A Day at the Drags

Come Early, Stay Late, and Be Prepared

The NHRA POWERade Series tour passes through 20 cities in all regions of the United States, bringing its excitement to millions each year. The events are spectacles of color and speed, chrome and flash, and ingenuity and engineering.

Though the track in Seattle measures the same 1,320 feet as the one in Gainesville, Fla., each venue differs. Here, you'll learn what to expect when you head out for a weekend at the drags.

Unlike a typical three-hour football game or two-hour concert, NHRA drag racing is an all-day affair. The best advice for fans might well be the same advice given to the teams you're coming to watch: Come early, stay late, and be prepared.

As you would for a ball game or a rock concert, plan ahead, beginning with your tickets. Don Kraushar, NHRA vice president of national-event business, recommends that fans buy their tickets in advance, either at the racetrack box office, by phone, online at NHRA.com, or through TicketMaster. Buying ahead gives you a better choice of reserved seats.

What to bring: a hat, sunglasses, earplugs, and a blanket (to sit on or bundle up with during the awesome spectacle of night qualifying).

Okay, you've got your tickets and your car is loaded with the essentials - now what? Race-day attendance totals often exceed 40,000, so it's a good idea not to plan your arrival to coincide with the firing of the first pair. Believe it or not, the parking lots are full of latecomers streaming toward the main gate even as the first round gets under way. The first round of Top Fuel, Funny Car, and Pro Stock comprises 24 heats: the remainder of eliminations consists of 21. Miss the first round, and you've missed half the show.

At the end of the day, don't make a headlong rush for the gates the instant the last nitro car runs. When the rest of the herd heads for parking lot, it's a great chance to hit the pits, where the teams are relaxing after a long day and likely to be more than accommodating.

Everyone knows that the action on Sunday determines who wins and who loses, but if you attend only the final day, you'll miss the spectacle and variety of qualifying. At most events, Friday and Saturday afford two qualifying shots per day, and most feature a Friday night session that transforms fuel-car racing into an ethereal sight.

Qualifying is your chance to see all of the cars run, not just the quickest 16. You'll get to see some of the local cars that run only once or twice a year and are rarely quick enough to make the show. Saturday, you'll witness the high drama of final qualifying, where drivers have a last chance to fight their way into or are bumped from the field.

Track and weather conditions can change from session to session and affect performance, so to get a better idea of how the players rate, compare runs made within a single session, not across sessions.

When eliminations begin, try for a little diversity. Watch the Sportsman competition, where the racing is often close and wins and losses are not always decided by horsepower but by driver reflexes and downtrack strategy. If you're new to breakout racing, listen to the announcers. They often go into great detail to explain how and why a driver won or lost a race.

Try watching the races from different spots in the stands. Seeing a race unfold from a finish-line vantage point is a world apart from watching it from the starting line. The difference in the sights and sounds will amaze you.

Drag racing is unique among motorsports because fans have direct access to the teams, watching from as close as five or 10 feet as the highly skilled mechanics "twirl the iron."

Hot tip: Some of the most frantic action takes place in the first 30 minutes after a car returns to the pits. If you want a front-row seat to watch the teams at their best, head for the pits a little early. If there's a major engine meltdown on the track and you don't mind missing the rest of the action, you probably won't have to fight for elbow room. The lack of crowds also provides a good chance to snag some autographs at other pit areas.

If you want to get a real feel for the power of a fuel-burning engine, hang out until a team test-fires its engine, generally 45 minutes to an hour before it expects to run. (For run times, see your event schedule.) You'll get a genuine thrill whenever the driver blips the throttle.

You shouldn't restrict your pit-area adventures to the Pro classes. Cruise the Sportsman pits. The drivers in those classes are more likely to have time to answer your questions. Often, you'll see the same kind of frantic pit-area thrashes that you witness in the Pro pits: Super Stock teams changing transmissions, Comp crews swapping engines, and alcohol drivers warming their machines.

Every dragstrip and every drag race is different. Take the time to scout the track layout, talk to other fans who have attended the race before, and listen to the buzz in the pits. You may well discover your own secrets for taking in an NHRA national event.

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