What is Drag Racing? The Things You Need to Know!

If you’re a car enthusiast and you want to see just what your machine is capable of, there’s a good chance you’ve considered heading down to your local drag racing track. For rookie racers and curious car lovers, here’s everything you need to know about this exciting motorsport.

The very basics of Drag Racing

For those who have only the vaguest notions about drag racing, let’s start right at the beginning. At the most basic level, drag racing is a car race on a short, straight track, usually ¼ mile, ⅛ mile or 1000ft.

At its simplest, it is a contest of acceleration. Since it takes place, as mentioned, in a straight line and over a limited distance, driving skills such as cornering don’t come into it: it’s just about reaching top speed as quickly as possible and crossing the finish line first.

Of course, there is a lot more to it than just this. There are many different categories of car, different styles of race and much more, but this is drag racing stripped down to the fundamentals. We’ll talk a bit more about variations later.

How Drag Racing works – before the starting line

drag racing starting line


One of the most complicated and confusing parts of drag racing is how races are actually started, so let’s have a look at that first.

Before the race, cars wait in what is known as a “staging line”. This basically means they sit in a line waiting for their turn to race. This is a time for drivers to make any last-minute adjustments to their cars.

When it is their turn to race, cars have the option of passing through the “water box” – this is a section of road that has been hosed down with water for cars to perform a “burnout”.

Burnout is where the driver performs a wheelspin to clean and heat the tires, also usually producing a lot of noise and smoke.

Cars with “slicks”, racing tires with no tread, need to perform a burnout since these tires need to be cleaned and warmed to reach optimum performance.

However, cars with road tires shouldn’t perform a burnout; it doesn’t add anything to the performance, and driving through water will actually give you less traction. Cars with road tires should simply drive around the water box on the way to the start line.

How Drag Racing works – the starting line

Once cars have passed the water box, they advance to the start line.

One thing that makes this part a little difficult to understand is that the starting line nowadays is actually invisible – it consists of two light beams that the tires break as the car edges forward when preparing to start the race.

First, as the car moves slowly forward to the start line, it breaks the first beam of light, causing the first amber starting light to come on (the starting lights in drag racing are known as the “Christmas tree” – more about this in a moment).

When the first beam has been broken, the car is said to be “pre-staged”. This is the last chance the driver has to stop, take stock and prepare him- or herself to race.

Next, the car edges forward again, breaking the second beam and causing the second amber light on the Christmas tree to come on. The car is now considered to be “staged”, and from this point, the driver needs to be ready to race at any moment.

If the race involves two cars, once the first car is staged, the second car has a certain amount of time to stage too. If the second car doesn’t stage in time, it will be disqualified.

If the race features only one car (that is, it is a time trial), once the car is staged, the Christmas tree will start the race a few moments later.

The Christmas tree

When the cars are staged (or just one car for a time trial), the Christmas tree starts the race.

The Christmas tree consists of a split amber light for pre-staging, a split amber light for staging, three full amber lights that count down the start of the race, a green light for “go” and a red light for disqualification.

After the pre-staging and staging lights are on, one of two sequences is used to start the race.

The “full tree” (or “sportsman’s tree”) is where the three amber lights are lit in quick succession, effectively giving the driver a countdown before the race starts. The lights come on in sequence, after which the green light is lit and the race begins.

The other type is the “pro tree”, where all three amber lights come on together simultaneously followed by the green. This makes it harder for the driver and tests the driver’s reaction time more effectively.

Reaction time is a vital part of drag racing and can have a big outcome on the overall result of a race.

The red light comes on if the car leaves too early.

Check out this video to see Christmas trees in action.


Different measurements are taken during a race, including reaction time, top speed, elapsed time (E.T.) and others.

Part of the fun of drag racing is trying to improve the scores in these different areas through tuning the car or working on specific driving skills.

Types of drag racing

What we have looked at here are the basics – but there is obviously a lot more to drag racing that we just don’t have the space to cover.

There are several types of race other than just a simple head to head race (known as a “heads up” race). Many races involve giving one car a handicap, allowing two cars to race, even if one is significantly faster or more powerful than the other.

There are also many categories of car. The fastest and most spectacular cars are known as Top Fuel dragsters and can reach speeds of up to 355mph, but there are literally hundreds of other classes.

Competitions are often divided into a traditional bracket system, with two cars racing off against each other. The winner advances to the next round while the loser is eliminated.

Motorsport at its most exciting – and accessible

If you are a fan of motorsports or even just a car enthusiast, the best advice is to head down to your local track. There you will be able to watch other drivers pit their vehicles and skills against one another or the clock – or you can even have a go at showing off your driving skills yourself.

Are you a drag racer? Which car do you race? Which cars do you enjoy watching? If you have any tips or comments, please leave us a message – we always love to hear from our readers. And you enjoyed our article, please don’t forget to give us a share!