• 2017

Timing is Everything

It’s Not All in the Foot

When it comes to drag racing, Al Smyth knows a lot about what it takes to be a good leaver. He’s done it hundreds — if not thousands — of times while racing a collection of HEMI® engine ‘Cudas and Super Stock Mopar® cars since the early ‘70s. Al knows starting lines because he founded and runs PortaTree Timing Systems in Uxbridge, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston.

Smyth, 63, can be found racing his SS/AH ’68 Barracuda in HEMI (engine) Challenge races. Or just about anywhere around the country (up to 15 times a year where drag racing is happening). Because to Smyth, drag racing is a passion, a sport, a business and a family affair.

“I started the PortaTree business in 1988,” says Smyth. “The closest drag strip to us was over 100 miles away and we wanted to practice starting line techniques at home, before we got to the track.” The company started building practice systems for home use, then evolved to include building timing systems for race tracks all over the world.

Smyth’s family has always been involved, both in racing and in the business. “My son Stephen races a 2009 Drag Pak Challenger, and he has done very well and it’s probably the fastest 6.1L (liter engine car) in the country.”

Stephen spends his days as a welder/fabricator for the family business, and has used his skills to build and install race cages in cars for both his father and his sister.

Al’s daughter Allison is also an avid drag racer. And with an electrical engineering background, her talents come into play often. Both in the business and at the track. “It really helps that both my daughter and my son race; it helps them understand the business that much more,” says Smyth.

Despite doing what he’s passionate about, Smyth has a hard time truly enjoying racing while trying to run a successful business. “It’s hard when you own your own business to race competitively,” says Smyth. “It’s almost impossible. The business comes first, you have to take care of it. When you’re racing, you’re not making money. We put a lot of our own money into the Challenger and now it runs well. But it took a lot of failure to get there.”

Smyth and family “walk the talk” and put their all into the sport. They take three race cars to 13-15 races a year. “We have made the commitment,” says Smyth. “As long as I can get in the car and have fun, I’ll keep doing it.”

In the coming year, Smyth hopes to add some speed to his SS/AH Barracuda, which has run a best of 8.53 at 158 mph. “It’s a 4-speed car and we’re going to do some upgrades over the winter,” says Smyth. “It should be faster but we’ll figure it out.”

Look for Al Smyth and his family of racers next year at NHRA events, and likely at NMCA and other specialty races where they will be exercising their passion for racing, while expanding their successful business.


Starting line success is heavily dependent on a racer’s ability to process the image of the Christmas tree lights and apply a reaction of the feet on the pedals.

In sportsman racing, tires play a big role in reaction times, as well as elapsed times and speeds. Here are just a few of the things to consider when choosing drag slicks for competition:

1. Do you choose a soft sidewall or a stiff sidewall?

Your car and your class of racing can help determine that choice. “The difference between stiff and soft sidewalls involves tire wrap,” says Al Smyth, veteran Mopar® sportsman racer.

“When you leave the starting line on a soft sidewall, the rim wraps up in the tire. If you’re leaving on a pro tree, there’s your reaction time, all rolled up on that tire. You need a stiff sidewall tire to avoid that. And if you drive a stick car, because you  hit the tires harder than an automatic on the starting line, you need a stiff wall tire.”

2. Radial vs. bias ply tire.

The main difference between a radial vs. a bias ply tire is that each produces a different contact patch on the ground. “Picture an oval shape, and lay that on the ground in front of you, with the long part of the oval pointing away from you,” says Smyth. “That is what the contact patch of a bias ply tire looks like.

“The radial is the opposite. Take that oval and put it sideways in front of you. The weight is distributed side to side. The big difference is at the high end of the track. The bias ply is slapping the track while the radial does a better job of rolling. The better rolling resistance of the radial will produce as much as a tenth quicker ET. Maybe more.”

If you can get the car to launch properly, a radial has its rewards.

Now, maybe you race in a “super” category like Super Comp or Super Gas, and your car is not set to maximum speed to make sure you stay within your index. In that case, a stiff sidewall works well for the initial launch and the tire construction plays a smaller role.

There are other considerations as well. For instance, you should consider tire weight (for obvious reasons), tire circumference that allows you to work with gear ratios to maximize RPM at the finish line and more. Starting line skills don’t all come from the driver. Sometimes the driver is only as efficient as his/her equipment. While head-to-foot reaction time differs from driver to driver, the tires you choose to race on could have a huge bearing on how you finish.

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