I’m running contrary to popular opinion here, but hear me out on this.
What characteristics of drag racing are fans (and racers) continually longing for and preaching the sport desperately needs? Things like real, relatable cars. Body-style and engine variety. Competitive parity. Unpredictability. Personality. Authenticity. I could go on and on.
Only one arena in drag racing delivers on most of those qualities. Of course, no disrespect is meant to other, more established venues and classes within the sport — all have their qualities, their strengths and weaknesses and significance to the sport, and no-prep racing is by no means perfect, but it may be the closest thing we have to a drag racing utopia in the modern age. And all it took was the unraveling of some five-plus decades of progress in racetrack preparation, in chassis and suspension and tire development and timing system technology to arrive at its creation. It meant going back in time. And it also meant borrowing inspiration from a place that provoked the creation of organized drag racing all those years ago and remains to this day the very antithesis of such: street racing.
In drag racing’s earliest days, stiff, narrow truck tires were standard fare as racers competed on makeshift and often harsh surfaces. The machines were important, but the driver was a central decider in winning or losing. As early as the 1960s, compounds designed to aid traction came about, tires with a purpose were invented, and the era of quarter-mile-long roostertails of tiresmoke gradually faded into but fond memories to those who were fortunate to live it. In the decades since, every facet of the tracks and the cars have been refined to a point of highly diminishing returns. No doubt it’s been a hell of a ride — 300 miles per hour, five-second street cars, 3.4-seconds on drag radials, and on and on — and we’re far from done. But refinement comes with costs: enormous expense, less parity between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ and the subsequent rise and fall of participation, and racecars we can hardly relate to.
Drag racing has been on an expedition for the last three decades to find a product with staying-power wherein traction — or rather, the lack thereof — can serve as the great equalizer. It started with Outlaw 10.5 and true 28×10.5 slick-tire competitions in the mid-’90s; around the same time, racers were beginning to toy with the early BFGoodrich drag radials. Later, those two worlds converged into the Radial versus The World category, and a whole host of other radial-specific eliminators were spawned along with it. While each of these categories and subcategories has been supremely successful and lucrative for a time, each has eventually arrived at the same place: dominance by a select few, exorbitant costs to build highly-specialized cars, and overly refined to the point that the initial out-of-control, risky, and dangerous aura that made them immensely popular in the first place withered away.
Each step in this expedition has incrementally aimed to limit traction a little more over its predecessor, and really, no-prep was just the next logical place long this path. And it bucks many of the trends of its ancestors, suggesting it may be the most superior concept the sport has stumped upon yet.
The “Street Outlaws No Prep Kings” series, the highest-profile program in the country for big-tire cars, strictly forbids long, sleek, composite Pro Modified-style racecars that represent production vehicles in name alone, instead providing fans with cars that look a lot like something they could build — or may even have in their garage at home. It requires the factory roof and quarter panels native to the vehicle make and model, limits wheelbase modifications to just three-inches, and mandates all body lines appear factory. The result is a helping of everything: Chevrolet Novas, Camaros, and Corvettes, Fox-body Mustangs, Cadillacs, ’57 Chevrolets, a Lexus, a Ford Probe, and plenty more. It’s everything Pro Mod used to be, the Pro Street shootouts of yesteryear, and today’s technological wizardly all wrapped up into one cool package. And while the track isn’t as much an equalizer on a big slick tire, parity among the cars is still evident.
As good as the “No Prep Kings” series and other big-tire venues are, though, small-tire no-prep racing has arguably superseded it as the hottest thing in drag racing right now.
A host of promoters across the country have jumped into this frenzy, offering ever-larger payouts that are luring racers out of the woodwork to try their hand at the dicey tracks on offer. And that’s made possible by the very fundamental element of no-prep — the lack of traction means you don’t need the most powerful, most advanced, most expensive car to win. In fact, a relative sh*tbox with a good driver and a decent engine will get you to victory lane, and nowhere else in heads-up drag racing is that remotely the case.
Case in point, a pair of the most successful names in class racing recently showed up at a major back-of-the-track event in Rockingham, North Carolina with their almost comically superior machines and were initiated with a proper drubbing in the early rounds. Their world-class cars and engines were no match for the no-prep regulars and unfamiliar bare asphalt.
Venues in small-tire racing vary in their rules package, but by and large, expect to see fully stock-bodied vehicles nose to tail, perhaps with the exception of the hood and doors, and in some cases, even stock suspension. Wheelie bars are a banned accessory, and the honorable 28×10.5 slick is the biggest shoe you can lace up and dribble down the court with.
Taking the traction-limiting factor the extra mile, promoters have, in growing cases, begun hosting races in reverse, traveling from the shutdown area to the starting line, forcing racers onto the most ‘virgin,’ public-road-like pavement they can find this side of a police impound and a night in the pokey. Void of traction compounds and layers of rubber, and by no means smooth, the surface makes it every man and woman for themselves, and anyone — almost literally anyone — can win. Again, where else in heads-up drag racing is that realistically the case?
I’d of course be remiss in saying all of this without addressing one of the ills of this genre…or at least what’s perceived as one: the melee. This topic is the reason I’ll get hate-mail for this column, but I signed up for this, and I can take it.
There’s no denying no-prep racing has its share of carnage…perhaps a touch more than its share. Without adequate rubber and glue between you and the pavement there’s simply less margin for error. But as any no-prep racer — even those who have crashed — will tell you, the cause of an accident on an unprepared surface is no different than a prepared one: overdriving ones racecar. This gig takes more finesse, more caution, and the capacity to recognize and react to a no-win situation and live to race another day. Make no mistake, though, there is a undeniable fascination with and attraction to the omnipresence of danger, of vehicles that appear beyond the limit of control, and no-prep has and will continue to benefit from the risks its racers take.
No-prep racing’s very DNA ensures — so long as its promoters and competitors make decisions with the long-game in mind — a bright future of intense competition, healthy participation, and machines that car enthusiasts can connect with. Drag racers have spent the last 50 years continually searching for the next big thing, and little did we know a formula had already been written and archived away, waiting to be resurrected as the blueprint for a new genre of competition that rejects so much of the conventional wisdom learned in that span of time.
The only way to level the playing field in this sport is to take the traction away. All of it. If you don’t…if the surface can take everything your tuner can throw at it, it’s a competition between bank accounts. When the most expensive, state-of-the-art car has no mechanical advantage over any other car in the field, that’s when we’ll have reached nirvana. And this is as close as we can get right now.