Mastering The Cockpit: Starting Line Advice For Your Reaction Times

Bracket racing is the quintessential drag race combining high speeds with chess. The game of chess is predominantly won by thinking many moves ahead of the opponent — the same can be said when it comes to perfecting your all-important reaction time skills before you enter the staging beams.

Many of the best practices and strategies also translate to heads-up racers, of whom can attest to the number of tight races decided right on the starting line. With input from some of the most successful names in the business, we’ve put together some expert tip and advice to improve your game at the tree, where races are often won and lost.

“It’s an art derived from both intent and experience, plus approaching each round with relentless aggression.” This quote by Luke Bogacki is a cornerstone of his teachings to become a better racer.

We kicked off by gaining Luke Bogacki’s fundamental thoughts on perfecting your starting line reactions. He started out by explain that “regardless of the type of racing that you’re doing, as a blanket statement, the goal is the same: being a creature of habit — and routine is necessary.”

Bogacki, a two-time NHRA world champion with countless bracket racing wins to his credit, is one of the most feared drivers in the sport. So valuable are the tools he possesses that his very popular This is Bracket Racing website offers subscription-based tutorials offering topics to perfect racers’ skills. “I’m a big advocate of the practice tree and even take it to the next level,” Bogacki says. “I have a transbrake vehicle connector that plugs into your car, allowing in-car practice in the most important surroundings: your race car cockpit.”

Bogacki stresses the term physical mechanics. “Whether with a button or an available adapter for your foot pedal, you can simulate raceday inside your car as closely as possible using some of the many tools available.”

Even though Stephen McCrory has put laps on his dragster with recent three- and four-day events, he attributes his current success to following his established routine from his previous years. Photo by Chris Simmons

Another distinct opinion is that of Stephen McCrory, a collector of recent oversized checks, including three $5.0000, a 100-grander, a semi-final finish at the Mickey Thompson Million Bracket Race, and runner-up at the Great American Guaranteed Million. And that’s just in the fall of 2021. McCrory explains some of his pre-starting line habits.

“For me, being rested and heading to the staging lanes with your game face on, ready to get after it means more than anything,” McCrory says. “I’m pretty open and talking to people, up and out of my car when in the staging lanes. The focusing part comes once I put my helmet on; that’s when I get very serious.”

“If I develop a preference for a lane for any reason, I force myself into the other lane. I do not want to develop any dependence where if I am forced into a lane, it cannot disturb me,” says Tom Gall.

Tom Gall, like Bogacki, offers a wealth of drivers’ tutorials through his GallStar TV YouTube page. Gall publishes weekly videos around all aspects of bracket racing, and over 1.1 million views were tallied by watchers of his racing skill tutorials in the past year. Gall has an IHRA championship and many event wins on his resume.

“My effort begins before I show up to the racetrack,” Gall says. “I put the work in ahead of time on the practice tree. It’s critical to be well-rested and focused on the day. If I’m in the back of the staging lanes, I’ll walk up to the burnout box area, and I’ll stand there for three or four pairs and watch that bulb turn on.” 

Gall emphasizes that “three critical things I repetitively practice are sitting in my seat correctly, controlling my breathing while staging, and reacting to the tree.”

“A routine, to some extent, is achieved by repeating the same thoughts every pass. You are working through that same physical routine to generate a repetitive focus — run after run, weekend after weekend, but also month to month, and certainly year to year,” Bogacki says.

Similar to Bogacki’s previous reference to physical mechanics, Gall correspondingly speaks of the repetition of his cockpit motions as muscle memory. 

“When I get to the point I’m sitting in the car, strapped in, I’m taking some actual physical hits with my ‘brake button,” he notes. “You must use repetitive arm/muscle/motion to do that. It’s called muscle memory.”


McCrory has an interesting take on forcing himself to be a better racer. “I have two transbrake buttons I favor. The main button I sell on my racing equipment website, If I think I’m getting into any slump, I change buttons. One button reacts a little differently than the other. That pushes me to change my routine up a little bit. When you change something, it makes you think about something new…makes you pay attention a little more.”

A habit Gall eliminated was his preference to stage last. “Years ago, I wanted to stage last every time — it became a disadvantage for me as other racers became aware. I compelled myself to stage first — if you want to be best, you’ve got to be repeatable, no matter the situation.” 

“A positive routine accomplishes many equally important goals,” Bogacki declares. “It should develop acute awareness by essentially going through the same physical actions run, after run, after run, in the same order.”


“I want to establish the same mindset by doing the same staging process with exact precision as possible. When I’m in the burnout box, you’ll see me bump forward as to stage and coming off of the transbrake. I’m not just taking a practice hit; I am going through my entire starting line process that I do between the burnout and reacting to the ‘tree,” Gall shares.

More than Just Reacting To The ‘Tree

“Reiterating the importance of my routine,” Bogacki says, “I use a verbal cadence where I say out loud my next action inside my helmet. First, I tell myself to think slow and trust myself. Then, I verbally go through my checklist of switches, gauges, shifter in low, properly seated, hands and arms positioned, dial-ins, and finally, tell myself to have fun.”

