Drag racers and hot rodders are a stubborn bunch. We hardly ever read the instruction manual, and when someone even mentions the word school our minds recoil with memories of high school algebra. So, why attend a drag racing school?
You could spend a lifetime drag racing and never accumulate the knowledge in Frank Hawley’s brain. He dances back and forth from practical real-world knowledge to conversations he has had with University of Florida doctors, transposing what we know about the human body to what is happening in the driver’s seat of your racecar as it hurls itself down the track.
I spent two days at the Frank Hawley Drag Racing School, finally achieving my Super Gas license, and I will never forget the first story Frank told. He used to have a “Beginner” and “Advanced” class, but he didn’t get any sign-ups for the beginner class. This is the fundamental problem with learning how to drag race. No one arrives with an empty cup. We carry with us years of experience and, well, bad habits. Or, as Frank put it, “people don’t know what they don’t know.”
Day 1: Broken Down
To give you an idea of what it is like to attend the Frank Hawley Drag Racing School, let’s start with my first day at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, CA. While the school may be based out of Gainesville, FL, they like to take the show on the road (fortunately for me). I left at 5:30 a.m. as I suspect any other locals did because when I arrived two hours later the mood was light but quiet. Frank reminded us that it “wasn’t church.” We started filling out the waiver and were given a flyer for $1,000 off a Chevrolet Performance crate engine. All of the school’s cars are equipped with the ZZ572 big-block crate engine. The school sells merchandise as well as GoPro footage of the last two runs.
At 8:00 a.m. classroom time kicks off, and Frank explains that we will be running progressively further with each run – starting at 200 feet then 600, 1,000 and finally 1,320. “A lot of drag racing occurs at low speed.” He then ran us through the procedure: stage, foot brake to the second light, click the transbrake, release the foot brake and floor the throttle, and then let go of the transbrake when the light turns yellow. Sounded simple enough. Believe it or not the key is to “slow down.” When the adrenaline starts pumping, it is very easy to rush through your procedure and miss something. The school’s Firebirds and dragsters have Powerglides with a time-based air shifter, triggered off the transbrake. Obviously, if you fail to use the transbrake, it won’t shift. Another mistake, which is even more common, is that the foot can follow the hand when you let go of the transbrake – meaning you let up on the throttle. This takes conscious thought initially to reprogram your brain, but eventually will become muscle memory.
The main objective is obviously to go straight, which starts with pointing the car straight on the starting line. Frank noted that this is harder in the door car, where you are seated on the left. With the hood scoop, it is overall harder to see out of the Firebird. The second point to going straight is that you look where you want to go once you take off – center of the lane about quarter-mile away. This becomes key later on when you get in a small-tire car that is more prone to spinning. No matter what happens you still look where you want to go (not where you are going). And the third and final point is to keep a “nice, light grip.” Corrections should be small. In Pro Stock, for example, drivers keep one hand on the wheel going down the track. Corrections can actually cause crashes in door cars, Frank says, because they don’t have the downforce of, say a Nitro Funny Car, that is being crushed into the ground at speed. “If the car is moving around, you are doing too much.”
Before our sleepy eyes glazed over, it was time for some seat time. The class was split in half, as there was an instructor assigned to the two Firebirds and one assigned to the two dragsters. The instructor walked us through how to go into and out of the car, strap in, and where everything was laid out inside the car. Each person was given a blindfold test to know where all of the critical controls were, including the latches, kill switch, etc.
I was fourth in the run order, which gave me sufficient time to make myself nervous. The school provides the SFI suit, gloves, helmet, and head sock. Once dressed and ready to go, I climbed into the Firebird, locked the steering wheel into place, latched my harness, and put on my helmet and gloves. The instructor gave me the go-ahead to fire up the big-block as he worked the throttle. I slid the shifter into First gear and let the car idle its way forward. I gave it a little throttle as I rolled into the burnout box. The Firebirds have a 3-step rev limiter, so once into position, you click on the line lock, let go of the brake pedal and mash the throttle.
