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IEA - The Learning Environment,
by Michael Beard 1994

Analysis of a Learning Environment


Throughout our entire life, we constantly reinforce the trite expression, "You're never to old to learn." Learning environments become much more interesting when we mix people of all ages together, and place them in a new and extremely complex environment. One such area that does just that is the realm of auto-racing, and drag racing in particular. Every year, an ever growing number of people gets involved in drag racing. It is a sport that lends itself to groups of people from very different backgrounds competing together on an even playing field. All the factors associated with drag racing: people from varied backgrounds, intense competition, and a common desire to win, are all inherent to creating a tremendous learning environment.

In today's high-technology world, the information network created among racers had now expanded to span the entire world over the computer Internet. Electronic means of communicating are almost commonplace now, and many racers are now taking advantage of the "Information Superhighway." Here, we will explore the amazing network of knowledge that passes hands between competitors at the track, and on the computer.


1) People

The people that are associated with drag racing are some of the most intriguing pieces involved with the sport. While stereotypes abound, racers' backgrounds actually cover a very large base. While you might easily picture a greasy, scruffy, chewin' and spittin', southern drawl talkin' Jim-Bob as a typical drag racer, the least expected 'normal' folks are those that turn out to be drag racers. There are poor people, rich people, men and women, people of all races, young and old, and people from nearly every imaginable walk of life. Stereotypes are shattered when you consider a young college student like myself, a middle-aged NASA technician, and even competitors from other sports, namely baseball's Jack Clark (owner and now driver of the Taco Bell Top Fuel Dragster) and Tom Hammond of the Denver Nuggets basketball team, who drives one of the quickest "street" cars in the nation.

These examples are not unique, either. There are just as many (if not more) low-budget "bracket racers" like myself as there are professional drivers. There's a place for everyone. Even though these drivers vary so greatly in their backgrounds, one common bond holds them together: They all want to win! To that end, every racer comes to the realization that other drivers hold a grand crop of knowledge waiting to be harvested that can help him achieve his goal.

2) The Physical Environment

On the surface, the drag strip appears to be a simple place. There are generally three general parts of a track. There are the pits where the racers park their beasts and spectators stroll through with a curious eye, the grandstands from which to watch the races, and the track itself. (Unless of course we shouldn't leave out the all-important food and souvenir stands) Upon closer inspection, the one part of the track that is not nearly as simple as it appears is the track itself. The two long straight lines of asphalt hide the real clockwork gears that make the track tick. Just before the starting line of the track lays the staging lanes, where racers line up their cars when they are ready to race. From there, they proceed to the "burnout" box. This is simply a part of the track that has water supplied to aid a driver's burnout. To further explain, a burnout is what allows a car to get good traction. The driver spins the tires in the water quickly until they get very hot, and thus, very sticky.

The starting line holds the most complicated part of the track. In front of the starting line stands the "Christmas tree." The is the short tower of lights that signals each driver when to go. It consists of several amber bulbs that light to indicate to a driver when he is on the starting line, and then three amber lights to warn him of the green "go" light coming on. The last of the bulbs on the tree is the feared red light, which glows to indicate a foul start: instant disqualification. Along the track are many photocells that electronically record a car's time as it makes its trek down the straight quarter-mile. After the finish line, the track continues straight to allow the cars to slow down, and then it turns back toward the pit area. Along the way, each driver can pick up his "time slip," the piece of paper that has all the vital information on it concerning the times that the car ran.

Intimate knowledge of a track and its timing systems is absolutely crucial to winning. Every driver must understand how the Christmas tree works and how the stage markers indicate how he is on the starting line to get good reaction times, which is necessary to be competitive. Too many drivers also take for granted the information that is given to them on their time slips. That information is gold. With it, a driver can hone his driving skills to their potential, and tune his car more effectively.

3) Equipment

The obviously most important piece of equipment that a racer has is his car. Race cars vary almost as much as you can imagine. From slow VW Bugs, to hopped up muscle cars, to roadsters and unique "altereds," to Top Fuel Dragsters and Funny Cars that traverse the quarter mile in less than five seconds! (Just try to imagine accelerating from zero to 300 mph in less than five seconds...) In any drag car though, there are general similarities. Each has a frame that has some sort of body attached to it, whether it be a the steel body of a normal car, the lightweight fiberglass replicas of cars used by Funny Cars, or the body panels used by long, skinny dragsters.

