big end of the track, and they sent a pair of Pro Gas Camaros because they thought the track was clear!

9.  Go around the water box.  Do a short burnout to get the dirt off of your tires and heat them up a bit.  Hold the brake with your left foot, and goose it with your right for a couple of seconds.  You don't want to get near the water.  It will run in your tread, be thrown into your wheelwell, and drip on your tires and the track the whole run.  This is very dangerous for the "Big Boys" running slicks behind you, and could get you removed from the track.  Also, don't do your burnout in the water, as it tends to throw water all over everyone and everything within 50 yards of the starting line!  The car in line behind you will be very annoyed.

10.  Another thing that could get you removed is running your AC.  Water condensation drips onto the track.

11.  When you are told to, Pull your car toward the staging beams.  They are not located next to the Christmas tree!  Watch other racers to find where they are located.  When you get close, the top set of lights (pre-stage) will come on.  Now, slowly creep forward until the next set come on (staged).

12.  Take your time!  Nobody will rush you! T he starter knows the regulars, and he will realize you are a new face.  It is considered a courtesy to wait until your opponent has pre-staged before you stage.

13.  Find the yellow light just above the green, and concentrate on it!  Go when this last yellow comes on! If you wait till the green, you will get a terrible reaction time! .500 is perfect, .400 on a pro tree.

14.  If you feel things get out of hand (massive wheelspin or whatever), just back off for that run!  There'll be others!  Also, if it's your very first time down the track, you might not want to give it 100% the first time.  The track is a lot slicker than most roads, so be aware and be careful.

15.  Stay in your lane at all costs.  As you get close to the finish line (several car lengths ahead of the Crapstang), keep it on the floor!  The first set of beams you see set up are to start the MPH timers.  Find out exactly where the end of the quarter mile is!

16.  If you are in the right lane, and the track turn off's are on the left, then the other car has the right of way.  Do not turn in front of another car!  At the Texas Motorplex this year, a guy in a street car was racing a 10 second car.  The 10 second car had trouble on the line, and the street car got to the finish line first, but the 10 second car was now on the way.  The street car went for the first turn off, and turned in front of the other car that hit him running around 120 miles per hour.  That story should get anyone's attention.

17.  Proceed up the return road, and stop to get your ET slip.  Now is not the time to read it, wait till your in your pit.  There are a lot of people (kids) walking around, so go slow!
Bracket Racing

In most professional forms of drag racing, the first one to the finish line wins.  However, in bracket racing, that isn't always how it works out.  Usually, cars are separated into four "brackets": Super Pro (7.50 to 10.99 seconds), Pro (11.00 to 11.99 seconds), Sportsman (12.00 to 13.99 seconds), and Street (14.00+ seconds).  Since each of these categories contains a wide range of E.T.'s, you are handicapped based on a time that you predict you will run.  This is called your "dial in".  The person who runs closest to their dial-in without going faster wins the race.  If you go faster than your dial-in, you "break out" and automatically lose the race.

For example, if your Impala runs a consistent 15.10 and the Camaro you are racing dials in at 14.20, you would get a .90 second head start.  If you both got to the finish line at exactly your dial-in, the race is a tie.  In practice, this never happens due to differences in reaction times and vehicle performance.

The staging lights also measure how long it takes you to leave your staged position.  This is called your reaction time.  On test-n-tune nights, it isn't a big deal, but in bracket racing it is very important.  You must be consistent in your launch (via reaction time) and your car must be consistent in the quarter mile (via dial-in).  Your reaction time is usually expressed as a number indicating how long you leave after the last amber light comes on.  A perfect time would be .500, which is exactly when the green light comes on.  If you get under .500, you "red light" and lose the race.  If you take longer than .500, you will take longer to get to
the finish line, which can lose the race.

There are also different ways to "stage" in bracket racing.  All strips use the standard "Stage" and "PreStage" lights on top of the "Christmas tree" lights.  These lights are tied to two light beams that go across the track, one immediately after the other.  When your wheel breaks the first beam, you are "pre-staged".  This lets you know that you are getting close to the starting line.  As soon as you inch forward to the second beam, you light the "stage" lights.  As soon as both lights are lit on both sides of the track, the starter will begin the race.

The key to winning the race is a low reaction time and a consistent performance by your car.  Every millisecond difference from your dial-in and a perfect .500 reaction time hurts you. If you run faster than your dial-in, you automatically lose, so if you feel you are running too fast (as often happens as the night gets cooler), you might want to slow down just as you are approaching the finish line so that you don't go over your dial-in.  You might also want to do this if you are fairly sure that your opponent has broke out.

