Inside Revolution: Getting Started In Drag Racing

Thursday 25 January 2024

Drag racing is the fastest, loudest, and perhaps most spectacular of all motorsports. It pits drivers and their cars against one another in pairs from a standing start over a standard straight course of up to a quarter-mile. In this months Revolution, we answer some of the most frequently asked questions about how to get started in this exciting discipline.

Revolution is available online, as a PDF download and on the Revolution app (for both iOS and Android devices). 

What makes a good car?
Four wheels and a power unit. There is a huge range of different vehicle categories to choose from, starting with road-going production cars. The highest level is Top Fuel Dragsters, which involve extremely professional levels of engineering.

Can you drive to events?
Yes, if your vehicle is road-legal you can compete in whatever you turned up in. However, if it is not road legal it will need to be trailered to the venue.

What other kit do you need?
At the entry level (such as ‘Run What Ya Brung’ events) you do not need any other kit – you do not even need a crash helmet unless your car has a soft top or can reach 110mph at the finish line. If you are at formal competition level, you will require approved fire-resistant apparel, a crash helmet and possibly additional safety equipment, depending on the class you are in.

What are the general costs of running a car?
In the lowest classes, costs are minimal – for road-going vehicles the key costs are regular tyres and standard fuel. However, in the higher classes the costs will rise as more specialist equipment and preparation is required.

What about travel and accommodation?
Often, people camp at the track – either in tents, caravans, or motorhomes. Around Santa Pod, which is located between Bedford and Northampton, there are also plenty of hotels, guesthouses, and Airbnb properties.

How do you enter and what are the costs?
A public track day like ‘Run What Ya Brung’ at Santa Pod will cost £65. This includes event admission, the signing-on fee for a standard event and unlimited runs on the track.

Ford Cortina Drag Racing

What makes a good driver in this discipline?
Precision, accuracy, and consistency of application are key to becoming successful, as is having a cool head. You also need to have empathy with your machinery and be able to understand its characteristics, capabilities, and quirks, and you need to be able to analyse and assess the track and the atmospheric conditions to gauge slip levels and optimise your start.

In handicap racing (also known as ‘bracket racing’) you need to be able to analyse and select accurate dial-in times and it is also important to be able to hone your launch, gearshift, and finish line observation techniques.

Finally, in any category it helps to have an element of mechanical aptitude, as drag racing is a ‘hands-on’ motorsport – and it is even better if you have a friend or two who are also willing to get their hands dirty!

What is the most important skill?
The ability to keep a car steady under the extreme forces.

How do you improve and progress?
Practise, practise, practise.

What is the competition format?
A drag race is an acceleration contest between two vehicles from a standing start over a measured distance – traditionally a quarter-mile, sometimes less, never more. The winner of each pairing progresses to the next round, the loser is eliminated, and the competition continues until a single winner remains – a knockout tournament like the FA Cup football or Wimbledon tennis.

At its most basic level, non-competition, non-permit events – such as Run What Ya Brung track days – allow unlimited runs and are simply timed to the clock. Some individuals just choose to confine their track activities to these kinds of events, rather than stepping up to permitted competition.

Permitted race meetings are usually run over two or more days and begin with qualifying against the clock, with elimination rounds for the qualified racers concluding the meeting.

Drag racing comes in two forms: heads-up racing (typically faster classes) and bracket or break-out racing (typically slower classes). The heads-up format sees equalised vehicles compete against each other with no handicap, while bracket competition involves vehicles of unequal type and output, with handicapped starts and staggered timing to even things up on the strip. In the bracket racing, competitors who ‘break out’ – dip below their assigned index or chosen dial-in times – are penalised.

How tough is the competition?
The racing is intense and the pressures immense because head-to-head runs are often decided by fractions of a second.

Who can take part?
The competition is gender-neutral, so male and female racers compete together. Junior competitors can start at the minimum entry age of eight, while Seniors start at 16.

How does a beginner ‘break the ice’?
Drag racing is a welcoming sport and new entrants are encouraged when they are outside the car – the fierce rivalry is generally confined to the start line!

Ford 105E Drag Racing

How do you win and what are the prizes?
You win each elimination match by crossing the finish line ahead of your opponent (subject to bracket racing’s breakout rules) and you win the overall event by beating all your opponents, round by round, until only you survive.

The sport has many different classes and racers can compete for trophies and prize funds at individual events, while also earning points towards seasonal championships.

What is the top level and how competitive is it?
The top category is Top Fuel and that is the equivalent of Formula 1. An explosion on wheels, it was once described by legendary racer Tony Schumacher as “like being rear-ended at the traffic lights by a cement truck doing 200mph!” It is a team sport, but the driver must have the ability to cope with a severe physical assault while controlling a car topping 300mph in less than four seconds.

Is it a stepping-stone towards other forms of motorsport?
Organised drag racing is an original and autonomous motorsport discipline, imbued with its own philosophy and structure, intricacies and demands. There can be occasional crossovers with circuit racing, most often with sprinting and land-speed record competition.

How many Clubs are there around the country that run drag events?
The most famous venue in the UK is Santa Pod Raceway, which is the only UK track equipped to accommodate permitted competition right to the highest level. However, it is not the only place you can go drag racing in the UK. Straightliners runs events at Melbourne Raceway, near York, and Dakota Raceway, in Devon, while Perranporth Driving Centre uses Spitfire Raceway in Cornwall. In Scotland, there is a 1/4-mile strip at Crail Raceway, on the coast of Fife, that runs regular events.

Can Clubs run drag-style events?
It is very simple for any Club to put on a drag event – all they need is a straight stretch of road or track on private premises (NOT on a public highway!). The length is indeterminate, but it must be wide enough to accommodate two vehicles racing side-by-side from a standing start without danger of collision and sufficient space beyond the finish line for the vehicles to slow safely.

Early drag races were started by flag, and this remains feasible today, while a finish-line observer (possibly with a running slow-motion video camera for very tight finishes) is all that is needed to determine which vehicle has crossed the finish line first. Of course, safety standards should always be observed and any formal, permitted competition must comply with Motorsport UK regulations.

How does someone with no experience get to their first start line?
Start by reading as much as you can about the sport and attending and observing a drag race as a spectator to see if it appeals. Free paddock access is standard at all events, allowing a close-up view of the whole process and the opportunity to talk to all the racers you see there.

If it does appeal and you have a full valid driving licence (or relevant Motorsport UK licence), enter your vehicle in a public track day and give it a go. You will find that there is always someone around who is willing to pass on knowledge, so make sure you speak to anyone and everyone you can.

If you want to progress further, it is a good idea to attend the annual ‘Dial-In Day’ at Santa Pod in March, as this provides a thorough classroom and on-track grounding in the basics of the sport. You can then obtain a club membership and a Motorsport UK competition licence and enter an event. Any rookie must complete three observed runs to demonstrate competence to the satisfaction of the Race Director before getting into full competition.

If your vehicle is showroom-stock or mildly modified, Sportsman ET is the starting point – elapsed-time bracket from 30.00sec to no quicker than 12.00sec. No technical inspection or scrutineering is required, other than basic vehicle safety. Quicker classes require more rigorous technical vehicle inspections appropriate to the class (including driver apparel).

What championships are there?
At the top level, there are classes for Top Fuel Dragster, Pro Modified, Top Methanol and Pro Stock in the FIA European Drag Racing Championships, while the British Drag Racing Championship is for Pro-Modified vehicles.

The Santa Pod Racers Club National Championship runs Pro Mod and Sportsman categories, while there are Club Championships for Sportsman classes at SPRC, Melbourne Raceway and Crail Raceway. The website lists many of the different championships available.