Drag Racing 101

Not all of us were born in the staging lanes, and most people think that a Christmas Tree is something you hang ornaments on. Here is a very Non-Technical Guide to Drag Racing that I hope will help anyone new to the sport, or anyone that just has a basic interest in it.

What Is Drag Racing?

What Is Bracket Racing?

What Is A Christmas Tree?

Why Do Racers Tech Their Cars?

What Is A Timeslip?

Drag Race Terminology

What Is Drag Racing?

Drag racing began in the USA in the late 1920’s when young people would race each other away from the traffic lights down the main `drag’ (highway) of small American towns. As Police clamped down on this illegal activity, car clubs formed and these people in their `souped up’ vehicles (`Hot Rods’) moved from the highways to disused airfields and dry lake beds. Then in 1951 the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) was formed which established a set of safety rules. Permanent drag racing facilities (`drag strips’) were then set up over the whole of the USA.

Theoretically, drag racing is a very simple sport. Basically it’s a sprint race from a standing start over a 1/4 mile (or 1/8 mile) for two vehicles. The race is started by means of an electric device commonly called a “Christmas Tree” or “Tree”. Upon leaving the starting line, each contestants vehicle activates a timer which is, in turn, stopped when that same vehicle reaches the finish line. This starting line to finish line clocking is the vehicles E.T. (elapsed time). So, whoever has the fastest E.T. wins the drag race.

Drag race contestants are grouped together in what are called “classes” to ensure that like is matched with like. Normally, this grouping is done by racers themselves forming clubs, specifically for a certain type of vehicle, which then separate their members into various classes.

Examples of classes you might hear about are; street, super-street, pro-street, comp-bike, funny car, funny bike, pro-stock, pro-mod, top-fuel, top-gas, super-gas, etc., etc. Each separate club has its rules about what classifies are what but all are bound by the rules of the sport’s governing bodies (such as NHRA, IHRA, etc.)

What Is Bracket Racing?

In a heads-up drag race, the first car to the finish line wins. Bracket Racing simply put is Handicapped Racing. What I mean is, that it doesn’t matter how quick or how slow your car is. You choose the e.t. your car can run consistently, and that’s the number you write in shoe polish on your widow. That number tells the tower your handicap, and is usually called a “dialed-in” number, which is the time you think you are going to run.

Let’s say you dial in a 14.20 et while your competitor dials a 13.00. Since his car is quicker by 1.20 seconds, you get that much of a head start. Theoretically, if both cars run right on to dial-ins, it should be a dead-even race.

To make it fair, racers cannot run quicker that their dial-ins. Suppose you’d run 14.19 on that 14.20, running .01 seconds quicker than your dial-in. This is called “breaking out”, which means you lose. However, there’s also the distinct and common possibility that both cars will break out. In this case, the car that breaks out the least wins. Let’s say you ran a 14.19 with a 14.20 dial while your competitor ran 12.96 against his 13.00. Since he broke out by .04 and you broke out by only .01 second, you would win regardless of who arrived at the finish line first.

Bracket Racing’s Golden Rule: Consistency Wins Races.

What Is A Christmas Tree?

One of the most noticeable items on the track, besides the racers and their vehicles, are the starting lights. That’s the pole with all the pretty lights on it. Racers commonly refer to it as the “Christmas Tree” or simply the “Tree”

The tree is used to position the racers correctly and to start the race.

How A Christmas Tree Works

What Is Bracket Racing?

In a heads-up drag race, the first car to the finish line wins. Bracket Racing simply put is Handicapped Racing. What I mean is, that it doesn’t matter how quick or how slow your car is. You choose the e.t. your car can run consistently, and that’s the number you write in shoe polish on your widow. That number tells the tower your handicap, and is usually called a “dialed-in” number, which is the time you think you are going to run.

Let’s say you dial in a 14.20 et while your competitor dials a 13.00. Since his car is quicker by 1.20 seconds, you get that much of a head start. Theoretically, if both cars run right on to dial-ins, it should be a dead-even race.

To make it fair, racers cannot run quicker that their dial-ins. Suppose you’d run 14.19 on that 14.20, running .01 seconds quicker than your dial-in. This is called “breaking out”, which means you lose. However, there’s also the distinct and common possibility that both cars will break out. In this case, the car that breaks out the least wins. Let’s say you ran a 14.19 with a 14.20 dial while your competitor ran 12.96 against his 13.00. Since he broke out by .04 and you broke out by only .01 second, you would win regardless of who arrived at the finish line first.

Bracket Racing’s Golden Rule: Consistency Wins Races.

