Straight-Line Fury: A Closer Look at Drag Racing

Like baseball, apple pie and Chuck Norris, drag racing is an American institution. Despite being inherently one-dimensional, it is perhaps the purest form of motorsport, offering nothing more than an outright measure of a car’s acceleration and top speed. Whether on a two-lane back road or a pro track, bragging rights are won and egos built on drag racing.

Excluding the mind-bending Top Fuel and Funny Car classes, where 7,000-hp, nitromethane-swilling monsters lurk, much of the appeal of drag racing is due to its accessibility by the Average Joe. No knowledge of heel-toe downshifting or late braking is necessary; if you can drive a car in a straight line without crashing, you’re already halfway there. Furthermore, the relatively low cost of entry makes it much easier for amateurs to get involved.

Unlike Formula 1 or NASCAR, with one lengthy race and only one winner, drag racing brings variety, and more importantly, instant gratification, to the table. Each pass down the strip can be considered its own event, short and sweet. This equates to a more exciting event with more than just one winner.

So you think you’d like to give drag racing a shot but don’t know where to begin? Or maybe you just want to check out an event but aren’t sure what to expect? Keep reading for a first-timer’s guide to the world of dragging. In this first installation, we’ll explain the basics of drag racing and focus on optimizing your experience as a spectator.

Dragging Basics

Founded in California in 1951 by Wally Parks, the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) is the largest motorsports sanctioning body in the world and regulates the vast majority of drag racing events in the United States.

In the most general terms possible, a drag race is simply an acceleration contest from a standing start between two vehicles over a measured distance; in most cases, either a ¼ mile (1320 ft.) or a 1/8 mile (660 ft.).

A lighted, electronic device, referred to as a "Christmas Tree,” is activated as each vehicle leaves the starting line and stopped when it crosses the finish line. This represents the vehicle’s E.T. (Elapsed Time), which measures its performance and determines handicaps. Two different types of Tree are used in drag racing. On a "Full Tree,” three amber lights consecutively illuminate 5/10ths of a second apart, followed by the green starting light after another 5/10ths. A "Pro Tree” requires quicker driver reflexes, as all three amber lights flash simultaneously, followed 4/10ths of a second later by the green light.

Reaction time is another crucial factor in drag racing, and is used to decide the victor in the event both cars have the exact same E.T. Measured in 1000ths of a second, reaction time starts when the last amber light flashes on the Tree and stops once the vehicle clears the stage beam.

Interval timers comprise a secondary timing system that records elapsed times, primarily for the competitors’ benefit, at 60, 330, 660 and 1,000 feet. The 60-foot time is the most accurate measure of the launch and usually determines how quick the remainder of the pass will be.

"Pre-staging” describes the act of positioning a car’s front wheels about seven inches behind the starting line, in order to illuminate the small, yellow lights on top of the Christmas Tree. The next step is "staging,” when the driver rolls right up to the starting line, activating another set of yellow lights below the pre-stage lights. Once both vehicles are staged, the countdown can begin.

Classes Overview

Over 200 classes of vehicles are featured in NHRA competition; these classes are then grouped into 15 categories, or eliminators, each governed by its own set of NHRA rules. Vehicle type, engine size, vehicle weight, allowable modifications and aerodynamics are just a few of the determining factors for class eligibility. The top division of the NHRA, also known as the Full Throttle Drag Racing Series, consists of four classes: Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle.

Make the Most of Your Day at the Drags

"Come Early, Stay Late and Be Prepared.” Drag racing is typically an all-day affair, an important piece of information to keep in mind when attending an event. Bring a hat, sunglasses, earplugs, water and a blanket.

Buying your tickets¬ in advance is always smart and gives you a better chance of getting the reserved seats you want.

Show up before the first round begins to avoid the throngs of latecomers flooding the main gate; if you miss the first round, you’ve missed half the show.

Make sure to catch the qualifying rounds; this is your chance to witness all the cars run, not just the quickest 16.

Head to the pits early - some of the most intense action occurs in the first 30 minutes after a car returns to the pits.

Watch the action from different vantage points – you’ll be amazed at the difference in sights and sounds that comes from simply changing seats.

Hang out near a team until it test-fires its engine, usually around 45 minutes to an hour before the car is expected to run. This will give you a first-hand impression of just how much power some of these engines make.

As with any sporting event or concert, rushing towards the exit at the end of the show with the rest of the crowd will only result in even longer wait times. Besides, this is the best time to visit the pits and chat with the teams.

From Spectator to Competitor

Bit by the drag racing bug? In our next drag racing article, we’ll discuss the basics for competing in a drag racing event and what to expect as a driver, from passing tech inspection to interpreting the lights on the "Christmas Tree” to understanding the numbers on your time slip.


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