Out of practice and a little gun-shy, my first burnout was weak, and I lifted off the throttle when I let go of the transbrake. It honestly felt surreal. Am I an active player in this or just along for the ride? Even though I have owned and raced a fourth-gen Firebird, the seating position and the hood scoop make vision out of the car significantly different and difficult (compared to a street car). I later found out during our video review session that I was not pointed straight at the line. Before lunch we reviewed everyone’s runs on video, as Frank gave us some insight.
After lunch, Frank walked us down the track. The school sets up cones outside the water box, so you know where to start the burnout. The second set of cones denotes where to shut the throttle after letting go of the line lock and rolling through. And the third set is where you stop before staging. It prevents drivers from backing into another car or the waterbox. This is where you pop the transmission into neutral and Frank flips the switch for the rev limiter.
We made another three runs, and some had done well enough to move from 200 to 600 feet. I became more comfortable, which unfortunately meant some old and bad habits came back. While I was better at letting of the transbrake (keeping the pedal floored), I staged deep and still had a weak burnout. Frank’s advice was to go slow through the procedure, but to floor the throttle during the burnout. After that I took it much slower and did better overall. On the third run I found it difficult to line up the car because my inputs were too large. Frank said this is fairly common because we need more data – more runs to compare past experience. The fourth run was straight, I was much more calm and the burnout much better. Frank’s advice was to be like a robot: just through the routine, outside the car doesn’t matter – spend time on you, car, and racetrack.
The afternoon classroom session got into a very interesting area of sports psychology. Frank’s advice was that even at the highest levels of racing, winning should not be a concern. You should only focus your thoughts and energies on what you can control. No matter how good you can become at a particular task, you can always improve. However, at the higher levels the improvements are smaller and more difficult. He stressed the importance of mental imagery, and breaking down all the little steps.
Day 2: Rise and Shine
The second day started in the classroom, delving further into sports psychology. The gist of this lesson was that you need to eliminate conscious thoughts from the driver’s head that are not productive. In some of his past experience, Frank said he has worked with NHRA drivers on simply removing some of the anxiety they have. “You can’t think your way to a better reaction time. If you are thinking about concentrating, then you are not actually doing it.”
Some of the advice Frank gave on the second day literally changed how I think about my everyday life, not just racing. There were three key points:
- “We can distinguish luck from ability by its duration.” We should study our successes tremendously. Why did you have a great day? It shouldn’t be a relief that you didn’t get beat. You should celebrate your success.
- “At the end of each day you need to clear off your list.” We tend to let those things we didn’t complete linger in our minds. Instead, each day create a new list and throw the old one away.
- There are multiple layers of problems, and we tend to worry about the wrong problems. For example, most people would prefer to be stolen from then make a bad stock pick because we like sympathy and dislike judgement. How many times have you heard a child say: “he made me mad?” The truth is that no one can make you mad – only you control your emotions.
As I type my description of the second day I realized that my notes are very light. And there is good reason. My actions in the car became more unconscious. I would visualize my procedure before I got in the car, and then simply repeat it as best I could. If I made a mistake in one step, I would reset on the next one. On my first full pass, I went through each step pretty cleanly. The one exception being that I let off the brake completely before hitting the transbrake during staging. I caught it, but it led to a deep stage. And the second run was completely clean. My final and best e.t. for the school was a 9.500 at 141.52mph, with a 1.31 60-foot time. This was good enough to earn my NHRA Super Gas license (up to 8.50 e.t.).
The Frank Hawley Drag Racing School is a pretty ideal place to get your learn on. The cars are simple and easy to operate. Everything is laid out in a manner that will allow you to focus on driving. The big Mickey Thompson tires will hook, no matter what. It is just a matter of taking Frank’s advice and focusing on your checklist. And Frank’s teaching style will appeal to most people, which is more conversational – not a lecture. Whether you are just getting back into the saddle, simply need a license or are brand-new to drag racing, the school is relevant to your needs. Of course, for those looking to go faster, you can always bring your car to the school for private lessons and license runs. And there is also a 200-plus mph Funny Car and Dragster school. Check out FrankHawley.com for more details and locations.