Amateur Drag Racing: A Breakdown

Power, Speed & Spectacle: Amateur Drag Racing is the Place to Test Your Mettle

You’re cocooned in a cockpit so tight that you couldn’t scratch an itch if you tried. The only thing you hear is the crackling of the engine and the pounding of your heart as you are signaled by your crew to proceed to the staging area. Your body wobbles with every vibration from an angry engine waiting to be unleashed. The car eases over the water box – a puddle of water (in the case of Luskville Dragway, water mixed with Coca-Cola) to soak the slicks like syrup on pancakes. The intention is to build up the tires’ heat as “stickum” on the track. You hold the line-lock and rev her up, holding the rpms at 5,500 until the tires are screaming. The monster of an engine spits out venomously as the car reaches an apocalyptic roar. Intoxicating fumes and an atomic blast of smoke assault the senses as the tires screech in the puddle as though trying desperately to leave Hell. Your car evaporates into a cloud of smoke, choking off everything including the interior. The clutch is released and the sudden G-force slaps your body like a sumo wrestler pressing against your chest. Amidst trailing plumes of vaporized rubber, the dragster lurches several yards ahead, only to crawl to a stop and reverse back to the starting block.

Welcome to Amateur Drag Racing

As a means of rekindling a nationwide interest in drag racing, the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) returned to its roots; revitalizing the spirit of the sport by introducing their Street Legal program among a plethora of racing classes. This included a Junior Drag Racing League that pits youngsters from eight to seventeen in pint-sized dragsters and the Alcohol Funny Cars and dragsters class, to the “Super” classes that feature the closest races on the planet. The NHRA structure has encouraged an army of weekend warriors to contribute in making it the world’s largest motorsports sanctioning body and to fuel the overall growth of drag racing in North America. Regardless of the class, drivers have different desires to race. It could be for the prize money, the points system or just the thrill of smoke, noise and speed.

Three primary elements drive in the fans and keep the drivers coming back for more: The ear-splitting noise. The frightening speed. And, of course, those mesmerizing burnouts that cloak each car in a cloud of smoke. Many racing pundits consider drag racing a litmus test: an experiment to determine the levels of one’s muster, engineering skill, and nerve. If you’re a gearhead and you’ve got Castrol oil in your veins, you can’t replicate a similar thrill to E.T. bracket racing. Bracket racing is by far the most accessible, affordable and popular form of drag racing.

Bracket Racing, Bragging Rights

The criterion is based on a handicap between predicted elapsed time of two cars over an eighth or quarter-of-a-mile distance. The premise is to place a premium on consistency of performance of the driver and car rather than on raw speed, which in turn places the onus not on large infusions of money but rather on mechanical and driving skills, such as reaction times, shifting abilities and the aptitude of controlling the car. The anticipated elapsed times for each vehicle are compared, and the slower car receives a head start equal to the difference of the two.

With this system, virtually any two vehicles can be paired in a competitive drag race. The win will inevitably go to the driver who reacts quickest to the starting green light. Both lanes are timed independently. In some categories, the driver chooses his or her own handicap, or dial-in/dial-under. This applies to Super Stock, Stock, E.T. bracket, and Jr. Dragster classes. In other categories, the class handicap is predetermined and may not be changed. These classes are Comp, Super Comp, Super Gas, and Super Street. In Super Comp, Super Gas, and Super Street, breakout rules apply (when a racer manages to cross the 1/8 mile in less time that the one he dialed-in beforehand resulting in its disqualification).

The first thing you have to realize is that drag racing, no matter the amateur class, is a passion rather than a hobby. To test your mettle, it’s probably best to start by entering your car or motorcycle into a local “Cruise Night.” These are open to any street legal vehicle with elapsed times of 12.00 to 24.99 seconds. Entry fee is affordable; usually around $25. They are professionally organized and you and your friends can boast bragging rights as to who “owns” the track. For the serious grease monkey though, bracket racing is ideal for the weekend racer. This is the guy who spends hours in his garage modifying his engine and suspension for that split-second edge.

There aren’t a lot of sponsors to help you along the way, but with a competitive dragster, you can make a sweet sum over the season. In some cases, a summer’s catch can earn you anything from $20,000 to $50,000, but this means travelling extensively from circuit to circuit and winning consistently. For most, however, it’s simply the adrenalin of racing and the camaraderie of the racing fraternity. It is one of the few sports where a family spirit is embraced and members can participate at all levels and responsibilities. The appeal of bracket racing is that you can modify your car as you wish and move up in class when you feel ready – which is especially good if you can only be a part-time racer.

The quickest of the heads-up Super classes (6.80 to 8.90 index), Super Comp is composed primarily of dragsters. Engine, chassis, and body modifications are virtually unlimited, though all entries must adhere to NHRA safety standards. Four- and six-cylinder-powered entries may have a minimum weight of 1,000 pounds; all others cannot weigh less than 1,350 pounds. Most Super Comp cars are capable of running well under the 8.90 index but use a number of electronic aids, including a timer and adjustable throttle, to run close to the index without running quicker than it, or breaking out. But don’t kid yourself, these vehicles can move from 0 to 100 at 150 mph.

A Passion Rather Than a Hobby

To purchase a used Semi-Pro/Super Stock racer can set you back anything from $7,000 to $15,00 or more. On the other hand, buying a dragster for Super Comp is another matter entirely. A used dragster can empty your wallet as much as $50,000 to $100,000. A new engine is an additional $15,000 – $30,000. Seventeen-inch tires are around $350 – $900 a pair and need to be changed probably every three months. Alcohol gas runs at $250 for a 45 drum. A burnout alone consumes two gallons. Each run burns up three gallons. On top of that, there are the expenses for your helmet ($300 – $500 +), your Nomax suit ($2,000), gloves ($100+), neck-brace ($300), the appropriate licenses ($1,000), insurance, and of course, a truck or RV ($40,000 – $100,000) and a trailer ($15,000 – $30,000). With these costs to consider, you’ve got to have cash to burn and a need for speed.

About Clive Branson 22 Articles
Clive Branson is a photography graduate from Parsons School of Design in New York City and has since divided his career as an advertising creative director/copywriter and as a freelance writer/photographer. He is the author of Focus On Close-Up and Macro Photography and numerous articles for magazines and newspapers throughout North America and Britain. Clive lives and works in Ottawa, Ontario.
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