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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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, champsperformance.com. 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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.’ “
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.
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.”
“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.”
“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.
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.”