A drag race is an acceleration contest from a standing start between two vehicles over a measured distance. The accepted standard for that distance is a quarter-mile (1,320 feet), but sometimes it is an eighth-mile (660 feet). A drag racing event is a series of such two-vehicle, tournament-style eliminations. The losing driver in each race is eliminated, and the winning drivers progress until one driver remains.

These contests are started by means of an electronic device commonly called a Christmas Tree, because of its multicolored starting lights. On each side of the Tree are seven lights: two small amber lights at the top of the fixture, followed in descending order by three larger amber bulbs, a green bulb, and a red bulb.

Two light beams cross the starting-line area and connect to trackside photocells, which are wired to the Christmas Tree and electronic timers in the control tower. When the front tires of a vehicle break the first light beam, called the prestage beam, the pre-stage light on the Christmas Tree indicates that the racer is approximately seven inches from the starting line.

When the racer rolls forward into the stage beam, the front tires are positioned exactly on the starting line and the stage bulb is lit on the Tree, which indicates that the vehicle is ready to race. When both vehicles are fully staged, the starter will activate the Tree, and each driver will focus on the three large amber lights on his or her side of the Tree.

Depending on the type of racing, all three large amber lights will flash simultaneously, followed four-tenths of a second later by the green light (called a Pro Tree), or the three bulbs will flash consecutively five-tenths of a second apart, followed five-tenths later by the green light (called a Sportsman, or full, Tree). 

Two Separate performances are monitored for each run: elapsed time and speed. Upon leaving the staging beams, each vehicle activates an elapsed-time clock, which is stopped when that vehicle reaches the finish line. The start-to-finish clocking is the vehicle’s elapsed time (e.t.), which serves to measure performance. Speed is measured in a 60-foot “speed trap”that ends at the finish line. Each lane is timed independently.

The first vehicle across the finish line wins, unless, in applicable categories, it runs quicker than its dial-in or index. A racer also may be disqualified for leaving the starting line too soon, leaving the lane boundary (either by crossing the centerline, touching the guardwall or guardrail, or striking a track fixture such as the photocells), failing to stage, or failing a post-run inspection (in NHRA class racing, vehicles usually are weighed and their fuel checked after each run, and a complete engine teardown is done after an event victory).

Drivers that practice regularly become “good” drivers. However, knowing how to practice, and knowing the relationship of reaction time/elapsed time/winning/losing can help you progress faster.

Pre Race Tips

Here is a list of general things you will need before you head down to the drag strip. Note that the procedures and rules sometimes vary from one drag strip to another so if in doubt, call ahead to verify.

  1. Car
  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 day’s weather. It’s cooler at night so bring a jacket. NHRA rules say no shorts or tank tops. Long pants and shoes are required!
  6. Sunscreen.
  7. Helmet (required by NHRA rules if your car runs 13.99 or quicker or if you have a convertible or motorcycle)
  8. Money
  9. Bug repellant
  10. Fold up chairs
  11. Ice chest (glass is a no-no)

Once you get to the drag strip, follow these easy instructions.

    • At the pit gate, pay your entry fee, and get your “tech card”.
    • 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.
    • 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.
    • 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 driveshaft loop and a helmet with you. If you are doing better than a 11.99, things get substantially more complicated. The tech inspector will write your cars number on your side and front windows where it will be visible to the tower.
    • 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 is where you thank yourself for removing home plate!). 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!
  • While stiff, lowered springs are great for handling on the street, they really hurt you at the drag strip. For maximum bite at launch, you want all of the car’s weight to transfer to the rear wheels. Thus, you want nice, soft springs that allow the rear to “squat down” and take the weight.

Staging Lanes

    • When the announcer calls for staging lanes to be open, pull into your proper lanes. Smaller tracks only have two. Bigger tracks have differant classes split to differant lanes. Again, ask, or refer to any documentation that you were given when you paid your entry fee.
    • 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. Ask if you are unsure.
    • Once you are in the lanes, stay with your car.
    • 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.
  • 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!


You are finally at the front of the line and you are motioned into the burnout area. Follow these tips.

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

Staging and Launch

You’ve done your burnout (or more likely not), and now are motioned towards the staging area. Follow these steps for this crucial start of the race.

    • Make sure your numbers and dial-in (if applicable) are visible from the tower.
    • 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.
    • 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). If you go to far, the lights will turn off. Put it in reverse and try again.
    • Take your time! Nobody will rush you! The 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.
    • 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.
    • When the starter motions us to stage, slowly drive into the first light. The transmission is placed in neutral and the throttle is blipped hard enough to open the carburetor secondaries. (This assures the intake system has not loaded up which could cause a hesitation when the throttle is floored to leave.) After the other driver has turned on the top light, raise the RPM to 1200 to 1300 (or whatever RPM at which you leave) and bump the car forward using the foot brake while holding the throttle steady. When the second stage light barely lights, I stop. The RPM has already been set so you don’t have to look away from the starting lights. When you see the third starting light, floor the throttle while simultaneously releasing the foot brake.
    • This routine has been worked out based on the front tire diameter (rollout), the rate at which the car moves upon initial acceleration, and upon my brain-to-feet reaction time. You may have different ways of staging, but the important aspect is to be consistent and practice your system each and every run.
    • 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.

The Actual Run

Do not waste any runs! Try to improve your reaction time each run, regardless of whether you are tuning or checking out your vehicle. Work out your staging routine and then follow it exactly each run. I use the following procedure each run of practice and elimination’s.


