TG's guide to driving: how to drag race | Top Gear
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Wednesday 29th November
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TG's guide to driving: how to drag race

Think it’s just a case of floor it to the finish line? Guess again

  • Even though it might seem like something from days gone by, drag racing is perennially popular.

    Just look at the hours of film dedicated to drag racing: American Graffiti. Two Lane Blacktop. RuPaul’s Drag Race.

    Even the Fast and Furious movies – before they decided to become superhero films by any other name – started off as Point Break meets drag racing.

    It’s clear, then, that the love of a simple, straight-line, point-to-point race endures to this day. But, unlike the cast of Geordie Shore, drag racing really isn’t as simple as it looks.

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  • Go to an actual drag strip

    At this stage, it seems pretty salient to point out that drag racing has a time and a place. This place is not on the street, highway, overpass, underpass, forward pass or anywhere where a mistake on your part could end up breaking someone else’s body parts. You might not be a responsible person, but the great thing is that if you pretend to be responsible, no one will ever know that you were faking the whole time. Unlike when you saw Cats and pretended that it wasn’t the worst thing ever committed to film.

    So, this means that you’ll be at a drag strip. Drag strips tend to be of two lengths – an eighth of a mile or a quarter of a mile. If you’re of a more metric disposition (hello, everywhere in the world except for England, USA, Liberia and Myanmar!), that’s roughly 200 metres or 400 metres. So, racing down these is short, sharp and to the point. Kind of the inverse of a Thomas Hardy novel.

    Drag strips have specially prepared surfaces for maximum grip, speed traps (that helpfully won’t earn you a summons from the Special Constable), supremely accurate timing gear, special burnout bays and an inspection area to make sure that your rig is safe to race.

  • You will need… some wheels

    But what will you need to turn up at a drag strip? Nothing, really – you can attend as a spectator, even without a car. If you want to compete, however, we’ve found that some form of car or motorcycle can be a big plus.

    In most cases, you’ll find that the barrier for entry in drag racing is among the lowest in motorsport. You’ll only need a valid road driving licence, or, if you don’t have one (due to being a young’un, for instance), you’ll need a motorsport or competition licence. It’s worth getting in touch with the people who run the drag strip you want to attend, in order to find out the cost of a day, what licence you need, what cars are allowed and which Pink Floyd album they think is the best one.

    The faster that your drag car gets, the more you’ll need. To start off with, a roadworthy car (that doesn’t drip anything), as well as sensible clothes and an approved helmet is generally all you’ll need, but that’ll run up to fire suits, harnesses, roll cages, HANS devices, racing fuel cells and parachutes as you start getting serious.

    Also, quick tip: turn off your air-conditioning before you roll up to the burnout bay. You’ll get a fraction more from the engine with it off, and you won’t drip water all over the start line, which will make you zero friends at the strip.

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  • Fight all instinct to do a massive burnout. For now

    Considering you’re reading a how-to guide, we’re going to assume that you’re not already an NHRA-certified badass piloting a Top Fuel dragster. So, you’re likely going to turn up with something moderately powered, on street tyres. But don’t be put off by this – we’d recommend starting this way.

    Don’t worry about the burnout box to begin with – drive around it and get to the line. Pro drag tyres are about as sticky as Australia’s Facebook predicament, so they pick up all the bits of rubber and detritus lying around the track. The burnout before a race helps warm the tyres, yes, but it’s mostly to clean all the crap off to ensure a clean, even surface with maximum grip.

    Your road tyres won’t pick up anything like as much, so won’t need cleaning. Also, if you try to do a burnout in a moderately powerful car, you might not actually spin the wheels and instead send that power bouncing around your driveshafts, gearbox and diff, causing all sorts of fun things for your mechanic to sort out.

    Should you absolutely insist on doing a burnout, dip your driven wheels in the water, then drive just out of the puddle. Do a burnout until you feel the tyres regain grip, then let off the power immediately and roll forwards. We’re told that huge, heroic burnouts that go all the way past the start line impress exactly no one – the start line is prepared with an extraordinarily sticky liquid to aid traction, and your bits of flayed tyre will pretty much ruin that. Oh, and make sure you don’t bring any of that burnout water with you. Water + drag strip starting line = many people mad with you.

    Also, if you do find yourself spinning off the line, don’t immediately run to the burnout box before your next run – it might be something you can solve with technique.

  • Understand your car to nail the launch

    A key part of drag racing – and the bit that tends to need the most skill and practice – is the launch. Any idiot can mash their right foot (or their left, if they’re feeling particularly avant-garde) and drive in a straight line. But that has as much to do with drag racing as going for a run has to do with an Olympic marathon.

    For a kick-off, you don’t wait until the green light to start. You do wait until it’s about to illuminate, though – if you make your move to launch just as the last amber light is going out, the time it takes for you, and the car, to move means that you’ll leave the line on green. You can fine tune that later, and we’ll tell you how... when we’re good and ready.

    Launching, then, requires split second timing and reactions. But it also needs a thorough understanding of your car and how to extract the most from it. There’ll be the right amount of revs to hold it at so it doesn’t bog down or bonfire its tyres, the right way to roll on the throttle to avoid time-sapping wheelspin, the right way to let out the clutch to get out of the hole without grinding your clutch plates into dust, or the right way to load up the torque converter.

    You’ll need to do a few runs to figure out what your car needs to get away from the line as well as it can, but there are a few givens: bigger, higher torque engines are less prone to bogging down and more prone to wheelspin, while smaller ones are the opposite. Front-drive can struggle for grip, due to the weight shifting back under acceleration, while rear drive has an advantage with the weight piling onto the rear tyres, aiding traction. Generally, all-wheel-drive is the most prone to bogging down and, as you’d expect, the least likely to slip.


