Drag racing is a form of auto racing in which cars attempt to complete a fairly short, straight and level course in the shortest amount of time. Drag racing originated in the United States and is still most popular there. The most common distance is one quarter of a mile (402 m), although one-eighth of a mile (201 m) tracks are also popular, especially in the southeastern USA. Additional space is of course available after the finish line to slow down.
While usually thought of as an American and Canadian pastime, drag racing is also very popular in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the Caribbean and most European nations, especially the Scandinavian countries. At any given time there are over 325 drag strips operating world-wide.
The origins of the sport lie in illegal street racing in the United States. The format of the sport shows these origins: two cars line up next to each other, and await a green light as the signal to start, just as if they were sitting next to each other at a stoplight. The straight course mimics the straight streets of most American cities. By the 1930s, hot-rodders had begun to race away from the roads, on Southern California's dry lake beds, and by the late 1940s, attempts to codify the sport were underway. The first drag strip opened on a Santa Ana, California airfield in 1950.
Southern California was the hot bed for development of the sport in the 1950s as various clubs organized races. "Hot Rod Magazine" and its editor, Wally Parks began to promote racing safety and standardization. The magazine sponsored national "Safety Safari" tours to spread drag racing to other parts of the country. The NHRA (see organization below) was founded as a national sanctioning body and Parks eventually left the magazine to head the organization.
Initially contests were between modified street vehicles, but over time racers got more innovative and classes proliferated to reflect the different approaches to achieving rapid acceleration.
Most (although not all) drag racing involves two cars racing each other to the end of the measured distance. In the common Eliminator racing format, the losing car and driver are removed from the contest, while the winner goes on to race other winners, until only one is left.
The National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) oversees the majority of drag racing events in North America. The next largest organization, the International Hot Rod Association, (IHRA), is about one-third the size of NHRA.
There are many classes of drag racing, including:
- Stock -- closely regulated with only selected modifications allowed
- Super Stock -- more performance modifications, but still stock appearing
- Modified and altered -- purpose-built race cars
- Funny Cars -- exotic custom-built drag cars with flip-up bodies that look (somewhat) like standard production vehicles
- Top Fuel dragsters (rails), the so-called kings of the sport.
To allow different cars to compete against each other, some competitions are raced on a handicap basis, with faster cars delayed on the start line enough to theoretically even things up with the slower car. This may be based on rule differences between the cars in stock, super stock, and modified classes, or on a competitor chosen "dial-in" in bracket racing.
There is even an organization called the National Electric Drag Racing Association, (NEDRA), which races electric vehicles against high performance gasoline-powered vehicles such as Dodge Vipers or classic muscle cars in 1/4 and 1/8 mile races.
Drag racing performance facts
The fastest top fuelers can attain terminal speeds of over 330 mph (530 km/h) while covering the quarter mile (402 m) distance in roughly 4.5 seconds. It is often related that Top Fuel dragsters are the fastest accelerating vehicles on Earth; quicker even than the space shuttle launch vehicle or catapult-assisted jet fighter. In fact, if you take a vehicle traveling at a steady 200 mph (322 km/h) as it is crossing the start line, a top fuel dragster starting from a dead stop at the same moment will beat it to the finish line one quarter of a mile (402 m) away. Additionally, through the use of large multiple braking parachutes, the astounding performance of 0 to 330 mph (531 km/h) and then back to 0 in 20 seconds can be obtained.
The faster categories of drag racing are an impressive spectacle, with engines of over 6000 horsepower (4.5 MW) and noise outputs to match, cars that look like bizarre parodies of standard street cars (funny cars), and the ritual of burnouts where, prior to the actual timed run, the competitors cause their wheels to spin while stationary or moving slowly, thus heating up the tires and laying down a sticky coat of rubber on the track surface ( which may have been coated with VHT Trackbite or similar to increase traction) to get optimum grip on the all-important initial launch.
Drag-racing has traditionally been the domain of big - usually American - cars with high-capacity engines. However, the power to weight ratio of lighter, usually imported, cars has allowed them to be successful when their engines are modified and bodies lightened. The Volkswagen Beetle was one of the first to be exploited this way. Recently there has been an increase in what has been called (outside of Japan) "import drag racing", where smaller Japanese cars are raced. The somewhat derogatory term for these cars is "rice rockets". Use of a turbocharger or supercharger is very common, and often necessary to break through the 12-second quarter-mile barrier.
One of the negative side-effects of import drag-racing is that the cheaper cars involved are often raced (illegally) on the street, where they cause trouble, with many drivers making a public nuisance of themselves. Illegal import street-racing was glamorised in the movie The Fast and the Furious. This phenonomon is just a resurgence of the problem, which has existed ever since there have been cars and "hot-rodders" (cf. American Graffiti, Rebel Without a Cause, etc.).
A few all-time stars of drag racing:
A partial list of drag racing classes
- Top Fuel
- Funny Car
- Pro Stock -- stock appearing bodies with high-performance pure race motors and chassis
- Super Modified
- Super Stock -- some performance modifications allowed but mostly stock appearing