Bogacki says, "The last thing I tell myself before staging is to have fun. I kind of put myself in the cage, take a deep breath and go for it with the stage motion."

Gall’s process is critical for him. “I’m hypersensitive to not only my staging depth, but I want to be in the same spot every time left to right on the track. You never know if the staging beams are exactly parallel to the track surface, which can greatly affect your rollout and your reaction time.”

McCrory believes his recent racing experience proves your developed routine is key. "I have made thousands of passes over the past 10 years. That said, this year, I didn't race but once or twice until June or July and still won races. This proves that over time, your routine will stay with you."

Practice and develop

Practice trees are not only for practicing but equally important at developing your entire starting line process.

McCrory says he doesn’t overthink his overall racing strategy. “My biggest effort is to run through my routine every time the same way, so if I get staged first, or I get in last, it doesn’t matter. If my opponent is doing dry hops or bouncing his way into the beams, I don’t let it enter my mind. I guess the old saying, ‘run your own race’ could not be truer for me.”

Gall encourages people to test themselves out on a practice tree. "Racers assume when it gets dark, they need to add time in their box or change up their no-box car because they're going to see the light bulbs quicker. Practicing and analyzing proved that's not true for me. When it's dark, my lights suffer a little bit."

For Bogacki, detailed steps are paramount. “You can use your thumb alone on the ‘brake button, or you could twist your wrist or snap the elbow. There are many different ways to let go of the button physically. Practice allows you to play with all of those and figure out for you which is the most comfortable and consistent.”

He continues, “Eventually, you have to hone your cockpit procedures and then begin practicing that repetitively. A sports psychologist, Bob Rotella, wrote a book on golf, but so much of it is directly transferable from golf to drag racing — he said ‘practice, repetitive motions, and routine equals physical mechanics.’ “

“Make yourself comfortable in your seat, and work on your routine,” says McCrory. “Your repeatability doesn’t happen overnight; you’ve got to put the time in and make the runs.”

 No Box Applications

To this point, many references to precise staging and routine actions benefit any racer in no-box, footbrake, and even heads-up classes. McCrory competes in multiple bracket categories and confirms his theories have a version for each bracket class. “I use the same foot or ‘brake button routine whether I’m looking at the top or bottom bulb,” McCrory says. “I stage and set the button quickly and then stare down the third bulb. I have trained myself not to let the tree coming down bother me. I know my last amber is coming.”

“In bottom bulb racing, perfect your personal reaction consistency, then adjust your car to suit you, such as starting line RPM, suspension, and tire pressure adjustments,” he advises. 

“I have tried blocking the top bulbs, but now I prefer just getting used to the ambers coming down,” says McCrory. “You will see the top bulbs glare around a blinder at night, so I am most comfortable by dealing with the lights the same way no matter if it is day or night.”

Bogacki adds a similar opinion.

“I want to be a blinder believer in terms of eliminating the variables to some extent, but the problem of the blinder is that I have never seen anybody be successful with it at night. The lights bleed around the blinder, adding a different variable than in daylight. The best way to go about bottom bulb racing is to discipline yourself to react but without blocking the top two.”

Gall chimes in, “When I drove a door car in the past, I developed my routine and muscle memory functions back then. If I were to step into a different car than my current dragster, I would not change a thing about my routine. I would make changes to the car to suit my driving.”

“The starting line is similar to a golf swing in that it’s something that you’ve practiced and repeated so many times that in essence, it is so stamped into your physical memory that you can kind of put your brain on autopilot,” says Bogacki.

“Staging the car is something where I pay very close attention,” adds Gall. “Staging as absolutely shallow as possible every time is the only way to ensure you’re doing it the same every time. If I can, I’m trying to flicker that stage bulb once, so I know I’m super shallow.”

Final Words

“In theory, the light comes on, let go of the switch; you could probably train a monkey to do it,” Bogacki chuckles. “Racers can tend to overcomplicate it significantly, maybe with good reason. But it’s a pretty simple process, and again I think it comes down to that repetition. As a goal, build up enough knowledge and confidence that you can just let the subconscious take over.

“Considering that goal, once I get to the starting line in competition, I’m not thinking about how hard I’m pressing the button,” Bogacki wraps up. “I’m not thinking about how I’m letting go — that’s so refined over thousands of practice hits that it’s not even a second thought. 

“I’m at my best with 30 hits per day during the week. I try to get in-car twice a week and other times on a handheld in my office. I don’t just hit the button, I recite my verbal cadence each practice hit, over and over,” Bogacki adds.

Gall’s final thoughts note drag racers don’t get that many hits off the tree while sitting inside their racecar. “How long do you have to race to get a thousand passes in unless you rent a track? I always utilize the burnout box — watching the tree drop in front of me and pretending to stage and run through the entire routine, that can convert one pass into three for your routine.”

McCrory is short and sweet with his final comment. “The reaction time is pretty much what makes or breaks every race — you can get away with a bad light here and there, but the people who win consistently are the ones who hit the tree the best.”

More Sources

About the author

Todd Silvey

Todd has been a hardcore drag racing journalist since 1987. He is constantly on both sides of the guardwall from racing photography and editorship to drag racing cars of every shape and class.
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