There’s no easier way to get out of the stands and onto the track than drag racing. Nobody’s born knowing how to drag race though, and everybody was a newbie once. Going to the track for the first time can be intimidating – nobody wants to look like they don’t know what they’re doing, and a lot of what’s going on is mysterious to the uninitiated. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. You don’t need a specially prepared race car or a bunch of training, but there are a few simple things you can do to make sure your first time is a good experience. Since we’re always interested in getting new people out on the dragstrip (as we rarely are good enough to beat anyone else but a first-timer, to be honest!) here are our Top Ten Tips for your first trip to the dragstrip.
1. Watch and Learn
Chances are that you’ll probably see drag racing in person as a spectator before you do it yourself for the first time. While the racing is the main attraction, pay attention to the other things going on – how cars get called up from the staging lanes, how the guy running the water box positions cars for their burnouts, what hand signals the track staff uses to direct drivers, and most importantly, how the tree and staging beams work. At every test and tune session at every track across the country, there is at least one guy who drives right through the staging beams and pulls up right next to the tree, or gets confused and launches the car straight out of the water box. Don’t be that guy! Learn the process by watching from the stands before you see it through the windshield.
2. Get Ready for Tech
For most people, the first time they run the quarter (or eighth) mile, they’ll be doing it in their street car. Generally speaking, if your car is safe enough to drive to the drag strip, it’s safe enough to race, but you will still have to pass tech inspection before they let you run. The safety rules are based on how quick your car is, but unless you’re running something like a Z06 or turbo Mustang, the requirements are pretty straightforward. Under the hood, make sure your battery is secure, your throttle has two separate return springs, and that you’re not leaking anything. Check your tires for bald spots or cord showing, make sure your OEM seat belts are in good condition, and clean everything out of the inside of your car that might become a projectile in case of an accident.
If your car is slower than 14-seconds flat in the quarter mile, you won’t need a helmet, but even if you don’t it’s still a good idea to have one of your own that meets Snell 2000 or better standards – look for a sticker on the back, or inside the liner on the energy absorbing material to check yours. Some tracks offer loaner or rental helmets, but they’re usually exactly as nasty to wear as you might imagine, so bring your own.
3. Bring the Right Clothing
In addition to making sure your car is ready for the track, you need to be ready too. You can’t race wearing Daisy Dukes, a tank top, and sandals, no matter how sexy you look (girls, this applies to you as well!). You need closed-toe shoes, long pants, and at least a T-shirt. We’ve never done it ourselves, but we’ve had a few friends who have needed to make emergency runs to Walmart to get a pair of sweatpants because they forgot this rule. Additionally, if you have nitrous or a non-factory supercharger or turbo on your car, you may also need a jacket that meets SFI 3.2A/1 standards, which are widely available for less than $100.
While on the subject of clothing, you’re going to spend a lot of time in the lanes waiting to run, fooling around with your car, or sitting in the grandstands watching other people race, so be prepared. Sunscreen and shade are essential for long summer days at the track, and nighttime races can get chilly in the spring and fall, so make sure you have what you need to be comfortable. You’ll also want to bring water and maybe even a cooler full of snacks; staying hydrated is important, and track food and drinks are often expensive and marginal in quality.
4. Hit the ATM
Of course even if you don’t plan on buying any $1.50 cans of Coke or $5 hot dogs, you’re still gonna need cash. Tracks that take plastic are few and far between, so make sure you have enough in your wallet to pay your entry fee, plus some left over for incidentals like race gas, ice for the intercooler tank or cooling down your intake manifold, or surreptitious wagers with your friends. And speaking of gas…
5. Fill Up The Car
Though you might want your car to be as light as possible, and thus be tempted to head to the track with the needle on “E,” you don’t want to run the risk of sloshing gas away from the pump pickup when you launch, stalling the car or worse, making it run dangerously lean. Plus, drag racing kills your gas mileage, and you still need to get home at the end of the day. Do yourself a favor and keep the tank at least a quarter full, so you don’t get a surprise while you’re hot-lapping the car and unexpectedly run out.
