What is a drag racing burndown, and why does it work?

The burndown — drag racing’s dirtiest trick short of reaching over and yanking the other guy’s plug wires out. It’s a start line strategy that has caused controversy and calamity at every level of drag racing, and recently, the NHRA shook crowds and commentators when it backed drivers Mason McGaha and Bruno Massel off track and disqualified them for taking the practice to an extreme after three minutes of sitting at the line, waiting for the other guy to make the move. The debate raged whether or not they should’ve been allowed to see through their games, as has happened in the past, or if the line in the proverbial sand had to be drawn at some point. We’ll first look at what the burndown is and how it can be used strategically, and then we’ll dig into some of the finest examples of drag racing’s most infamous moments.

To understand the mechanism of drag racing which the burndown exploits, you have to first understand how the starting line procedure works. While there are many ways to set things in motion, everything from flashlights to dropped clothing has fit the bill, it’s the Christmas tree found at nearly every organized event that sets the stage. Its primary function in the production of a race is to both aid drivers in positioning their cars on the line and give them a countdown to the GO! signal. At the top are two levels of yellow lights known as the staging bulbs, which coincide with a pair of staging beams on the track. The drivers first roll into the pre-stage beams which gives them something of a heads-up before they approach the staging beam that will time the run. The general courtesy here is that one driver pre-stages and holds for the next driver to also pre-stage, before both soon roll forward far enough to engage the staging lights on the start line. Once both drivers are in the staging beam, the starter flips a switch, and the tree drops. A key feature of most trees is the auto-start timer that begins when a driver moves from the pre-stage beams into the staging beams, which will commonly put a seven-second limit on the second driver after the first driver fully stages. On the surface, it would make it seem like a burndown on the line is avoided if the second driver forfeits a run automatically, but that very timer is what applies the pressure in a burndown. The NHRA rulebook, which defines the procedures for many other series too, has nothing about how long it takes to stage, only that the drivers do have to eventually listen to the starter and stage at their command. “A reasonable amount of time will be permitted for drivers to stage. The time limit will be determined at the sole and absolute discretion of the official starter,” the book mentions under race procedures. “Failure to stage upon the starter’s instructions is possible grounds for disqualification,” is the caveat that ended the Massel vs. McGaha burndown.

If you’ve ever gone down a drag strip, even if it was just one time, there’s a momentum that builds once you leave the staging lanes and approach the burnout box. It’s a routine, of course. You’re reeled in by officials through the burnout before being quickly loaded into the staging beams. In that psychological checklist of operations, one step after the next is quickly crossed off until the only thing left is to stage and start the tree’s final countdown. Clearly, we’re here to race, and there’s a certain expectation that this staging routine will play out, more or less, the same every time, until the burndown comes into play with one or both drivers intentionally gaming the staging process to delay it. The mechanical element is easy to predict: the longer they idle, the more fuel is wasted, or if you catch the other guy on a two-step RPM limiter, you can force their hand in over-heating. But it’s the mental game that’s weaponized the most.

They define it in sports psychology as the pre-performance routine, a set of behaviors leading up to an athlete’s performance. The batter’s ground taps and wide-swung wind-ups, a boxer’s Sign of the Cross that ties to their controlled breathing, that tiny moment that aligns their mindset, with the last step of that routine signaling their impending competition. The concept is that these routines fill out distractions and intentionally focus the mind on the task at hand. With drag racing, the structure and pace ahead of staging guide drivers into this same mental state, and consciously too, drivers have their own pre-performance routines as they focus on the tree. Breaking this routine is by far, at the core of the burndown, the greatest evil.

A classic example is the 1971 showdown between Don Garlits and Steve Carbone, which led to an upset victory thanks to the competitive vengeance of Carbone. The two had at times become round-by-round rivals, and the story goes that it was Garlits who first burned down Carbone back in 1968 when he took his time to even start the burnout. Carbone had rolled into staging as routine, cooling his tires while Garlits meandered through the burnout box. The man never forgot this, even after winning the world championship in 1969, and when his chance came in the final round of 1971’s Nationals at Indy, he applied pressure on Garlits in the most familiar way he could. To his credit, he outgunned by Big Daddy’s latest rear-engined Swamp Rat and got his retribution when Garlits’ overheated Hemi overpowered the track.

Rivalries aside, some powertrains are the target of burndowns more than others. In classes with mixed power-adders (turbocharging, nitrous, supercharging), like NHRA’s Pro Mods, engines can differ greatly in how they apply power. Notably, and infamously, turbo cars need a smoother operation during staging in order to have enough boost at the ready when the light goes green. The belt-driven supercharger and the solenoid-triggered nitrous power-adders can respond immediately off the line and need very little time to stage. Drivers will leverage this to their advantage to force the hand of a driver in a turbocharged car, who will need time to sit on the chip and spin the turbochargers up—and they’ve got to keep it spooled up or else risk having to start all over again. This aspect of staging with different power-adders can be utilized to either force the driver of a turbo car to short-stage their machine, or vice-versa, sit on the two-step so long that it overheats the strained drivetrain.

The big leagues are hardly the only place where a burndown shakes things up. This Street Car Shootout clip shows just how much the game can work in either direction. It seems that the Nova is last to pre-stage as he slowly bumps it into place, and from there, he waits on the Mustang, which if I had to assume, appears turbocharged. Already wise to these antics, they hold until the Fox bumps into the staging beams, but seemingly overshoots on accident and rolls over the start line. This kind of slip-up would normally red-light the round, but the Nova still holds, giving the Mustang a technical loophole to back it in and force the Nova into staging. The split-moment between the Nova’s last bump into staging and the light dropping green is the moment everyone waits for, like qiuck-draw shootout in a wilder time of the west. The antics seemingly didn’t pay off, not only slower off the line, but the Nova fogs the local mosquito population into extinction with oil. You’d wonder if that thing got hot.

One of the most infamous burndowns in drag racing is still Warren Johnson and Scott Geoffrion’s showdown at the now-defunct Houston Raceway Park. Despite having gotten his start there, Geoffrion had split from Johnson’s team two years prior for the factory Dodge team, and Johnson wasn’t known for being the most forgiving guy in the sport, with this burndown in 1994 brewing to the top. While we can talk about the machines all day, their technology is marvelous and the performance astounding given the resources, but it’s the extension of these very real, human dramas behind the scenes that can make a burndown so memorable for fans.

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