Bret Kepner Guest Editorial
THE SLOWEST GUY YOU KNOW!
When Luke Bogacki asked me to write a guest tutorial, I was flattered. When I perused his roster of previous contributors, I was stunned. I can never claim to be the equal of any of the magnificent racers who’ve offered their knowledge and expertise to this amazing website but I am more than happy to present a few views from the “other side” of bracket racing.
THE BACKGROUND STORY
I originally raced class-legal cars beginning in 1976. I started with an L/SA ‘66 273 Barracuda and soon became attracted to “oddball combinations”. For some reason, I enjoyed the challenge of making competitive a seemingly uncompetitive legal combination and I’m proud to say I usually failed miserably. From an O/SA ‘70 383 Plymouth Fury to a Q/SA ’78 305 Oldsmobile Delta 88, my limited mechanical ability managed to create machines which could barely break the Index but could break absolutely everything else. I did manage a few eliminator wins but it wasn’t long before bracket racing seemed like a decent option. As local class racing began to disappear, my career as a journalist and sportscaster picked up enough momentum to keep me from a regular racing schedule and I didn’t drive competitively again until 1991.
My work schedule soon included between 145-155 drag racing events per season so, between 1984 and 1990, I was still heavily involved in the sport. I watched the transition of the nation’s tracks from weekly class racing to bracket competition and was thrilled at the rejuvenation of the health of the sport. By the late 1980s, however, I was inundated by racers complaining delay boxes were ruining the sport of bracket racing. I understood the premise of electronic aids but, having raced prior to the (legal) addition of these enhancements, never saw what I considered a truly unbeatable advantage. In 1991, I took my bone-stock ‘76 L48 350 Corvette to the track to see what, if anything, had really changed. Entering an all-run, no-rules eliminator and using a ten year-old technique, I won the event with a fifteen-second street car.
It became my obsession to oust opponents with electronics if only to prove it could be done. I raced almost exclusively in classes which allowed delay boxes, (along with rollout counters, down-track ignition interrupters, etc.), and honed my skills on unmodified cars which required no maintenance. I researched every possible trick and enjoyed a fair amount of success. As Senior Editor of Super Stock & Drag Illustrated magazine, I brought my crusade to the attention of my Editor-In-Chief, the late Steve Collison, who’d grown equally weary of the Delay Box Debate. I insisted that anybody in any car could win any race. Collison replied, “Prove it”.
Thus was born the two-year series of articles in SS&DI entitled “Giant Killer” in which an unnamed average guy battled weekly the evil “Box Monsters” with a “daily driver“. Almost twenty years later, I’m still approached by racers who insist the “Giant Killer” series and its unknown hero, Mr. Dirt, forever changed the way they race and helped them achieve success in bracket competition. I never dreamed those articles would effect so many people.
Although a lot of folks didn’t find out until ten years later, I was Mr. Dirt. I earned that nickname from friends due to fact, in my early years, washing my race cars held a very low priority. I felt it was imperative the author of the “Giant Killer” series remain anonymous so great effort was taken to hide my identity. In all the articles, license plate numbers were erased and all images showed me wearing a full-face helmet. In one instance, I was actually pictured wearing a paper bag over my head! The premise for the series of articles was simple. I entered my Corvette in a twenty-six week point series at a quarter-mile track which allowed virtually any electronic aid and, using tricks I would impart each month to the reader, would try to “hang with the big dogs”. Twenty-six weeks later, I won the point championship by a single round over my nearest rival. My Corvette ran 15.50s; the second-slowest car in the Top Ten of the standings ran 10.50s.
The SS&DI readership loved the series and, late one night after the season was over, Collison asked me, “Could you do it again?”. In a fit of stupidity, I answered that I could try. At the end of the next season, Mr. Dirt had won his second consecutive championship in the class through a year in which his opponents’ average dial-in was 10.34.
During this period, I began to take the act “on the road”. Because I was still traveling extensively with my television coverage, I began flying early to my scheduled work sites and, in the seat of a rental car, found local tracks at which to compete. Each rental was adorned with my “Mr. Dirt” portable graphics and I always raced under that name. I quickly found it was a huge benefit to stick with a single model of car, (everything from Cadillac Sedan De Villes to Corsicas to my personal favorites, the Taurus/Sable platform entries), and used the techniques imparted in the “Giant Killer” series to make each ride competitive. The series of articles stopped after 1996 but my penchant for racing slugs of all breeds continues to this day. Although I’ve competed in many faster cars, (my career-best stands at 8.09/163), my love of goofy combinations still remains. Teamed with good friend Brian Olson, we managed to produce the first NHRA National Record Holder using a powerplant of under 100 cubic inches with a 1981 Ford Escort competing in HF/SA.