6. Bring Tools and Spares
If you’re going to be changing your street tires for slicks or drag radials, you’ll probably want to use something better than the jack and lug wrench that came with your car to do it. It’s also a good idea to bring a jack stand to support the car. If you plan on doing any tuning – adjusting coilovers, tweaking carburetor jets, or whatever – you’ll need the appropriate tools and spare parts. Some guys (and we’re not naming names here, but they know who they are) go nuts with the socket set, stripping out the passenger seats, unbolting the front sway bar, and even draining the windshield washer reservoir to get every last thousandth out of their car. You’ll recognize them by the unattended pile of tools and car parts in their pit spot. At some tracks, you can get away with this and not end up with all your stuff disappearing while you’re making a pass, but those are the exception not the rule. A bicycle chain lock threaded through your wheels, jack frame, and (locked!) toolbox handle, then secured to a lamp or fence post won’t stop hardcore thieves, but it will keep the honest people honest. Another option is to make friends with other racers and take turns watching each other’s pits.
7. Get a Decent Tire Pressure Gauge
A good tire pressure gauge is essential, but it doesn’t have to be anything fancy, at least not at first. Get yourself an inexpensive dial-type or digital gauge (forget the pencil kind that you see in a cup next to the novelty cigarette lighters on the gas station countertop) and resist the urge to compare it to other people’s gauges.
No two gauges that aren’t professionally calibrated will ever read the same, and you don’t care anyway, because as long as yours is consistent, it doesn’t matter if it reads in PSI or teaspoons of baking soda; you will only be using it to adjust pressure up or down to find the “sweet spot” your tires like best.
8. Take Notes
Part of the fun of drag racing is analyzing your runs to see what makes the car quicker, and figuring out how to improve your own performance at the tree. Bring a notebook, pen, and a camera. These writing supplies let you keep track of things that won’t be on your timeslip, like your tire pressure (“Four and a half teaspoons hooks better than five on a cold track!”) weather conditions, and changes to your tune.
The camera comes in handy when you actually start racing in eliminations, since when the ladder gets posted it’s a lot easier to snap a picture of the printout than trying to write it all down. If you have friends who come with, they can also take pictures of how you’re lined up in the groove, your launch (to see if the car is transferring weight to the rear wheels), and if it has video recording capabilities, your whole run for later review.
9. Don’t be a Douche
Even if you don’t pay attention to anything else on this list, if you follow this particular piece of advice, you’ll be far better off. If you come to the track with an attitude, or simply act like a jerk (even if you don’t realize it), the staff and other racers are going to make your day miserable. Learn the “culture” of the track – do they want cars with treaded tires to drive around the burnout box to keep them from dragging water up to the line, and prefer them lined up outside the groove so that the rubber doesn’t get pulled up? Are certain areas of the pits reserved for regulars? What lane has right-of-way at the turnout? (Hint – it’s usually, but not always, the lane closest to the turnout so that a faster car doesn’t turn in front of a slower one.)
Beyond getting to know the quirks of the track, be considerate in general. Don’t unbolt the exhaust and run open headers on your 14-second six-cylinder Mustang. Don’t dump your warm intercooler water where it’s going to run downhill into somebody else’s pit. Don’t make a pass if you suspect your car may be about to toss its cookies at half-track, and if you do break, get your car out of the groove and over to the wall as quickly as safety allows to make cleanup easier.
10. Have a Plan B or Alternate Way Home
Yeah, we said it. Your car might break, or you might crash. It’s just a fact of life when it comes to racing. Call it superstition if you must, but we think that not having a backup plan in case your street/strip car can’t make it home at the end of the day is asking for trouble. Friends with trailers on speed dial are a good option; the Auto Club might be a fallback position as well. If you’re at an event way out of town, you might be renting a U-Haul pickup and trailer. Chances are that unless your car is a total hooptie, you’ll make it through your day at the track unscathed, but it never hurts to consider, “what if?”
That’s our Top Ten list of helpful hints for first-timers. Hopefully, you’ll take it to heart and make the leap from “racing that you watch” to “racing that you do.” You don’t need a ton of money, years of experience, or a full-boogie race car to have fun at the dragstrip, so go find the nearest track and plan a trip with your friends to go race.