Steve Gibbs on Timing Lights n' Stuff

Steve Gibbs has been with the NHRA for most of his adult life. Few men know more about the sport of drag racing in general or the workings of a professional drag race in particular. As Competition Director for NHRA Steve oversaw every aspect of the on-track functions from safety to conditions to rules control. Steve perfected the now necessary "track prep" that has produced record setting times year in and year out. To list all his accomplishments would require a book, but suffice it to say he's qualified to speak on any subject related to drag racing.

Recently a few subjects came up on the Standard 1320 Group e-mail chat that Steve felt a need to address. Here's his take on the "traps" (finish line clocks), track distance, deep staging and "hidden weight". Good reading and a definite education.

Traps - When we (NHRA) decided to shorten/relocate the traps, there were a couple of objectives. As it was clearly stated - in order to get the maximum mph readings using the old configuration, a driver would have to take the car under full power an additional 66 ft. past the actual quarter mile finish line. The e.t. clocks stopped at the finish line. Many drivers did not like "driving it out the back door", as a lot of bad things can happen in that seemingly short 66 ft. distance. Parts can break, and on a short track it can be the difference between making the return road or going off the end.

Just to clarify the trap setups....the old system utilized a speed trap of 132 ft., positioned 66 ft. before and 66 ft. after the quarter mile finish line. This in theory would give you an accurate speed at the finish line. The new system utilized only the 66 ft. distance before the finish line, so that both the e.t. and speed clocks would be stopped when the car crossed the finish line. In theory this setup would give you the vehicle's speed at 33 ft. before the finish line. We obviously realized that there would be some mph loss. From a purist's standpoint, this was a bad deal....but the benefits were undeniable.

We ran a series of tests utilizing both trap configurations simultaneously, and found that there was about a 2 mph difference (TF & FC) for those cars going the full 1386 ft. In reality we saw a great many of the drivers posting faster speeds (on paper) using the new traps, as they simply did not like pushing their cars that extra 66 ft., and were actually starting to decelerate at that point. Gene Snow was a prime example. He could not care less about big mph clockings, and always "clicked it" at the finish line. Using the new traps, Snow's mph readings picked up almost 50 mph!

When we finally decided to institute the new configuration as a matter of official policy, the fans actually started seeing a "faster" show, as many drivers began to post consistently higher speeds. No one even questions the decision anymore.

Finish Line - It might be good for everyone to understand a problem that we have in the timing process. When a car leaves the starting line - the e.t. clocks are activated when the wheels roll out of the stage beam. In theory you would want the clocks to stop when those same wheels hit the finish line beam. Unfortunately, due to low ground clearances, rear tire growth, body contortion, etc., we simply could not position the finish line lights low enough to consistently achieve this. Many races were mistakenly won by cars whose bodies triggered the lights first - even though the opponents wheels were ahead, but their body cleared the lights. We reluctantly chose to elevate the lights at the finish line to at least insure that the same part of each vehicle was triggering the lights. This compromises the system, but is the best choice available using current technology.

Deep Staging - This tactic was mentioned, so I'll give my two cents worth. In the "heads up" pro categories there are only two possible benefits from staging "deep". One is to "psych" your competition, and the other is to get the nose of your vehicle a few inches further down the track. In a race that is decided by inches, this could be the difference between winning and losing. Very few races are decided by margins this close.

When a vehicle rolls out of the stage beam it stops the reaction timer, and it starts the e.t. clock. It has clearly been established that by deep staging a driver will decrease their reaction times...(great for egos) BUT they will also increase their e.t. by the exact same time increment. There many benefits from the e.t. readings - qualifying position, e.t. awards, lane choice, race sequence, etc. There are no benefits from reaction time readings, in fact it is a sure fire way to get an un-necessary red light. It took a while for some to realize this correlation between e.t and reaction times when deep staging, and it actually caused some friction within certain teams. The driver would deep stage...cut a great light (on paper), only to lose a tenth in performance and then blame the tuner.

Hidden Weight - Boy, have some games been played here - especially when it was easy to make "minimum weights". The racers won their share, but we caught quite a few. Years ago, the cars were weighed without the driver, so we saw the illegal ballast show up in many places on the car itself. (A lot can happen on the return road before reaching the scales) When we started weighing the cars with the drivers, we found some strange things....firesuits & helmets that topped 100 lbs., FC body poles that were solid steel. If a driver was a lightweight "unknown", he could simply have a heavier crew guy jump in the car and pull it across the scales. Them NHRA tech guys don't know everybody! It was always fun to position yourself in the shut down / return road area when you were suspicious of a problem. Boy would those guys squirm when they couldn't stash the weight needed before getting to the scales. While the TF/FC guys were good, the sportsman "doorslammer" guys were by far the best a playing these kind of games....probably still are!

Steve Gibbs
Retired Director, NHRA Motorsports Museum


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