05-04 "On The Road" with Luke Bogacki


Last month we talked about the basic mathematics involved in bracket racing, and how you can use a knowledge of those principles to your advantage on the race track. In the next two months, we’re going to try to bring it all together, with some driving tactics and techniques that have helped me through the years. Keep in mind, everyone has a different way of doing things. Obviously, I’m going to tell you what works for me. As long as you consider the golden rule that we went over last month (the finish line margin needs to correspond to the reaction time margin), and try to apply it to your racing, you can make it work. I’m going to divide this into two parts. Next month we’ll talk about some finish line driving techniques and strategies. But before we get to that point, let’s talk about:

Staging, reaction times, and knowing what just happened.

Possibly the most important and most overlooked facet of bracket racing is the staging procedure. The depth at which your front wheel is rolled into the staging beam has an effect on both reaction time and elapsed time. The deeper into the stage beam you roll, the less “rollout” (the time it takes your tires to leave the stage beams under power) remains.

The casual fan that sees John Force or Larry Dixon turn out the prestage bulb in their Top Fuel or Funny Car probably doesn’t have a complete understanding of what just happened. When I first began watching races, I figured that a deep stager would have to have a quicker ET, simply because he/she starts out seven inches further down the race track than a shallow stager. As most of us now know, however, the opposite is true. Since the ET clocks don’t start until your tire leaves the stage beam, the longer your tire is in motion while in the beams (rollout), the faster you’re rolling when the tire leaves the beams and the ET clocks start. Therefore, a shallow stage (just rolling in far enough to illuminate the stage bulb) provides a quicker ET than a deep stage.

By the same token, the deeper you stage, the less the car rolls before turning out the stage bulb, so the quicker your reaction time. In effect, staging a little deeper will result in a quicker reaction time, and a slower ET. This theory does not only apply to racers who turn out the pre-stage bulb. The same is true for a Pro or Box racer that stages with both the pre-stage and stage lit on every run. If the car is positioned in the beams differently, the consistency of both reaction times and elapsed times will suffer.

So, to make a long story short it is absolutely imperative to position the vehicle in the same spot in the staging beams on every run. The way most successful Pro or Box racers choose to do this is to stage as shallow as possible. It’s not uncommon to see racers “flicker” the stage bulb, as they take minute bumps into position. Personally, if I don’t flicker the bulb, I’ve staged deep. I have the utmost confidence in the staff at Bill Taylor Engineering, who build and maintain my transmissions and related components. When I flicker the stage bulb, I hold the brake pedal, and set the transbrake. The car settles forward, and lights the bulb solid--every time. A staging error of as little as 1/4” can mean the difference in winning and losing in today’s world of bracket racing.

The example I just used was for Pro or Box racers, but the same rules apply to footbrake and No-Box competitors. Usually there is a little more margin for error in those classes, and there are some combinations in which a driver has to stage deeper in order to get the desired reaction time--but the theory still holds. In addition to making sure that we stage at the same depth each run, it is also very important to stage in the same position (side to side) on the racing surface. I know what you’re thinking--stage in the groove. Of course it’s important to line up straight and in the best rubber on the racetrack. But even beyond that train of thought: most any racing surface will have some type of crown. Some tracks are crowned to the point where the centerline is the highest point, and some will have a crown in the center of each lane. When a lane has a crown to it, moving a car from side to side in the staging beams effects the height at which the staging beams hits the tire, and therefore effects rollout. So, be sure to stage in the same position every run, both in forward depth, and laterally.

Okay, now that all of that is through, we’re staged. Now it’s time to focus. Like we talked about last month, reaction times are the pivotal variable that decides the outcomes of most bracket racing contests. The 2-8 seconds in which cars are staged and the tree drops require the most unbending focus and concentration of just about any moments in life. Everyone has a different way to prepare, or a different mindset. I’ll share a few things that help me to be better focused and more prepared.

First off, at several tracks (particularly smaller tracks--especially in a dragster) you have spectators, starting line officials, tech officials, etc. all around you when you are staging or staged. You’ve seen the Pro Stock racers with their fancy helmets all taped up around the shield? My helmets look that way. I try to block off the majority of my peripheral vision in an attempt to not see the starter walking or mopping the other lane, or a spectator turn to talk to a friend. It sounds odd, I know, but I’m constantly amazed at the things I’ll see or think when I should be 100% focused on the tree, which is why I try to block out as much as possible. Obviously, the limited vision is also a factor down track when I look for my opponent, but I’ve trained myself to turn my entire head rather than cut my eyes.

