Drag racing – it’s just a case of pointing your car in a straight line and mashing the throttle to the floor, right?
Naively, my preconceptions of the sport were pretty simplistic prior to a visit to Lucas Oil Raceway in Indiana this week. I was at the drag strip just outside Indianapolis to sample the Camaro ZL1, Chevrolet’s latest 572bhp, 556lb ft muscle car. Chevy reckons the spiciest Camaro in the range has been honed to be suitable as a track car, drag car or ‘merely’ as a daily driver. So it was that the manufacturer saw fit to host a drag race beginners’ class at the strip.
Our tutor was Frank Hawley, a seasoned, successful competitor in the top-flight NHRA drag racing series. His first lesson was about the ‘Christmas tree’ lighting system that governs the start of drag duels in professional competitions.
The idea is that the first two sets of bulbs on the lighting gantry – named ‘pre-stage’ and ‘stage’ – enable competitors to get into the optimum position for the start of a run. With some timed quarter-mile sprints being settled by thousandths of seconds, positioning is paramount.
When pre-race preparations have been completed, a competitor trundles forward until he breaks a timing beam that illuminates the ‘pre-stage’ lights. Then it is a case of crawling even more slowly until the ‘stage’ lights go on. That means the driver is right in position. When both competitors are in position, amber and then green lights are shown to signal the start.
For novices, getting the positioning right is difficult. The space between the ‘pre-stage’ and ‘stage’ lights is inches, and it is very easy to overshoot, leaving you out of position for the start. It’s also important to line the car up right in the middle of the lane, ensuring you can keep the steering wheel as straight as possible and avoid time-consuming weaving during the run.
Each start lane on the drag strip is astonishingly sticky underfoot; during our day at Lucas Oils Raceway the temperature was touching 33 degrees centigrade, and if you stood in one spot on the start line, your shoes started sticking to the surface.
Hawley told me that the concrete drag strip surface is treated with an adhesive substance to make it even more grippy and enable effective launches off the line. Although plenty of tyre rubber gets laid down on the track, it isn’t effective to have too much rubber layered on top of the surface, so most of the marbles get shaved off before and during major meetings.
Chevrolet developed its 184mph Camaro ZL1 on the drag strip, and the fastest pass the car achieved was an 11.93sec/116mph run, which is a fair achievement for a fully street-legal production car.
My efforts at Lucas Oils Raceway were rather more sedate. Firstly I tried a ZL1 equipped with an automatic transmission, which is slightly slower off the line compared to the manual but claws back time due to the slickness of its computerised gearchanges.
At the end of each run you’re handed a timing slip that details several statistics about your attempt. In the auto, my reaction time between the green light showing and me leaving the line was 0.444sec – an absolutely glacial getaway by drag racing standards.
The technique for getting off the line in the auto was to creep up to the start line, cover the brake before applying the throttle swiftly but smoothly. Just stamping on the throttle brought on too much wheelspin and lost momentum; fun, but not especially quick. My fastest time in the auto was a 14.251sec/103.65mph pass. Well, it felt quick where I was sitting...
Driving the launch control-equipped manual was more fun. To prime the launch control, you stop the car at the line, depress the clutch and floor the throttle. The revs would hit the limiter, then stabilise at about 4000rpm. When the engine note is steady, you release the clutch – not too sharply, mind – and charge away from the line.
In the manual I set a best time of 13.683sec/106.97mph – still a whole galaxy away from the professionals, but a touch more respectable. As we left the strip I was already pondering how I could work to trim more time from that effort – quicker reaction times and flat-shift gear changes, maybe.
It seems this drag racing lark could be quite addictive...