    Unlike that bit in Grease, you’re unlikely to have someone wave a handkerchief when it’s time to race. Luckily, things are a bit more accurate than that. Unluckily, we had to watch Grease to make that reference. But we, as ever, digress.

    There’ll be two lasers at the start line that trigger the Christmas tree. And, while lasers triggering a Christmas tree sounds like the most entertaining 25 December imaginable, it all has a proper purpose on the drag strip. Crossing the first beam illuminates the ‘pre-stage’ light at the top, which is kind of like giving an ‘almost ready’ thumbs up. Crossing the second means you’re absolutely ready, or ‘staged’. From there, three vertically arranged amber lights will illuminate, one after the other, about half a second apart, before the green. Triggering the red means that you’ve jumped the start so, if you were launching on the last amber light, practice waiting a fraction of a second longer before starting your run.

    In a manual, you want to be in first gear, with the clutch in, holding the accelerator enough to keep the revs up. Then, at the right moment, feed in more power while letting the clutch out. Don’t just side-step the clutch; that puts huge wear on many important and expensive bits and may break them. At the least, you’ll break traction and fritter away fractions of a second.

    In an auto, you want to hold your left foot on the brake with a pretty decent amount of force, then build up revs with your right. This loads up the torque converter, ensuring maximum torque off the line. Side-step the brake at the apposite moment and put the power on as much as possible without breaking traction.

    For those a little fuzzy on how torque converters work, they’re a special kind of fluid coupling, where what’s essentially a fan connected to the engine spins fluid. The turning fluid then spins a second fan that’s connected to the gearbox. If the engine is spinning the fluid but the second fan is held stationary (in this case by the brakes), torque is multiplied by as much as two and a half times what your engine can make. Sounds like heresy? Well, when you let off the brake, the second fan starts to spin and the equation is normalised. This is reality, after all, and we respect the laws of thermodynamics in this house. But who’s going to say no to twice as much torque off the line?

  • You must FOCUS

    So, now you’ve launched. Congratulations! Put this guide down and concentrate on the rest of the race. If you’re reading this before heading out, there’s only a little more to go.

    We can’t stress this enough: Look Up and Straight Ahead. Don’t look at the timing boards. Don’t look over to see if you’re winning. You’re probably travelling at a pretty decent clip now, and you need to keep things on the straight and narrow.

    Keep the power down all the way to the finish line, then back off gently, brake calmly and bring things back down to car-park speeds. If you’re in the lane that’s further away from the turnout, wait for the other racer to leave first so you don’t manage to crash after the race is over.

    Swing by the timing shed to pick up a printout of how you’ve done. If you’re new to the drag strip, your times will be middling to average and most likely all over the place. Nine times out of ten, this’ll have nothing to do with the car, and everything to do with you.

    So learn your car. Does it need more revs to avoid bogging down? Do you need to release the clutch a fraction slower to avoid wheelspin? Are all the wheels still attached? Are they attached to the axles, as they’re supposed to be, or is one hanging from the aerial? You know, the usual stuff. After a while, you’ll learn your car and how it reacts to different inputs, temperatures, altitudes and astrological cycles. If Mercury is in retrograde, you just won’t run good ETs.

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  • Here’s what your timeslip means

    Interpreting your timeslip is a great way to get in tune with how your car is performing, how you’re doing and how you can get the best out of it.

    RT: this is reaction time. This doesn’t factor into any other part of your run time; you’re only measured from when you leave the lights. If you’re just trying to figure out drag racing, leave whenever you’re ready to... within reason. But you can figure out when to launch by looking at the times, because they only measure between light going green and your front tyres leaving the laser beam. Negative times means you’ve jumped the gun; yawning gaps mean you need to launch earlier.

    60 foot: Just like Cool Runnings taught us, the launch is critical. How quickly and easily you get from stationary to charging down the quarter mile has a multiplicative effect on how you’ll end your run. The rule of thumb in drag racing is: don’t use your thumb, use a car, because it’ll be much faster. The other rule of thumb is that, in a car, every tenth of a second you shave off your 60-foot time means two or three tenths off your total time. Your 60-foot time, then, indicates how well you’re launching from the line, and how much low-down torque the engine can muster.

    330 foot: This’ll tell you how well you’re shifting gears. Rolling past in a steaming wreck means you’ve shifted really badly.

    1/8th mile: This speaks to a combination of factors – if 60 and 330-foot times are good, chances are your 1/8th mile will be too. Better times mean you’ve launched well, you’re shifting well and your car has good torque. Bad times means your car needs revs to make speed, or your shifts aren’t timed or executed well.

    1000 foot: This speaks to the power of the engine, as opposed to the torque. At this stage, how your engine pulls at high revs is much more important than torque. Torque overcomes inertia; power makes speed.

    ET: Elapsed time, or how long it took you to do a quarter mile. We’ve found that lower is better, generally. If you have a car with good low-down torque, and you react and launch well, you can, in theory, net a pretty good time. If the times are good but the terminal speed is low, that means your car needs more top-end poke.

    Terminal speed or MPH: How quickly you crossed the line, measured in miles per hour. Depending on where you drag race, this could also be measured in kilometres per hour, or – if you race in Cornwall – furlongs per jiffy. If it’s quite a high speed, that means your top-end power is good. If the ET is still pretty average, but the terminal speed is good, that means your top-end power is on point, but low-down torque (or possibly your launch) needs improvement.

    So, armed with this dense tome of new knowledge, head out to your nearest track and try it out yourself. Or, don’t. It’s really none of our concern.

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