Note: The advice here is meant to help at an organized race held at a drag strip. Remember kids, public roads are not a safe place for racing.

Odds are that if you have a drag strip in your area, they have fun nights where you can go race for a nominal fee. My local track has a variety of races that are open to anyone for $10. These vary from Test and Tune (just for fun/practice for the upcoming season) to grudge matches and import racing. For the most part, it's a good time and a lot of fun to meet people and see other cars in action. It can get a bit boring standing around waiting for your 15 seconds of racing, but there are plenty of people to talk to in order to kill time.

Before the Race

There's not a whole lot you need to do before you go. You do want to make sure your car is cleaned out, you really don't want loose crap laying around. Also make sure that your car is in good mechanical condition. Make sure your battery is bolted down tightly and your lugnuts are on good.

What to Bring

Depends on the type of race. Sunscreen if it's going to be a long day in the sun, maybe a cooler with some drinks. Shoe polish is a good idea, to write your number on the car. Some cds to listen to while waiting in line. That should do it. Check your track rules ahead of time, at our track you only need a helmet if your car runs sub 14 seconds, your mileage may vary.

Getting ready to race

Different tracks have different policies, I'll describe how it works at my track. First thing, you have to get your car inspected. They will take a look at the engine and a brief look at the car. You will need to fill out a waiver, and pick a number to mark on your car. You'll then head over to the lines. My track has 5 lanes going up to the track. When in doubt, ask. There may be special lanes that are only for motorcycles or really fast cars, so find out where you need to be. Then get ready to wait. Stay with your car so you can move up when the lanes advance. Run your car as little as possible, your engine produces more power when it is cool so you want to keep your engine as cool as possible. Don't run your air conditioning.

Once you are waived up to the line, slowly make your way up there. Before you pull up to the line, there is a thing called the water box. This is basically a section of asphault which has been hosed down. The purpose of this is so that you can do a nice burnout (due to decreased traction) and warm up your tires. YOU DO NOT WANT TO DO THIS! Yes, I know it looks cool, and I know you've seen it on TV, but it doesn't matter. Drag slicks have a very soft rubber and need to be heated up to fully inflate the tires and make them nice and sticky. If you do not have drag radials, all you are doing is decreasing your tire life. It will not get you any more traction, and because water will gather in the treads and get flung onto the wheel well, it will decrease your traction at launch. This is bad.

Instead, what you want to do is drive around the water box and give your tires a quick chirp if you can. If you have an automatic, don't worry about it, if you have a manual, just dump the clutch and spin the tires for maybe a second to remove any debris. Don't get carried away. Now start to pull up to the line, keeping an eye on the track official for guidance. Do not pull up the the tree, the starting line is before the tree. Watch the cars before you go, and keep an eye on the official. At this point, you should also have your seat belt on, your windows up, and your air conditioning and radio turned off.


Hopefully, you have watched other cars go so you know where to stage. There should be white lines painted on the track, or markers on the side which mark the staging area. Let the starter guide you, it's his job, watch him and not the track. Once you get into the staging area, drive up slowly. Keep an eye on the starter and the tree. When you see the first yellow light on the top of the tree come on, you are now pre-staged. Stop! You are not done yet, however it is courtesy to wait for the other car to pre-stage as well before you both stage. Check the other lane's tree and see if his pre-stage light is on. If it is, you are ready to stage.

At this point, to stage, you should only have to move forward a few inches. When you hit the stage mark (an infrared beam is interrupted by your wheels), the second yellow light on the tree will light. If you go too far and the first yellow light goes out, you are deep staged. Depending on the type of event, this may or may not be allowed, so keep an eye on the starter to see if he wants you to move back. For the most part, I wouldn't recommend deep staging to a beginner, but let's look at the effect. When you are deep staged, your tire is hanging over the front of the stage beam a bit. The actual starting beam is about 12" in front of the stage beam. If you are deep staged, this means you will get there quicker and have a faster reaction time because you have less distance to travel to get to the start. However, it also means you will be going slower at the start because you did not have as much time to build up speed before hitting the start. So the upshot is, deep staging tends to decrease your reaction time whereas normal staging will lead to a higher trap speed and a lower elapsed time.

What to do depends on your techinique and the type of race. For now, don't deep stage.

