By on August 6, 2021

Bordovski Yauheni/Shutterstock.com

They say that drag strips are for fast cars, while racetracks are for fast drivers. That may be true, but this is a premier, top-shelf car enthusiast blog, however. We’re all friends here, and we’re all just delusional enough to believe – if only a little bit – that we were all but a go-kart or midget sprint or jr. dragster away from motorsports greatness at one point in our lives, and that’s the real allure of the drag strip: it’s an easily accessible, relatively affordable way to experience motorsports firsthand.

Ready? Let’s get started.

Get Yourself to a Drag Strip

Street racing is dangerous and stupid, full stop. No matter how “cool” you think you are or how good of a driver you imagine yourself to be, there are simply too many variables on the open road for you – or anyone else – to solve for. What’s more, street racing gives more responsible people who want to experience motorsports in a more controlled environment a bad rap, making it harder for everybody to enjoy their cars.

As the great Tym Switzer (Sr.) once told me, “Don’t be the asshole that takes out a bus full of crippled orphan children on their way to Disneyland.”

(Ed. note: This was posted under my byline by mistake, but Jo Borras wrote it. This has been fixed.)

You’re There, Now What?

Your first day at the drag strip – even if you’ve attended a few NHRA events and open “test and tune” days – is going to be a thing, but it shouldn’t be overwhelming if you go in prepared. In most cases, there will be an entry fee, a “pit” area that can feel like a glorified parking lot at some of the smaller tracks, and a tech or safety inspection that’s basically there to ensure that your car meets the bare minimum safety standards.  It’s your first day at the track, though, so you’ll want to bring a car that’s been well-maintained, and that you can depend on to stay together when you jam on the throttle for a full quarter of a mile. Finally, you should show up in a car that you’re intimately familiar with.

That’s right, kids. I’m suggesting that you drag race your daily.

As tempting as it might be to finally get that project car out of the garage or drop the hammer on that rented Hertz Cobra. I have a few reasons for suggesting this. First, you’re going to dealing with a lot of firsts as it is – and, if you’re overwhelmed, you’re going to have a bad time.

The second reason is that metal and glass and plastic can get super stabby if a high-speed pass starts to go sideways (both figuratively and literally, in this case), so you’ll benefit from knowing if that tick, click, or pop you just heard is an OK tick, click, or pop or a harbinger of impending disfigurement, you know?

Finally, nothing says, “first time” quite like a mouse gray Honda Accord with a confused driver slowly motoring down the pit lane. So, again – and just this once – it is OK to race your daily.

As soon as you get sort of close to where you think you’re supposed to be, you’re going to take another big step: You’re going to ask for help.

I’m spelling this out because, in my experience, a lot of people spend their whole lives trying to appear competent. Trust me when I tell you, though, that drag racers are a warm, welcoming breed of hairless ape, and the mere fact that you’ve bothered to show up at the strip at all means you’re probably not all bad. Ask the people around you if you’re in the right place, where you should go, how to line up at the lights – ask people literally every question you have, even you think you already know the answer. You’ll probably make a friend or two, sure, but the real benefit is that you’ll cut down the time spent on the steepest part of the learning curve, and get to the fun part that much sooner.

Prepare to Win

Look at you – you’ve made it through the gates, passed the safety inspection, made your way to the pits, and asked around enough to get yourself into line, and you did what the officials told you to do like a good boy/girl/whatever. You’ve made it to the tree. You look out your side window at the screaming, tire-shredding torque beast lined up alongside you and smile. You’d never beat that animal in a straight race behind the wheel of your Camcord or Explorokee or Odysienna, and losing sucks. You’re not here to suck and fail, though, you’re here to win and have fun and to watch the other guy suck and fail – and you’re going to do just that because your first drag race ever is going to be a bracket race.

Bracket racing is a nuanced thing, but it can be explained very simply as, “you’re trying to get the same time, every time, without going under.”

On your first and maybe second pass, you’re trying to get “dialed in”, which means that you’re setting a target time that you’ll be able to repeat again and again. Let’s say you’ve got one of those three-row Jeep Grand Cherokees Tim reviewed a while back. That SUV should be good for a 15.7-second quarter-mile pass, but you’re not going for a fast time – you’re going for a repeatable time. You’re going to breathe easy, roll into the throttle, and keep your foot to the ground the whole way down the track.

If you did the thing right, you’ll find your Jeep will run somewhere in the mid-to-high 16s. Let’s call it 16.5 for the sake of easy math.