This is a good time to talk about “rollout”. Rollout is the actual distance your car must move from the staged position until the starting circuit for the E.T. timers is activated. Obviously, the staged position is a significant factor, but the front tire diameter also has a fairly large effect. If you have smaller diameter tires, you will need to drive slightly further forward to turn on the “stage” light, and the rear portion of your smaller tire will reach the starting line quicker when you “leave”. That would indicate that you would need to leave later on the light sequence to avoid redlighting. Conversely, if your front tires were larger diameter, the reverse is true, and you could leave earlier on the sequence. I took advantage of this rollout variance by switching from P205/75 to P225/75 front tires. Presto, I can now leave at the beginning of the third yellow light! Understand that actual rollout distance is unimportant, but the overall combination of staging position, rollout, and acceleration capability of your vehicle are vitally important in obtaining good and consistent R.T.’s.

A word about front tires. In my opinion, the use of the skinny race style front tires on a street vehicle is extremely dangerous, and does not provide any measurable advantage at the drag strip. These tires simply do not have the load carrying capability for a normal street vehicle, and they positively do not have the braking capability needed for an emergency stop. The slight weight loss they may provide is more than offset by the quicker ET provided by a larger diameter tire. Concerning rolling resistance supposedly reduced by such “race”tires, most are bias belted, and radials of any diameter and moderate width (75 to 80 aspect ratio) will provide as good or better rolling resistance. Radials can be inflated up to the maximum rated pressure (listed on the side of the tires) for racing, and this reduces the rolling resistance even further. An added disadvantage of small diameter front tires is that they tend to lower the front end which will always adversely effect rear wheel traction. The vehicle should set level or slightly lower in the rear for best weight transfer.


Normal acceleration tends to raise the front of the vehicle, and that slight raising of the front when combined with forward acceleration, shifts more of the vehicle weight (load) to the rear More weight on the driving tires improves the tire adhesion to the road surface, and that improves traction. The style of rear suspension – leaf spring, four link coil suspension, independent rear suspension, etc., all have some effect on the weight transfer to the rear tires. The most practical things we can do to help traction include maintaining the springs in good condition (and not using spring boosters or air shocks with conventional suspension), good shocks, and correct ride height. I will briefly discuss traction aids later. Driving style was mentioned as a factor in traction With a normal driveable street vehicle, it is very important to apply engine power in a manner that will allow the vehicle to begin to lift the front and transfer weight to the rear before the full engine power hits the rear tires. For example: If the engine is torqued up against the converter the front tends to lift (although the same amount of weight is still on the front), and when the brakes are released, the full engine torque shocks the tires loose before the car can transfer any weight to the rear. Once the tires break loose, they can not obtain enough traction to cause the front to lift more, which would add more weight to the tires. If the driver will apply power in a more constant and gradual manner, the car will begin to transfer weight to the rear before the tires break loose, and this process can be extended until the throttle is completely open. Of course, other factors, such as reaction time, must be considered, and the complete driving style selected to complement you and your vehicle. The point is that simply flooring the throttle and letting the tires spin is not the best method to obtain good traction and the optimum ET.

Anything that reduces rolling resistance (increased front tire pressure, radial tires on front, properly adjusted wheel bearings, correct front end alignment, less total weight, etc.) will help.


In an earlier part, we discussed reaction time, and indicated that it is measured from the green light switch closure until the front tires leave the starting line. That is technically correct. However, if your local track’s clocks indicate a perfect light as .500, the reaction time is measured from the closing of the switch for the last yellow light until the front tires leave the starting line. If your track measures a perfect light as .000, it’s timers are measuring from the green light activation until your front tires leave the starting line. Both measurements tell you the same information, and your task is to obtain the quickest and most consistent R.T. possible.

Recall that elapsed time and reaction time are totally separate entities, but are closely intertwined in drag racing. Your E.T. will stay the same on a particular run whether your R.T. is .550 or .900, while your R.T. can be .550 each run, but the E.T. may change. To win regularly in bracket racing, your E.T. must be consistent and predictable, regardless of whether it is 14 seconds or 18 seconds and your R.T. must be reasonably good on every run.

Reaction time is the result of several factors. First is how you “read” the lights – that is when you give your car the command to leave. The next consideration is where in relation to the starting line that your car begins its acceleration. Finally, the rate at which your car accelerates after it receives your “go” command is of interest. None of these is more important than the other, and all must be factored in when practicing your driving. We recommended that you always stage to the point where the “stage” light barely lights. This places your vehicle the furthest from the actual starting line, which helps E.T., but most importantly, it provides a positive line. It takes a given time for any vehicle to begin to move after you command it. Accordingly, if you stage at a different position each run, it will take a different amount of time to reach the starting line and your reaction time will vary each run. Additionally, your elapsed time will vary because your car has a different distance to travel before the starting line is reached, and this causes your car to be running at a different speed when it actually crosses the starting line.

    • 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. A positraction unit 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. Also, some people use an airbag in one of the springs to combat the natural tendency of the drivetrain force to attempt to “roll” the car over on its side: the airbag keeps the entire car level and prevents the weight transfer to one wheel only.
    • You usually don’t gain anything by shifting an automatic by hand. Let the computer do it for you. You may want to put it in “D” instead of “OD” (if you have it), but it probably won’t make a difference. If you want to shift quicker/faster/better, get your PCM reprogrammed or buy a shift kit.
    • You probably don’t want to mash it to the floor immediately: you’re tires (and your ET!) will go up in smoke. Instead, “roll” the throttle towards the floor. You should be a WOT (Wide Open Throttle) in a second or a bit less.
    • 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 you right 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 will 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.
    • 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.
  • 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!

After the Run

After you cross the last timing light, follow these tips.

    • Ease off the gas and slowly apply the brakes. You have plenty of room to slow down and you definitely don’t want to lock your brakes.
    • 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! Accidents can (and do) happen.
    • 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!
    • When you get back to the pits, park and open the hood. 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 again.
  • 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 is where you thank yourself for removing home plate!). 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!


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