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SO YOU WANNA BE A DRAG RACER!! Part I
by Merle Grabhorn

Merle Grabhorn
Merle Grabhorn
Owasso, OK
grabhorn@busprod.com

     

You've come to the right spot. This pit stop on the information highway, known as THE STAGING LIGHT 97, is a place to learn about a challenging and enjoyable sport. It can be a fascinating hobby, with hours of interesting projects, the fun and challenge of spirited competition, and, if you are really, REALLY good, the chance to make a living as a drag racing professional. On the other hand, drag racing can be a frustrating past time, with endless hours of work and nothing to show for it but an empty wallet. There is an old racing proverb that says, "Know how to get a small fortune in racing? Start with a large one!" You can spend money faster than the mint can print it if you're not careful. So, if you are a wannabe racer, this series will give you a few pointers on how to go racing without having to rob a bank or getting a second mortgage on the house.

Setting your limits

There is a racer's proverb that says, "So, you wanna go fast? Going fast costs money. How fast do you want to go?" Never forget this proverb. Keeping your bank account alive, being successful, and having fun with drag racing is in this proverb. Too many wannabe racers fall in love with the noise, the tire smoke, big wheel stands, and the biggest thrill of all, an E.T. slip that causes jaws to fall slack and eyes to glaze with disbelief. Going fast is part of the racing game, but not necessarily the way to being a successful racer or winning races. Let me illustrate with an example.

A few years ago, I was waiting in the staging lanes at my local track and I overheard a conversation between two beginning racers. They were in the bottom half of the trophy street class and were dialing low 18 second E.T.s, considered by many wannabe racers to be laughably slow. One said, "It's gonna take a lot to get this car in the 9's," and told about the parts he was buying and how he planned to get his car to run 9.90. I haven't seen him since. His other wannabe buddy, I have seen. He runs mid 17's, only slightly faster. However, he has come close to being a track champion. He's not a wannabe any longer, he is a racer to beat, something much harder to achieve than a 9.90 E.T. And, he gets respect in the staging lanes. I know 20 year racing veterans who cringe at the thought of having to go up against this 17 second racer and its formidable driver. I know, I 've raced against this guy and believe me, he's tough. (In bracket racing slang: he's no duck!)

The difference between the two wannabe racers is that one of them had a realistic idea of what he could do, how he was going to do it, and what he could accomplish with what he had. He knew his limits, the other guy didn't. The 17 sec. contender discovered that he could be a successful racer by limiting himself to a slower, very inexpensive and easy to maintain car. His 17 second car was a Dodge Challenger, purchased for around $1,000. He had worked on the car until it was clean, safe and a reliable ride. Once he got to that point, he went racing. His total outlay for his racer was less than $3,000. Compare this to the $17,000 to $25,000 plus price tag attached to a 9.90 sec race car. The other expenses to enter, race, and maintain his 17 sec racer are also low. Don't get me wrong, racing is not cheap, it is just proportionate to how fast you go.

Just minor expenses to race a fast car mount quickly. Wayne Scraba, an active Stock Eliminator racer, and writer for Bracket Racing USA magazine estimated the he spent almost $9,000 over a 12-race span for seemingly insignificant incidentals such as travel, entry fees (which for a fast car can be anywhere from $50 to $5,000) and lodging in what he called flea bags. The meals, he said, consisted of hamburgers. That's an average of $750 per race. This doesn't count fuel, parts, and so forth. Compare this to our 17 sec contender who pays about $25-$55 per race for fees, fuel, parts and incidentals.

Only you can set your personal limits, based on your desires, your expertise, and your finances. There are ways to go drag racing without costing a fortune. It will never be cheap so always keep repeating the "going fast costs money" proverb. Think about what you have, what you can do with it and how you are going to do it. Do prior planning-how fast do you wanna go? Now let's begin your conversion from a wannabe to a racer!

Getting Started

As a wannabe, you need to spend some time at the track watching the bracket races. Bracket racing is the least expensive and the most popular form of drag racing. It is open to any vehicle so you can enter your motorcycle, your daily grocery getter or even your pickup truck. But, before racing, get familiar with the layout of the track and how everything operates. Get to the track when the gates first open and learn what the racers and track personnel do. See how tech is handled. You can learn a lot by seeing what DOESN'T pass tech. Spend time in the pits and staging lanes. Walk to the E.T. Shack where the time slips are handed out. Learn how the starting line system works and above all, ASK QUESTIONS. There are rules involved and you should learn them. There are many unwritten rules. Each track will have unwritten rules regarding where to stage, different class or E.T. divisions, lane choices, and bye runs. There may even be a rule where the track owner's brother-in-law gets free entry. Not knowing the rules, where and when to go, or how things operate can be embarrassing and even dangerous.