The vast majority of "Mr. Dirt's" success has come at the wheel of street driven vehicles like this Mercury Grand Marquis.
BLINDED BY SCIENCE
Because I usually compete in extremely slow, no-maintenance machines, my approach to the sport may be somewhat different from the majority of racers. However, through fourteen years of instruction at my own drag racing school, I still preach a gospel of equality. In all forms of drag racing, the same physics apply but some of those laws must be approached from different angles.
The TBIR archive of guest tutorials includes some simply stunning revelations and, having read them all, I have not found any with which I disagree. Some of the psychological theories presented have been exceptional. I firmly believe the final authority on drag racing psychology and physiology is Dr. Tami Eggleston whose husband, Mike, is a tremendous racing talent. Tami’s research on everything from short-term mental capacity to “dominant eye syndrome” is astonishing and has been a tremendous benefit to me. I live by James Monroe’s assertion of realizing one’s potential through the constant compilation of Round Win Percentage statistics. I currently carry a 74.23% RWP and an 18.03% Event Win Percentage; those numbers push me right out the front door when I decide to go to a race knowing I will probably go four rounds and have almost a one-in-six chance of winning.
In fact, I found only one subject addressed in the TIBR archives on which I can offer a differing, (although not final), view. Both Bud McNasby and Luke Bogacki offered formulas for the critical determination of finish line win-margin distance. Both presentations were sound and mathematically valid but neither takes into consideration one of our sport’s most glaring inefficiencies. Drag racing utilizes an archaic system to determine speed over a sixty-six feet-long speed “trap” but, unfortunately, the speed on our timeslips does NOT tell us how fast our machine was traveling at the finish line.
In fact, the number presented on the slip is a theoretical speed achieved thirty-three feet BEFORE the finish line. The MPH reading only assumes the car achieved the speed halfway through the trap when, as we all know, top-end games drastically change the actual speed at which we cross the finish line let alone a speed reading based on a good guess two car lengths before the stripe! In my drag racing school, I strongly assert that, with exception of full-throttle timed trials or elimination runs, the finish line speed clocking on a timeslip is basically worthless information. Over the years, I’ve developed a formula which compensates for this anomaly and offers a more accurate conversion of the true distance between two machines at the finish line.
The formula simply includes the speed of the first car to the finish line multiplied by the margin of victory in time multiplied by the constant 1.47525. The result will be distance in feet; if less than a whole number, multiply the result by twelve.
In a numerical example, the formula would read as:
115.31 mph X 0.0113 seconds X 1.47525 = 1.922 feet or 23.07 inches
In my school, I present this formula to crew members to use at the track. When the driver returns with the timeslip from an elimination round, the crew member calculates the distance before the driver has the chance. The crew member then asks the driver, “How much distance was between you and your opponent at the stripe?”. The driver’s answer is usually wrong…often by a bunch! At that point, I help train the driver to more accurately discern the distance by landmarks, positioning and even just making sure the driver is actually looking at whichever part of his opponent’s vehicle is actually breaking the finish line beam. As so many TIBR tutors have noted, judging distance at the finish line is an ability which can only be learned by experience.
Several TIBR columnists have also extolled the virtues of determining the reason for the outcome of an elimination round. Of course, I believe this is one of the most critical tools by which to improve on-track success. However, I can’t stress enough my demands of my students to WRITE IT DOWN. Whether using a spreadsheet or logbook, I believe it’s imperative that each round of competition include specific notes on why a race was won or lost. It’s easy to say, “Well, I took too much stripe”, load up and go home. However, when a competitor is confronted with that phrase written fifty times in one season, it’s fairly easy to spot a trend. I’ve found that most racers will quickly direct effort at changing that which constantly and mercilessly harasses them.
TRICKS OF THE SLOWER TRADE
However, my general approach to racing is skewed from the norm because I’m usually driving the slowest machine in any given eliminator in which I’m entered and I often compete in Front-Wheel-Drive cars. I regularly encounter problems which escape those with more conventional machinery but I apply many standard solutions.
