Bracket Race How-To
You Too Can Be a Drag Racer

by Doug Dutra

Show-Off  Burn OutSo you have been reading about all the fun and excitement the Slant 6 racers are having beating-up on V-8 cars, but you don't know the first thing about drag strips or bracket racing. Well, we're gonna give you a real break and get you enough information to keep you from looking like this is your first time through the quarter mile. By following the basic steps outlined here, you will have the necessary information to get out there and give the sport of Drag Racing a try, without becoming an unwilling comedian your first time out. Who knows, this may pave the way toward another successful drag racing career! (Just remember who saved you from utter humiliation!)

Where is What at the Dragstrip

For starters, study the illustrations shown here taking note of where all the really important stuff is at the race track. (For a better look, click on the image.) Here's where the really important stuff is at the race track. Places falling into this category include:

  • the entrance gate for the racers (this can be different from the spectator's gate)
  • the Tech Inspection area
  • the staging lanes (which are usually assigned to certain class cars, to line-up together in certain lanes)
  • the water box for your burnouts (if needed)
  • the starting area
  • the finish line and speed trap (it's a bigger area than you think)
  • the shack where you'll pick up your time slip
  • the water tap and oil disposal drums (in case you need them)
Once your find the competitor's gate, you'll pay your money to enter the race, or if you are pre-registered, just pick up your credentials. (Pre-registering is nice to do, saves a bunch of waiting.) When entering the gate, it is always good to ask where you can "pit" (park your car) and what the Tech Inspection process is. Some tracks will give you a Tech card right at the entrance, others will tell you to "purchase" one elsewhere. Either way, you will need to get a Tech card, fill it out and go to the Tech Inspection area to have your car "looked-over". To pass Tech your car will need: 

  • a radiator overflow "catch-can" (1 quart or larger)
  • a battery hold-down strap
  • no hubcaps or wheel covers (they don't want them flying-off)
  • all the wheel studs & lug nuts (they don't want wheels flying-off either!)
  • seat belts

Some picky Tech Inspectors will also check for metal or steel braided fuel lines and dual throttle return springs (two springs). If your car is a convertible or runs faster than 14.00 (i.e. 13.99 or better) then you will need a helmet. Bottom line is that the track wants you and your car to be safe. This means no bald tires, no obvious leaks, no cars full of all kinds of junk (tools, tires, trash on the floor, etc.). A factory original (unmolested) slant - 6 car with the wheel covers removed, a catch-can and second throttle return spring added should pass Tech without a hitch. In the end, it is the Tech Inspector who will decide whether or not you've followed the rules set forth in the book pertaining to this year's competition rules for NHRA, IRA, or whatever organization is sanctioning your race. (Be professional Tech Inspected and  Getting a Car Numberand nice to these inspectors and life will be easier, be a smart ass and you may not get to race). If you pass, he will put a sticker or write a number on your car for that event only. Like frequent travelers, some racers like to leave these stickers on from race to race, like airline luggage tags, until the entire side window or roll cage is covered. You can decide the best way to display your collection.

When you first come through the competitor's gate, the track will have given you a schedule for the event. Check to see when you can make your time-trial passes. It is also a good idea to pit where you can hear the public address (PA) loudspeakers. This way you can hear them "call" for the class of cars they are running next. Many tracks have an FM radio channel broadcasting the PA so bring a small FM radio and a headset. Veteran racers have a good "feel" for how much time they will have between racing rounds so they do not get right back into the staging lanes after making a run. Instead, they will When in the Staging Lanes, Stay With Your Car !"pit", check or "tweak" the car, talk with other racers, watch some of the racing action or just grab a bite to eat or a drink. Once you pull your car back into the staging lanes you must stay ready to jump in it and run so stay near your car. When in the staging lanes, DO NOT lock up your car and go to the snack bar!

When making practice passes you should run as hard as possible so you can get a baseline for the track and your car. If it's not a big national points meet, you will be able to make several time trial passes combined with some waiting time between runs, allowing you time to do a little checking, tuning and tweaking if needed . (Actually, it's best to do this kind of tuning during a "Test & Tune" session instead of during an actual event.) Go for a consistent performance instead of trying to put on a big show or thrash the car to death. Remember, bracket racing is won with consistency, not raw horsepower.

Once you've had some baseline practice runs, it's time to go gambling. What you're about to do is bet you can run slightly SLOWER than your stated "dial-in" and therefore win the race. Sound backwards? Welcome to bracket racing, the Rubik's Cube of drag racing competition. On your last time trial pass, when you stop at the timing shack to pick up your time slip, you'll be asked what e.t. you'd like to dial in. Translated, they're asking you what you think you can run consistently.

