Two 'hot rod' cars pull up to the start line and the engines rumble and throb as the drivers stare intently at the set of traffic lights ahead of them. They change from amber to green and in a howl of noise and tyre smoke, the two cars shoot off to cross a finish line some quarter of a mile away.
We've all seen drag racing in films and on the television, but this is purely an American phenomenon, surely? Wrong! There is a healthy drag race scene in the UK and it is growing every year, possibly because it's such a feast for all the senses. The sight of the brightly painted and beautiful vehicles, the sounds of the roaring engines, the smells of the burnt rubber and nitromethane... It's a truly all-enveloping, magical experience, made even more so for the kids by the degree of approachability of the cars, drivers and crews in the pits, enabling the young fans1 to meet their heroes and see the machines up close. Coupled with the low cost of a race meet, a weekend 'at the strip' is an event a family of petrolheads should experience.
Even before the First World War, drivers were running their cars as fast as possible down the seafront road Madeira Drive2 in Brighton. The Brighton Speed Trials, which are still held today, are not head-to-head races; instead, they are individually timed straight line sprints. These motor sprints became very popular in Britain and after the Second World War there were a number of timed motor sprint races running on the disused military airfields across Britain. The first races we would recognise as drag races occurred at the runway of the old airfield at Long Marston, just outside Stratford-upon-Avon, in 1959. Technically, it was still a timed sprint, but for the first time a pair of cars ran straight up the runway. Everything changed in 1963 when the first American hot rod cars started to appear in the UK. As the American sport of drag racing caught on in the States, people started to import cars into the UK for racing. As more and more people took part in (and watched) the sport, drag races on old airstrips became a regular occurrence around the country; it wasn't long before a dedicated track would appear.
This happened in 1966 when the old US Airforce runway near the village of Poddington in Northamptonshire was converted into a proper track, dedicated to drag racing. Now known as Santa Pod, after the famous American drag strip at Santa Ana, the 'Pod' soon became the European home of drag racing. As early as 1974, cars that were capable of running at 200mph were imported from the States, but it wasn't until 1989 that things started to really take off. In that year, Long Marston changed its name to Avon Park and laid down a full quarter-mile strip to American National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) standards. With this new track at Avon Park and a decent track at Santa Pod, the sport was set to develop into the cars and championships we have today.
So how does it work? Is it really just two cars pulling up to a line and then flooring it, with the first car crossing the line as the winner? Well sometimes, but not often. Most drag races, and certainly the races in a championship series, use a method of drag racing called bracket racing. This is basically a method of handicapping the quicker cars and it works like this: In the pits before the race both drivers will declare an 'ET' or 'elapsed time': this is an estimate of how long it will take them to race down the strip. Let's say, for example, driver A estimates it will take him 18 seconds3. This becomes his 'dial-in' time 4 and it is usually written with a chalk marker pen on the side window of his car for the spectators' benefit. In this example, driver B has decided to go for a dial-in time of ten seconds5 and the pair of them will move from the pits down to the track to race. After the previous race, the marshals will be frantically cleaning the track, since a single piece of debris or oil spill can cause major problems. The marshals can often be seen mopping the tarmac; this isn't water they are spreading on the track, but a sticky, glue-like substance to improve traction. Finally, once the track is prepared and declared safe, a marshal will call the drivers up to the starting area from the 'pairing lanes' where they have been waiting.
The two drivers will pull up into the starting area together and the two ETs will be displayed on big screens for the spectators. As the tension begins to mount, both drivers will do a 'burn out'; that is, a deliberate wheelspin designed to heat up the tyre rubber to a hot and sticky race temperature. When satisfied that everything is ready, each driver's crew chief will start to direct the driver towards the start line. By now both drivers will be staring intently at the set of traffic lights (known as the 'Christmas Tree'), sat on a concrete island between the two race lanes. At the top of the tree are four pairs (two pairs for each lane) of small white or yellow 'staging' lights. Below these are the six amber lights that form the starting lights: again, these are split into three lights for each lane. The next bulb down is a green 'Go' light for each lane, followed by a red 'False Start' light for each lane. By creeping forward towards the start line, the front wheels will eventually break an infrared beam. This causes the topmost pair of staging lights to illuminate; this is known as 'pre-stage'. This shows the drivers that they are approaching the start line. Now they will continue inching forward until the next beam is broken and the next pair of staging lights illuminates. This means that the car is precisely at the start line and ready to go.
