The Staging

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Part II - The Right Stuff
by Merle Grabhorn

Merle Grabhorn
Merle Grabhorn
Owasso, OK

Welcome to the second in a series on how to go drag racing. Weíre not going to look at ways to make your car faster, instead, we'll talk about you, the driver. The emphasis of bracket racing is on the driver, not on the car, a fact that is overlooked by beginners. In this segment, we'll look at what it takes to be a bracket racer, and what itís like to go out to the track using what is known as "The Right Stuff."

The Right Stuff

Frank Hawley, a two year winner of NHRA's Winston Funny Car Championship, began funny car and top-fuel racing at the age of seventeen. Over the course of a successful racing career, he wrote books about what it takes to be a winner. His ability to define what it takes to win has lead him into another area of racing-teaching racers. He has become the owner and headmaster of a professional drag racing school, considered to be one of the best schools in racing.

His definition of the racers "right stuff" is: Concentration, Judgement, Awareness, Attitude

You are probably saying to yourself, "Come on, it doesn't take this to mash a gas pedal to the floor and hold it down for a quarter mile." Yes, it does.

Your job as a beginning racer is to tune your car so it will perform consistently, round after round. Then, you have to drive it consistently, round after round. Do burnouts, stage, leave the line, shift exactly the same every pass down the track. This need for consistency explains the proliferation of electronic aids in the top bracket racing classes such as rpm limiters for staging, air shifters, and the delay box. The delay box is essentially a launch computer that is programmed by the driver to launch the car at a selected time.

Arguably, electronics takes some of the human element away from racing. Yet, it has been proven, by track champions who win without electronic aides, that the human element is the deciding factor in bracket racing. As a beginner, it is unlikely you will get paired against a car decked out with electronics. But, it can happen. You will find that downing a high tech race car with your skill alone is very satisfying. (And cool, too!)

To get your car to perform consistently takes experimentation, and practice. This is called "sorting out the car" and it takes concentration, judgement, awareness, and attitude to accomplish it. You will fight frustrating combinations of problems that may include wheel hop, engine bogging, hard starting when hot, and erratic reaction times. These problems won't occur separately, they will happen simultaneously! In racing, you will have to methodically recognize, sort out, and solve problems to get your car consistent.

Consistency is only half the battle. Once you get it consisent, you have to be aware of conditions that change from moment to moment and react accordingly. The changes can be subtle and complex. Again, you have to use "the right stuff". Look at the following table:

Street Class 89 Camaro
Engine Temp (degrees F)	Horsepower	Torque (ftl bs)	
Elapsed Time (secs)		Mph  (1/4 mile)
160	164 @ 4000 rpm	273 @ 2000 rpm	16.279	81.00
170	163 @ 4000 rpm	272 @ 2000 rpm	16.308	80.80
180	163 @ 4000 rpm	272 @ 2000 rpm	16.308	80.80
190	163 @ 4000 rpm	270 @ 2000 rpm	16.314	80.80
200	162 @ 4000 rpm	270 @ 2000 rpm	16.340	80.60
210	162 @ 4000 rpm	269 @ 2000 rpm	16.343	80.60
This data shows the effect a change in engine temperature has on the E.T. of a stock small block 89 Camaro, a typical beginners street car. Small changes in horsepower and torque due to temperature chanhes result in E.T. changes. You have to predict your carís E.T.during eliminations to the hundreth of a second. This change in engine temperature gives you about a .06 range to consider. So what do you do?

Install a good temperature gauge. If the data above comes from your logbook, you know that you have a temperature range between 170 and 190 degrees where the car will E.T. near 16.31. When you get to the starting line, make sure your engine temperature is in the 170 to 190 degree range. If it takes an electric radiator fan to keep the temperature steady, get one. If you have to keep warming the motor to keep the temperature up, do it. If you want to go for the lower 16.27 E.T., be prepared to push the car around and sweat soaring engine temperatures.

The situation is more complicated then this table because we are looking at only one variable-engine temperature. There are other things than variables to consider. You want to know how complicated it really is? The tactics, psychology, the need to make instant decisions under high pressure are part of the lure and a lot of the fun of bracket racing. Here is where "the right stuff" is really important. You want to know what itís like? Lets go to the track.

Saturday night

Your car sits for two hours in the staging lanes waiting to race. Engine temperature has dropped below 160 degrees. The last time trial was at 6:30 pm, two hours ago when the air temperature was 92 degrees. As darkness falls, the temperature drops to 81 degrees. The humidity has gone up 15% over the last three hours. What does this mean? It means that air density has increased so your engine will pull in more oxygen and make more power. You will go faster because you will make more horsepower.