Car Number, Class & Dial-in If you give them a time (which they'll write on your windshield / window with shoe polish) and run faster, you'll lose by "breaking-out", unless the guy you're racing also breaks out and does it to a greater degree. In other words, if you "break out" (run under) by one-tenth and the other guy breaks out by two-tenths, you'll win because he was farther under his dial in. You should go back and read this paragraph a few more times to be sure you understand what's happening here because this is the key to bracket racing. Also note that the elapsed time you dial-in at is NOT set in stone. If the weather changes or one lane is running faster than the other, racers will change their dial-in time to compensate round to round. (This is why you should have your own shoe polish handy.) Always be sure your selected dial-in time is written clearly and in a place where the tower and starting line workers can see it. Your time should be written on the passenger side of the front windshield and on the side passenger window. (Two places minimum) It is the RACER'S responsibility to be sure the correct dial-in time gets entered into the computer for the run. That's right, you need to look at the finish line score board or the starting line display (if the track has one) to be sure When Your Racing Class is Called, Go to the Staging Lanesyour dial-in time has been seen and entered-in correctly. If it is not correct, DO NOT STAGE THE CAR and point-out the problem to the starting line workers. (Now you see why you want to write the numbers clearly!)

Let's regress for a minute. We are figuring it is your first time out to the drag strip and we haven't told you about staging and the "Starting Tree". This is how the starting line environment works. You will be lined up behind several other racers and will be motioned out of the staging lanes by a track worker when it's your turn to run. Pay close attention to these track workers and follow their hand signals. (Basic pull forward, stop, or go to that lane hand signals.) At smaller events, you might have to wing it. Whatever you do, don't do anything rash at this point or you'll risk being tossed out of the track. The drag strip will have a burnout area about 40 or 50 feet behind the starting line. Enterance into the Burn-out AreaThe area usually has a shallow concrete trough with a little water in it and if you're running drag slicks, the idea is to position your car so the rear wheels are in the trough. Whatever you do, don't start your burnout until the starting line person or a track worker motions you to do so. They will want you to wait until the cars in front of you leave the starting line and have cleared the area. A burnout is NOT a good idea for most street tires because they give better traction cold, so if you are a beginner bracket racer, running on street tires, don't complicate your starting line procedure with a big smoky burn-out. You would be best advised to drive AROUND the water and get the car positioned in the center of your assigned On Deck, Waiting for the Starting Line to Clear-outlane, with the wheels pointed straight. If you leave enough room, you may want to do a quick "throttle punch" just to get a feel for the starting line's traction. If you get immediate wheel spin you will know to take it easy at the start of the race. Watch some of the other racer's technique for pointers on the staging process, but remember, just because all those fancy race cars with slicks do burn-outs, it does not mean that you have to do one too.

Take a minute before you make your first pass to look at the Christmas Tree. At the top, you will see a vertical pair of amber bulbs marked "Pre-stage" and "Stage". They are either illuminated or dark, Ready to Stage, Location of Staging Beams & Photocellsdepending on whether or not a pair of photocells across the starting line (at near ground level) can "see" a pair of spotlights on the opposite side of the lane. (By the way, on the starting line, the cells are in the middle of the track and the lights are outboard, it's exactly opposite at the finish line. Light bulbs are cheaper than photocells and if you drive over anything at the finish line, the track wants it to be lights instead of photocells.) Pulling up to the starting line, your front tires will first break the "pre-stage" beam, illuminating the top bulb. Roll exactly eight Pre Stage,  First Staging Light  is Oninches farther, and your tires will break the "stage" beam, illuminating the second stage bulb. In NHRA competition, you must have both staging bulbs illuminated before the starter will begin the starting light sequence. "Deep staging," by continuing to roll forward would turn off the "pre-stage" bulb, leaving only the stage bulb lit, in effect, moving the car closer to the actual starting (and finish) line. Some events allow you to do this if you write "DEEP" on your window. Doing this can help improve the reaction times of slow reacting cars. Whatever technique you use, it is important to stage your car in EXACTLY THE SAME PLACE every time you come to the starting line. The best bet is to move the car up into the Both Cars in Final Stagingstaging beams SLOWLY and stop right when the second "stage" light comes on. Below the pre-stage and stage lights are three to five amber flood lamps, then a green one and a red one, in descending order. Typically, (although by no means always) the amber and green bulbs will be lit at 0.5 second intervals to start the race. Sometimes the interval is 0.4 seconds. If you're in doubt, ask the starter what the interval is going to be. In e.t. bracket racing, the car "dialing-in" the slower time will be allowed to go first by the interval time difference between the respective dial-ins. Theoretically this "handicap" start will allow for a perfectly matched race at the finish line. It's a The Christmas Tree, Know when to GO !good idea to look over at your opponent's car to see what his dial-in is so you'll know if you're going to sit for a second or two, or if you'll be expected to leave first. Sometimes, a small amber signal light, placed between the larger amber floodlights, will be lit to show the driver in the faster car, (in whose lane the small light is shining), who should stay put while the slower car gets the green light first. Most of the time an SL6 car will be slower so it will get the green first.

