Drag Racing Basics: Pit Gate to Finish Line

By Jeff Tyler, CFCC Member #2

Contact your local track, and ask if they have a "street night", or "test and tune". For complete beginners, it is best to avoid bracket racing events, or any points race. On street night, almost everyone running is just as new to this as you are! The track officials know this, and are ready to help. It is also a much more relaxed atmosphere.

If possible, call a few buddies, and go to watch the first time. Check out the "lay of the land". Ask the racers in the pits how everything works. Remember, everyone there is a car nut just like you, AND EVERYONE THERE WAS A "FIRST-TIMER" ONCE THEMSELVES! Everytime I go, I get asked questions by new guys! Just make sure you pay the extra couple of bucks to get in on the "pit side", as it won't do you much good to sit on the spectator side, which is usually deserted on street nights.

When you decide you are ready to give it a try, goto the pit gate, you will need to inform them that you intend to race. They will charge you for car & driver, plus extra for any spectator friends you brought. At the Motorplex in Ennis, they charged $18 for my wife and I (I raced, she watched) last season. You will be given a tech card.

Go find a pit space. Only take up one space, as the night goes on, it can get very busy. Unload any loose items in your car (I would suggest you leave what you can at home). Fill out the tech card and sign it. Usually, they also have a space on the BACK that you must sign, so look there also. Ask some of the cars parked near you whether they know if tech inspection is open, and where it is located (usually at the back, or beginning of the staging lanes). Its a good time to make new friends, and enjoy looking at all the great cars!

When tech inspection opens (usually 10-15 minutes after the gate opens) go to the tech area. If you are taking your street car, and it is not a death trap, you will pass tech. Some obvious things you need: seatbelts, safe tires (no cord showing), radiator coolant overflow catch canister (the factory one is fine), no blatant fluid leaks pouring out, etc! Also, shorts and tank tops are not allowed! YOU MUST WEAR LONG PANTS WHILE ON THE TRACK! All the officials look for this, so don't try to sneak it by them. This is about it for a street car. If your car runs faster than 11.99, then the entire game changes. However, if your running that well, I'll bet you've been to the track at least a time or two....The tech inspector will write your cars number on the window where it is visible by the timing tower. If staging lanes are not open, then return to your pit.

The track announcer will come over the PA system, and say that the staging lanes are open. Listen carefully, as some of the larger tracks have many lanes (The Motorplex has 10), and they may have cars of differant speeds report to differant lanes. On Friday street nights at Ennis, they just say lanes are open, and everyone just forms two lines. When they have a TON of cars, they split up the lanes by estimated ET of the car. Take your best guess, as this is not crucial. For your first run, I would suggest you get in line with the 15 second cars if you honestly have NO IDEA, as that is a good middle ground. The staging lanes go slowly, then quickly, so STAY WITH YOUR CAR. DO NOT RUN YOUR AIR CONDITIONER! The condensation on the system will drip down onto the track. BELIEVE ME, they look for this, and if they see something dripping, then will pull you off the starting line. When they check the liquid on the ground, and see it is plain water, they will chew your butt, and send you to the back of the staging lane.

At the end of the staging lanes, there SHOULD be a track official. Watch carefully, and when it is time, he will point at you, and then point where he wants you to go. His job is to pair up cars to race, then put them into correct lanes. The idea is to keep you from racing a 9 second alcohol Camaro. By the way, most tracks make a strong effort to keep near stock street cars from running sub-10 second race cars, and will usually hold a street car, and let the race car make a solo run. Unfortunatly, they don't always do this...If you find yourself lined up next to a John Force replica funny car, feel free (I advise beginners to do this!)to just sit there for a moment when the light goes green. Let the race car roar away from the starting line, then a moment later, you can go. Who cares that you got a lousy "reaction time"? Your ET slip will be UNEFFECTED! The timers don't start until you leave the starting line! This way, if the race car breaks an axle on a 7,000 rpm launch, and vears into your lane, you wont be there! I saw a sub-10 second car with an incorrectly set up rear suspention vear so hard at launch that he almost took out the starting line tree....

Just before you enter the water box, there should be another track official. He will make sure that your seat belt is on, all windows are rolled up, and will hold you until it is time for you to do your burnout. Do not enter the waterbox until instructed. If it is near sundown, turn on your parking lights. This is a required RULE at all tracks. This is how the officials can see where you are on the track, so they don't send another pair of cars while you are broke down at the other end, ON THE TRACK!

Since this is for beginners, I will assume you are on street tires. DO NOT DRIVE THROUGH THE WATERBOX! Your treaded tires will just pick up water in the treads, and when you do your burnout, it will sling water all over inside the wheel well. You will then track the water all the way down the track, and water will be dripping down onto your rear tires, making them VERY slick! If you do this, you make the track dangerous for everyone, and you may be asked to leave if you do it again. The water is for slicks, not treaded tires. DRIVE AROUND THE WATERBOX, then get your car centered in the lane. Back up slightly if needed. For street tires, I 'personally' do not think that a burnout does much at all. Street compounds are hard, and high performance tires are specifically designed to not heat up. Heat causes high speed tire failure, that is why you paid big bucks for "Z" speed rated tires. Now your trying to heat them up??? If I run my street tires, I do a quick, short burnout to clean the tires off.