Water in the air (humidity) has increased taking the place of some of that extra oxygen. This slows you down. You have the air cleaner off your engine and you are pulling underhood air into the engine. Since the air will be heated by the engine, it will be warmer then the outside air, so your car will slow down. And, by the way, what will your underhood air temperature be by the time you get the car staged on the line? Are you first in line or the last car in the staging lanes? You have to predict your car's performance and post it on your window, a very critical decision for the all important first round. So, you must factor in all the data you have and what you think the conditions will be like on the starting line and make a decision.

Heck, we haven't even considered the 15 lbs of air pressure in your slicks might have changed due to the drop in temperature so your traction off the line might be different. And don't worry about the oil down in the right lane, just past the tree. I'm sure the track crew cleaned up every last molecule of oil, it won't be slippery. Oh yeah, now the water box area looks like a pig sty. Wannabe's in Street Class have driven through the water box instead of backing in and gotten water in their front tire treads. Their tires have tracked water 10 feet in front of the box. It's slippery as Hell in front of the box.

Standing under the lights at the front of the staging lanes, you can see the staging lane girl talking with the tower on her head set radio and she's looking at your lane. Small groups of chatting drivers see the look, cease talking, and begin to scatter in the darkness towards their cars. Anxious racers don helmets. Crews start hustling and buttoning down hoods. Tension starts building in the air, your heartbeat increases, and the adrenaline rush begins. Drivers and crew members in the adjacent lane slide closer to their cars, knowing they will be coming out after your bracket is finished.

They are going to jerk someone, and set them aside for a possible bye since there is an odd number of cars in your staging lane. Somebody will get a free ride to the second round, an automatic win. If you are lucky, it'll be you, but don't count on it. So, you either race the guy in front of you who's faster, or the guy behind you who's slower depending on where they pull the bye. Depending on the pairing, you have to consider possible tactics.

Do you freight train, use the slide (normal or reverse), push and dump, or any number of other tactics? Maybe the guy in front of you is a duck. Yeah, right, not the way the earth shook when he pulled into the staging lanes...what's the lift on that cam....3 feet? Those wheelie bars are just for looks, right? Ooops, the guy behind you is frantically changing his dial-in and the staging lane girl is pointing at your lane yelling "Bracket two, let's go, you're up now". The line of cars in the staging lane starts exploding into noise as the unmuffled motors fire up. Somewhere, over all the noise, a crewman is yelling "Come ON, COME ON!" as the motor in a car cranks, but refuses to start.

The staging lane girl send the first two cars towards the water box. Then she points to the next car and motions it to the side. You are envious, he gets the bye and a free ride to the second round. The driver kills the motor and the crew pushes the car to the side with big grins all over their faces. They are getting a free chance to check the dial-in under racing conditions, a lucky break for them.

And, Crap! The staging lane girl points to you and Mr Super Cam and Wheelie Bar as the next pair. Your competition is tricked out with every conceivable electronic aide known to man-a cross over delay box, a three-step, a rpm switch tied to an air shifter, throttle stop, and God knows what else. There no doubt he's got the throttle stop set to slow him down, because he should be in bracket one. He's dialing the top of bracket two which gives him the visibility advantage and the statistical win advantage over slower cars. This guy is a murderer and you have to race him!

Now that darkness has fallen at the track, both of your reaction times will go down Why? Because the contrast between seeing the incadesent lights on the tree come on in broad daylight and in darkness is different. Both of you will see the lights sooner so you will react sooner. Of course, as the slower car, you have a clean tree, but your competitor has the ability to leave off of your light and his light too because of the cross-over box. He gets two shots at the tree. You, on the other hand, get only one shot. He can adjust for darkness electronically, you have to rely on your eyesight.

[Editor's note: It is true that the human eye will pick up the amber starting lights quicker at night. With delay box users, the result is as expected: Quicker reaction times. With a footbrake racer, however, who must train himself to launch at a very specific instant on the tree, the quick flash of light at night can often hamper reaction times. Experience will be your teacher in night racing situations. Practice, practice, practice!]

And now the guy at the water box just made that oh, so subtle, almost priest like gesture, that means "C'mon. It is your time." You better have a plan.

The Game of Mistakes

Bracket racing has been called "The Game of Mistakes". The driver that makes the least number of mistakes wins. If you have miscalculated your dial-in and your oppenent hasn't, you've already lost. A bad leave will trailer you. A slight delay in your reaction time, as little as .001 second, can lose a race. You will be constantly faced with critical decisions and if you make a wrong one at the wrong time, you will lose, simple as that, no second chances. There is often little time to ponder what your decision will be and the pressure to make the right one is intense. And, the pure intensity of the starting line makes concentration difficult.

You back into the water box, and move forward slightly out of the water. You stab the line-lock that sets and locks the front brakes and releases the back brakes. This allows the slicks to spin violently, creating heat from friction and causes oils in the slicks to come to the surface, making them tacky. Line-lock set, you press the accelerator pedal and engine rpm begins to mount as the slicks begin spinning. The open exhaust becomes a roar, your car begins bouncing slightly, and a slight haze of tire smoke builds from your spinning slicks. Your competitior does the same.

