By Aaron Waldron
RC racers have a habit of comparing their favorite mini-motorsport with various types of full-scale racing. You could draw parallels between what we do and motocross (huge jumps), TORC/LOORRS short course off-road racing (off-road circuits built within a confined area), sprint cars (alphabet ladder main events), and more.
However, there’s one form of racing that has figured out an efficient cost-control strategy better than any other type of automotive competition - drag racing.
Traditional drag racing is the most pure representation of auto racing there is: put two cars on a starting line, give them a green light, and the first to make it to the finish wins. Winners are decided within seconds.
The relative lack of space needed - just two straight lanes with some cool-down space - have made drag racing a favorite among street racers since the invention of the car (and probably before). Drag racing requires a fast car, the driving skill to transfer the power of one’s vehicle to the ground as efficiently as possible, and a fast reaction time.
The National Hot Rod Association, the largest sanctioning body for drag racing in the U.S., recognizes over 200 different classes covering all types of vehicles, engines, fuel sources, power/weight ratios, and drivers. At its highest level, Top Fuel Dragsters are campaigned by multi-million dollar professional race teams and can reach 330 mph in under four seconds. In fact, the cars are so fast that the tracks were shortened from 1/4 mile to 1000 feet in 2008.
However, the vast majority of racing events held at NHRA-sanctioned tracks across the U.S. are “bracket races.” Unlike traditional drag racing, which focuses purely on velocity, bracket racing emphasizes consistency of both driver and vehicle. The unique format almost completely negates the advantage of having a large budget.
In both traditional drag racing, both cars are given the green light at the same time but the car’s Elapsed Time does not begin until the front of the vehicle breaks the starting beam - the difference between these two events is called the Reaction Time. Thus, it’s possible to record a faster Elapsed Time while still losing the race. Here’s an exaggerated example:
Car #1: .020 RT + 7.78 ET = 7.80 total time (WIN)
Car #2: .241 RT + 7.67 ET = 7.91 total time
If Car #2 was sleeping at the starting line, even navigating the track over one-tenth of a second faster wouldn’t be enough to make up the difference.
If a car crosses the starting beam before the green light, they’re disqualified - and the DQ is signaled by a red light.
In bracket racing, each driver must provide their “dial-in” time to the starter. The green lights go off at different times, and the slower car is given a “head start” equal to the difference in dial-in times. Theoretically, if both cars run their exact dial-in times, they’d finish in a tie - but since timing systems measure down to tiny fractions of a second (one one-hundred-thousandth of a second), it’s almost impossible.
You could have the slowest car at the event and absolutely dominate a bracket race. Rather than all-out speed, the racer’s ability to consistently predict his driving performance, as well as the elapsed time his car will run given the track and weather conditions, is what determines the outcome. Of course, there are rules that apply:
- If a car crosses the starting beam before the green light in its lane, that car is disqualified (and given the red light).
- If a car goes faster than the dial-in time (called “breaking out”), that car is disqualified.
- If one car red lights and the other breaks out, the driver who red-lighted loses.
- If both cars break out, the car that finishes closer to the dial-in time wins.
Of course, there’s plenty of strategy involved. Some racers will dial-in a slower time than what they think they can run, and simply plan on hitting the brakes before the finish line to avoid breaking out.
I think bracket racing could be a game-changer for RC racing at the local level.
Each rather gives the racer director their dial-in before the race, and they’ll all start at different times - like IFMAR qualifying. Rather than pushing for the fastest laps and spending money on every new hop-up that promises extra speed, drivers would focus on running clean races and not crashing. If you know that you can run 22.3’s all day on old tires, you could dial in at a 13/5:10.1 and wouldn’t even need to worry about mounting up a set of fresh treads every run.
Scoring programs would need to be modified to offer the option, of course, but the end result could be a full-field of cars that converge on the final lap and jockey for position, while still worrying about breaking out, rather than the most exciting part of the race happening on the first lap.
Because the races would still be five minutes long, nailing the start wouldn’t be nearly as important as it is in drag racing. Because only one car would start at a time, announcers would have an easier time determining who jumped the gun than they do during a single-file main event.
Sure, there will still be strategy involved. Do you enter a slow dial-in time and then simply drive fast enough to keep the other cars behind you? Do you enter the fastest dial-in you think you can run, and then drive as hard as you can for five minutes? Do you dial-in somewhere in the middle and just try to stay clean in traffic? All it takes is one crash to throw strategy out the window.
What do you think? Would you try bracket racing?