Wrenching on cars, restoring classic parts, spirited street driving, and even watching drag racing have been a long part of my life. As a reader of Cars Illustrated, I’m sure this applies to most of you as well. But as I have continued on my automotive journey, time, money, resources, circumstances, and even nerves have always kept drag racing in the realm of “spectator sport” for me. It was something I always wanted to participate in, but never had the intestinal fortitude to go out and put my beloved machine on the line. Until recently that is. Our buddy and my friend “the Janitor” wasn’t about to let me go another day without getting my car on the track. He promised to give me an experience that would get me hooked, and he delivered. Here are a few tips to help a first-timer get over the jitters and nerves to make for an enjoyable introductory trip to the drag strip.
Tip #1 – Plan ahead. A successful event begins long before you leave for the track. Have a good lunch/dinner. Food won’t be on your mind once you are fully immersed in the drag racing experience. It will be difficult to concentrate on how your car is running or your reaction time on the tree if your stomach is growling louder than a top fuel funny car. Get prepared. Make sure you have all the tools and fluids you may need in order to have a successful trip.
One of the biggest fears about taking a car to the track is the idea of having generally an embarrassing experience. Whether it is breaking some rule of etiquette or blowing an engine all over the track, I was afraid I would commit some gaffe that would set the entire local racing community laughing at me. I had been to the races about a bajillion times and knew in a sort of third-hand manner exactly how everything goes down without ever having done it myself. However, having an experienced drag racing friend there that could walk me through all the proverbial ‘pace notes’ and be a mentor greatly set my mind at ease.
Tip #2 – Ask around amongst your fellow car buddies. See if there is someone you know with experience that can accompany you and act as your mentor. Just having someone there to say “yep, you’re doing it right” can boost your confidence and take the guess work out of making your way to your first pass.
Technical inspection will be a part of every drag racing experience. Checking the track rules prior to arriving can help to make your trip through tech a lot easier and less stressful. Often times this information can be found on the drag strip’s website. They generally follow the rules of a larger governing body such as NHRA or IHRA. Some standard rules to remember are things such as, even on a hot day you are required to wear long pants and close toed shoes; no shorts and flip-flops. Other key items for the car are a battery hold down (no, your grandpa’s cow-gut bungee doesn’t count), a coolant overflow tank, and working seat belts.
Tip #3 – Know the layout of the track before arriving. Know where the pit areas are. After parking/unloading know where to go to pass technical inspection. Bring your tech card and safety equipment with you. As a first timer, there may be an additional fee to enter your information into the computerized time-keepingsystem.
After you’ve passed tech, it’s time to take a deep breath and relax. Perhaps even go watch a few passes of the racing veterans out there. Know where the staging lanes are and how they are arranged. Watch how they line up in the lanes. Consider lane choice and where you would like to be. Notice the race director as he selects cars to head for the line. Study how the cars approach the burnout box. Whether you are running slicks or street tires, know how to get lined up. Think about your pre-race routine. Make sure your windows are rolled up. Will you do a burnout? Big smoky burnouts look great, but street tires are designed to have more grip when they are cooler. Lighting them up can often make them more slippery with all the additional heat. Know which way to turn-out and how to get on to the return lane. Be familiar with where the timing station is located and where to get your time-slip before returning to your pit.
Tip #4 – Visualize. Go through an entire run in your head. See yourself going through all of these steps. Having a clear mental picture will prepare you for a successful trip up to the lights and avoid any silly mistakes that will cause embarrassment or delays. Remember the 7 “P”s; Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance.
Now you’ve made it to the lights. If you aren’t already familiar with the Christmas tree, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with how they work before heading to the track. Each lane has two sets of beams that help position the cars properly in their respective lanes to make for a fair race. As you approach the beams, the uppermost lights of the tree will come on consecutively. It’s considered good etiquette to trip the first pair of lights, or “pre-stage” lights and then wait for your opponent to do the same. After that, you may both enter the “staged” position which places you both on the starting line. Generally in this kind of racing you will be facing a Sportsman or Full tree. Once you are both staged, the Sportsman tree gives three yellows at .500 second intervals followed by a green. Launching at the lighting of the final yellow will generally allow you to leave the line with a very good reaction time, though this takes practice and may take several passes to get ‘dialed-in’.
Tip #5 – Don’t worry too much yet about how well you run. Just take it easy. Get a feel for it. Nobody goes out like John Force on their first run. Just concentrate on making a good, clean pass. The first time may feel like a blur, but trust me; the next passes just get easier and easier.
Congratulations! You’ve made your first ¼ mile pass. Check it off the list and get ready for your next pass. Look at your time-slip, see where you can make improvements, check fluids, and start to get mentally prepped to go again.
Now, for my first time to the strip, I thought I had a well sorted-out street car, but that’s where the drag strip can really show you a thing or two about you and your ride. My car would no longer rev past a certain point and turned in terrible numbers, but I had a blast anyhow. In a way it’s good because it just gives me that much more enthusiasm to get my car tuned better and go out and lay down a better time. And the best part is, next time, I won’t be a NOOB.
– Gas Pony Jack
Editor Note: Once again GPJ has come through with a great insight into the world of drag racing and made the point that no matter who you are you always can learn from other and if it looks like fun, it probably is….thanks GPJ for your contributions to Cars Illustrated Magazine, we hope to be along for the ride as you see just how far you can take that ‘Stang.