How to Race Your Car at the Dragstrip

Many people like to take their everyday car to their local drag strip and make a few passes down the track. Some build dedicated track-only, non-street legal cars, and still others modify their street-legal cars to be a cross between a race car and a streetcar. These cars are most often referred to as street/strip cars. This article is mainly for those that have never raced before, and outlines the basics of drag racing your car, whether it's your daily driver or a street/strip car. Dedicated race cars usually have special equipment installed, such as delay boxes, trans brakes, and dry-sump oil systems, and will not be covered here.


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    If you are new at this, it's best to go on a day or night when the track is hosting a "street-legal drags" type of event, where all street-legal cars are welcome regardless of engine size, tire type, etc.
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    Ask your local dragstrip if they hold events to race your street-legal car just for fun. Ask about the admission price, any additional charges (tech card, parking, etc.) and also if they give out time-slips after races. They often do, but, during some events your time will be displayed on the board only, with no time-slip. In this case, have a friend stand near the track to record your time and speed after each run if you really want to know it. If you've never been to a dragstrip before, ask if they have a website providing a layout of their facility to familiarize yourself with the individual areas of the track. If not, ask for a map once you arrive.
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    Get your car ready to race. Inspect, change, or top off all oils and fluids. Check your brakes, steering, and suspension for wear and repair if needed. If you have a nitrous system, have your bottle filled. Though, most tracks sell nitrous and fuel, but expect to pay more. Put the tires you will race with on your car (or bring your race-only tires separately) with the proper air pressure. Don't top-off your fuel tank, as it makes your car heavier than necessary. Ideally, you want to race a streetcar with a 1/4 tank or less, depending on the vehicle and tank size. Do not run out of fuel completely. Once you feel your vehicle is ready to begin racing, drive to the track.
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    Once at the track, pay, park and signup. Usually, they'll provide paperwork to sign and an armband or something to indicate that you're authorized to race. Go back to your car and move to the staging lanes if racing has begun.
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    If you've never raced before, examine the layout you obtained and see where the staging lanes are. These are located at the beginning of the dragstrip, and clearly marked with painted lane stripes and numbers. Ask a track attendant for help if you can't find them. Follow all directions from track attendants carefully to avoid a collision, and remember top speed is 10 mph (16 km/h) in this area at most tracks. A track attendant will come alongside your car to ensure you've registered, and you may or may not get a number on your car window. Now, mentally prepare to go racing, and make sure your car is set up to do so also. You may wait a while in the lanes, so while it's OK to get out and chat with other racers, stay near your vehicle so you can move it forward at any time. Ask other racers questions, as with few exceptions, they'll be willing to provide advice.
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    Near the end of the staging lanes, watch other cars from your lane and see where they pull up to. Some will drive through the "water box" (wet area for doing burnouts), others will drive around it. If you have street tires, it's best to drive around it and proceed onto the dragstrip. With slicks, drive into it and wait for the signal to do your burnout. In either case, don't do anything until a crewman signals you that it's OK to proceed. Generally, one person will signal you to pull out of the staging lane onto the track, where another will wave you forward. Slowly drive around or into the water box, and continue to follow hand signals. If doing a burnout, wait for a crew member's signal.
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    Now, pull up to the starting line and watch the "Christmas Tree" (display of lights at the beginning of the track, between the two lanes.) Each lane has it's own set of lights in order from top to bottom: 2 small bulbs at the very top of the tree (Pre-Stage), 2 identical small ones under that (Stage), 3 large amber bulbs, a green bulb, and a red bulb. Roll you car forward slowly until the first set of bulbs are lit (Pre-stage), this indicates your front tire are approximately seven inches from the starting line. Continue to creep forward until the second set of small bulbs are lit (Staged), then stop.
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    Depending on the tree, either all three amber bulbs will light at once followed 0.4 seconds later by the green (this is called a Pro-Tree), or the three amber bulbs will flash consecutively 0.5 seconds apart followed by the green coming on 0.5 seconds after the last amber (this is called a Sportsman or Full tree.) When you see the green light, GO! Keep racing until you reach the finish line, at which point you should begin to slow down and decide which turn-off you are going to take. If you have smoked your competitor, make sure you have his/her vehicle in sight before you turn don't want to hit him while turning because he was in your blind spot!
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    If the track is giving out time slips, there will be a shack on the return road where you can stop and your time will be given to you on a slip of paper. If it doesn't make any sense to you, ask another racer to explain it, but basically it shows your reaction time (R/T), time until your car reached the 18 mile (0.2 km) mark, your speed at that point, time until you car reached the 14 mile (0.4 km) mark, and again your speed at that point.
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    You can go around to the staging lanes and race again, or park for a while and get some food/drink or watch others race.


  • Practice "launching" your car (getting it moving from a dead stop quickly), in a safe, legal place. It does take practice, and other racers who drive the same or similar vehicles can be a great source of information.
  • Instead of waiting for the green light to come on, try leaving on the last amber light. By the time your car starts moving, the green light will have come on.
  • If you get a red light on the Christmas Tree, it means you left the starting line before the green light came on!
  • Try different setups with your car, like changing the tire pressures, running more or less fuel, different launch techniques, etc.
  • Some events (those that are set up to replicate street racing) have a Christmas Tree that resembles a traffic light like you would find on the street, instead of the traditional Tree. If you encounter this type, treat it like any other traffic light. GO on green!


  • It's bad if you leak any type of liquids onto the track. This includes water dripping from your A/C, so be sure to switch it off well before you get out of the staging lanes.
  • This IS a dangerous sport! Although many precautions have been made by the track to prevent serious injury, you can still be hurt by yourself or by others. Be careful, and if your car is not able to handle racing because of faulty brakes, fuel, oil, coolant, or other leaks, bad tires, etc., then DO NOT RACE IT. You run an increased risk of injury to yourself and others.
  • Consider some safety equipment like an approved helmet, fire extinguisher, and protective clothing.

Things You'll Need

  • A car or truck that is capable of handling the increased stresses of racing.
  • Extra oil and coolant, some rags, and a flashlight.
  • Money for your track event and drinks/food.
  • Driver's license
  • A friend (optional, but most "for fun" events allow you to bring one rider along for the race. Even if they can't race with you, they still provide good company.)
  • Camera or video recorder (optional)

Article Info

Categories: Driving Techniques