The Launch

The launch is the single most important part of the race, it is where many race are won or lost. You are now at the line, ready to go. Watch the tree. Keep an eye on it, you do not want to be caught off guard. Launch technique varies from car to car, and I'm not going to cover it all here, so let's just take a look at the differences between an automatic and manual transmission. Either way, it's a good idea to practice this in a parking lot before your first race.

Launching an Automatic

You have two options. The first is to just floor the gas. This is easy, but it's going to get you out of the start very quick. What you really want to do is brake torque your engine. Put the car in gear, and firmly plant you left foot on the brake. With your right foot, press down on the gas and rev up your engine. How fast to rev it up really depends on how much power your car has and how sticky your tires are. If you have no idea, 2,000 rpms is a good bet. If you don't have a tachometer, well, just guess...

Launching a Manual

This is a lot trickier... Put the car in first gear and keep the clutch down. Rev your engine up. The more low end torque you have, the less you need to rev it up. For a V8 with a lot of power, 2,000 rpm may be good. In my car with a V6 that has decent low end, I rev up to 3,500 rpm. If you have a small 4 cylinder engine that produces a lot of high end power but not much low end torque, you may need to rev it pretty high like 4,000+ rpm. Practice is the only way to find the sweet spot. There's also a tendency to bog the engine this way, where your rpm's drop and you find yourself with no power. Try to avoid this...

Now you have two choices. The first is to dump the clutch. What this means is that you quickly take your foot off the clutch while keeping your other foot on the gas. Whether this will work or not depends on the car. In a front wheel drive car, this will most likely just cause your wheels to spin like crazy. If you have a rear wheel drive car with sticky tires, it may work out pretty well. For front wheel drive cars, I strongly recommend slipping the clutch. What this involves is gradually letting the clutch out as you launch. This takes a lot of practice. What you want to do is use the clutch to manage the power so that your wheels slip ever so slightly. If you let it out too fast, you'll get too much wheelspin. If you let it out too slow, you won't get a good launch. It takes practice to get the feel for it, but once you do you will have a very fast launch. Of course, this is also bad for your clutch, so keep that in mind...

No matter how you launch, remember that your fastest launch occurs with very very slight wheelspin.

The Tree

There are three amber lights which lead to the start followed by the green light. These will light up .5 seconds apart. DO NOT LAUNCH ON THE GREEN LIGHT! The reaction timer starts on the third amber light. A perfect reaction time is thus .5 seconds because this is the time between the third amber light and the green light. Now, the problem here is that we humans have about a .5 second reaction time between when the light is lit and when we react to that and start driving. This means that if you go when you see the green, your reaction time will be about 1 second. The solution? Launch when you see the third amber light. Since this is about .5 seconds before the green, and your reaction time is about .5 seconds, you will have a near perfect launch (assuming you get a good launch). Of course this will vary from person to person, for example if you have good reaction time, you may launch too soon. You'll have to find your spot, but start on the third amber your first time out.

So there you have it, when you see the third amber light, let off the clutch or brake, hit the gas, and go. Now depending on how well your launch is, you might have to adjust this. For example, if your wheels spin like crazy, you'll need to let off the gas to get some traction. Now, if you launch too soon, a red light on the tree will light up and you are eliminated. Don't worry about it, just keep racing and try to adjust your reaction time next race.

Down the Track

The next most important thing you do is shifting. To get the fastest time possible, you want to shift so that after you shift, your engine is in it's maxium powerband. This is entirely dependant on your engine and gearing. For many cars, the redline is pretty close to the ideal place to shift, but not quite. To really find out, you need to get a dyno of your engine and find out what point in each gear will put you into the maximum powerband of the next gear. In my car, the 1-2 shift is best done at 100 rpm below redline, and the 2-3 shift is best done at 500 rpm below redline. Like I said, it really depends on the car and there's no good answer that is best for all cars. If you don't have a dyno to go by, just shift close to redline.

Shifting an Automatic

If you have an automatic, you have two choices. The first is to just start in drive and leave it in drive. This is easy and depending on the car, it may even give the fastest times. It really just depends on how well your ECU is programmed. For a performance oriented car, it may be pretty good. For an economy or family car, it's probably not. The second option is to shift manually by moving your gearshift into the various gears (1-2-D). Now, this doesn't really gain you anything in terms of faster shifts. What it does do is allow you to shift at the correct engine speed to maximize your powerband. The best way is to race and try both methods and see what works the best for your car.

