Drag Racing 201 – Class Racing with an Index
September 10, 2012
About ten years ago, I wrote an article by the name of “Drag Racing 101“, which was geared towards the beginner drag racer, or the person wanting to take their street car to the track without looking like complete novice. It discussed the pure basics regarding preparing the car, driver safety, tech inspection, staging lanes, making the run, picking up the ticket, and analyzing it.
This article assumes that you’ve read that article, and have by now actually made some passes, regardless of how fast or slow they were. If you’ve not yet read that article, I strongly suggest you start there first.
This article explains the technique of the type of racing I have the most experience in, Class/Index racing. However, before you can really take advantage of honing your technique, you should first be comfortable with the basics. Drag racing happens awfully fast, and you’re doing a lot in a short period of time. It all has to be done properly if you’re to be successful at it. The more that becomes second nature and is a reaction vs. you having to think about – the better you will be.
Just as homerun hitters have a routine they automatically go through before every pitch, every drag racer should have his routine down. You need to have it be second nature to go through the bleach box, shift to second or third, do a consistent burn out, shift to neutral and clear the carbs, set your tach recorder, turn off your fan, shift to first, pre-stage and then stage without even thinking about it. This all comes from a lot of practice, even from sitting in the car in the garage and just visualizing it.
The first time that a full conscience focus happens should be leaving on the tree for the best light you can get. Then the better racers are back to automatic pilot with staying in the groove and shifting until they’ve reach high gear, and then they once again become fully focused again on racing the stripe.
Practice, practice, practice the exact same routine up to staging; and even repeat it to yourself as you’re sitting in the staging lanes until it is a natural reaction. Up until the time both racers are staged, everything you do has to become automatic, second nature, and not affect your biorhythm (stress, pulse, blood pressure, breathing, adrenalin, etc.) until you’re ready for the lights to count down. Again, sit in your car at home and visualize the whole process while belted in, helmet on, and shifting.
Class Racing vs. Bracket Racing and Match Racing
While most of this article is applicable for most all drag racing, it comes from a person who mainly does non-electronics, footbrake, index class racing.
First I should explain of a couple of the more popular types of drag racing:
- Match Racingis when both vehicles leave at the same time, and the quickest car to the finish line (assuming no fouls), wins. It is the racing that most spectators like to see, but because of the expense to be the fastest is so high, and because only a few have the money and technical knowledge to be competitive, few of us can do it.
- Bracket Racing has two drivers posting the elapsed time that they feel their vehicles will run based on their vehicle, weather, and track conditions; and the driver closest to his time without going faster wins. That is assuming their reaction time is the same, which it seldom is – but that will be explained later. If a driver goes faster than his time, he breaks out and loses. If both break out, the driver who broke out by the least wins. In the case of bracket racing, the slower car will have his side of the tree count down first by the time he is slower than the second vehicle, so the faster will chase him down, and they theoretically reach the finish line at the same time. For instance, if a 9.25-second car was to race a 11.75 car, the 11.75 car would leave two and a half seconds (an eternity for the faster car to wait) earlier than the faster car.
- Index Racing is when cars pick or are assigned (depending on organization or class of car) an Index, and they have to get as close to that index as possible without going faster. Because of the big Elapsed Time gaps between the indexes (IE: 10.00, 10.50, 11.00, 11.50… Seconds) vs. putting an exact time (of say 10.63) on the window. Most Index racers will tell you it takes more skill to index race as both types of racing are won by thousands of a second, but the Index racer might have to figure out to slow his vehicle by as much as a half second, and he has to live with his index through the entire event, while the bracket racer at many events can adjust time his for the conditions. In most situations, it is possible for different indexes to run each other, and the slower car would leave first as in bracket racing.
- Class Racing is when all of the vehicles are strictly constrained by the rules for the class of cars the run in. Class racing can be by index or match. In the Pro ranks of NRHA, some of the classes are Top Fuel, Funny Car, and Pro Stock. These classes Match Race. Some of the classes in the Sportsman Classes are Super Stock and Stock Eliminator, and they Index race.
Because the “Package” is the total of the Reaction Time (RT) + the Elapsed Time (ET), it is possible for both drivers to not breakout, yet the best ET not win because the other driver’s RT was that much better. Basically it is the lowest Package without a foul that wins.
