In my 30+ years of racing, almost all of my own on-track exploits have come in two similar, yet distinct domains: bracket racing and “Super Class” racing (the .90 classes: Super Comp, Super Gas, Super Street).
While these variations of our game share the same fundamentals, there are discrepancies: some obvious, others subtle. Super Class racing is typically contested on the quarter-mile course. The .90 classes are all heads-up, on a .4 pro tree. The class index is fixed: you don’t get to choose your dial-in. Super class events are most often NHRA LODRS and Camping World Series national events, in which one single competition is spread out over multiple days.
Bracket racing conversely, is most often contested on the 1/8th mile in this day and age. Racers get to select their own dial-in, and most classes feature a wider variety of cars, ET’s, and speeds. Bracket racing is traditionally contested on a .5 full tree, and most bracket races start and end on the same day (often contested within a brief window of several consecutive hours).
In one of the recent live calls within our online membership community, a ThisIsBracketRacing ELITE member asked about making the switch from Super Comp racing to bracket racing with his dragster. All he’d ever done was run the 8.90 class, and while he was intrigued by trying out some bracket competition, he was nervous about making the switch and trying something new.
I started the conversation by explaining to him that transition wasn’t really anything to be worried about: there’s no reason that his competitive Super Comp car shouldn’t be a competitive bracket car. And as a driver who is capable of winning an 8.90 racer, he’s a driver that’s capable of winning a bracket race. While that is unquestionably true, as we discussed the situation I realized that there is a unique skill set catered to each form of competition; something generally accepted within the two categories, but seldom discussed.
From the time that I started racing 30+ years ago to today, the technology of sportsman drag racing, in all aspects, has improved tremendously. Consistent cars that are capable of matching the dial-in more often than not have become the rule more so than the exception. And that’s not the only area in which advanced technology has aided competition. Over the years, there have also been huge advancements in track prep, weather analysis equipment (and understanding), and more. Plus, timing system advancements including Auto-Start, Cross-Talk, and LED bulbs on the tree have made the art of making good, solid, consistent runs more achievable on a regular basis.
That ability gets magnified in a wide-open setting on an 1/8th mile course, if for no other reason than the fact that there is less time for variables to interfere. Conversely, while the equipment is better than ever, the additional variables introduced in a fixed index (.90) competition, on a full quarter-mile course make these same incredible runs a bit more uncommon.
As a result, I will submit the idea that the best strategy for success is slightly different from one form of competition to the other. If I was asked to sum it up in one word, I’d argue that the best strategy for 1/8th mile bracket racing is one of DISCIPLINE:
“I’m pretty confident that my car is going to run 4.80. Whatever I choose to dial in, my goal is to have the discipline to make the car match that dial-in.” My main emphasis is to do whatever I need to do to make the car go dead on; because I know almost exactly what it’s about to run.
In contrast, when we take that same combination .90 racing, I’m typically not quite as confident in the E.T. that I’m about to run. That doesn’t mean the car isn’t consistent or predictable, it’s simply the result of so many more variables. So in .90 racing, the single word that I think best sums up the ultimate strategy is INSTINCT.
When “Super class” racing, rather than solely relying on discipline to match the dial-in, I encourage drivers to allow themselves the freedom to trust their instincts. If you think you’re ahead, try to tighten it up at the finish line (even if you’re confident that you’re not breaking out). If you think you’re behind, it’s more likely advantageous to “drop” (lifting off the throttle and/or tapping the brakes), letting your opponent take the stripe; even if you think doing so may put you .02 over the dial-in. In my own experience on the track, and in working with thousands of racers over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that, by and large, our instincts are pretty good: we tend to make mistakes when we question those instincts; putting too much emphasis on discipline in situations where it’s often uncalled for.
This idea is not unique to me, nor is it new. One of my mentors in racing is a guy you’ve probably heard of, named Tommy Phillips. Years ago, I’d watch from the finish line as Tommy won a Super Comp national event in which he was seemingly never running slower than 8.80 in any round of competition (yes, the index was 8.90). He’d rarely make it to the 1000’ mark before pumping the throttle, or he’d brake early letting opponents go. As someone who grew up enamored with the science of driving the finish line, I was hooked!
The very next weekend, I watched the very same driver, in the very same car, win a big dollar 1/8th mile bracket race. During that race, I watched him make a bye run, in which he went 4.776 wide open. I watched him come back the next round, dial 4.77, and hold the throttle to the floor again to light the scoreboard with a matching 4.77.
I couldn’t help but ask myself: “Dude, what just happened? This can’t be the same driver! TP can drive everyone’s eyeballs out at the finish line, why would he ever dial honestly and rob himself of the option to do so?”
As I now realize, Tommy was ahead of the curve. He realized twenty-plus years ago what too many racers can’t accept today: his car was better than he was (and he was… is… REALLY good). The same idea wasn’t as valid in .90 form: when the length of the track doubled, and all the variables of a fixed-index, throttle stop assisted contest were added to the mix. In bracket trim, however, he could run dead-on seemingly every round. And he realized just how big of an advantage that was.
To be clear, none of this makes one form of competition any better than the other, and certainly not any easier than the other. If you’ve ever been to an 1/8th mile bracket race, regardless of the stage or stakes, then you know it’s insanely difficult to win: seemingly every car and driver on the property is capable of laying down an unbeatable run at any given time. Parity reins supreme.
On the other hand, racing in the .90 classes is no walk in the park either! If you pull up live timing, or DragRaceCentral, the packages may not look as impressive as the typical 1/8th mile bracket race. There’s a reason for that! It’s HARD to make good runs with all of the variables that are presented.
These same unique challenges that make each form of competition both incredibly difficult and extremely enjoyable also dictate that the ultimate game plan for success is subtly, yet notably, different in each category.