Once you are staged, it is time to have all other thoughts out of your head, and focus exclusively on the tree. It’s kind of like the movie “For love of the game,” when Kevin Costner’s character tells himself to “clear the mechanism” and the crowd and umpire and everything disappears except the batter, the catcher, and the plate. Once I pre-stage, I take a deep breath to collect myself, and I tell myself to stare deep into the bulb, to think slow, and to let the race come to me. I open my eyes, stage carefully, and focus on a small section of the top bulb.

In footbrake, I’ve had to find a later spot on the tree than what I grew up being used to, because I’m now running my 6.70 Nova, rather than 8-second footbrake cars. I used to count the tree, and try to meet the bottom bulb on, in order to get a good reaction time shallow staged. Now, I have to wait to see the bottom bulb, so I actually hum to keep myself from counting. It’s a little trick Troy Williams, Jr. taught me. He said, “When you hum, you can’t think about anything else.” I don’t hum when I hit the top, but I have been humming when I hit the bottom. Like I said--it’s different strokes for different folks!

Anyhow, that’s my routine: I back into the pre-stage beams, I collect myself and do my little chant, I look over ninety degrees to pick a spot on my opponents car while we’re both pre-staged (for a finish line reference), and I stage. I don’t care if my opponent stages first, or I stage first, or whatever. I don’t get caught up in all the games of who goes in and does what--it doesn’t matter. We have to stage within fifteen seconds of each other, then we have to race.

Racers, particularly inexperienced racers in my opinion, get very caught up in having to stage first, or having to stage last. That’s stupid. It’s a vulnerability. Other racers will take advantage of a routine that requires you to stage first or last, and will intentionally disrupt that routine in an effort to throw you off your game. It’s best to have a routine that can’t really be disrupted by anything your opponent does.

Anyhow, now that you’ve staged, and you’ve focused, and you’ve hit the tree, it’s time to ride to the other end and see what happens, right? Wrong! If you’ll remember from last months column, the most pivotal and deciding factor in a race is reaction time, but it’s not the number that appears on the time slip as much as it is the driver knowing how to use it. When you let go of the button (or the brake pedal), you should have a pretty good idea of how well you hit the tree. If you don’t, then you need to make more runs during test and tune, or use a practice tree until you’re more comfortable. Most modern Pro and Box racers have the opportunity to hit the tree twice, or bump down, or bump up, etc. That’s fine and well, you want to leave the line with the best reaction possible, and there’s no reason not to take advantage of any of those tools developed to help you do that.

But, you’ve got to know when you leave what kind of light you had. I don’t hit the tree twice, because I get confused. I’ll know one was better than the other, but I won’t know by how much, and I’ll still be trying to figure it out at the sixty foot clocks. I hit it once, and I bump down accordingly. Now for the good part. Once you’ve made enough runs, you get a feel for where your car is supposed to leave in the tree sequence. Once you’ve let go of the button, and bumped down or up, don’t duck your head and wait for the car to leave. Watch the tree come down, and pay attention to where the car leaves in the tree. Once you do this a few times, you’ll begin to get an idea of how good your reaction time was. If you know how you felt when you let go, and you watch the tree sequence to verify your thoughts--you should have a good idea of how the race should unfold.

By the same token, watch your opponent leave. Unfortunately, you can only do this when you’re the faster car or the slower car by a large amount. In a street car for example, running a faster vehicle, I’ll leave the starting line, then spin around and watch my opponent’s tree and his/her stage lights in an effort to determine who had the better reaction time. In my dragster, against a slower car, I may not feel good when I let go of the button, but I’ll watch my opponent leave before I bump down. If he or she is terribly late, there’s no sense in bumping mine red and losing the round.

Again, reaction time is extremely important--but it’s only useful if you know what your reaction is in reference to your opponent. At that point, you can use your basic knowledge of bracket mathematics to win that round.

The best scenario for an experienced racer is heads-up style racing. When the cars leave, you can either watch the stage bulbs fall, or watch your opponents car and reference it’s movement versus yours. Watching the stage bulbs is certainly the most accurate view you’ll have, because you and your opponent may not be staged at the same depth, so the movement of his car to yours may not correspond directly to reaction time. In pro tree racing, however, it can be extremely difficult to pick up the stage bulbs (because you’ve just let go of the button and the car is moving). In any case, in any race, it is definitely advantageous to be able to determine which driver has the better reaction time, because that gives you a script to follow as you go down track.

Next month we’ll do just that: go down track and discuss finish line driving techniques and strategies. Thanks for reading--see you at the track.


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