No-Prep Drag Racing: Is it the Next Big Thing?
Written by John McGann
In the last three years, I’ve witnessed some of the most exciting drag racing in nearly a decade of covering the sport for Car Craft, and I’ve been to everything from NHRA to NMRA. The most exciting races have a total of zero acronyms in front of them. Instead, they have names like Lights Out, No Mercy, Prize Fight, and Shakedown. Consisting of just a few classes, relatively simple rules, and big cash payouts, racers flock to the events. Spectators pack the stands and the vibe is electric.
Generally speaking, you’d call this stuff small-tire racing and entire weekend events are based on the theme of cars racing with either a 275 or 315 radial tire—witness the Lights Out and No Mercy races that bookend the racing season at South Georgia Motorsports Park in Valdosta, Georgia. Those races are put on by Donald “Duck” Long, the larger-than-life personality behind Duck X Productions. Duck knows how to put on a show, and on those two weekends, SGMP is known as The Home of the Flying Cars. He was the first race promoter to devote an entire racing event to radial-tire cars, and the notion has taken off in the years since, spawning similarly themed races across the country.
The TV Factor
Three years ago, Discovery Channel began airing a new series called Street Outlaws, which draws on the illegal street-racing culture that can be found across the country. It turns out Oklahoma has the right combination of factors to make it a hot spot for high-horsepower street cars: good-paying jobs in the energy sector, decent weather that doesn’t cause cars to rot away too quickly, no emissions testing, and very loose criteria for what constitutes a street car (basically, you just need working lights and a horn). To that mix, add a charismatic group of goofballs and you’ve got the making for a successful reality TV show—so says the show’s ratings, which have consistently gone up with every season.
Grudge-racing an unprepped dragstrip is not a new phenomenon, but more and more no-prep races are suddenly popping up across the country. It’s not too hard to point a line back at the Street Outlaws TV show and it’s timing relative to the current explosion of interest in small-tire racing to explain why this is happening. We’ve covered several no-prep races lately, too: King of the Streets (KOTS) at Great Lakes Dragaway in Union Grove, Wisconsin; Doomsday in Denton, Texas; and most recently the Outlaw Armageddon race at Thunder Valley in Oklahoma City.
Like the small-tire racing we’ve covered, these no-prep events draw a big crowd and the action is thrilling. There are definite differences between the two types of racing, and one of the big factors to consider with no-prep racing is safety.
Prepped vs. Unprepped Track
What’s a no-prep race? The best way to answer that is to first look at what track prep is. We talked with Jason Rueckert, Midwest regional manager for VP Racing Fuels. He and his buddy, Tyler Crossnoe, are often called in to do track prep at big events. Jason is obviously partial to his company’s brand of traction compound, Lane Choice 7, but he says all traction compounds—whether it’s VHT or Pimp Juice—work in a similar manner: they are an adhesive that bonds rubber to a concrete surface. Anyone who’s been to a drag race is familiar with the routine: traction compound is sprayed on the track, followed by several passes with tractor dragging old tires over the compound. The two steps are both necessary because a chemical reaction takes place between rubber and the traction compound that forms a sticky surface along the length of the track. “I think of it like a dough,” Rueckert says. “Similar to the ingredients you use to bake a cake, the chemistry in traction compound reacts with rubber to form a dough that is spread on the track. When it’s applied correctly, you can see it, especially on the starting line. I call it the rubber carpet. It has a smooth, even finish. It works best when it’s less than 1/8-inch thick.” When it gets too thick or becomes uneven, track officials will either scrape the excess “dough” from the track surface or apply more traction compound and re-drag the track.
By contrast, a no-prep race doesn’t necessarily describe a race run in virgin concrete. Generally, a no-prep race is run on a track that hasn’t been prepped on the day of or during the event. That is appealing to many racers, but seen as a recipe for disaster by many others. “I get it, they’re wild races, but I think they’re dangerous as hell,” Rueckert says. “It would actually be safer if they ran on virgin concrete because the rubber left over on the track from previous races can have less grip than plain concrete, depending on how much time has passed.”
King of the Streets
No-prep races were conceived as a way to run a street race at a safer venue: a dedicated racetrack. We spoke with Trent Eckhart, who, along with local racer “Hey-Yo” Steve Gillespe, puts on the King of the Streets race in the Chicago area. “No-prep is an evolution of street racing,” Eckhart says. “We started running Real Street Drags at Great Lakes around 1999 or 2000, and at first, we ran it on days when the track wasn’t officially opened.” He explained the Real Street Drags is a loosely formatted, grudge-style race run on an unprepped surface. Racers can call one another out, give car lengths to a slower car, start on a flashlight or arm drop—basically, the same stuff that happens at a street race.
Real Street Drags is still happening at GLD, only now it’s part of the official schedule and run with a safety crew present. The format remains the same, though. Eckhart and Steve conjured up KOTS, which is basically the Super Bowl of unprepped grudge racing around 2006, and it has grown in popularity since. Car Craft covered some of the action at KOTS in 2014 and it was thrilling. “We allow close spectator participation,” Eckhart says, “and we wanted to keep that street-race vibe.” It did feel like a street race, too, with a crowd lining the track and gathered behind the starting line. The rules are simple, with just three classes—Senior, Junior, and Gangster—and simple rules. “The tires are basically the limiting factor,” Eckhart explains. Senior cars race on up to a 28×10.5 tire and need a parachute, Junior cars can’t run larger than a 275 or 8.5-inch tire and stock suspension. Gangster class is made for street cars; they must be registered, insured, and working lights, horn, and wipers.
