Pure drag racing consists of racing two cars from a dead stop to some given distance, typically 1/ 4 or 1/8 mile. The car that crosses the finish line first is the winner. Bracket racing consists of the same type of track and starting systems, but racing vehicles are grouped by their elapsed time (ET) potential,and raced against each other using a pre-selected dial-in. Two competing cars from the same bracket are paired, and the starting lights are staggered such that the slower car’s starting lights begin the sequence first by the difference of the two dial-ins. The winner is the car that reaches the finish line first, providing it did not run quicker than it’s dial in time. If both cars ran quicker than their respective dials, the car that ran the closest to its dial is the winner. Note that MPH has not been mentioned as a direct factor in winning or losing, and we will discuss that later.
To be a consistent winner in Bracket racing, your car must be able to run close to the selected dial each run. (It is permissible to change your dial after each run!) Additionally, your reaction time (time from the green light switch closure until your front wheel leaves the starting line) must be reasonably quick and consistent. In non-electronics classes where you simply drive with the car’s normal brakes and throttle, a relatively good reaction time (RT) would range from .520 to .560, and a consistent car would repeat to within .02.-.03. seconds. These numbers vary widely, and numbers outside these ranges can and do win many bracket races. However, these numbers will make you competitive in most non-electronic classes.
You must realize that reaction time is a key element in drag racing. For example, if two cars run exactly the same ET but one driver has a .600 RT and the other driver has a .700 RT, the first driver will win by .1 second. What does .1 second translate to in distance? If the cars in question can run 95 MPH at the finish, .1 second is equal to about 14′, or almost one car length. Looking at another example, if your car runs .2 second quicker than the competitor, but you have a .800 RT to your competitor’s .550 RT, he/she will win by .05 second.
The elapsed time at the reaction time will always have this direct relationship, and both must be considered when reviewing your time tickets and/or your performance! How do you improve your RT? You must develop a consistent routine or staging your car, and stage identically each time. Remember, we recommend that you stop when the second stage light lights. Most tracks have a “courtesy” staging routine where both cars must turn the first stage light on before rolling into the second light. This prevents one car from trying to “burn down” the opponent by delaying staging. When both cars have the first light on, slowly advance until the second light just lights and then stop. This technique will position your car at the same location from the starting line on each run. Carefully watch each of the .5 second yellow lights, and “leave” at the same light sequence on each run. Typically, most cars can actually leave when the third yellow begins to glow.
The other important element of bracket racing is the dial-in. Experienced bracket racers have different methods of racing by selecting dials either slower than the car can actually run (sometimes called sand bagging) and then trying to stay slightly ahead of the other car, or dialing as close as the car will actually run. I strongly suggest you begin by selecting a dial that will allow you to run full throttle for the entire race without going too quick and “breaking out”. That is much easier said than done, but make your practice runs without changing anything on the car. Note the range of ET’s. Has the wind changed? Has it cooled off? Was your car hot on one run and cool on another? If your last run prior to elimination’s was the quickest, you probably should dial close to that ET. Otherwise, dial about the average of your two or three best runs. During elimination’s, if it is obvious that you are going to cross the finish line first, slow down by lifting from the throttle, or even tapping the brakes. Never run quicker than needed, and you will be less likely to “breakout”. Do not dial quicker than you can run to be “safe” from break-out. If you give your opponent a .1 second head start by dialing safe, you have given him/her about one car length advantage before the race even begins! If, during the race, it is obvious that the other car will cross the finish line before you, slow down by lifting or tapping the brakes prior to the finish line. This assures you will not break-out, and if your competitor runs too quickly, you will win. Caution! Braking must be done carefully and reasonably to prevent any possible loss of control. Additionally, many tracks will disqualify a driver for excessive or dangerous use of brakes. When there is an uneven number of cars in a class, one car will make a single run, called a “bye”. Always run full out on a bye in order to get a correct dial-in for the next round. Most tracks allow a break-out or even a red light on bye runs, providing you cross the finish line.
You should view each competitor the same. Do not change your routine for a very slow competitor, the best driver, or the quickest car. Simply determine who will leave first, and then run your race. Here is some advice that I received many years ago during my early attempts at drag racing. “In order to win a class, you must be able to beat all competitors, so don’t hesitate. When your class is called, be the first one up, and challenge the other drivers to beat you!” Remember that in drag racing, as in all sports, there are many good competitors, and it is virtually impossible to consistently beat them all!
