Frank Hawley instructs comedian Jay Leno on some of the things he needs to know to pilot a dragster. (Image/Drag Racing Online)

Frank Hawley instructs comedian Jay Leno on how to pilot a dragster. (Image/Drag Racing Online)

When bad things happen at the dragstrip, it can almost always be traced back to one thing: a lack of preparation.

“We don’t spend our time talking about what to do if we hit the wall. What we spend our time talking about is: ‘Here’s how we’re never going to hit the wall,” said Frank Hawley, a two-time NHRA world champion in Nitro Funny Car, and owner of Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing School.

Hawley has been educating and instructing drag racers—from first-timers to the top ranks of the NHRA—for 30 years. When it comes to race safety, he says proper preparation and mindset can help you safely escape accidents—or avoid them altogether.

Just Getting Started

People just want to get behind the wheel and drive. Aspiring drag racers new to the sport often believe they’re already good drivers, poised for great reaction times and certain victory, Hawley said.

But proper preparation is key to success and safety.

Properly prepared drivers make few mistakes and rarely have accidents. Properly prepared racecars rarely experience mechanical failure. Thus, properly prepared drivers racing properly built and maintained cars are who end up in the winner’s circle.

Frank Hawley

Frank Hawley

“There’s a lot of written material out there. You can access stuff from NHRA and IHRA,” Hawley said. “There’s a lot of really good material that talks about drag racing, how to enter, and how the Christmas tree and timing system work. I’ve always been one of those people who wanted to be as prepared as possible. That’s a pretty good place for people to start.”

“A lot of the stuff I’m talking about, people think ‘I already know that.’ Well, no. You don’t really know that,” Hawley said.

He thinks aspiring drivers should go to the drag strip for an event for the first time and try not to race their cars.

“Just look around. There’s actually a lot to learn,” he said.

He recounted stories of drivers making their first-ever pass down the strip and not realizing where the finish line was, driving off the end of the track into the runoff area. Aspiring racers should see where the staging lanes are, physically identify where the finish line is, learn where the return road is, understand who has the right of way off the track, and identify the proper route back to the pit area.

“We show our drivers all of this,” Hawley said. “Familiarizing yourself with the whole facility, and where to go—it makes people feel a little bit calmer.”

Ready, Set, Breathe

“When people get in the car, they’re often pretty anxious,” Hawley said. “The problem with that is when you’re anxious, you can actually have a momentary drop in IQ.”

According to Hawley, two emotional tendencies repeatedly emerge with new drivers: Aggression or fear.

“Aggression can be: ‘I’m going to be the best driver out there! I’m going to beat this guy!’ And fear is: ‘I don’t want to look like an idiot,’” he said. “It’s a fear of failure or embarrassment.

“Then everything falls apart. Reaction times literally slow. There’s a lot of lecture time about how the mind and body work. Teaching people to stay calm.”

Not relaxed, like, on the couch. But highly attuned. Focused. Steady. Calm.

“Some drivers think ‘Yeah, yeah. I’m good!’ But then they get there and realize it’s more complicated than that,” Hawley said. “Our whole process is about teaching people how their minds work, and what they don’t know, and how they’ll need to learn all of this if they’re going to function at a high level. Students say ‘Gee, it’s like going back to school!’


Comfort and Familiarity are Key

Pilots have a thing they do while training or preparing for a flight. It’s called “chair flying.” And drivers should do it, too, rehearsing over and over again what they’re going to do.

“You need to be really good at driving your car,” he said. “It needs to be a car you’re really comfortable with and have spent a lot of time in.”

It matters for both performing at a high level and driver safety.

“Sit down. Here’s where the controls are. Go over and over it in your mind,” Hawley said. “Your understanding of it doesn’t mean you can do it. It’s a dance step. And you can’t learn a dance step by watching someone else dance.

“The driving of the car should be an unconscious thing.”

Three Tips for Driving the Car Down the Track

People often confuse two things: simple and easy.

“Some things are simple in concept,” he said. “But they are not that easy to do.”

Accordingly, Hawley said there are three things they always go over with drivers.

Tip #1 – You’ve got to get the car straight

“It’s required to get the car down the track,” he said.

Driving in a straight line for a quarter-mile seems easy in the minds of most people before staging for the first time and realizing aligning the car perfectly down the middle isn’t as easy as it looks.

drag racing sideways

So, not like this guy.

Tip #2 – When you first start driving, you need to look at the finish line

“New drivers start moving their eyes around or looking too close to the nose of the car,” Hawley said. “As you move your eye, you’re blind. It’s called saccadic eye movement. The key is keeping your attention way down the track on the center of the finish line.”

Tip #3 – Grip the steering wheel lightly

It’s an unconscious response to grip the wheel hard, Hawley said.

“It’s a control thing,” he said. “Drivers innately think: This is big, fast, powerful, mean, and I’m going to control it by gripping the wheel tightly.

“Even if you go over this a hundred times with someone, they’ll still grip the wheel too hard.”

Knowing When to Abort the Run

Really fast drag cars don’t do well at getting out of bad situations, like you sometimes see in circle track or road racing when drivers make incredible recoveries.

When a veteran racer recognizes the car is doing something it’s not supposed to do, they recognize it instantly and abort the run, Hawley said.

“If more people were willing to do that, there’d be fewer accidents,” he said. “That’s the difference between the people who have accidents and the people who don’t. The people who don’t crash? The instant the car is doing something they shouldn’t be doing, they abort the run.”

Panicky braking gets drivers in trouble.

“Too much brake at too high a speed causes cars to get out of control. Brakes cause great problems for a lot of people—using them too much, too fast, and too quickly,” Hawley said.

Preparation, Preparation, Preparation

Maybe it sounds boring. Maybe it causes a few eye rolls. But preparation is virtually always the difference between winning and losing, as well as the difference between routinely safe trips to the racetrack and expensive, dangerous accidents. This includes mental preparation in order to stay calm and avoid trouble and vehicle preparation to avoid mechanical failure.

“You’ve got to make sure the car is properly prepared. Everything on your car should be in good shape,” Hawley said. “For example, I can’t think of a vehicle—from a pickup truck to anything I’ve driven, ever—where the brakes didn’t work.”

Sometimes, engines or parts blow at launch or mid-run.

In that case, Hawley has this advice: “Stay calm. Make sure you close the throttle instantly, stay in the center of the lane, slow down as fast as possible, and get out.”

Know Your Equipment

Hawley has watched racers with cars on fire, pull door-cars up against the wall in the left lane, and then when the car stops, not be able to get out because they pinned themselves in. In full gear, they’ve had to climb over the transmission to escape the other side with the help of safety personnel.

Hawley has seen a driver neglect to use safety straps to fasten down shoe laces, and while frantically trying to exit a burning car, his shoe lace hooked on something and caused him to panic. Hawley also sees drivers putting restraints on the wrong side of their seat belts.

“They just panic. And I think: ‘Why don’t you wear your equipment properly? Did you not know?” he said. “If you get to the point where you’re not driving a passenger car anymore, you should take the time to know how to use the equipment.

“It was the first thing I said: Lack of preparation. If you can’t tell, I’m really big on preparation.”

Author: Matt Griswold

After a 10-year newspaper journalism career, Matt Griswold spent another decade writing about the automotive aftermarket and motorsports. He was part of the original OnAllCylinders editorial team when it launched in 2012.