By Lee Meyer
Violent, gut-wrenching, hang-on-for-dear-life acceleration and the spirit of competition are why we do it. Drag race. Horsepower is God in this sport, and those who control their power win the show. Many of you may think this sport is easy, dull even. Hit the gas when the light turns green, and the first one to go a quarter mile wins, right? It only works that way in the pro classes.
Since you could buy a house for the dough it takes to build a pro bike, let’s explore the world of small-time racing: Bracket racing or “run whatcha brung”. The rules in the pro classes insure that fairly equally built and prepared machines race against one another. The range and variety of machines at a Bracket meet are huge. Obviously, the most powerful machine has an advantage, so a handicap system evens things out.
Here’s how it works. You get several time trials to establish how fast you and your machine can go. Using the info on the time slips you get after each run, you write a “dial-in” time in white shoe polish on your bike, so the folks in the tower can see it. In an honest world, your dial-in is as fast as you and your bike will go. Each lane at the strip has its own lights. The tower uses the dial-ins to calculate a staged start. The slower rider gets to go first. In that same honest world, both bikes should finish at the same time. This never happens. Never. Scorekeepers figure your times down to the hundredth, thousandth or ten-thousandth of a second. Someone will get there first. Oh, to make things a little more interesting, if you run faster than your dial-in, you lose! They call this “breaking out”. If both parties break out, the least broken one wins.
Consistency is what you want. Speed is fun, but if you can’t run right on your dial-in, you’ll never see the second round of eliminations. Rider skill, a well-tuned machine and a little luck are what win in Bracket racing.
You will need a couple of safety items if you want to drag race. First, a dead man ignition switch will cut the ignition if you fall off your bike. It would be a touch uncool for your 500 pound, two-wheeled, unguided missile to ghost-ride itself into the bleachers. Second, a chain guard of steel or a substantial thickness of aluminum will keep broken chains under control. Third, you must wear appropriate gear. This includes above-the-ankle leather boots, leather gloves, leather jacket and pants, and a Snell approved helmet.
You might want to let some air out of that rear tire for better traction. How much? You’ll have to figure that out. I bring my big Ninja’s fat ME-Z2 down to 25 psi. In the staging area, a burnout probably isn’t necessary for most street bikes with D.O.T. rubber tires. A short, dry one may be helpful to clean the tire’s surface and give it some heat.
Here is a big hint. When you are staring at that drag strip Christmas Tree, ignore the other rider’s lights. Slowly pull up to the light sensor beam on the track in front of you until you turn on the top little yellow light. Now you are pre-staged. Get yourself ready. Move forward an inch or two until the second little yellow light is on. Now you are staged. The controller may trigger the tree countdown at any time once you are staged, usually very soon. There are three yellow lights, a green and a red. Hopefully, you will never see a red. It means you left too soon and beat yourself before the race even started.
I spent three Sundays in August at drag strips. Grove creek is an eighth mile track about six miles west of Litchfield on Highway 12. Generally, the bikes here run in a trophy class, and entrance fees are $25.00 to race. This is a good place to learn. It is inexpensive, and, because it’s small, you get a lot of trial runs. Time runs start at about 9:00 a.m., so be there early.
When I hit the gas at Grove Creek, I struggled a bit to keep the big ZX under control in first gear. I grabbed second gear and launched the front tire a foot in the air. Upon reaching the finish lights, I noticed I had about 100 yards of slow down room. I was going about 100 mile per hour, so I got on the brakes hard…and now.
After everything was under control, a guy in a small building on the return road handed me my time slip. I looked under my lane and entry number (311) to check my dial-in, reaction time, 60-foot time, mph clocked at the top end, and elapsed time in seconds.
Reaction time is a big deal. Christmas tree lights flash at half second intervals, therefore, a perfect reaction time is 0.500 seconds. 0.499 is a red light. The time from 0.500 up is how long you sat there while the light was green.
My first run was 7.555 seconds at 100.33 mph with a 0.683 reaction time–kind of snoozing at the green. My four elapsed times were 7.55, 7.75, 7.50, and 7.84. I dialed a happy medium of 7.60 seconds.
Eight bikes entered that day, but one Harley never made it off the truck. One of us would get a bye. We drew numbers, and I was the lucky one. I got another time run and automatically advanced to the second round. The bike went 7.61 at 105 mph, and I had an acceptable reaction time of 0.601. Round two found me up against a Harley-Davidson. I noticed he had a tire-spin problem earlier in the day, so I wasn’t too worked up. Easy win. Round three was the final. I took on a V-Max that had been doing pretty well. Max had a decent lead on me most of the way down. Thinking he had me beat, he got off the throttle a touch too early. He forgot that my big ZX-11 makes up time in second and third gear like a screaming maniac. By the time he realized his mistake, it was too late. I won, not by much, but I won. Okay, I was lucky, but I won.
The next Sunday at Rock Falls Raceway, a full quarter mile track in Wisconsin, I entered the money race. Every bike there was set up for the drags with a full compliment of electric doo-dads, slicks, wheelie bars, slipper clutches, and whatever. I was the only street geek.
The heat got worse as the day wore on, and the humidity hovered somewhere around 400%. My Kawasaki ran like a pooch. Ram-air bikes and hot, humid weather don’t mix too well. It’s like forcing water right into the carbs. My first run was my best run of the day (11.42 seconds at 124.84 mph). Every run thereafter was significantly slower. When it came time to dial-in, I winged it, guessed wrong, and crapped out in round one.
The next week back at Grove Creek, I exited in the second round. Broke out in a big way.
What have we learned from all this? They don’t build street bikes for this kind of thing. First gear on my ZX is almost unusable at the strip (unless you like giant king-hell wheelies, large amounts of wheel spin, etc.), and you can forget about using full throttle until nearly second gear. An old Hondamatic would be a killer Bracket bike. Hit the gas and go. It’s the same over and over. Horsepower is fun, but consistency wins.
Dragging is hard on equipment. The second time at Grove Creek I saw Mr. V-Max again. He never made it to eliminations. Something in the Max’s shaft unit self-destructed. Ouch. Back on the trailer. My own ZX is feeling the pain of 20+ drag runs. It now has an internal engine vibration problem. Guess what I’ll be doing this winter.
Would I do all this again? Oh, yea. It’s a kick. Next year the ZX-11 might look a little different. I’m thinking about a wheelie bar, slick, some electric gizmos, and a big rear sprocket. However, drag racing is one of the only motorsports left that allows nearly anyone on anything to compete on a track at a reasonable cost. Beware. It can be addicting. I caught the bug at a very young age, and I am clearly not cured.
Next month is October. I hate to say this, but most of us will be thinking of preparing the machines for the inevitable nine months of deep-freeze. Ick. Let’s take advantage of the nice weather while we have it.
See you later.