So, you’ve got a target of 16.5 seconds. The guy next to you revving the absolute piss out of that SBC Fox-body? He’s got a dialed-in time of 12.0 seconds. That means that your light will go green, then –four-point-five seconds later – his light will go green, and whoever crosses the line first (without going faster than their dialed-in “target” time) is the winner.

Sure, there’s a bit of a “the Price is Right” element to it, but your well-maintained and stone-ax reliable daily driver has every advantage over any of the tweaked and tuned cars that might line up alongside it in a bracket race, and the only thing holding it back in its inevitable triumph of predictability is you. You will have to dial it in properly, perform consistently, avoid getting emotional, and maintain your focus … just like a for-real racecar driver.

Did You Catch the Racing Bug?

Once your first day at the drag strip is all wrapped up, one of two things will probably happen. You’ll either check “drag race” off your bucket list and move on to trying exotic cat poop coffee or skydiving or riding a bull named Fu-Manchu – or you’ll immediately start thinking about your next day at the track. If there’s bound to be a day two, and you can see yourself at day thirty-seven, it’s time to start reading more of Murilee Martin’s posts and start scouring the scrapyards for a project car. Be warned, though: this is big-boy territory, and this particular addiction gets real expensive, real quick.

[Image: Bordovski Yauheni/Shutterstock.com]

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17 Comments on “TTAC Tips: How to Drag Race a Daily and Win...”


  • avatar
    FreedMike

    My only hesitation would be that my car’s computer would report all those launch-controlled takeoffs back to the dealer when it comes time to fix something under warranty.

    • 0 avatar
      theflyersfan

      Your hesitation is justified. I recall when the GT-R was released, it was news that the black box was recording the number of times launch control was used, especially when the car was brand new, and if it exceeded a certain number, your warranty was tossed in the bin.

      @Tim – Big Brother is watching your rental car, especially in Germany. I’m not sure if it’s true or urban legend, but word is out about taking your rental on the ‘Ring and having a very angry rental clerk waiting for you upon your return because your location, speed, and other info was recorded. Of course, with that rental M5 from Hertz from Frankfort a few years back, there was nothing stopping me and that car from reaching Need For Speed levels of fun in emptier parts of southern Germany and I really didn’t care what might have been beamed back to whomever.

      And I understand Hertz is REALLY strict about how you treat their special Mustangs. I’d read all of the fine print before melting a set of tires off of it.

    • 0 avatar

      I’d be hesitant, too– that’s why I suggested rolling into the throttle instead of launching the car.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Good article.

    I didn’t know the first thing about drag racing, but now I do: “You’re going to ask for help”, because “a lot of people spend their whole lives trying to appear competent”.

    So true.

    I understand bracket racing, but it’s funny to think that I’ve yet to own a car that could hit 60 quicker than 8 seconds.

  • avatar
    Lou_BC

    The secret to bracket racing is consistency. Showing up in your daily probably would help with consistency. The scenario described of 12 second Fox body against your 16.5 time won’t happen. Brackets try to group similar “dial in” times.
    Another point is how the “tree” is configured. If it’s a standard tree all of the lights will light in sequence. If that is the case you can usually nail the throttle once the very bottom yellow lights up. A typical response time will mean you won’t “red light”. If it’s a “pro tree” then once you are okay to go, the yellow lights will basically light up and jump straight to green. That’s a bit harder and will test your reaction times. They’ll give you your reaction time on your “slip”.

    I drag raced a motocross bike in the early 90’s. My Yamaha YZ490 had to be geared as tall as it would go, it was jetted rich and I lowered it. The second year I did it I ran wheelie bars. I was running around 13.334 seconds at around 103 mph. It was sketchy as fook. A buddy raced a Kawasaki KX500 with a similar set up. He was a smaller dude around 60 pounds lighter than me and an expert level motocrosser. He was turning 11.8’s. I ran bracket 3 (13 seconds and slower) He ran bracket 2(13-11 seconds IIRC).

    • 0 avatar

      Brackets try to, sure– but I’ve had 3-5 second handicap races and they’ve been great fun. Sometimes I was in the faster car, and it was super stressful to watch the other guy pull away. Sometimes I was in the slower car, and hearing the other car come off the line was a real “chased by a tiger” kind of thrill I haven’t really felt elsewhere.

      As for the YZ490, that sounds **AWESOME**, and super sketch. Yes. My ’87 Mustang eventually ran 13.3s, and I thought it was fast … which, in 1994/5, I guess it was.

