Professional Drag Racing is the most powerful motorsport in the world. At its core, drag racing is simple: it’s an acceleration contest that typically takes place between two vehicles. The contestants start side-by-side, standing still, and race to the finish line at the end of the track. The first one to cross the finish line wins.
NHRA National Events are the top-tier of professional drag racing across the world. They typically take place over a 3-day period and consist of several categories of vehicles, all racing for individual category championships. The professional categories will spend the first 2 days qualifying, and the last day competing for the event title. Qualifying is used to determine the 16 quickest cars in each class, and bracket them in a tournament-style ladder. Winners advance, losers go home… there are no second chances in professional drag racing. The competitors go head-to-head in a series of rounds until a single winner is determined.
Obviously the race cars and drivers are the most important part of any drag race, but there are 3 other elements that are key to understanding the sport. They are the racetrack, the “Christmas Tree” and the score boards.
The Racetrack: Drag races are contested on a straight line over a quarter-mile distance for most categories. The sports fastest “nitro powered” vehicles only race to 1000 feet for safety reasons. The racetrack has a series of electronic timing beams that go across the track at the starting line, 60, 330, 660, 1000 feet and at the finish line. There is also a “pre-stage” beam that is placed 7 inches in front of the starting line. The pre-stage beam is used to warn the driver he is getting close to the actual starting line. A final beam is placed 66-feet in front of the finish line and is used to calculate the speed of the cars. When you look at the racetrack, you will see the large orange blocks in the middle of the track; they are part of this timing system.
The Christmas Tree: This electronic starting system replaced “flag” starters in 1963. The Christmas Tree (or tree) is the large pole covered with lights that sits between the lanes close to the starting line. Its purpose is to ensure both cars are lined-up evenly and provide a fair start to both drivers. The top of the tree has two sets of LED lights that look like a circle with a line through the middle.
The top of the circle turns on when the “pre-stage” beam is broken (see racetrack above). The bottom of the circle and the line turn on when the race car breaks the starting line beam and is in position to race. The most important lights to the driver are the 3 amber lights stacked in the middle of the tree. When these lights come on, the driver immediately hits the throttle and the race begins. Below the amber lights are a green light and a red light. These simply indicate if it was a fair start (green), or the driver left too soon and is disqualified (red).
The Score Boards: Drag racing more than any other motorsport is a numbers game. Races are broken down into thousandths of seconds, and the difference between winning or losing can be less than the blink of an eye.
The score board will tell you much of what just happened on any given race, and allow you to enjoy what you are seeing that much more. One score board is placed on each side of the racetrack at the finish line representing the left and right lanes. Score boards come in different shapes and sizes but will usually have two rows of numbers as their predominant feature.
The top row of numbers indicates the elapsed time (in seconds) that the car in that lane just recorded. For example, a number of 6.253 means the car in that lane covered the racing distance in just over 6 and a quarter seconds.
The bottom row of numbers usually indicates the mph the car was travelling at the finish line. During qualifying, if the bottom number is showing a time instead of speed, that is the “bump” spot that a car needs to go quicker than to qualify. The most important feature on the scoreboard for the spectator is the “win light.” There will be a series of flashing lights on each scoreboard, the side that is flashing is the side that just won that race. You will never see both scoreboards flashing at the same time.
Learn more at NRHA.com.