As soon as pre-stage and stage lights on both lanes are lit, the race is ready to start. After a short delay, the car with the slower dial-in time will have its own set of starting amber lights illuminated in one of two ways. In the normal way, known as 'Full Tree', each light will illuminate in turn with a 0.5-second delay between each light, this forms the countdown before finally the green 'Go' light illuminates. In some race series, a 'Pro Tree' is used: with this system, the amber starting lights don't count down but instead illuminate all at once before extinguishing before the green bulb illuminates. Whichever system is used, as soon as the driver gets the green light, he's free to start and will accelerate hard up the track; this is known as the 'launch'.
Going back to the example now: Driver A had a dial-in of 18 seconds and Driver B had a dial-in of ten seconds, this is now just a case of simple mathematics: 18 minus ten leaves eight seconds; so Driver B will therefore be sitting waiting for his starting lights and his green 'Go' light for eight agonising seconds before he, too, is allowed to launch.
In theory, if both drivers drive a perfect race, they will cross the line at exactly the same time. In practice, what usually happens is, that either one car is much slower than its dial-in time and loses, or one car is faster than its dial-in time. If it goes faster, this is called 'breaking out' and a driver that breaks out is disqualified from the race. Other than crashing, the final way to lose is - as very occasionally happens - an eager driver will launch before the green light is lit. By jumping the start, the red light will illuminate and the driver will automatically be disqualified. The end result of this handicap means that you can have some very close results but also some spectacular encounters. The sight of a slow van chugging away up the strip for ten seconds before some fire-breathing monster of a drag car launches and accelerates, passing a slow moving van is amazing to behold.
Championships and Cars
Drag racing in the UK tends to be organised by a number of drag race clubs. These clubs are monitored by The Motor Sport Association (MSA), Britain's motorsport governing body, which is in turn licensed by the world governing body, the Fédération Internationale De L'Automobile (FIA). The range of clubs is immense, and with a limited number of weekends throughout the racing year6 and a limited number of tracks, any race weekend is likely to be hosting a number of different rounds from different championship series. With a variety of series running on any one weekend, the fan will presumably see a wide range of cars. There are also race weekends dedicated to specific manufacturers, such as Vauxhall or Ford. This means that for the average petrolhead, the range of machinery on show is startling. On any one weekend some of the following cars and race series can be found at any racetrack:
Volkswagen Drag Racing Club
The VWDRC runs three different categories for all old VWs. Often competing at VW festivals as well as normal race weekends, the VWDRC is a very friendly club which runs some frankly insane vehicles. The sight of a 30-year-old Beetle or Beach Buggy screaming up the track in under 12 seconds is amazing. Yet they are not all so quick; the VW Sportsman class is open to all stock and slightly modified air-cooled Volkswagens, which can run passes anywhere between 13 to 18 seconds. The VW Pro is open to the fast cars capable of running times in the 11 and 12 second range. The third category is the alternate engine which enables the stock, air-cooled VW Beetle to swap its power plant for any engine from a V8 monster to a turbo powered Subaru Impreza unit.
The Outlaw Anglia class of cars was formed in 1992 to cover all Ford cars with a 'sit up and beg' body style. These were models such as the Ford Anglia, the Ford Popular and the Ford Prefect.7 They have proved very popular with the fans, as the little cars produce some stunning results. They are often heavily modified with big V8 engines and produce equally big burnouts!
The ET and Super Series
These cars are part of the National Drag Race Championships and are separated into six race series covering a huge range of cars, classed according to their dial-in times:
- Sportsman ET: For cars running 12 seconds or slower
- Pro ET: For cars in the 9.0 to 11.9 second bracket
- Super Pro ET: For cars in the 6.3 to 9.9 second bracket
The Super Series is similarly divided:
- Super Street: For cars running 10.9 seconds or slower
- Super Gas: 9.9 to 10.9 seconds
- Super Comp: 8.9 to 9.9 seconds
This is one of the most popular categories. The cars must be street-legal, and in order to qualify, they are taken for a drive on a public road and filled up at a normal petrol station by the scrutineers before the competition. It can be great to live near a track when a convoy of fire-breathing cars comes spitting and growling onto your local filling station forecourt. The cars can be anything from old American cars to modified modern Jaguars, yet engines are almost always transplanted with huge V8s. In this category huge really does mean huge as it is not unusual to see cars running with an 11-litre engine clocking up quarter-mile times in the low eight-second region.
