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Drag Racing 101: From the desert to the tarmac

Drag Racing 101: From the desert to the tarmac image

Text: Angelo B. Puyat / Photos: Angelo Puyat, Brent Co | posted September 11, 2014 16:49

A brief history on drag racing and how to get into the sport

Before there was the NHRA (National Hot Rod Association), before Top Fuel dragsters, before those blue colored NOS bottles, heck even before Vin Diesel and Paul Walker (God rest his soul) were running 10 second cars, drag racing was alive and well.

The insatiable itch to prove that one is faster than the other, that primal need to be ahead of the other car, this is at the core of what drag racing is all about. Simple, yet fundamental to every man, woman, and even child who has methanol burning in their veins. You, me, and the finish line; those are all that matter.

How did this most basic urge evolve into the mega spectacle that we now enjoy today?

Old school drag cars

The Sport’s Roots

Racing folklore credits the Mojave Desert in California as the first proving grounds of drag racing’s pioneers as this was where hot-rodders would typically congregate and duel each other back in the 1930's. This was also where drivers first began breaking the 100 mile per hour (160 kilometers per hour) mark.

According to Hot Rod magazine, 1949 saw the first sanctioned drag racing competition thanks to the Santa Barbara Acceleration Association. The highlight of the event, held in the Santa Barbara airport, was a showdown between two local guy: a skilled mechanic named Fran Hernandez and a hardcore motorhead named Tom Cobbs.

In the book High Performance authored by Robert C. Post, Hernandez was depicted as a scrappy lad running a ‘32 Ford Coupe powered by a bored out 296 cubic inch Mercury V-8, while the well-heeled Cobbs stormed in with a 1929 Model-A sporting a ’34 V-8 and a Roots-type supercharger. Turns out displacement prevailed over forced induction as Hernandez took the victory.

US drag strip action

A certain Wally Parks, who was a mainstay of the Bonneville Salt Flats events in Utah, became a pivotal player in the drag scene. As the first president of the NHRA, he was responsible for NHRA's historic maiden drag race in 1953. This gathering featured a bevy of bone stock machines as well as tuned American metal blasting against each other in a safe and monitored environment care of the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds. It was a seminal gathering for the sport as people now had an organized venue for their speed runs.

As the 1960’s gave birth to the famed muscle cars; the stock class of earlier drag racers grew to the super stock class that featured more highly modified automobiles. Then in the 70’s the Pro Stock class was created to cater to guised up street cars that were heavily altered for drag strip performance.

And the rest -as they say- is history.

Drag racing in the Philippines

Filipino Flavor

Drag racing has been in the country for decades, thanks to the influence of the American bases using our 7,000 or so islands as an outpost. Eighties babies will remember their dads, uncles, and brothers cruising to Greenhills on a fine Saturday night looking for a run in their twin carbureted Toyota Starlets, Lancer box-types and maybe even the more exotic Ford Capris and using White Plains Avenue as their playground.

It wasn’t until the turn of the millennium when organized drag racing really took an upswing, as formal organizers began taking the races from the dangers of the street to the safety of the strip.

The Angeles Hot Rod Association (AHRA) was one of the few groups with a professional lighting system (the Christmas Tree) for drag and as the local governing body to push the sport.

AutoIndustriya.com at the MHC 

Autoindustriya.com was one of the first outfits to document and report the drags happening at the Manila Harbor Center at North Harbor in Manila. Along with the now defunct Dragracingpinoy.com, organizers such as ProSpeed and the PDRF (Philippine Drag Racing Familysport nee Federation) had a venue for broadcasting their races. At the same time, a healthy scene in Angeles, Pampanga was also growing thanks to the airstrip in Omni Aviation. Not to be outdone, Cebu also had its hat in the now growing sport of legal drag racing.

 

The early 2000s also saw the influx of new technology. “Old school” carbureted compacts were now replaced by fuel injected and turbocharged Civics, Lancer Evolutions and Skylines. Autoplus, Matonetics, and Redline were the tuning houses ruling the field, as the quest for the country’s quickest times rested on these titans. Fil Gulfin, who also did some regulatory work for the AAP, remained the main go-to-guy for old-school racers. Of course, Angeles-based Ken Kepner and John Rizya faithfully stood as the few stalwarts of American Muscle in the country with the AHRA.

Port-A-Tree Timing System

Lights, rev, action!

Think of drag racing as the “gateway drug” to motorsport. Like karting, it’s one of the disciplines that has a relatively low barrier to entry and ease of accessibility. As I said, it’s all about you, the other guy, and the finish line. All you need is a car and a straight piece of tarmac. Of course, a car that can get you sooner to the quarter mile (¼ mile = 400 meters = 1320 feet), would be preferable, but running an econobox is not against the law.

For the purposes of this article, drag racing is strictly confined to organized races held in closed and secured premises. Street racing, the kind that you see in Hollywood and video games, is not to be condoned.

The first thing that you will have to familiarize yourself with is the lighting mechanism on the start line with a set of laser sensors arrayed on the track, otherwise known as the Christmas Tree for its use of colored lights.

Two rows of lights line the tree, one for the left and the right lane of the strip. Atop the tree are double levels of tiny yellow bulbs which for the pre-stage. According to NHRA, pre-stage means the wheels of the vehicle are approximately seven inches from the start line. The second level of tiny bulbs is for “stage”, which means the car’s wheels are exactly mounted on the start line.

Drivers need to be very precise from this point onwards, since the tiniest of movements might merit a disqualification. It is possible to trip the pre-stage lights and still do a legit run, but trip the stage lights and you’re toast.