The mechanical equipment found in race cars is also very diverse. All have engines for power, transmissions for shifting gears, and rearend gears for transferring all the power to the ground, but after that, most cars lose their similarity. There are an infinite amount of combinations a driver can use to build each part of his car so that it runs to his expectations. (Or budget limitations!) If you can imagine it, someone has built it.

Mechanical equipment in cars has always been the major factor in building race cars, but today, electronic aids are all the rage, in more ways than one. Over time, racers discovered that they could create electronics devices that would better their performance as drivers. Now, drivers can use a gizmo called a two-step to limit the engine rpm's at the touch of a button, transmission brakes that hold the car until a button is released, and a delay box which electronically counts a number set by the driver after the release of a button before it releases the transmission brake and two-step, and an air-shifter which automatically shifts the car at precisely the same rpm every time. These items are combined for a deadly, and expensive, effect. All the electronics in drag racing is driving up the cost to compete for many drivers, and taking the skill out of the sport. With these devices, all a driver has to do is put his car on the starting line, hold a button down, put the gas to the floor, and release the button the instant he sees a flash of yellow light from the Christmas tree. Everything is automatic. For a driver like myself, who runs with a very low-budget car and no electronics, it becomes very satisfying to beat racers who have electronic aids.

In order to be competitive in drag racing, racers must understand the mechanics and electronics behind their car. With a firm grasp of how everything works together, a racer can learn from his own mistakes better, and try to discover weaknesses in his opponents' cars. The information network is invaluable in this. It is not uncommon to find articles in magazines, conversations on the computer Internet, or in the pits at the track about how to become more competitive. With electronic devices like delay boxes becoming more popular (and more of a necessity), groups of racers often discuss tactics on how to "beat the box." Conversations are by no means limited to this, though. If it will make your car a little faster, or give you a little edge in a race, somebody will be talking about it.


"Keep your mouth shut, and your eyes and ears open." said Jim Harrington, a professional bracket racer and magazine writer. Another professional bracket racer said, "I listen to everything that is said at the track, and then I weed out all the garbage." These words qualify the ways and means to uncover knowledge in our sport. Drivers at all levels seek out all the information they can, and then try to sort of fact from fancy. It's obvious that all the tips and tricks you hear are not going to be worthwhile, and the hardest job of a racer is to discover for himself which is which.

Once he has all this information, however, the rookie cannot expect to start winning every race. The difference lies between declarative and procedural knowledge. Indeed, he has sought out every tidbit of information there is to know, but this is merely declarative knowledge. In order to use this reservoir of knowledge, he must also understand the procedural aspects of what he has learned. "You have to try to get as close to a perfect reaction time as you can without red-lighting." That's nice to say, but implementation of this ambiguous fragment of advice is obviously far harder than simply giving the advice!

A better piece of advice might have been to set the rookie driver on the path toward conducting some experimental research to discover how to get good reaction times. Following that, the racer giving the advice could quickly explain the variables involved in reaction times to help set up the experiment. The variables would be how fast the car leaves the starting line, and when the driver hits the gas. To complicate the experiment, a racer can change many aspects of how the car reacts with varying front tire pressure, engine rpm on the starting line, and where the car is staged (or positioned) on the starting line, just to name a few. With that more useful information in hand, the rookie could now set about manipulating the variables one at a time until he discovers the right combination for him to get good reaction times.

Storing the massive amounts of knowledge needed in drag racing presents a problem. Encoding all the pieces of information itself is not a problem, but the extremely fast-paced nature of the sport puts a strain on what useful bits are retrieved from our long-term memory and placed in our working memory for the short duration of the race. Our working memories are pitifully short-handed when dealing with all the variables dealt with in drag racing. Just this weekend I heard a Dennis Mull tell me, "I knew his car wasn't that quick at the end of the track and wouldn't be catching me very fast, but I forgot it about half-way down the track!"

Many drivers make a conscious effort to chunk as much of the information together as they need in their race. Rehearsal, or some kind or mental imaging of the race beforehand, helps turn a long series of actions and strategies into a routine. I used to have to go through every step: Turn all the switches on, start the car, drive into the burnout box, spin the tires over, pull out of the water, hold the brake, do the burnout, pull to the starting line, tap the brakes, creep into the staging beams of the starting line, hold the brake, hold the gas at the right spot, hit the gas at the right time, shift, shift, watch for the other car... If you thought it was long and tedious to read, try remembering it exactly right under pressure! All of that information had to swirl around in my working memory at the same time, and still be able to provide me with the right tidbits I needed at a given instant. Now, everything is automatic for me, from my burnout up to staging the car. Even my reaction times are mostly run by instinct now. (Which may account for my accuracy) Currently, all my concentration can be focused on my actual driving, and where my car is in relation to my opponent's.