Stock to Modified Bikes
Just as with the car races, there is a series of races open to motorbikes. The first is the stockish 9.5 Bikes. This is, as the name suggests, open to any bike able to travel 9.5 seconds or slower, this generally means stock bikes with just some simple tweaks such as nitrous oxide induction. The slightly higher category of super street bike allows for the bike's frame to be stretched out8 and for turbos and big nitrous installs.
Pro Stock and Pro Modified
These are full-on hot rod cars, and are usually no longer road-legal. They may once have been based on a normal road car, but now they sport full Chrome-Moly tube chassis, huge V8 engines with nitrous oxide systems and big fat tyres running on custom suspension and drive systems. With a running time in the six to eight second categories, these are the fastest cars with a standard steel body you can run.
Top Methanol Dragsters and Funny Cars
Forming part of the European Top Methanol Association, these cars look just like you'd expect a dragster to look, with big rear wheels, a huge rear wing, a long body with tiny front wheels and a big engine running methanol racing alcohol instead of gasoline. Compared to the fastest Top Fuel dragsters, the cars are quite slow, yet they are still stunning and capable of runs in the five to seven-second region.
Top Methanol funny cars use the same engines as Top Methanol dragsters, with the exception that they run in a light carbon or glass fibre body, designed to look vaguely like a US saloon car. This means that they have a much shorter wheelbase than a normal dragster and the engine sits in front of the driver, which creates a car that is a lot less stable at high speeds than a normal dragster!
Before going over to the 'best of the best', the Junior Dragsters series has got to be mentioned. These little cars look just like scaled-down versions of the big Top Fuel Dragsters. An alternative to a go-kart, the cars use a kart engine, and although they do carry engine restrictions, the real restriction is on the competitors' ages. With the age limit starting at eight years old for the low power category and up to 17 years old for the higher power, these little cars are designed to get kids involved in the sport at an early age.
Top Fuel Dragsters and Funny Cars
These are amongst the fastest cars on earth. Most people, if asked to imagine a dragster, will think of the style of cars from the FIA European Top Fuel Championship . Like the methanol cars, these cars don't run on petrol: instead they burn a heady concoction of 15% methanol and 85% nitromethane (CH3NO2). A normal engine works by combining the petrol (gasoline) with air to achieve combustion. To increase the rate of combustion and therefore the engine power, you need to increase the amount of air within the combustion chamber. By doing this, more petrol can be injected and burnt within the cylinders and therefore more power is created. This can be done by pumping more air (oxygen) into the combustion chamber with a super or turbo-charger or by adding the oxygen chemically in the form of nitrous oxide (N2O). A top fuel engine adds another level to this, by combining the burning part of the fuel with the oxygen into a chemical nitromethane. It is a bit like pre-mixing petrol with nitrous oxide and means that you get about twice as much power burning nitromethane compared to burning petrol, with the same amount of air. There are a few downsides, apart from the costs, one of which is that one of the exhaust byproducts is chemically very similar to ortho-chlorobenzylmalononitrile or, as it is better known, CS Gas.9 Of course, to create the really wild amounts of power found in a top fuel dragster they also add a supercharger to ram even more air into the combustion chamber. This makes the abilities of a top fuel car stunning.
- A typical engine would be a supercharged 500 cubic inch (8 litre) V8 hemi, generating around 6000bhp or more. This is more power than the front three rows of a Formula 1 starting grid!
- They are capable of running down a 1/4 mile drag strip in around 4 seconds and have crossed line in the past at 330mph. They can accelerate from 0 to 100mph in under 0.8 seconds and this can cause up to 8Gs of G-Force on the driver at the start line
- A Top Fuel dragster running flat out will consume around 1.5 gallons of Nitromethane per second; a fully loaded Boeing 747 consumes jet fuel at about the same rate but with 25% less energy being produced.
- The spark plugs operate at around 44 amps, using the same sort of power as an Arc Welder; this causes the electrodes on the ends of the spark plug to completely disintegrate within the first 1/8 mile. However this doesn't cause a problem as by the second half of the run, the motor is dieselling ie: it is igniting the air-fuel mixture without the help of a spark due to the sheer force of the compression and the extremely hot exhaust valves.
- Nitromethane burns yellow, yet during a night race-meet you can occasionally see white flames above the exhausts, this is actually raw burning hydrogen. It will have been disassociated from the water vapour in the surrounding air by the searing hot exhaust gases being pumped out of the exhaust stack. The force of the escaping gases also adds to the cars' traction by creating a downforce of some 3558 newtons(800 pounds).