Eliminate variables between runs.  Keep your car in the same configuration, do you burnout and stage the same way, shift at the same points, and do everything else as consistently as possible to win a bracket race.  Compensate for changing track conditions using your dial-in (you can change it after each race).  Also remember that slower cars are often more consistent, so you don't need to try to eek every last HP out of the car for a bracket race.  Have fun!
Dragstrip Etiquette

1.  Don't start your burnout until directed by an official.  He'll usually give you some sort of hand signal.  Also make sure you are all the way on the track and facing directly forwards.

2.  Don't do burnouts in the water with treaded street tires.  Water gets into the treads and tracks all the way to the starting line.  This makes the drivers with slicks very angry. It won't help you're 1/4 mile times either.

3.  Don't do a John Force-style burnout (i.e. spinning the tires through and past the starting line, forcing you to back up) unless you don't have any front brakes and/or you are John Force.

4.  If you are bracket racing, don't lock up your brakes at the end of the track in an attempt to not "break out".  Locking 'em up at this speed could be very dangerous.  This isn't an issue for test-n-tune nights, but be sure you leave plenty of room to brake at the end of the track without doing a massive ABS stop.

5.  Some tracks employ a courtesy rule.  This means that the first car into the staging beams should light only the pre-stage light.  When the second car is is pre-staged, then either of you can move up slightly into the staging lights.

6.  Make sure your numbers and dial-in (if applicable) are visible from the tower.

7.  Make sure you get in the right staging lane, and make sure that you don't attempt to run in a class where your car would not be appropriate (e.g. you probably shouldn't end up racing a junior dragster in your SHO).  Ask if you are unsure.

Tricks And Tips

Some of these tips are best used by people who have been to the track a couple time and know what they are doing.  If it's your first time, just take a look around and see what the other people are doing.  I guarantee you'll see some of the stuff below.  After you're comfortable with the track, and know the etiquette rules, feel free to try some of the following suggestions to be a faster racer in your SHO.

In a SHO, you usually don't gain anything by shifting the automatic by hand. Let the computer do it for you. You may want to put it in "D" instead of "OD", but it probably won't make a difference. If you want to shift quicker/faster/better, get a chip.

You may want to preload the drivetrain a little bit to remove some of the shock from the system and also get a bit of a quicker launch.  This is done by "brake-torquing" the system: keeping your left foot firmly on the brake, depress the accelerator until your revs increase slightly. You don't want to do this too long, as your torque converter will overheat, nor to too high an RPM, as the engine will eventually overpower the brakes and move the car forward.  Also, launching at too high an RPM may just send the tires up, and that kills your ET.  Remember that all of that built up energy gets transfered to the tires:  pick an RPM where you won't bog and where you won't obliterate the tires.

Heat is your enemy: the hotter your engine is, the slower you will be.  Try not to idle the car any more that you have to.  Keep the hood open until you are ready to run.

To really keep the intake cool, take along a cooler and bag of ice.  Wrap the ice in a wad of towels and place it on top of your intake.  This will keep the intake very cold, and give you a nice boost of power.  Be sure to get the ice back in the cooler before you get on the track surface, and keep the water drippings out of the Optispark and plug wires!

Weight is your second enemy.  Remove all unnecessary items from the car, and make sure that you're fuel tank has around a 1/4 tank or so (less and you'll miss as the fuel sloshes, more and you'll be slower than you have to be).  In addition, some people remove the spare tire and jack at the track.  If you want to get really wild, you can start taking off interior pieced, the front sway bar, washer fluid, floor mats, etc.  Every little bit helps!

If you're looking for a quick ET (and don't care so much about winning the race), barely inch the car into the staging beams.  Your time doesn't start until the wheels no longer block the beam. By staging this way, you get an extra couple of inches to accelerate before your time is recorded.  Similarly, if you are interested in getting to the finish line first, go forward more.  Beware that some dragstrips are very strict about backing up if you go past` the staging lights.

If you are bracket racing, remember that consistency is the key, even if you are consistently slow.  Make a mental note of everything about the car: launch RPM, lane choice, temperature, length of burnout, etc.  You want all of these to remain constant for each run.  Even if you are not bracket racing, mentally keeping track of all of these variables will help you get to a better time.

Half of the battle at the drag strip is winning the launch.  If you can get a good, solid launch without spinning the tires, you've almost won the race.  An LSD goes a long way to helping this: it distributes torque to both wheels.  Make sure that you have the proper amount of additive in it and that both wheels are getting torque.

Driver Checklist For The Day

  1. Car (duh).
  2. 1/2 tank (possibly less) of gas.
  3. Pen (to fill out your tech card).
  4. White shoe polish, paper towels, and windex (if you need to change dial in's)
  5. Proper clothes for the days weather. Cooler at night. NHRA rules say no shorts or tank tops. Bring long pants.
  6. Sunscreen.
  7. Helmet (required by NHRA rules if your car runs 13.99 or quicker).
  8. Money.
  9. Bug repellant.
  10. Fold up chairs.
  11. Ice chest (glass is a no-no).


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