An example would be Michael Beard’s excellent TIBR discussion concerning manipulation of front tire pressure to change rollout and reaction times. He’s one of the few racers who has achieved success with FWD cars and knows their limitations but his front-wheel MoPar is still several seconds quicker than the slugs I race. Since the majority of my race cars of choice have sixty-feet ETs in the range of 2.20-2.50 seconds, I have much greater adaptability in altering my RTs with front tire pressure. Although I’m fairly capable when it comes to deep-staging, every car I race is staged as shallow as possible since the spot of “flickering the bulb” is the only place on the track at which the driver of a full-bodied car knows EXACTLY the position of the car. We all know staging position is one of the most critical aspects of the sport and Beard appropriately noted the importance of the ability to “bump” into the beams. My drag racing school was the first to measure a student’s staging position in the beams to a fraction of an inch and, in order to graduate, it was mandatory for all students to stage within one-quarter of an inch on three successive staging attempts. My credo has always been, “The distance of your ’bump’ is your constant margin of staging error; if you can ’bump’ in quarter-inch increments, your margin of staging position error will never be more than a quarter-inch!”.
Only by repeatedly staging in exactly the same position can tire pressure adjustment be an accurate method of RT manipulation. Through lengthy testing, I’ve learned to adjust my RT by as little as 0.005 seconds via tire pressure but, by racing vehicles with large front tires, I have the benefit of a pressure-versus-reaction time ratio of one pound to one hundredth of a second. Presuming I stage in the same spot and leave at the first flash of the third yellow, I can successfully change an 0.050 RT to an 0.025 RT simply by adding 2.5 pounds of air to the front tires. I have enough confidence in my ability to adjust my RTs that I seldom “show my hand” during timed trials; I often set-up for consistent 0.090s, (or worse), knowing that can add six pounds of air before eliminations and reel off 0.030s without a problem.
Almost every car I race is set up so it couldn’t spin the tires on a frozen lake. My current “house car” is a 180,000-mile ’95 281 Mercury Grand Marquis which has run a best of 16.43, (10.60 eighth), but is usually detuned to 17.50s/11.50s for that very reason. When perusing the selection at a rental lot, I’ll always choose a car which doesn’t have the power to spin; I pay close attention to horsepower-to-weight ratios of all the new models and avoid the high-powered versions. Because I often need to add air pressure to the front tires of a FWD cars in order to leave on the third yellow while shallow-staged, I instantly, (albeit inadvertently), increase the chances for loss of traction. Therefore, I need the slowest slug on the lot which I know will still offer around a 2.50 sixty-feet ET. By the way, I’ve run as much a sixty-five pounds in the front tires; it’s sometimes hard to even see over the dashboard and every pebble on the track feels like I’m hitting a curb at speed!
Advancements in the cooling systems of computer-controlled cars has also changed the way I race twenty-first century models. You’ll never catch Mr. Dirt needing cooldown time because he lets the car idle the entire time at the track. Modern street cars can remain at the same temperature for days and my only concern during eliminations is remembering to subtract one hundredth from the dial-in for each seven-pound gallon of gas it burns through the duration.
One of the trickiest aspects of racing late-model street cars is maintaining consistent brake pressure on the starting line. Almost every car I run is launched at full stall and only the release of the brake pedal. While this takes out of the equation potential inconsistencies in my left foot and throttle response, modern power braking systems apply an increasing amount of hydraulic pressure to the calipers over time and, therefore, the calipers can release slower, (or quicker), if consistent pedal pressure is not maintained. “Smashing the pedal” is no longer a viable technique; a smooth application of the brake for a reasonably consistent amount of time in the beams is imperative for repeatable RTs.
Racers often chuckle when they see Mr. Dirt performing “dry chirps” and hitting the brakes hard behind the starting line before making a pass in some phenomenally slow street car which can’t spin its tires, anyway. The procedure is valid, however. Since the car has been idling all day, the engine is at proper temperature but the differential and transmission fluids are not. The full-stall “practice launches” heat up the tranny fluid and rear end/drive axle lube to consistent levels and easing hard into the brakes after the “chirp” heats up the brake pads so the car will hold firm in the beams at full converter stall.
Chances are you’ll also be watching Mr. Dirt performing that little ritual in the left-hand lane. Since, with all conditions being equal, a faster car with lane choice will always put me in the left lane, I usually make the majority of my runs there. Let’s face it; I NEVER have lane choice when it’s determined by something other than staging lane position. I’ve had seasons in which over 85% of my runs were in the left lane because I was put there repeatedly by faster opponents. However, I’ll usually make at least one timed trial on the right-hand side to check the rollout difference and the ambient light on the ’Tree.
I can honestly say I enjoy driving slow cars as much as fast cars and, when it comes to between-rounds maintenance, I’m usually the guy enjoying the air-conditioning rather than the mosquitoes. I’ve had considerable success competing with my slugs but the beauty of it all is the simple fact anybody really CAN win any race in any car. In the original SS&DI “Giant Killer” magazine series, Mr. Dirt always closed with his basic drag racing philosophy:
“It may have the first chance to redlight but the slower car is always in the lead until passed!”