      • 0 avatar
        Lou_BC

        1st time I raced I did not have wheelie bars. Most of the bikes in my bracket were Harleys. Some of the riders hated my guts. They thought I was showboating because the front wheel would be off the ground for at least 1/4 to 1/2 the run. They had no clue that I was threading a fine line between maximum acceleration and looping out.

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    This writeup makes my wallet tremble.

    I have no interest in drag racing my daily driver, but this DID remind me that I have been intending [for about the last twenty years] to attend a tractor pull (as an observer – don’t get crazy). There’s one tomorrow night – will let you know if I get my city-slicker butt kicked.

    Thanks Jo!

    • 0 avatar
      ToolGuy

      Well the tractor pull was fascinating (take hearing protection).

      – My favorite part was walking through the field and checking out the various trailer/tool setups. [Some of the trailers had fixed ramps inside giving you permanent ‘pit’ access to the vehicle from below.]

      – Second favorite part was the sled. There is a lot going on with that sled (including safety procedures). [Different example shown here.]
      https://ntpapull.com/pulling-101/the-pulling-sled

      – The Packard was cool.
      https://midsouthpullersassociation.com/2020/02/26/puller-spotlight-on-the-normans/

      – The Chevy trucks walked all over the Ford trucks (bonus style points to the S-10 with power windows).

      • 0 avatar
        Lou_BC

        I’ve never been to tractor pulls. Monster trucks used to come to town but our arena wasn’t very big. For years my sons were Bigfoot fans. It was fun to watch and definitely needed hearing protection.

  • avatar
    Halftruth

    I’ve done it and it is a blast but you have to know what you are getting into and how far you want to push your DD. For those that have very quick sub 13 second DD’s, you will need a helmet so be prepared.
    Check the rules at your local track. If you have a lead sled DD, just don’t push it to the redline straightaway if you are not sure. I closed a track down once due to a transmission line failure. It was the end of the night and people were still pissed at me. Check everything..

    Better traction equals better time. You can deflate your tires a bit to get better traction. Bring a compressor with you.

    Last thing, don’t treat the tree like a regular streetlight; on the last yellow, mash the gas and go for a good reaction time. You’d be amazed at the street-nighters showing up with 500 plus HP and they leave the line like a granny leaving the shopping plaza.

  • avatar
    MoDo

    Bret Kepner use to bracket race rental cars and win money, his trick was to leave it running all day. Its far more consistent at the heated up temp than cooled off at various levels

  • avatar
    nrd515

    My advice after doing it the first time in 1973 is to find one of the practice trees online and spend a little bit of time working on leaving with a decent reacion time. I was all messed up on everything else back when I did it the first time, but I always have been able to cut decent lights at worst, and if I’m having a great day, I can hear the announcer say, “Wow, the guy in the (fill in car/truck) cut a great light!”. If you’re just having fun, resist the temptation to start messing with the car to cut the E.T. Just make as many runs as you can at first to get used to the whole thing. One of the first times I went, I wanted my low 14 second Roadrunner to become a high 13 second Roadrunner, and I borrowed some slicks from a friend who suddenly showed up, and after about 10 13.8-9 passes, the rear end started howling. Somehow, it made it back from the old Irwindale track to Vegas, where I drove it home, then to a local boneyard, where a 3.55 ratio 8+3/4 rear replaced the taxicab 8+1/4 weakling the factory put in my car for some unknown reason. The replacement survived hundreds of passes and about 50K miles before I traded the car for a truck, and instantly regretted it. I desperately wanted the car to run a 12, but 13.20’s is as close as I got, at Irwindale, in early 1977.

  • avatar
    thecrazy88

    Real stupid question incoming.
    What gear should you start in off the line? Everytime I watch a drag race on YT the revs are so high I can’t imagine myself getting any traction off the line in first. Do/can people start in 2nd? Is it supposed to be in 2nd, or do you just figure it out in 1st?

  • avatar
    Luke42

    This article is all well and good, but what kind of safety gear would a first-time daily-driver bracket-racer be expected to bring to the track?

    Does the car need to be modified in any way to be safe on this particular kind of track?

    (As a green-car guy, I don’t follow racing closely — but I do see how it could be fun, and how the kind of cars I like could be competitive in bracket racing.)

    • 0 avatar
      White Shadow

      At most tracks, just a helmet. Most tracks will also rent you one of you don’t have your own.

      No modifications required unless your daily driver is fast. Then you might need a roll cage. Or if it’s REALLY fast, a parachute.

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