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.