What Is A Christmas Tree?

One of the most noticeable items on the track, besides the racers and their vehicles, are the starting lights. That’s the pole with all the pretty lights on it. Racers commonly refer to it as the “Christmas Tree” or simply the “Tree”

The tree is used to position the racers correctly and to start the race.

How A Christmas Tree Works

Pre-Staging Lights

These are the lights at the very top of the tree.

They are connected to a laser beam at the ground level about 4 inches from the starting line.

The pre-staging lights will come on when you edge your car up towards the line, and the beam is crossed. There is one set of pre-staging lights on eah side of the Christmas Tree for the racer on the left and on the right.

When two opponents line up on the track, they both move into position so each one triggers the pre-staging lights. They are then both Pre-staged.

Staging Lights

The staging light are positioned right below the Pre-staging light, and are similarly connected to a laser beam at ground level. But this beam is right on the starting line. After the two opponents are Pre-staged, they both inch up until their tires break the staging beam. When both are in position, the race sequence begins.

Amber Lights

Sportsman TreePro Tree

Below the staging lights are the three amber lights which are in a row. The purpose of these lights is to give the racers a timing sequence for when the Green light comes on.

At this point, it is important to mention that there are two types of trees, “Sportsman” and “Pro” trees.

The sportsman tree counts down. The lights are spaced .500 of a second apart.

On the pro tree, however, all three ambers flash on together, followed by the green light .400 seconds later.

This is why a .500 reaction time is perfect on the sportsman tree and .400 is perfect on the pro tree.

Green Light

This means GO! Actually, it’s a common practice among drag racers to actually stomp on the gas petal when the last amber light is on. That way, by the time the car reacts to you telling it to go, the green light will have come on, and your reaction time will be low. Your reaction time is the difference between when the green light came on, and the time you left the starting line. A good reaction time can help you win the race. After your tire clears the second laser beam, is when the timer starts for your run. The timer stops when you pass the finish line 1/4 mile down the track.

Red Light
A red light means that you left the starting line before the green light came on. You are automatically disqualified and your opponent wins. You don’t ever want to see a red light!

Why Do They Call Racers Up To Tech Their Cars

Although street racing is all about natural selection, every form of legal organized drag racing has rules to keep stupid people from killing themselves. The rules will vary from place to place, but here are some common ones:

For cars that run E.T’s 12.00 and slower

  • Make sure your battery is strapped in well.
  • Make sure your coolant overflow is in operational condition.
  • Make sure your tires are within reasonable condition.
  • Make sure you have a SN95 rated Helmet.
  • Shorts and tank tops are not allowed while you race, so at the very least bring a short or long sleeved shirt and long pants with you.
  • If you are running aftermarket wheels, make sure your studs come out at a distance that is at least equal to the diameter of the stud below the rim of the stud.
  • Make sure none of your studs or lugnuts are broken.
  • If you have a convertible, you must have a 5 point rollbar installed if you run 13.99 or quicker
  • Make sure your seatbelt is fully functional
  • NO LEAKS, such as oil or antifreeze.
  • Make sure your shifter has the ability to lock-out the ignition if in gear.
  • If you have hubcaps, remove them.
  • Common sense goes a long way.

For cars that run E.T.’s 11.99-11.00

  • All of the above.
  • Fire Jacket – SFI spec 3.2 A/1 (should be clearly labeled on the jacket)
  • 5 point 3″ Driver Restraint System. Must be labeled SFI spec 16.1 System must also have manufacture date shown. The restraint system must be updated every 2 years.
  • 5 point rollbar. Check your sanctioning bodies rulebook for detailed specifics.

For cars that run E.T.’s 10.99 or quicker, again, refer to your rulebook.

In closing, racers need to be prepared, they need to get their hood open, have their drivers license available and most importantly have a good attitude.

The E.T. Timeslip

After the race is done and the drivers are heading back to the pits, you’ll see them stop at a ticket booth. They pull up and grab a ticket from the attendant. This ticket is called their E.T. slip or their Timeslip. The E.T. slip will typically have the following information.

In this example, let’s pretend you are in the left lane. You will see that your reaction time (RT) is .502. The reaction time is not part of your E.T.

The times in mph are self explanatory. They are the actual times and mph you were at as you crossed the beams at each distance.

The 1.486 at the bottom of the timeslip indicates that you won by a total of 1.486 seconds. This time does, however include the reaction time.

Terminology You Might Hear

Bracket racing – Cars are grouped for competition according to their performance levels, these groups are called brackets; for example, all cars that run 14 seconds or slower are in the “street” bracket.