The sound of the burnout, the smell of hot oil, mixed with the acrid smell of tire smoke, and the strangly sweet smell of racing gas fumes overloads the senses. Spectators and crewmen near the starting line, lean away from the ever increasing noise, wincing, with fingers in their ears. Your opponent, rear tires spinning, engine roaring, front wheels locked becomes engulfed in a immense cloud of tire smoke that drifts over the starting line. The front brakes are locked, front wheels unmoving, yet the violently spinning slicks pushes the car forward. The front tires dig into the track, trying to hold back the power, but they skid forward, overcome by the mounting horsepower. The car violently leaves the waterbox as the front brakes are released. It springs forward like an uncaged animal and leaps toward the starting line, literally shaking like an excited racehorse. Waves of engine heat and tire smoke swirl around the starting line like a dragons breath.

You have trouble imagining how the fragile human being inside your opponents car can control all the raw power that will soon be released. The driver, tied down by a spider web of straps is dehumanized by the crash helmet and the darkened crash helmet visor. Without a face, the driver seems like an android; robotic, stiff and inhuman, part of a powerful machine, merged into it. Deep down, this is truly frightening at some instinctual level and that squeezes the adrenal gland.

You both move toward the starting line to stage. You check temperature, oil pressure, look at the E.T. posted on the electronic clock at the end of the quarter mile to insure that the tower has entered it correctly. Your opponent stages. You stage carefully, bumping the car from the prestage into the staged light beams, placing the car exactly on the starting line. The blue light on top the tree glows, telling you this is an elimination round. You bring your engine rpm up. Your opponents engine revolutions begin building and it starts roaring loudly like a primeval beast. He gets against his three-step, a device that limits rpm buy allowing cylinders to misfire randomly. The noise increases. Intensity is present on the attitudes of crewmembers and spectators alike. They lean forward to watch the all important launch. The starter hits the switch, and the yellow lights start down on your side of the tree, startling bright in the darkness, spaced at .5 second intervals. Flash, Flash,Flash-NOW! You dump the brake and floor the accelerator the instant you see the last yellow flash. You've got both your car's rollout time figured and your reaction time factored into the launch sequence. You never see the green light come on.

You seem to get a good light and blast down the track, leaving your opponent staged at the line, waiting for the tree to come down on his side. You can see him clearly in your rear view mirror, outlined in the bright lights that glare down on the starting line at night. You keep pulling away. You make your shift point and take another quick glance at the mirror. You see the lights coming down on his side of the tree and JEEZ, he leaves like a rocket! The car just disappears out of the lights at the starting line into the murkiness that is the rest of the track. Night racing can be a bitch. You can barely make out a shape hurling toward you in the darkness and God, is he coming fast! It's hard to judge his distance in the darkness because he has no headlights; he's running blacked out-perfectly legal and part of his strategy - you can't see me, but I can see you. You have your tail lights on, because it's required by the rules so it's going to be hide and seek at 100+ mph. You hit your final shift point into high and try to press the throttle pedal through the floor. It's developing into a top end duel with the finish coming up fast.

You are 100 yards from the stripe, the distance of a football field with your opponent heading into your blind spot. This is the big moment for both of you. Your opponent may judge that he can't pass you. If so, he'll sit in your blind spot, tap his brakes and slow slightly insuring that he will be over his dial-in. Since you can't see him, you will keep your foot in it and go quicker then your dial-in. That's a break-out, an automatic lose! Is he setting you up to be the victim of the classic bracket racing tactic known as "the dump?" Or maybe you should hit the brakes and try to dump him. Let him go flying past you full throttle wondering where in hell you went. Problem is, which one of you got the better leave and who is running closer to their dial-in? You could be giving the race away by dropping anchor when you shouldn't be. Or, perhaps you are both on a double break-out run. In that case, the winner is whoever breaks out the least, no matter what else happens. Or, it could be that.........

The football field seems like a lot of distance but at a speed of 100 miles per hour, you will be there in two seconds. Your faster opponent will cover this distance in even less time! You have less then two seconds to look around, determine where your opponent is, judge if he will pass you, and how you are going to react. Buddy, this is decision making under pressure! Even professional football quarterbacks have more time to make a decision. Even over the roar of your open exhausts, you can hear him coming up, like the proverbial bat out of hell....

The example above is an attempt to illustrate what bracket racing is like for those who have never made a pass down a track I hope it gives you some insight into what Frank Hawley is talking about in his definition of the "right stuff". It is much more then mashing the pedal to the floor and hanging on. You need concentration, judgement, awareness, and attitude. For further enlightment on the "Right Stuff", read the "Psychology of Drag Racing" sections on The Staging Light. The "Right Stuff" practically oozes from those pages. Your assignment is to read Ďem!

Next Time: Basic Equipment

Merle Grabhorn

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