Drag racing is a cocktail of talent and skill in the driver’s seat and finely-tuned performance under the hood. But sometimes it becomes a bit more complicated than that. In NHRA’s sportsman categories — particularly Stock and Super Stock — there are a vast array of racecars with varying performance potential. To equalize competition, a handicap starting system is used.
Drivers in the Stock and Super Stock categories collect data throughout qualifying and time trials in order to anticipate their elapsed time during elimination rounds. A national index applies for each category, but drivers are allowed to select a target elapsed time quicker or slower than the index, depending on what they determine their car will run.
During elimination rounds, if the cars come from different classes, the slower of the two cars in each round is given a handicap head start that amounts to the difference of the two elapsed times. This system allows otherwise-unmatched pairings to participate in a competitive race to the finish line.
The handicap system also applies to NHRA’s Competition Eliminator category, but the handicap is determined solely by national indexes.
Break-out rules apply in handicap racing, and if a driver runs quicker than their anticipated elapsed time — known as their “dial” — they are disqualified. If both drivers break out of their dial, the driver who is the least offender is the victor.
To make the race even more interesting, each driver’s reaction time is taken into account. If both vehicles make a pass that matches their dial exactly, the driver who leaves the starting line with a quicker reaction time to the starting system will win the race. If a driver jumps the gun and leaves the starting line before the light is green, however, it is signaled by a red light and considered a foul-start. The early leaver is automatically disqualified, even if their opponent runs quicker than their dial.