A “First or Worse” foul gives the win to the other driver. If the driver leaves too soon, he has red light fouled. If both were to red light, then the first to red light is the usually the loser. Breaking out is also a foul. If both were break out, the first is usually the loser. Then comes the Worse! Hitting the wall, crossing the center line, or getting caught cheating is worse, and that trumps the first with regards to fouls.
Non-electronics vs. Electronics
You will often see races where they break it down into Electronics, and Non-Electronics vehicles. There is a lot of racing electronic devices that can be used for a vehicle to achieve their declared ET. Trans-brakes (although some events allow them for non-Electronics vehicles), data loggers, computers, digital ignitions, multi-step boxes, throttle stops, driveshaft speed monitors,…
Since these devices are a major competitive advantage, and Non-Electronics vehicles are not allowed to use them, there is usually a separate class for each if the event doesn’t have a more defined Class Racing event.
Foot Brake vs. Trans Brake
Foot brake racers launch their start by holding the car at the line with their left foot on the brake, while the right foot is on the accelerator keeping the RPMs at the optimal for the best launch.
A transbrake transmission has a special valve body, which has a solenoid that will put the transmission in 1st gear and reverse at the same time when the shifter is in 1st and the solenoid is engaged. The driver stages the car, and pushes a button (some put on the shifter, others have on the steering column, or hold in the hand and the throw to the floor after the car launches) to engage the transbrake. He can then give full throttle and a rev limiter will keep the engine at the exact RPMs the car is set to launch. When the driver releases the button, reverse is disengaged and the vehicle launches. The advantages are a better reaction time and a more consistent launch from a higher and more consistent RPM than from foot braking; and releasing the button vs. letting off the brake and flooring the gas at the same time. Some events and classes consider a Trans-brake to be electronics, and some don’t. It is one of the more common cheats seen in non-electronic racing that doesn’t allow it.
Organized Racing in a Series
There are many organizations with a multi-race “Champion Points” series. National series like NHRA, NMCA, NMRA; regional Series like Victory, and the Classics; and local race track series. They’re a lot of fun to run in. If you intend to run in a series, or even just a race or two in the series, here are a few things to help you be prepared.
First you will most likely be required to buy a membership, and get an assigned number – which you will most likely need to post on four sides of the vehicle in at least 3″ letters. You will most likely need to also have the organization’s banner on the car, along with the Class Sponsor’s sticker on the car. When you arrive to the track you will go to the Driver’s trailer, with any crew, to establish credentials. There they check your membership, ensure you paid to enter the race, and have you and crew sign waivers. They give you and the crew authorization to be in the staging areas, a tech card, and a contingency sheet.
You fill out the tech card, fill out the contingency sheet for the stickers you legitimately run on the car; and take those, the car, your safety gear, and racing license to the tech area. There they’ll inspect your car for class rules and safety, the stickers for the sponsors you claim, your license (if required), and your safety gear. If all passes, they give you a qualifying slip.
Generally you will get one two three Time Trials to dial your car in.
Then there is Qualifying. You will generally get 1-4 Qualifying passes. These passes are used to determine the Eliminations ladder of who races who, or in the case of only a limited number allowed in the class – if you even get to compete in eliminations. Ladders are built two different ways – Ro Ladder or Sportsman ladder. Pro Ladder is the most fair with the best running the worse, the second best against the second worse and so on. This is the ladder most often used for Match Racing. The Sportsman Ladder is designed for more parity. You split the qualifying order in half to where the best of the first half runs the best of second, second best against second best, and so on. So in a 16 car field the Pro Ladder matches 1-16, 2-15, 3-14, 4-13,… In Sportsman it would be 1-9, 2-10, 3-11, 4-12…
Some classes have qualifying based on fastest ET, some closest to Index, and some by best RT. For the first two types, a red light is not a fault in qualifying.
Usually, you take your qualifying slip up with you to be punched, and it allows them to alternate your qualifying lanes for fairness.
Since my experience is primarily in Index Racing in the Nostalgia Super Stock (NSS) class of NMCA, I’ll take a moment to explain how it works, and my philosophy with racing in it.