- Running at a redline of 9500rpm the engine will only manage about 600 revolutions from start light to finish line, yet they will still need a complete strip down and rebuild after every run. This means that assuming all the equipment is paid off, the crew work for free, and nothing actually goes wrong, each run is estimated to cost about £850 per second.
- A Top Fuel dragster can reach 300mph before you have completed reading this sentence.
A top fuel funny car is much like a methanol funny car; it is basically a top fuel dragster on a shortened chassis and with a replica body. The lack of stability and the huge power of these cars makes them unpredictable to drive, but fun to watch!
Top Fuel Bikes
Anything that can be done on four wheels can be done equally well on two, they say... and the nitromethane bikes prove it. There are two race categories here: the 'slightly slower' super twin top fuel bikes, which are usually based around a Harley Davidson V twin engine but running nitromethane, producing six-second passes with a maximum speed of 200mph, and the 'big boys', the Union Européenne de Motocyclisme (UEM) top fuel bikes; these stretched bikes can be ten feet long and are quite capable of producing 1,000bhp and running five to six second passes.
These beasts do not usually run in race championships; instead they generally perform just for the entertainment of the crowd, something they truly excel at. Jet cars, as the name implies, work by literally bolting a jet aircraft engine into a funny car body. The Firestorm car, for example, uses a General Electric J85 Turbo-jet from the F5 Freedom Fighter supersonic strike aircraft. This engine generates 5,000lb of thrust in full afterburn or the equivalent of 10,000 bhp. The jet car will be towed to the start line by the pit crew support car and the tension will begin to increase slowly as the mechanics carry out their final checks. After what seems like an age, in a cloud of smoke the jet engine will burst into life and the driver will then probably blast a few flames out of the rear and check that everything is running fine. By now, the entire audience will generally be standing in awe and with their fingers in their ears. The noise is unbelievably loud; in fact it is felt as a rumble in the ground almost as much as it is heard. Finally, when everything is okay, the car will creep up to the staging area and the Christmas Tree will light up. The car will then proceed to show you that what you thought was loud earlier was nothing but a little light chamber music compared to the rock concert it's about to unleash. In an 'ear-bleedingly' loud crack the afterburner will kick in, the ground will shake like an earthquake and this four-wheeled missile will streak up the track in around three to five seconds. The petrolhead inside you meanwhile will be crying with joy and you'll soon be willing to sell your own mother just for the chance to see it again!
Run What Ya Brung
One of the advantages of drag racing is that for low speed cars it is 'relatively' safe. With no bends in a course, a novice driver simply has to mash the accelerator to the floor and hold the car straight while accelerating up a strip10. The companies running the dragstrips soon realised this and started to open the track to the public during race meets and eventually into specific 'Run What Ya Brung', or RWYB days. Anyone can turn up in their road car and as long as they have a full driving licence and the car passes the strip's safety check, it'll be allowed to drag race for a small fee11. Crash helmets are not usually mandatory unless the car is very fast, but they are recommended and you should always wear a seat belt and long-sleeved clothing. Motorcycles are also allowed at most RYWB days, but you must be wearing full leather protection and a crash helmet.
Once your run is finished you will receive a ticket known as a timing slip; this will state your opponent's12 and your own overall time down the strip. This number, known as your elapsed time, or ET, will show who the winner was if it was a close race. The ticket will also include the top speed you were travelling when you crossed the quarter-mile line13, as well as two other pieces of information: one will be your 60-feet time which shows how well you accelerated from the start: a poor time here could mean you lost a lot of traction and hence speed because of wheel-spinning. The other will be your reaction time, this is the time it will have taken you from the light going green to you actually moving off the line14.
Where to do it
There are currently a few dedicated dragstrips in the UK. The king of them all is Santa Pod or just 'The Pod' as it is known. As the oldest strip, this track has the most infrastructures in terms of grandstands and buildings, but like most of the venues around the country, facilities are still rather primitive compared to some of the 'normal' motor racing circuits in the country. The track near the village of Long Marston in Warwickshire changed its name in the 1990s to the Shakespeare County Raceway, there are also tracks at York Dragway on the old Melbourne Airfield near Seaton Ross, Yorkshire, Crail Raceway ten minutes South of St Andrews, Scotland and Henstridge Park in Somerset. A number of airfields and race tracks around the country also run RWYB days throughout the year while the dedicated tracks usually have at least one RWYB day a month throughout the summer for the petrolhead in you.
Have fun and remember... Don't 'break out'!