Next, a row of larger, sequential lights make up the tree in this exact order from top to bottom: three yellows, one green and then one red. In the Pro-Class where competitors run heads-up (meaning both cars launch at the same time) all three yellow lights will light up together, then followed by the green light exactly four-tenths of a second later. If the driver leaves the line before the green light fires, a foul start is issued (indicated by the red light) and that driver is disqualified.

In the bracket racing or handicap classes, drivers are held to their submitted dial-in times, and cannot run quicker than the said time (otherwise called a break out). For instance, if your dial in time is 9.0 seconds, you can’t do an 8.99 second pass. You can of course run slower, meaning 9.01 and on, to your detriment. This is to allow cars of different capabilities to run in the same class, where consistency and precision are far more important than outright horsepower.

With bracket racing, the first yellow light ignites, followed by the second, and the third, and finally the green, each five-tenths of a second apart. One side's lights will take off before the other (hence the handicap) followed shortly by the other with the time gap determined by the dial-in times. In theory, if both drivers hit their respective dial in times and react to the lights perfectly, they should cross the finish line at the exact same moment. Again, taking off before the green fires merits a DQ.

New to drag racing 

So what’s a newbie to do?

For the Pro-Class or heads up style, all you need is a decent reaction time and then it’s guns blazing run to the finish line. What that means is that they have to take off as close to the .400 mark without going below. In the true spirit of drag racing, this is the epitome of the game wherein the quickest vehicle and driver will win.

If you’re a newbie, chances are you will be competing in the bracket racing class. The beauty here is there’s more gamesmanship involved because of the time disparity allowed between competitors. In heads up style, both racers are out of the gates at the same time. Here, you can find yourself waiting for a second or more (which is like eternity), before your side of the tree lights up. Get too anxious or jumpy, and bam you just red lighted! Game over!

So the first thing on your strategy is never, ever, red light. The perfect reaction time (RT) for handicap racing is .500, so just try to remain as close to this during your runs. Aim at keeping your RT to within less than a second, as a slow RT would add unnecessary padding to your elapsed time or ET (time it takes from start line to finish). This effectively puts you further from your dialed-in time.

Having said that, a slow RT is infinitely better than a red light. At least you’re still in the game, which gives you a chance at winning, as your opponent can mess up, miss his shifts and leave the door open for you to collect the pieces and the win.

Bracket Racing

The second strategy pertinent to bracket racing is being faithful to your dial-in times. Once you submit your time for a specific run, commit to it. Because if you run quicker, you will be issued a breakout run and is an automatic loss. This also serves as a deterrent for guys who “sandbag” their times just in case they need that extra advantage during a race.

The third is to keep your shifts consistent. It's essential for someone getting into drag racing to have a good, easy-to-read tachometer so you know exactly when to shift. This is also the reason why drag races tend to like big bright shift lights. By shifting gears at the precise RPM every single time for every gear on the drag strip, chances are you'll meet the same time as your dial-in. Avoid changing the RPM mark in which you shift gears.

Of course, the fourth strategy that racers must keep in mind is doing a clean burnout. Apart from being a gross display of power, burning out actually cleans the surface of your tires ensuring optimal grip. It also brings up the temperature of your gumballs for that all important hole-shot. And even if you don’t run full slicks, its just plain juvenile fun, so go for it!

Drag engine setup

Equipping your ride

As mentioned, the Pro-Class is reserved for the big boys, so neophytes may want to skip this part. Here you have the fully modified race cars with little or no regard to streetability. The sky is the limit and your ET is only limited by your credit card and technology. This is also where vehicles are built with roll-cages and additional stiffeners, because at the speeds they’re running, you do want protection.

In the bracket racing class, since submitted times cap your run, mods may or may not improve your chances of winning. Suffice to say, bone stock cars may serve to be the best venue to start with since their factory specs ensure vehicle performance will constantly be the same.

Take it on the strip

But where’s the fun in that?

The local aftermarket scene is now ripe with all of the go-fast parts one can crave for, so new racers have so many options to play with. Before you go hot rodding your daily driver, it would be wise to begin with the end in mind, as with most things in life.

What will your ultimate goal be? Will it be a quest for the lowest ET possible given your car’s platform, meaning no consideration for streetabilty and reliability? Or will you be doubling your steed as race-car and grocery-getter at the same time? If it’s the latter, then it's best to keep the mods conservative. Maybe a simple intake and exhaust upgrade will do, given your car that racier note while shaving a tenth from your ET. Otherwise, if versatility can go out the window, feel free to go wild on those forged pistons and big turbos.

Same goes for other aspects of the vehicle like suspension, gearing, body lightening, and others. Assess first what the new improvements will compromise, and decide whether the consequences are acceptable.

If you must change something though, invest in a good set of tires, and extras if need be. A set of new, grippy tires will have the most immediate impact on your performance, and are easily installable when you need them.

Team ACR from Cebu

Take it to the strip

Indeed, drag racing’s biggest allure is the instant gratification it provides, with its combustible mix of horsepower, technique, and thrill. Once you cross the line seeing the other car in your rearview mirror, it rarely gets better than that.

We are fortunate that there is already an established scene where drivers can race to their heart’s content. These organized events not only make the races more competitive, but safer for all.

In my past youth (with its naivety and exuberance) made me look at those street races with a dazzling eye. The scene, the energy, the cars…it was all exciting!

But sober up with a little wisdom and age, not to mention seeing people I know get hurt on the street, urges me to plead racers to just dish out all that horsepower and rubber on the racetrack. Really it is not worth risking life and limb, not just yours but of other motorists as well when you go out racing on public roads.

Like I said, we already have the organized races and proper venues so, as that old adage goes, do it on the strip and not on the street.

Currently, there are only two tracks that hold sanctioned drag racing events on a seasonal basis - the Batangas Racing Circuit and the Clark International Speedway.