Believe it or not, wannabes show up at tracks wanting to race with absolutely no knowledge about what is involved in racing. Some of them get embarrassed, frustrated, and have a bad experience. If you've never been to a drag race before, it really helps to learn the lay of the land. Don't forget that there are many magazines and books that print "How to Go Drag Racing" articles so a trip to the newsstand or library is in order. These articles will give you tips on how the starting line and timing systems work, how to do burnouts, and more. Many will give you low buck methods and pointers on how to increase the performance of your car. They are very worthwhile reading.

Your Ride

Most wannabes start with their street driven car. That's a great way to learn the ropes and see if you really like drag racing. I have been soundly beaten by a 25 second Drag Diesel pickup, certainly not your typical racecar. I could have gone to the concession stand and eaten a hot dog by the time the lights came down on my side of the tree. Of course, I have also run down and trashed Toyota pickups and squashed VW beetles. Don't be embarrassed about driving a very slow street car. Many racers are strong competitiors with these slow cars. They are simple to launch, easy to maintain, and can be consistently deadly.

By starting with your streeter, you can find out if racing is for you. Beginning this way, you don't sink a large amount of money into racing. However, before taking your ride to the track you need to make sure it is in decent mechanical shape. Oil and coolant leaks, bad brakes, bald tires, a suspension in bad shape is a no-no. If you bring an oil burning, rusted out beater to the track, you won't get to race. I saw one tech inspector disallow a car just because he could smell antifreeze. The pinhole leak was in a heater hose that oozed a very small amount of coolant but it was enough to disqualify the car. Don't despair, just fix up your ride. You should be maintaining your streeter anyway, so any money spent in bringing it up to snuff is a good investment on your part.

Use common sense. If your ride is your or your family's sole source of transportation to or from your job, or school, you are taking a risk. Racing has a tendency to find the weakest link in a vehicle. And if that link breaks . . . . However, I have entered and won races with a car that had over 100,000 miles on the motor and transmission. I don't do it regularly, but it can be done provided everything has been maintained and is in good mechanical shape. If it isn't, you'll find out in a hurry! Not a good experience.

Safety, Safety, and Safety

Bracket racing is the safest motorsport around and many rules specify safety requirements. For most street cars, the factory equipment is sufficient. If your car is capable of an E.T. of 13.99 or quicker, you will need a crash helmet. Not just any crash helmet but a SFI 31-1 or Snell 90 certified helmet. These run around $200. Even if you have a very slow car, no one will laugh if you are wearing a helmet. Racers are very safety conscious. As you graduate from a wannabe to a racer, this should be one of your early purchases. Remember, it's your noggin!

The quicker and faster a car is, the more safety equipment is required. The rules specify safety equipment based on various E.T. ranges, transmission types (stick or automatic), chassis type and so forth. Having a very fast car requires that the driver take an FAA physical, replace safety equipment on a two year schedule, have equipment certified and inspected on a schedule, obtain a competition license, and more. Racing a 9.90 car requires more then $2,000 in safety equipment, virtually all of which, adds little or nothing to performance. Without the required equipment, you don't race, period.

My own race car is considered a mild racer. It is not the fastest nor the slowest at the track. Compare the costs of the required safety equipment for my high 12's - low 13's race car with the $2,000 plus 9.90 package:

  • Auto trans reverse lockout shifter=$175
  • Driveshaft loop=$20 (required when using slicks)
  • Liquid overflow=$20 (known as a puke can-catches radiator overflow)
  • SFI helmet=$200
  • Master electrical cutoff switch=$25 (required with trunk-mount battery)

    When I built my racer, a second generation Camaro, I designed it to be a competitive, yet low cost, minimal maintaince, but really fun race car. I looked at how much money I would spend for different levels of performance. The example above shows why I didn't build a 9.90 car.

    Experienced racers will know that there are many hidden costs that I am not mentioning such as the need for high pressure braided hoses or hard (metallic) lines for liquids such as fuel, or transmission fluid. These requirements are designed to reduce the use of rubber hoses that could fail and dump slippery fluids on the track. Unless you have made modifications to your daily driver, these items are already part of the original equipment. However if you have added an oil pressure gauge, swapped carburetors, or made other changes where you are using rubber hoses, you will have to change over to hard lines. Wannabes get bit by this area perhaps more then any other, particularly on the line to the oil pressure gauge. Most add-on oil pressure gauges purchased from autopart stores come with a neoprene line. A neoprene line won't pass tech-it must be a metallic or braided line.