Here is a great tip: DO NOT hang around the starting line until you see the green light come on. This will result in a slow starting line reaction time and you'll probably end up losing the race. Remember that the cars have been more or less "equalized" by the handicap start so this means that the race will be won by the driver who can get his car to "leave" first (without "red lighting"). The idea is to position your car on the starting line so you can gas it when the LAST amber light comes on and move off the line without illuminating the infamous red light bulb, which would indicate you came out of the starting beams before the green light. According to the NHRA rule book, even if your opponent breaks out after you red-light, you still lose because you screwed-up first. Your reaction time is recorded from the time the last amber floodlight comes on and when your car leaves the starting line beams. With a 0.5-second Tree, any reaction time less than 0.5 means you lit the red light. Drivers who are really good at e.t. bracket racing can log consistent reaction times of 0.510 or less, meaning their front tires clear the beam only 0.010-seconds after the green comes on. This seemingly incredible skill is more a function of the car's positioning on the starting line and hours of practice rather than Staged-in & Ready to Gosheer driving skill. With the proper conditioning, the driver only needs nerves of steel and unwavering concentration in the face of extreme mental pressure to get great reaction times without red lighting.
When the race car and the track "starter" look like this, you need to be focusing all your attention on those Christmas Tree lights!

Once you have "launched" the car (left the starting line) you will need to concern yourself with keeping the car straight and shifting gears. This could be as easy as keeping the gas pedal firmly pinned to the floor and letting a properly adjusted automatic transmission in "Drive" shift when it wants. If your A.T. will do this without over or under revving the engine, then that will be the most consistent and best way to get the shifting job done. If you have to shift the gears yourself, then you will need a tachometer so you can perform the shift at the same RPM every time. (If you look in the race cars, they all have BIG tachs with programmable shift lights to help them do this CONSISTENTLY.) One thing you should know is that there is a "centerline rule", if for any reason your car crosses the track's centerline and into the other car's lane, you loose instantly, just like a red light.

As you approach the finish line you will want to know how your competitor is doing. Is he behind you, coming up fast, is he right next to you or in front of you? Who is gaining? You need to judge "closure speed" in relation to the finish line. The idea is to cross the finish line just ahead of the other car, (duh) without going faster than your stated time. (That's the tricky part.)

Finsh Line & Shut Down AreaBottom line is if you have the other car beat by a whole bunch, back-off a little to make sure you don't go too fast and "break-out". If you get to the finish line first and run slower than your posted "dial-in", you win and you go to the next round. It does not matter if you beat the other car by an 1/8 inch or an 1/8 mile! Know exactly where the finish line is and keep in mind that your speed will be measured both 66 feet in front of and after the actual finish line. The speed "trap" is 132-feet long (one-tenth of the quarter), so if you back off the throttle fast, right at the finish line, you will receive an erroneous mph readout. (Even worst, you could get the car "loose" and end-up in the weeds.) Ease out of the throttle and gently apply the brakes as needed, there is lot's of "run-off" area. Now that the run is finished and you have slowed down, you need to exit safely onto the return road. The convention is that the car in the lane closest to the return road exits first so even if you beat or end-up ahead of the car in the lane closest to the exit road, slow way down or stop until that car exits, then follow him off the track. DO NOT CUT IN FRONT OF THE OTHER CAR.

Hand Written "Old Fashion" Time SlipComputer Generated Time SlipsHey you did it! As you make your way down the return road, stop off at the timing shack to pick up your elapsed time slip. Be sure you save this time slip. It's full of good information. Head back to the pits and get out your notebook (you did remember a notebook) so you can record your run. If you get thrashing on the engine between rounds, make a mental note not to get back into the staging lanes until you record the changes. This good habit will separate the winners from the losers.

If you want to give Bracket Drag Racing a try, you should call your local race track and ask when they run their bracket racing program. (Most run once a week.) Make it a point to go out to one of these regular events to at least watch, or better yet, enter and run to get your feet wet (or brush-up on your skills). Doing this will really help you enjoy the bigger events when those dates come around.

CHECKLIST: The time for major changes to the car is not between rounds at a national meet. You should make sure the car is basically together before trailering it (or driving it) to the track. However, don't feel like you're the first person to want to make drag strip tuning changes in the pits.

Here's a list of items we've seen in the hands of bracket heroes at several tracks. These items range from basic necessities to specialized tools for track side tuning:

  1. Tire pump or small cylinder of compressed air
  2. Tire pressure gauge (An accurate low pressure gauge)
  3. New set of spark plugs. Another set one heat range colder (optional)
  4. Plug wrench and socket
  5. Extra quart of oil and tranny fluid
  6. Distributor wrench
  7. Spare point set, condenser, point file, ballast resistor & ECU if electronic ignition
  8. Timing light
  9. Basic tool kit
  10. Thickness gauge
  11. Jumper cables
  12. Rags, towels, and fender covers
  13. White shoe polish
  14. Floor jack (or bottle jack) and jack stands
  15. Duct tape & nylon ties
  16. Jets and gaskets
  17. Most important of all, take a notebook and use it to record your runs, jetting changes, timing changes, tire pressures, outside air temp and weather (is it cloudy or bone dry?), spark plug heat range and readings, and anything else that might make a difference the next time you show up at this track.
Copyright © Doug Dutra, 1997-2002, All Rights Reserved

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