Do not pull up to the tree! Every beginner does this. The staging beams are actually about 15 feet or so BEFORE the tree! Hopefully, you took my advise and watched the other cars run first, and looked to get an idea where everyone else was pulling up to. If you cant figure it out, don't worry, the starter knows it is "street night", and will felp you. When he realises you cant find the staging beams, watch him. He will walk up next to your car, and motion to you to either pull up, or back. Again, don't get embarrassed, or upset. The starter has to do that probably 20-30 times a night. SLOWLY pull forward until you see the very top, small yellow light come on. You are now "PRE-STAGED". It is considered a racers courtesy to wait for the other car to prestage, before staging. Then gently roll forward a few more inches, and the other small yellow light right under the top one will come on. You are now "STAGED". Do not roll forward too far, or the "PRESTAGED" light will go out, and you may be required to pull back, to relight that light. That is called "deep staging", and is usually not allowed on street nights. There -should- be a blue light turned on, on the tree, which notifies all racers that "deep staging" is not allowed. If you do accidently pull forward too far, and deep stage, DO NOT PULL BACK UNTIL INSTRUCTED TO DO SO BY THE STARTER. He may just start the tree anyway, and you would be sitting there in reverse! Now, watch that very bottom, large yellow light!

The starter will activate the tree, and the yellow lights will come on, one at a time .5 seconds apart. When the last yellow light comes on, GO! By the time you react, then your car reacts, the green light will be on. Trust me. If you red light, it is no big deal. Afterward, check your reaction time, and adjust. .500 is a perfect light on a standard tree (The pros use a tree where all the yellows come on at once, then green. A perfect light on a pro tree is .400).

If you only take one piece of advice from me, please let it be this: DON'T TRY TO SET A NATIONAL RECORD ON YOUR FIRST RUN! If this is your first time at the track, PLEASE make at least one pass where you are only running at 80%. This will give you a chance to see what the track feels like, what your car feels like, where the finish line is exactly, where the turn off is exactly. Your senses get overwhelmed when trying something like this the first time. A mistake you would have caught easily any other time can cause you to wreck your car. I've seen excellent drivers wreck great cars from a simple mistake that would have never caught them otherwise. It can happen to you too. This is the most fun you can have with your clothes on, but it is serious stuff too. Treat it that way. Stay in your lane at all costs.

Make sure you know exactly where the finish line is! Most new racers brake WAY too early...the speed trap beams are located 66' BEFORE the finish line beams. Make sure you are not mistaking the speed trap for the finish line!

Hopefully, you took my advice, and made your first pass at 80%, so you don't have to worry about figuring out this next section while running flat out....Most tracks have plenty of run out area. The Motorplex has something like 1/2 mile of run out area! However, other tracks like North Texas Dragway, as soon as you pass the finish line, you need to get on the brakes. When running the quarter mile, you will be running close to 100 mph at the finish line. If you slam on the brakes at those speeds, it is VERY easy to upset the chassis of the car and loose control, so be careful to not brake too hard.

READ THIS SECTION CAREFULLY!!! Before you run, know where the turn off roads are located. Most tracks have 2 turn offs, with one of them located at the very end of the run out area. If the turn offs go to the left side of the track, then THE CAR IN THE LEFT LANE HAS THE RIGHT OF WAY! If the turn offs go to the right side of the track, then THE CAR IN THE RIGHT LANE HAS THE RIGHT OF WAY! NEVER, EVER TURN IN FRONT OF ANOTHER CAR, CROSSING THIER LANE!!!! If I am running a REAL slow car, I will drive all the way to the last turn off, as my only other option would be to sit in my lane and wait for them to finally arrive. I don't like sitting in the middle of my lane on a race track. Several years ago, a street car was running a low 10 second car. The fast car had problems at the starting line, and the street car won. However, the quick car was now on the way. The street car turned in front of the 10 second car which had just cleared the traps at 128mph. A STUPID MISTAKE THAT CAN GET YOU AND SOMEONE ELSE KILLED! I also had a kid in a Honda actually miss the first turn off, make a U Turn on the track, and come back to it. I flagged him down on the return road, and let him know that there was another turn off at the end of the track. The officials were also waiting for him at the end of the return road....

After you turn off, look for the timing shack, where you can pick up your timeslips. Bigger tracks also have scales close by where you can weigh your car if you wish. When they hand you your time slip, DO NOT READ IT YET! Wait until you are back to your pit to do that, for right now, you need to get out of the way! Continue back up the return road (most have speed limits of 10 mph in the pits). If you want the seasoned people to look down on you, then go roaring around in the pit area. That is also a sure fire way to get asked to leave.

CONGRATULATIONS! You just made your first pass down a drag strip! I assure you that you will be hooked after just one time! There is nothing like it...

Things to Pack for a Day at the Races:

  1. Pen to fill out tech card
  2. 1/4 tank of gas
  3. think about your clothes! It can get pretty cold later at night, or really hot as the day goes on!
  4. Sunscreen
  5. Helmet (required if your car runs 13.99 or quicker)
  6. Fold up chairs
  7. Ice chest for drinks and cooling down intake (GLASS IS NOT ALLOWED!)
  8. Cellular phone
  9. Bug repellant
  10. Orange cones to mark your pit
  11. Camera or Camcorder!
  12. Long pants are required! If it is hot, consider taking sweat pants you can take off and on.

There you have it. Generally, racers are some of the nicest people around, and like you, they LOVE cars. Ask questions. Ask for advice, and you will get a ton of it. Look for others with cars like yours, and have fun! Most of all, JUST TRY IT!

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