    I'm Set, So Now What?

    O.K., you got your ride in shape. You've been to the track. You've read some magazines. You've memorized the proverb. You are ready to race. Ooops, hold up, there is still more to think about. It's called Murphy and his law! Funny things happen at race tracks. Things go wrong, usually at the worst possible time. So, do a little prior thinking about what you need to bring along to avoid making a fun experience into a disaster. You don't want to look like Elmer Fudd going on a hunting trip so here is a suggested list of things you will need.

  • Tool box with your personal selection of appropriate tools
  • Extra oil and transmission fluid
  • Extra fan belt(s) and assorted spare parts (spark plugs, etc.)
  • Jack with jack stands
  • Flashlight with good batteries (if the race is held at night)
  • White shoe polish (liquid),
  • Pen and notebook
  • Plenty to drink
  • Comfortable clothing
  • A way to get home if the very worst happens

    The tool box is essential. Bolts have a tendency to work lose, and valve covers might start leaking. You need to be able to make a few on the spot repairs if the need arises. You should include some electrical wire and electrical tape along with some RTV gasket sealant in your tool box. The extra oil and transmission fluid are your insurance. A spare fan belt is a necessity as they do break. As for spare parts and tools, you will have to determine what you might need. For example, if you are planning to change spark plugs at the track, a spare plug or two in case one breaks is a life saver. And, without a plug wrench, you'll never get the plugs out! Always plan ahead of time.

    You may need to get under the car for some reason so you will need not only a jack, but jack stands. Never get under a car supported just by a jack. You've been to the track, so you know what the ground is like. If you have to get under the car, will you be on blazing hot asphalt, or sinking into wet, squishy mud? You may have to have small pieces of plywood to keep you, your jack and your jack stands from disappearing into quicksand. Don't laugh, it happens!

    You should already know why you need white shoe polish. If you don't, you haven't been to the track. The pen and notebook are your logbook. You should note anything and everything that you think important in helping you to win races, particularly engine temperature and weather. If you start keeping records from the beginning, you will be able to establish trends, find your weaknesses, and improve your performance.

    Although you can buy food and drink at the concession stand, the track can be a hellish environment especially during mid summer. I have raced when the afternoon temperature was 105 degrees in the shade and spectators passed out from the heat. The pits and staging lanes are notorious for lack of shade. You will get dehydrated so have lots of sports thirst quencher type drinks.

    Clothing often surprises wannabes. Tank tops and shorts are out for the driver. Although the protection of a pair of blue jeans doesn't seem like much, if there is a fire, it doesn't take long for exposed flesh to get burned. The protection of jeans can give a few precious seconds of protection, enough to get away from a dangerous situation. Of course, the driver can change clothes between rounds. At one race I saw a pretty female driver wear a two piece bathing suit to beat the heat. When racing, she slipped into a pair of coveralls. Her method of beating the heat was appreciated by most of the racers; well, the male ones anyway.

    Since you will likely be foot brake racing your streeter, you will want comfortable and light weight shoes. Heavy shoes or boots will negatively affect your reaction times. It's hard being twinkle toes in combat boots.

    The Life Boat

    The odds are that nothing will happen to your car. But, in case the worst happens, you need a lifeboat to get home. Have someone you can call upon for help if you need to. If possible, take a buddy with you to the track so you don't have to suffer alone. If everyone hates you, take a quarter for making a phone call to dial a prayer. I am constantly amazed by unprepared wannabes showing up at the track after a four hour drive from a neighboring state with no thought about getting back home. Loosing something as simple as a fan belt at the track at 11:30 PM Saturday night may mean a stay until the nearest part store opens, usually about noon Sunday or worse yet, 9 AM Monday morning. Don't let an adventure turn into an oddessy!

    Have Fun

    A last bit of advice. Check to see if your track has a test and tune or a grudge racing session. These are usually less expensive and less crowded then an actual race. This means you get more chances to make passes down the track and this gives you practice at staging, leaving, and where to dial your car. At an official race, you might get three time trials. During test and tune sessions you can get six, eight, or maybe twenty time trials. Armed with this experience, you can enter the regular race program with an advantage over other wannabes.

    Next Time: The right stuff!

    Merle Grabhorn
    grabhorn@busprod.com

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