NSS is a class of racing that emulates Super Stock Racing of the early 60s. The rules are a little complicated, but in a nutshell it is limited to a few certain models that made Super Stock popular back in the day. The cars have to appear “Period Correct”, have an engine and carbs from the family that came in the car when it was built, stock firewall and inner fenders, and tire width is limited to 10.5W Slicks. You must also have a stock front steering/suspension. The interior has to have a stock dash, a pair of front seats, carpet, door panels, headliner, and the rear seat area carpeted if no rear seat. There are no electronics (including Transbrakes) allowed, and shifts have to be made manually (no electronic or air shifters). It is 60s style racing, only much faster. There have been some safety considerations like disc brakes. The cars have to pass a NHRA safety inspection, and you have to hold a current NHRA Competition License if your index is faster than 10 seconds.
The indexes have half second intervals between 10-13 seconds, and quarter second intervals between 8.5-9.75 seconds (the FX Classes).
NMCA has seven Races in their point’s series, which includes Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, and Indiana. With each race you receive 50 points when you tech your car in, the top ten qualifying receive between 50-95 points, and you receive 100 points for each round you compete in. At the end of the year they throw out your two lowest race scores, and give you an additional 100 points for making five races, 200 points for asking six races, and 300 points for making all seven races. The last race is Indy, and it is a double points race of 200 points a round.
As I write this I’m in second place with 1845 points, with first place having 1875 points. However, I actually have a slight lead because after the next race I’ll get 300 bonus points to Doug’s 200 points.
Each race has me coming on a Thursday to set up pits, establish credentials, and tech the car in. Friday is typically Time Trials in the afternoon and first round (of three) Qualifying in the evening. My strategy is to be a little slow (to ensure not breaking out) for the first round to ensure I get in the show, and then I press it in the final two rounds to try to improve my qualifying position.
A small group of us bet a dollar on the best reaction time in Time Trials and Qualifying, and another dollar for closest to index ET. It keeps our heads in the game before eliminations.
Most of us use weather stations religiously, but I’ll get into that later.
To me, qualifying good is very important. These “little points” are the main reason I’m up there in the points, as I’ve been #1 Qualifier in four of the six races so far this year.
NSS class is one of the toughest classes. These guys have been racing the same car for 20 or more years, and races are won with packages of .01 seconds or better. You not only have to have your car run its number, but you have to also have an excellent RT (seldom will a light slower than .040 win the round), and you need to know how to “Race the Stripe” (more on that later).
Lane choice for eliminations.
There are many theories on this. While it doesn’t too much affect cars 11-seconds or slower, there is often a bad lane with a transition bump, bad groove, bald spot, or greasy, etc. that will affect the faster cars or stick shift cars. If your car goes down one lane better than the other, you will want to go for the better lane.
If the lanes are equal for your car, some feel that they get a better reaction time in the right lane, as they’re a few feet closer to the tree so they must see the light faster. Some believe that you want the lane best for their dominant eye for the best reaction time. Right lane if left eye dominant, left lane if right eye dominant.
Faster cars often like to put the slower car in the right lane, as it is easier to look over their right shoulder to see where the faster car is, than it is to look over the left shoulder.
If you know the guy you’re racing prefers a certain lane, you might put him in the other lane if he’s a prick.
Whatever you find works for you if the lanes are equal for your car. In most places the higher qualifier gets lane choice, but NMCA is wishy-washy on the subject and if the other guy disagrees, then you have to flip a coin.
Courtesy staging means that both drivers pre-stage, before a car stages. It is rude to pre-stage and stage your car before the other driver pre-stages. Likewise it is rude to make the other guy wait too long after he’s staged and is up on his torque converter. Some tracks will start a clock after the first car has staged, and will time out the other driver taking too long, but most tracks don’t use it.
The way I stage an automatic transmission footbrake car after we both have pre-stage, is to bring the RPMs up to my launch RPM while my left foot is on the brake and I’m looking at my tach, and then turn from the tach to the staging beams while using the engine sound to keep the RPMs up while I ease off the brake to bump into the beams. There are about 4 types of staging. Shallow (what I do) is slowly moving up until the light just flickers on. The other methods are 1 bump past shallow, 2 bumps past shallow and deep staging. The reason for staging deeper is if you are too slow on your reaction time. However the deeper you stage will have you lose as much ET and MPH as you gained in RT.
I generally do well on RT. I try real hard to focus, watch the ambers count down, and leave immediately when I see the last amber flicker on. This works for me on shallow staging. Some will argue that watching the ambers count down causes you to anticipate the last amber and red light, and that you should see nothing but the last amber. That doesn’t work for me, as I get terrible lights when trying that. I do press the light and will red light maybe 10% of the time. 99% of my racing is on a .500 Sportsman tree.
