Bud McNasby Guest Editorial
“When I run a dragster, I dial down .01 and run it flat out. You can’t judge a 40 mph difference.” We’ve all heard someone say this. Some of us have even said it ourselves. But, the fact is, it’s just not true. Judging a 40, 50, even 60+ mph difference is possible. I’ve seen several other racers do it with extreme accuracy, as well as doing it myself. One thing I’ve learned over the last few years is there is more than one way to skin a cat. There is no right or wrong way to do it, so I’m going to explain how I do it. Since most people have a harder time being chased, that will be the focus of this article.
The human mind is really an incredible piece, capable of processing large groups of data, then calculating a decision based on that data; all within milliseconds. The trick to making that happen is training. Picture this: It’s early morning rush hour, you’re on your way to work on a busy 4 lane highway with a 55 mph speed limit, getting ready to make a left into McDonald’s for breakfast. There’s no traffic light, you’re half awake, listening to the morning show on the radio, sipping coffee, and waiting for a gap in the traffic to get across into the parking lot. You see a small opportunity approaching, scan the parking lot for cars and pedestrians to avoid, make your move at the exact moment with the appropriate amount of speed, and do it all subconsciously without hesitation. How is this possible? Training. When you first got your license, it would take all of your concentration and a much bigger opportunity to get across safely. Now you can do it like it’s nothing because you’ve seen it and done it hundreds of times. It’s no different than what we’re trying to do at the finish line: a car approaching at 55 mph, making your move at the exact moment, and doing it with the appropriate amount of speed.
It may still seem like a daunting task so let’s look at it from a mathematical point of view. Multiplying a vehicles mph by .0175999 will give us how many inches a car will travel in .001 of a second. If we use an example of a 10 second door car running 125 mph and a 7 second dragster running 175 mph we find that the door car travels 2.20 inches per thousandth while the dragster travels 3.08 inches per thousandth. Who has the harder job at the finish line, the faster or slower car? The faster car does. Both have the same difficult closure rate to judge, but, the faster car has to take a smaller distance at the stripe while the slower car gets to take a larger distance to equal the same margin of victory. The door car gets to take almost 1” more than the rail. That may not seem like a lot, but, as m.o.v. gets bigger so does the difference in distance. At .010 m.o.v. the distances become 22.00 inches and 30.80 inches. At .015 it becomes even more favorable at 33.00 inches and 46.20 inches. That’s almost 4 feet! Now add in the fact that the slower car can kill more ET late in the run, it becomes apparent that there are distinct advantages to being chased.
Okay, I know some of you are saying “But the dragster has an advantage. The driver can see the race develop better since the race is out in front”. Well, let’s examine that a little further. What makes the race being out in front easier to judge? The fact that you can see your opponent AND the finish line together. You can gauge how fast you’re closing in on the finish line and how fast you’re closing in on your opponent, and then compare the two to determine which one will run out of room first. If you’re being chased and turn around to find your opponent, you lose sight of the finish line. If you turn back around to find the finish line, you lose sight of your opponent. What tends to happen is you either misjudge the finish line or misjudge your opponent trying to compare the two rates of closure without seeing them together. The way to solve this problem is with mirrors. If you’re watching your opponent in the mirror, you can still see the finish line with your peripheral vision. Now you never have to take your eyes off of your opponent or the finish line and you can compare the two closure rates together. My mirror preferences are a driver side mirror and a LARGE rearview mirror. The main goal is to have NO blind spots. If that requires multiple mirrors, then so be it. The Super Pro car I drive has a 6” x 9” truck mirror mounted to the dash. It may look funny, but nobody will laugh at you when you take .006 stripe. Do not use convex mirrors or ones that say “objects in mirror are closer than they appear” as they distort the look of the closure rate. You want to be able to see as well as if you were looking ahead.