Breakout – Used only in handicap racing, “breakout” refers to a contestant running quicker than he or she “dialed” his or her vehicle (predicted how quick it would run). Unless the opponent commits a more serious foul (e.g., red-lights, crosses the centerline), the driver who breaks out loses. If both drivers break out, the one who runs closest to his or her dial is the winner.

Burnout- Spinning the rear tires in water to heat and clean them prior to a run for better traction. A burnout precedes every run.

Classes – Groups racers put themselves into, to make sure that like races like.

Christmas tree – The starting lights. It’s used to position the racers correctly and to start the race.

Deep stage – To roll a few inches farther into the beams after staging, which causes the pre-stage lights to go out. In that position, a driver is closer to the finish line but dangerously close to a foul start.

Dial-in – The E.T. you think your car is going to run, determined by your time trials.

Diaper – An absorbent blanket made from ballistic material, often Kevlar, that surrounds the oil pan to contain oil and parts in case of an engine explosion.

E.T. – (elapsed time) – The time it takes a vehicle to travel from the starting line to the finish line.

Eliminations – After qualifying, vehicles race two at a time, resulting in one winner from each pair. Winners continue in tournament-style competition until one remains.

Full Tree – (Sportsman Tree) – Used in Competition, Super Stock, and Stock, for which a handicap starting system is used to equalize competition. The three amber bulbs on the Christmas Tree flash consecutively five-tenths of a second apart, followed five-tenths later by the green starting light. A perfect reaction time on a full Tree is .500.

Grudge – The most basic form of drag racing. Both racers start at the same time and whoever crosses the line first wins.

Heads Up – Is the purest form of racing based on an even start with the first vehicle to reach the finish line being the winner.

Handicap Racing – Handicapping compensates for the difference between competing vehicles to produce closer and more exiting racing.

Holeshot – When a driver reacts quicker to the Christmas Tree to win a race against an opponent with a quicker e.t.

Interval timers – Part of a secondary timing system that records elapsed times, primarily for the racers’ benefit, at 60, 330, 660, and 1,000 feet.

Nitromethane – Produced specifically as a fuel for drag racing, it is the result of a chemical reaction between nitric acid and propane.

Nitrous oxide – Adds serious horsepower to a car, in sanctioned drag racing it is like a wild card–it can get the job done but extra horsepower can easily lead to a break out or a breakdown.

Pit – The area where cars come in for fuel, tires, adjustments and repairs during on-track sessions. The name originated from early race tracks, where the mechanics actually stood in a shallow pit where they could duck if an out-of-control car came their way.

Pre-stage – To position the front wheels about seven inches behind the starting line so the small yellow lights atop that driver’s side of the Christmas Tree are glowing.

Pro Tree – Used in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock, Pro Stock Truck, Pro Stock Bike, Federal-Mogul Dragster, Federal-Mogul Funny Car, Super Comp, Super Gas, and Super Street, which feature heads-up competition. All three large amber lights on the Christmas Tree flash simultaneously, followed four-tenths of a second later by the green starting light. A perfect reaction time on a Pro Tree is .400.

Qualifying – Qualifying determines starting positions, and usually consists of the combined results from two on-track sessions. Each car is timed, and the starting grid is determined by the order of fastest cars.

Reaction time – The time it takes a driver to react to the green starting light on the Christmas Tree, measured in thousandths of a second. The reaction-time counter begins when the last amber light flashes on the Tree and stops when the vehicle clears the stage beam.

Red-light – This occurs when the driver reacts too quickly and drives away from the starting line before the green light activates.

Sandbagging Finish-line driving – It’s like slowing down the car and trying to pace the other racer so that he breaks out or at least breaks out more than you do.

Slicks – Race only tires with no tread designed for maximum traction on dry surfaces.

Speed Trap – This is the last 60 feet to the finish line. It is in this area that the speed is recorded. The second set of numbers-the bottom set-is the speed that has been recorded in the “speed trap”.

Stage – To position the front wheels right on the starting line so the small yellow lights below the pre-stage lights are glowing. Once both drivers are staged, the calibrated countdown may begin.

Staging lanes – That’s where you see all the cars that are going to race line up and wait and wait and wait until it’s their turn to do their thing.

Tech – Tech inspection is where the track inspectors check over your vehicle and make sure that you have the minimum safety requirements.

Timeslip – This is a ticket that you’re given after you race. It’s basically a chart showing what your E.T. and speed was at various points along the track, during your race.

Wheelie bar(s) – Used to prevent excessive front-wheel lift.

© Copyright - Windsor Weekend / Chuck Fram 2021