While we all want to obtain the quickest elapsed time (ET) possible, consistent ET’s are much more important in bracket racing. If your vehicle is inconsistent, you can’t run your dial. As we pointed out previously, .1 second on a 95 MPH vehicle is about one car length. Many races are won by hundredths of a second, and I have won by less than one thousandths of a second. The following basic steps will help your consistency; Stage and leave identically each run. Shift at the same RPM each run. Experiment with the air pressure in your rear tires to find what produces the best 60′ time. Try to drive your vehicle straight down the track without swerving. Never make tuning changes and don’t add or delete weight to/from your vehicle when running time trials for a bracket race or during the race. Be aware of weather changes and dial accordingly. In general, weather affects performance as follows: a tail wind quickens the ET, and a head wind slows the ET. Increased heat as well as increased humidity slows the ET. Higher atmospheric pressure quickens the ET. The combinations of these factors can be unpredictable, and only close observation of weather effects on your vehicle during each trip you make to a strip can prepare you to include weather in your selection of an accurate dial-in. If your track’s time slips list 1000′ times refer to these to determine your vehicle’s performance if you intentionally slowed the previous run to avoid break-out. If the lOOO’ time varied from previous runs, you should probably dial accordingly for the next run.
How about speed as a factor in bracket racing? Speed, or crossing MPH, does not have a direct bearing on the outcome of most bracket races. A car can actually accelerate faster during the initial portion of the race, but run out of RPM during the final part of the race. Their top speed may be reached prior to the finish line because all of the available power and RPM was used in the early part of the race to obtain the quickest ET but they have enough lead to stay in front through the quarter even though the other car may be gaining (pulling) on them at the finish. This is because the other car has has enough gearing to run well past the end of the quarter, and may still be accelerating (gaining MPH) at the finish line.
Indirectly, speed does affect how drivers may choose to run the race. We never want to run a quicker ET than necessary to avoid “breaking out”. Accordingly, a driver that is comfortably ahead during a race will usually slow down prior to the finish line. If he/she misjudges the speed of the faster car and slows down too much or too early, the faster car may drive by and win. Conversely, when the fast car runs a very slow car, the fast car has to decide whether to let off before catching the slow car, or drive it hard all the way through (also called “running it out the back door”) and risk break out.
We touched on selecting a dial, and I suggested that you dial what you can run. Some racers will under dial by several hundredths from what they can run, and then attempt to use the brakes to barely stay ahead of the opponent. This can be successful, providing you can consistently have equal or better reaction time than your opponent. However, if your reaction time is poorer, you will usually lose by a break-out against a good driver. I again suggest you dial just what you can run, and if you are ahead at the finish, slow down. Otherwise, run it clear out and you should still be “safe” from break-out. The closer to the end of the race you slow down, either by letting off the throttle, or hitting the brakes, the less you will affect the ET. Remember, most of the ET is made at the start and through the mid portion of the race, so slowing from 110 to 105 right at the finish line may affect the ET less than .01 of a second. Conversely, a bog on the start, or a missed 1-2 shift may cost a full .1 second or more of ET. Do a little experimentation in this area during practice runs to find out what actually affects your ET. You will then be better prepared to implement the correct strategy during your elimination runs.
Practice your reaction times continually and be alert as to what may cause your vehicle to change ET from run to run.
The key to winning the race is a low reaction time and a consistent performance by your car. Every millisecond difference from your dial-in and a perfect .500 reaction time hurts you. If you run faster than your dial-in, you automatically lose, so if you feel you are running too fast (as often happens as the night gets cooler), you might want to slow down just as you are approaching the finish line so that you don’t go over your dial-in. You might also want to do this if you are fairly sure that your opponent has broke out. If you are bracket racing, don’t lock up your brakes at the end of the track in an attempt to not “break out”. Locking ’em up at this speed could be very dangerous. This isn’t an issue for test-n-tune nights, but be sure you leave plenty of room to brake at the end of the track without doing a massive ABS stop.
If you are bracket racing, remember that consistency is the key, even if you are consistently slow. Make a mental note of everything about the car: launch RPM, lane choice, temperature, length of burnout, etc. You want all of these to remain constant for each run. Even if you are not bracket racing, mentally keeping track of all of these variables will help you get to a better time. Eliminate variables between runs. Keep your car in the same configuration, do you burnout and stage the same way, shift at the same points, and do everything else as consistently as possible to win a bracket race. Compensate for changing track conditions using your dial-in (you can change it after each race). Also remember that slower cars are often more consistent, so you don’t need to try to eek every last HP out of the car for a bracket race. Have fun!