Shifting a Manual

The goal here is to shift as fast as possible and at the correct speed to maximize your power after the shift. Shift 200-300 rpms before your optimal shift point. Since it takes time to react to what you see on the tachometer and it takes time to shift, you need to shift early in order to hit your ideal point. As for the actual shifting method, you can do a few different things. First, you can shift as you normally do when driving. This is the slowest way. Next, you can speed shift. This means you keep your right foot planted on the gas pedal while you shift. While this is the fastest way to shift and get's you the most power, it's also the worst for your clutch. What I suggest is doing a short shift. Basically, you want to quickly push your clutch in the minimum distance it takes to allow you to shift. Don't jam it to the floorboard, just quickly start depressing it, pop the car out of gear and into the next gear, and then release the clutch. The clutch motion should be smooth, don't jam it down and don't let it spring back up. While you are doing this, graudually ease off the gas and then back on. Practice this until you know how far you have to depress the clutch and you can do it quickly and smoothly.

Finishing Up

After your first race you should have an idea of what gear you can use as your cross the finish line. In my car, third gear tops out at about 90 mph and I finish at about 92-93 mph. If it's that close, you want to hold the gear rather than shifting. While you won't have peak power at the finish, you will save more time than if you shift. Almost all modern cars have a rev limiter that will stall the engine at about 500 RPM over the redline, so don't worry about revving it too high. If you hit your rev limiter on your first race, then shift next time... You really just have to go out and do it and learn where your car's limits are.

Keep your foot on the gas until you pass the finish line. Your trap speed is calculated by the average of two beams at the end of the track, so don't let up until your entire car is over the finish line. Then, gradually let off and brake, exiting the track at a slow and safe speed. Most tracks will have a timing booth on the exit lane, slowly pull up and grab your time.

Your Time Slip

The time slip will have several numbers on it. The ones that you most want to pay attention to are the reaction time, the 60' time, the elapsed time (ET), and the trap speed. Remember, the first person to the finish wins, not the person with the fastest time. If your reaction time is poor, your opponent may win even if you have a faster time. A .5 second reaction time is perfect, so this should be your goal to give your opponent no advantage.

Your 60' time is the key to determining how well you launched the car. Anything below 2 seconds is extremely good, however you are not likely to do this on street tires. A 60' time between 2 and 2.2 seconds is good for stree tires, if you're over 2.5 seconds you have some work to do. A high 60' time means that you either had too much wheelspin (preventing a good launch), or you did not have enough power (i.e. did not launch at a high enough RPM). Observe your time and adjust your launch strategy to improve it. If there are other people at the track with the same type of car as you, see how their time compared and see how you differ. You'll notice that when you have a lower 60' time, you will have a faster run as well, so work to improve your launch and 60' times.

Finally, you have the elapsed time and trap speed. The elapsed time is the time from when your tires clear the starting beam to when they hit the finish beam. The trap speed is the average of your speed over the two beams at the end of the track (the first is 66 feet before the finish). Obviously, a lower ET is better. Typically, cars with higher end power will have a higher trap speed than a car with more low end power that runs the same ET. For example, if a 4 cylinder and a V8 both run 14.8 seconds, the 4 cylinder will most likely have a higher trap speed.

Bracket Racing

Another thing you may find at your track are bracket races. This is a fun event to do, because it keeps your car very competitive even against faster cars. In a traditional race, the first car to the finish line wins. Not so in bracket racing. Bracket races divide cars into brackets based on their times. You typically start out with 2-3 practice races which have no bearing on the competition. Before the race, you have to "dial in" your car. That is, you have to guess what your ET will be for the race. Typically you will write this on your window with shoe polish. When you race, the winner is the person who is the closest to their dial in time without going under. For example, if you dial in at 14.6 and run 14.75, and your opponent dials in at 14.1 seconds and runs 14.4, you win even though he had a faster time because you were closer to your dial in. If you run faster than your dial in, it is called a breakout and you automatically lose. If you lose your race, you are out. If you win, you go on to the next round. The last race is between the final two cars, and the winner wins the event.

During the practice races, you want to try and get consistent so you can have a good prediction of what you will run. When you dial in, go at least .5 seconds below what you think you can run to give yourself a little extra cushion. To win at bracket racing, you really have to know what your car can do and be able to drive consistently. The practice races allow you to figure out how your car is doing on the current track surface and weather conditions, consistency and experience is the key.

Happy Driving!