KOTS is run on a track surface that is not prepped prior to the day of the event. Eckhart believes racing on an unprepped surface levels the playing field. It’s unpredictable—like on the street, anything can happen—and the fastest or most expensive cars don’t necessarily win.
Most recently, Car Craft attended the Outlaw Armageddon no-prep race at Thunder Valley Raceway Park in Lexington, Oklahoma, and it was one of the most exciting races we’ve covered in the last decade. It differed from KOTS in that there were no real classes—it was an invitational, so the race organizers picked cars that as a group were fairly evenly matched. Some of the quickest cars in the country were there, and spectator attendance was huge, with wall-to-wall people and a line to get into the track stretching more than a mile out. We spoke with race organizers Marc Sorenson and Jesse Jennings, who both echoed Chicago’s Trent Eckhart’s sentiments. “We want to prevent street racing by putting on a simulated street race,” Sorenson told us. “We plan to put on this event on an annual basis.” When asked why this and similar races drew such a large crowd, Sorensen explained, “The spectators can relate to the cars.” Also by letting spectators approach the concrete barriers (but not past the starting line), they can be close to the action. “We put on a good show. We keep the crowd safe, but still close enough to the cars to feel engaged,” he adds.
Prior to Armageddon, the track hadn’t had any sort of prep in a week, and during the race, the track was only swept and blown off, with the exception of areas where fluid was spilled.
We met Scotty Kasabuske at KOTS when he was driving The Grinch, a multi-colored Fox-body Mustang powered by a big-block Chevy. He has competed in no-prep races and in class races on prepped tracks and likes both types. “On a prepped track, you can let the car rip and it will stick. On an unprepped track, it’s more of a challenge. The driver needs to be smarter than the track and has to be able to adjust the car to the track surface.” He adds, “On an unprepped track, you need to be more mentally aware. Things can go wrong faster.”
For car setup, Scotty stressed the importance of walking the track. “You can usually feel how sticky the track is,” he says. “I will walk out 150 to 200 feet [from the starting line]. Can you keep the power up that far out, or do you need to adjust the timing and nitrous or boost-controller ramps to build power more slowly?” That’s different than on a prepped track, where you want to get as much power to the ground as soon as possible.” He described how it’s possible for a car to run faster at a no-prep race than it would on a prepped track because less starting-line traction can result in higher wheel speed when the car does finally hook.
In addition to timing and boost changes, cars competing in no-prep events generally need more weight transfer than class racers do. “They need lots of weight transfer,” Scotty K says. Jason Rueckert agrees, “A lightweight car with more weight in the back is good. Five to six inches of [front] suspension travel would help, too.”
Is it Safe?
No-prep grudge races capture the grassroots feel of a street race with few of its inherent risks and dangers, but “Pretty Tony” Coleman’s near fatal crash at a grudge race in Texas on August 28, 2015 (Google it), gave us pause. “This is why I don’t race at tracks with Armco barriers,” racer-friend Michael Roemer posted on Facebook. “I tried [no-prep racing] one time. It’s not my forte,” Roemer told us. “Yes, anything can happen on a prepped track, too, but I feel safer on a prepped track. I also avoid tracks with steel guardrails [rather than concrete barriers].” He likened guardrails to can-openers that will slice a car open, greatly increasing the chance of serious injury to the driver.
Roemer and several other class racers we spoke with also alluded to an ultra-competitive, never-lift mentality that some grudge racers have. Whether motivated by the cash prize or a just a steep desire to win, grudge racers tend to pedal through a loss of traction and stay in the race, where class racers will generally abort the run. There are a variety of reasons for that; class racers tend to have more money in their cars, and class racing often has more qualifying rounds than a grudge race, so you can afford to throw away a run or two. Jim Plimpton offered another interesting suggestion: many class racers are racing themselves as much as they are racing the car in the next lane. “We want each pass to be quicker than the one prior,” he says, and if the run starts to go south, they will back out. Recently his son, Jimmy, just cracked the 4.60-second (eighth-mile) barrier at Shakedown at the Summit. It was the fastest pass in his X275 Fairmont, and the two were elated, even though Jimmy actually lost that race.
Safety equipment is another concern that’s easily overlooked in this discussion. By nature, some grudge races have loose tech inspections, especially ones held at unsanctioned tracks. The NHRA has very specific rules about safety equipment for cars running 9.99 (6.39 eighth-mile) or faster. Multilayer fire suits, boots, gloves, a neck restraint or HANS device—these are just some of the driver’s required safety gear, and that stuff is expensive. Add to that the required rollcage, belts, window nets, and parachute, and you can price yourself right out of a certain class. Is the explosion of no-prep racing an accident waiting to happen? Not necessarily. It’s a good thing if it gets racers off the streets. But cars are getting faster every year, and while it’s fascinating to discuss the latest in turbochargers or engine management and traction control, it’s irresponsible to let safety issues languish in the background. Motorsports are expensive—we all know that. But what is your life worth? Instead of asking yourself how fast you want to go, the better question is how fast can you afford to be safe? Any race is only as safe as you make it.