About Drag Racing

How did Drag Racing originate?

Drag racing began in the dry lake beds of the Mojave Desert, California in the years following the Second World War. Informal gatherings of hot rodders had been taking place since the 1930’s but it was Wally Parks, a military tank test driver for GM, who set up the Southern California Timing Association and laid the foundation for the National Hot Rod Assocation (NHRA), of which he became founding President in 1951.

The first ‘Speed Week’ was held on the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1949 using stopwatches but, by 1950, the Santa Ana Drags, held on an Airfield in Southern California, were using revolutionary new computerised speed clocks.

The NHRA held its first official race in 1953 at Pomona, California and, in 1961, the NHRA’s flagship ‘Nationals’ event settled in Indianapolis.

The history of the sport is clear but what is not so clear is where the term ‘Drag’ Racing came from. Three theories are common – early racers talked of ‘dragging’ their car out of the garage for a race; the main ‘drag’ was the name given to a city’s main street which often accommodated two cars racing side by side; and, to ‘drag’ the gears meant to keep the transmission in gear longer than normal.

The first ‘dragsters’ were lightened street cars with modified engines, which have evolved into today’s Top Fuel Dragsters which can hit 330mph.

A Willys Sedan and a gasser styled model A Roadster

How did Drag Racing come to Lewis?
In 2008, Lewis Car Club was looking for an activity which might appeal to young performance car enthusiasts and it was known that a suitable half mile ‘Strip’ existed at the Western Taxiway of Stornoway Airport. Highlands and Islands Airports Limited (HIAL) were approached and very generously allowed Lewis Car Club to use the taxiway for Drag Racing subject to certain controls. HIAL were asked to nominate a Charity for that first 2008 event and Bethesda Nursing Home & Hospice was selected.
Stornoway’s first ever Drag Race took place in June 2008 when 40 fast-road cars ran against the clock from North to South along the taxiway. The timing system was rudimentary – horns, stop watches and walkie talkies – but the public response was fantastic. The two hour race was watched by over 1,000 people and £5,500 was raised for Bethesda.

Given the interest in the activity, Lewis Car Club sought funding to purchase its own NHRA spec ‘Portatree’ timing system from Massachusetts, USA at a cost of £6,300. For 2009, it was agreed to reverse the direction of the race to facilitate easier crowd control and, again, over 1,000 people watched 40 cars racing, but this time against the Portatree system. £5,500 was raised for Macmillan Cancer Support Western Isles in one night in July.

What sort of equipment is used?
The main piece of apparatus if the highly sophisticated ‘Portatree’ timing system imported from Massachusetts, USA in 2009. Infra red sensors near the road surface activate the pre-Stage and Stage lights while further downtrack sensors pick up maximum speed and elapsed time (quarter mile). The system is completely portable and can be set up in half an hour.

How does the Portatree (above) work?
As a driver rolls forward to the start line, the front wheel of the car cuts the ‘Pre-Stage’ infra-red beam which triggers the top set of yellow lights in that lane. Drag racing etiquette requires that the driver then waits for the racing partners car to ‘Pre-Stage’ also. The driver then edges forward seven inches until the ‘Stage’ infra-red beam is broken by the front wheel. That car is now ‘staged’ and ready to race. Again, Drag racing etiquette requires that the second car then moves forward to become ‘staged’.

Once both cars are staged, the starter will activate the tree and the three ambers and the green will come down in succession, at 0.5 second intervals. Both drivers obviously launch on the green light but a jumped start will bring on the red light in that lane and lead to disqualification.

As soon as the winning car crosses the finish line, the top amber light in that lane will flash, showing the crowd who has won. Instantly, a printer at race control will start printing out two timeslips, once for each racer, showing reaction time off the line, maximum speed and elapsed time for the quarter mile. These timeslips are addicitive as drivers come back again and again to try and beat their own time.
What additional equipment is in place at the Stornoway races?

When the Portatree system was purchased, Lewis Car Club specified a couple of upgrades – double bulbs (front and rear) to ensure that spectators get the same view of the tree ‘coming down’ as drivers and a large LED read-out to instantly display the race statistics to the crowd.

What is bracket racing?
The incredibly sophisticated Portatree system allows Lewis Car Club to programme in a ‘head start’ for suitable races. Say, for example, a nitrous powered VW Beetle running 12.6 seconds was paired against a Proton Jumbuck running 19.6 seconds. The race controller can programme in those quarter mile times and the system will automatically calculate the correct ‘head start’ for the Jumbuck to ensure that the Beetle catches it just at the finish line. In this case, the tree would ‘come down’ for the Jumbuck but the Beetle would be kept back for a full seven seconds before receiving the green light. That seven seconds would then be made up over the course of the quarter mile to make both cars equally matched at the finish line.

YouTube footage of a VW Beetle against a Corsa VXR at Stornoway Airport