The driving force (please excuse the pun) behind drag racers comes in many forms. Motivation takes different shapes for different racers, but there are several mainstays. Most professional and semi-professional racers are in it for the money. For these racers, other motivations almost certainly must accompany them, since drag racing is not an extraordinarily monetarily rewarding sport, except for the very best drivers. The other underlying desire for racers is the sheer fun of racing. Some like it for the speed, some like it for the competition, and some enjoy it simply as a social outlet. Each of these exists in every racer in some amount, or he probably would not continue racing. That is one of the impressive things about drag racing: The competitiveness and fun of the sport provide a very powerful motivation for every racer. For the few who do not feel those strong emotions toward racing, they usually leave the sport.

While all of these attributes seem to reside in every racer in some amount, the form that each motivation takes can vary greatly. For those of us with the highly competitive spirit, just the challege is a more than adequate intrinsic motivation. Fun, speed, and money are simply side benefits that lie as extrinsic motivations. For each racer, these rolls are completely interchangeable. I fall into the competitive category. Stan Snyder, on the other hand, simply loves to see how fast he can make his car go, thus the name he gave it: "Maxxed Out!" Although we are each there for our own reasons, the fact remains that we all love to race!

The love of our sport keeps the majority of racers classified as success seekers. Everyone knows that you can't win all the time, so it is very rare that a driver will lose a race and then make an attribution like, "I just don't have what it takes to win." It is much more likely that he will make a positive attribution. In drag racing, the tournament style means that there will only be one winner in each class, and forty or more other drivers will lose, "And there's always next week."

Some drivers have discovered that there are times when it is actually good to lose. The only way to identify any problems you have as a driver or in your car is to lose. It doesn't do you any good to win an event with terrible reaction times. The chance of your great luck holding out again is virtually nil. It's better to say, "OK. My reaction times need work." At this point in my racing career I have admitted to myself that I need to work on judging where my opponents are in relation to me near the finish line. I have lost a lot of races by misjudging people, even with great reaction times, so I know where to concentrate my efforts.


With my attention actually focused on the learning that takes place in the environment of the drag strip, I am amazed by the mass of knowledge that passes hands from one racer to another. Even if you don't actively seek out information, it is always there being traded among a group of drivers. The collective knowledge of all the racers is a very powerful force. With only the drivers at a single track, a rookie can gather an astounding amount of information that if sorted out and put to use properly could make him a great driver in time.

One of the positive features of the track environment is the wealth of knowledge that is available to those who are looking for it. There is always something new to be learned, too. Even a veteran racer can improve himself by listening to other driver's opinions and strategies. The fantastic devotion and motivation exuded by drag racers is another major plus for the track learning environment. Models of attribution theory show us that these factors contribute to the continued and growing success of drag racing achievers.

The progression of knowledge in the sport is intriguing as well. It surprises me to think back only one year ago to when Mike Thomas was giving me simple little tips like "just raise your hood up until the shadow is still over the engine when you're letting it cool." and "You can slow your reaction times by adjusting the air pressure in your front tires." Now I am writing long, detailed guides on my opinions on how to get good reaction times to guys over the computer network, who have been racing since before I was born!

The one serious negative portion of the learning environment is also the wealth of information. The most dangerous information is that which you don't know, and nobody tells you about. I'm sure every racer has their own little secret for their style of racing that no one will ever know, but that merely keeps things interesting. The only aspect that makes this a negative is the withheld information. If the knowledge could help someone, and it is not being given, it must be a bad point.

As it stands, however, I don't think I would change much in the already amazing learning environment of the drag strip. The people involved in the sport are among the friendliest and most helpful on earth. I would not presume to open all the information known to all racers to everyone, for it would not promote the competitiveness in the racers any more, which would neither help the cognitive processes that they use to learn, nor help their already great motivation. In fact, as we learned, any excess motivation that was purely extrinsic to the racer's own motivations would actually be more detrimental than helpful.

The one thing that would help the environment is extension of the environment, which is already happening. The computer Internet has linked racers from all across the nation, and even around the globe, to allow them to share information. Soon, the phrase "Information Superhighway" will disappear from drag racers' vocabularies, only to be replaced with the "Information Superdragway."

Copyright 1996-1999 Michael G. Beard

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