Other things that may affect RT are front tire air pressure, but I don’t play that game.
As long as we’re on the subject of RT, the benefit of racing a slower car is they are generally more consistent, mainly because of less tire spin — but the benefit of racing the faster car is that your opponent has the first chance to lose the race with a red light.
In addition to focus, consistently getting good light takes practice. Most of the better drivers with the lights have a practice tree. I have a Porta Tree, a full size tree with LED bulbs, and I even have an app on my iPhone. The iPhone app is Jegs, and works great on my iPhone, but sucks on a friend’s blackberry. We often pass my phone around in the pits for a competition, and I can use it for a mental tune up in the staging lanes. While it is good to use a practice tree often, don’t use it for too long. About ten whacks at the tree is my limit.
The last thing to mention on staging is that Turbo cars need a little time to spool up. They typically launch on boost instead of RPM. Most drivers know this and will stage quickly against a turbo car. If you have a turbo, you will want to get into the habit of being the first to stage after both have pre-staged. I’ve learn this from the Buick Grand National I occasionally race.
Weather Stations and Predictors
As I mentioned earlier, most everyone in NSS uses a weather station of some type. Most are handheld units with minimal information; others have a couple grand of equipment. If you go to a NHRA race you will see a weather vane in every pit, and you can bet it is hooked to a computer that documents the weather at the time of each run, and uses that information to predict what they’d run for a current weather condition.
Weather greatly affects the ET of a vehicle. Temperature, water grains, altitude, wind speed and direction, and about a dozen factors. Each car is affected differently based on their weight, shape, motor, etc. While a lot of lower tech racers use their bunions and rheumatism to decide what adjustments they’ll make to their car, I feel my high percentage of Top Qualifying and the weather station/predictor is more than a coincidence.
I use an Altronics weather station and interface it with Crew Chief 7.5 software. Every 15 seconds the weather is sampled and logged onto my computer. After every run I log in the information from my time slip matched to the weather the exact moment of the run. If the run was a less than perfect run (I spun, I lifted, I braked, etc.) I can have it suggest what it feels the corrections should be had I run it out, and I can accept or modify them. Over time it makes adjustments (based on the information collected from previous runs) to the various factors that predict my ET for the current weather, to make it more and more accurate in predicting.
A bracket racer would use that prediction to change his number to the exact number of the prediction.
In index racing, you try to bring a car that is a couple tenths faster than the index you will declare for the event, and then slow it down. In electronics racing it is pretty easy by setting a delay, throttle stop, or tweak the tune program. We can’t do that in NSS. Some racers will adjust their timing, some will let a little throttle cable out, but I feel that adjusting the car’s weight to be the most accurate for me. Rules limit you to adding no more than 100 pounds of loose weight in an approved weight box. However, any weight properly bolted to the car with two 1/2″ Grade 8 bolts per 100 pounds is considered part of the car, and not loose weight. There are certain locations you cannot (or should not) bolt weight, like over or around the wheels.
I adjust the weight of the car on the predictor until I hit the ET I want, and then adjust the car’s weight before going to the lanes.
If I’m running a 9.50 index I’ll set the car up to run a 9.58 for the first Qualifying, then for 9.49 in the next two. In Eliminations, I’d shoot for a 9.45 and race the stripe.
I’m a very big fan of the Crew Chief application. In addition to acting as a log book, predicting my ET based on the car’s weight for the current weather; it tracks maintenance, and gives me the information needed to “race the stripe”.
Racing the stripe means knowing where the other car should be in relation to you if you’re both running your number, and to not take too much stripe to break out. Many of these races are logged by a service like 1320go. If you subscribe to these services you have access to the time slips of your potential competitors. Logging this information into Crew Chief will tell you where the other guy should be in relation to you at the 1000′ and the MPH cone. If he’s way ahead, and you won’t catch him, chances are either that they’ll break out or you had a bad light. You might want to drag the brake and slow so you don’t also breakout. If the distances at the MPH cone are closer than they should be, you’ll want to drag the brake if you are the faster car and not take too much stripe.
Finally, it helps you analyze your split times (60′, 330′, 660′, and 1000′) so you can spot things like your slicks starting to wear out, converter or transmission going away, or the track going away.
I hope you find some of the information in this article helpful with taking your racing to the next level.
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