So, now we’ve picked out our mirrors, mounted them up, and we have no blind spots, but we’re only halfway there. The real key to using mirrors is knowing when to turn your head to see your opponent out the side window. With you sitting in your car in your normal driving position (seat belts on, window net up, etc.), have someone stand about 17’ behind and 17’ over from each corner of your rear bumper. Now set the mirrors so the person is at the outside edge of the mirror (driver side mirror for the left and rear view mirror for the right). This will approximate the front end of your opponent’s vehicle. To see how the mirror works, have the person stand the same 17’ over, but about 25’-30’ back. Now have the person walk at a brisk pace in a straight line parallel to the vehicle. Follow the person in the mirror until no longer visible. At this point turn your head to look out the side window and your helper will be right there. You may have to tweak the adjustment slightly to accommodate your track/vehicle configuration. What we’re shooting for is to simulate the fast car chasing you down and be able to follow it without turning around or losing sight of him or the finish line.
Alright, we have the mathematical advantage, we have the equipment necessary to get the job done, and we have the enemy in our sights. The only thing missing is how to judge the closure rate. The most important thing about judging closure rate, especially with a large speed differential, is to start watching your opponent as early as possible. It’s kind of like an outfielder following the ball all the way from the time it leaves the bat instead of waiting until it’s already past the infield. I know some racers that wait until the last 300’ or less to look. That’s asking a lot. In a 10 second car, it covers the last 320’ in just under 2 seconds. In that 2 seconds you have to find your opponent, figure out his closure rate, compare it to yours, calculate if you’re getting there first, if so, by how much, decide what course of action to take, and lastly, execute with a fair amount of precision. Again, all in just under 2 seconds. That’s a pretty heavy burden. I make my decision no later than the 1000’ mark. This way I’ve had just over 8 seconds to do everything except the execution (which I use the last 2 seconds to take care of ). And how do you arrive at your decision? You work with simple categories. Put what you’re seeing into one of four categories: a) getting there by a lot, b) getting there by a little, c) too close to call, or d) not getting there. This is where the math comes into play. Do you remember the .015 that equaled almost 4 feet? This is what you’re going to try to take at the finish line. If you measure 4 feet back from your front tire, you end up in the middle of your door. That’s what you’re looking to get there by, a half car length. Anything more than that half car is category a) and a half car would be b). The other 2 are pretty self explanatory. You want to take that category a) and turn it into category b). You want to kill a couple hundredths and reevaluate the situation. You don’t want to get carried away too early and kill so much that you give it back. The idea is to make it a manageable distance before the mph cone and fine tune it if necessary at the cone. Remember that the math is on your side. The difference between .005 and .015 is 2 ½ feet. That’s a decent amount of room for error and still be a tight stripe.
There are a few more tidbits that can help. Go sit at the finish line when eliminations are running and watch the slower car. Try to put it in one of the 4 categories by the time it reaches 1000’. If you can judge with 2 dissimilar rates coming at you while in a fixed position, it will be MUCH easier in the car.
Practice on the highway. Get in the slow lane and watch the cars coming up behind you. Pick a reference point up ahead where you think the 2 of you will cross at the same time. See how far off you are, and make adjustments. Get used to watching in the mirrors.
Use the formula to make a reference chart. I made one that went from 70 mph to 190 mph in 5 mph increments. It had 2 columns showing distance in inches, one for .005 and one for .010, and it was on the back of a business card. I kept it in my wallet so I could look at it before a run and remind myself how much I could take.
When you’re backing up, like in a parking lot, resist the urge to turn around to look behind you. Use your mirrors instead.
Don’t be afraid of giving back the finish line. It’s the only way to find out how far is too far. Besides, just because you give it back, doesn’t mean you lose.
Believe your eyes and not your heart. Your heart will always lie to you. You always want to believe that you will get there first, or that you can’t have as much room as you’re seeing. If you see that you can’t get there first, then it’s most likely true. If it looks like you’re getting there by a ton, then you probably are. I’m not saying that your eyes don’t deceive you from time to time. Just go with your first instinct and don’t second guess it.
Unfortunately, there isn’t any mathematical, systematical, or even magical way of teaching you how to see the difference in closure rates. It’s something you have to see a bunch of times and get used to. Don’t worry though, so is catching a ball and I’ll bet you can’t remember when you couldn’t do that. Pretty soon you won’t be able to remember when you couldn’t take less than .040, I know I can’t.