Frank Hawley's NHRA Drag Racing School Experience - Licensed For Thrill!
Competition Legal With Frank Hawley's Drag Racing School
From the September, 2009 issue of Chevy High Performance
By Henry De Los Santos
Photography by Summer Geer
If you're into drag racing and constantly looking for ways to whittle down your e.t., then you know at some point you're going to need your NHRA competition license. The fact is once you enter the 9.99 zone or go faster than 135 mph in the quarter-mile, you need a piece of paper that says you can legally do so. You have a couple of options to obtain your license: You can run down the tarmac in your own ride or you can enter a driving school. I opted for the latter by enrolling in Frank Hawley's Drag Racing School (FHDRS).
Why did I decide to head back to school? The very first race I entered was back in 2002 in a power-adder class, requiring stock-style suspension and limiting just about everything imaginable, from the type of camshaft to the tires. At that time the top guys were just dipping into the 9s, with the rest of the field scattered all over the 10-second range. I had a completely new combination and chassis, and didn't have seat time for several years. We got the car together at the last minute, stuck it on the chassis dyno, and loaded up the car for the eight-hour tow to Arizona.
Looking back, it feels a bit irresponsible to run an untested car, but at the time I wasn't going to miss that event. Even worse was knowing that if all went well, there was a good chance of dipping into the 9s. Again, looking back, not the smartest thing to do, especially considering that the only seat time I'd had was in an upper-11-second street car. To some it may not seem like a big deal, but the difference between 120 and 140 mph in the quarter-mile is pretty big.
Class starts bright and early...
Class starts bright and early at 7:30 a.m. From the moment you step in, it's all about intros. Our room for the next two days was in the tower with a great view overlooking the entire dragstrip.
To make a long story short, everything went well and the first pass netted me with a 10.08-at-139-mph run. It felt great, and the initial 1.51 short time was a kick in the pants, only I was told by the track officials to back it down since I didn't have my NHRA competition license. This car eventually ran in the mid-8s with a buddy's motor, but with my dwindling free time, I bowed out of the driver's seat and the car evolved rather quickly without me. I knew I had no business trying to pilot it without a license.
Fast-forward to today. With our 10.5 tire-packing third-gen Camaro in its initial building phases, there's never been a better time to dust off the driving suit and get back in the saddle.
When I started asking around about driving schools, the name that kept coming up was Frank Hawley. While FHDRS is based out of Gainesville, Florida, it also offers a complete schedule of remote classes for its Super Gas Firebird door car and Super Comp dragster program at various tracks across the county. In this case there was a program being offered at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, only an hour away by plane. Even cooler, Frank Hawley himself was to be our instructor.
The school tends to get booked quickly and seats are limited, so do yourself a favor and plan ahead. Once you enroll, the school will send you a course manual along with all of the necessary forms to fill out, including the most important document: the dreaded physical. Believe me, I'm the last one who likes to go to the doctor, but it's for your safety and really isn't that big a deal. Once you get the green light from the doc, fax back your paperwork and you're set.
I can't emphasize enough how important it is to read the materials before the first day of class. Simply put, it doesn't matter if you have experience behind the wheel; without reading it, you're going to be behind from the moment you step into the classroom. The manual is a quick read, outlining the complete course in detail to discussing the schedule, safety equipment, and the specs of the car you're piloting.
What We Did
Learned driving techniques with the best-and even managed to earn our NHRA competition license
Where Was It
Las Vegas Motor Speedway
When inquiring about the power-plant, Hawley was adamant to say that these engines have minimal changes, namely their choice of exhaust, but that will vary for any chassis being used. Other than that, these 572ci big-blocks are exactly the way you get them from GM Performance Parts. If you're looking for something similar, Pace Parts offers the deluxe package for $14,459, including the water pump, carburetor, distributor, intake, and spark plug wires. If you take into consideration what it takes to build a reliable powerplant of this caliber, that's a mighty fine deal. As a testament to these engines, Hawley uses these mills exclusively, reporting no problems whatsoever. Considering the vigorous use of them at the school, these are proven packages.
|Engine type ||Tall-deck big-block |
|Displacement ||572ci |
|Bore x Stroke ||4.560 x 4.375 |
|Block ||Cast iron with four-bolt mains |
|Crankshaft ||Forged steel |
|Rods ||Forged steel, shot-peened |
|Pistons ||Forged aluminum |
|Cylinder heads ||Aluminum rectangular-port, 118cc chambers |
|Valve size ||2.25/1.88 intake/exhaust |
|Compression ||12:1 |
|Rocker arms ||1.7:1 aluminum roller |
|Distributor ||Electronic ignition |
|Recommended fuel ||110-octane |
|Ignition timing ||Base 8º BTDC, 36º total |
|Max recommended rpm ||6,750 |
|Balanced ||Internal |
|Camshaft ||Mechanical roller |
0.714/0.714 inch lift @ 0.050
266/274 degrees duration @ 0.050
After the intros and Hawley's...
After the intros and Hawley's introductory speech, it was time to head out to one of the trailers and get suited up. When you first sign up, the FHDRS staff will ask for your general measurements and provide you with the proper driving suit; just be sure to wear comfortable shoes and calf-length socks. If you have your own equipment, you're more than welcome to bring it.
After suiting up, we toured...
After suiting up, we toured the track. Hawley discussed the cone setup and showed us the various distances we would cover on each of the six passes. He even went on to describe various track conditions and how to stage the car and line up in the groove.
The cones are placed to help...
The cones are placed to help guide you from your burnout to staging the car. The first cone is where you start the burnout, and the second is where you want to lift the throttle and slow down. After you back up, the third set of cones is where you want to stop the car and wait for the signal to stage the car. Easy enough, right?
If you've never been on the...
If you've never been on the dragstrip before, the school places these signs in the intervals of your runs at 200, 600, and 1,000 feet, with the final sign being marked as a full pass. While you don't want to stare at them directly while driving, it'll give you a good perspective of how far to go before lifting the throttle.
After a complete rundown of...
After a complete rundown of the track, it was off to the Chassis Engineering-built Firebird, which as you know is the sister car to our favorite fourth-gen Camaro. It was here where we got familiar with the general layout of the chassis and the functions of the interior components. This included how to get in and out and how to use the switches, gauges, shifter, and removable steering wheel.
From this passenger-side shot,...
From this passenger-side shot, you get a pretty good idea of the no-nonsense interior, with its simple yet functional dcor. Getting the chassis down to 2,300 pounds is easy with aluminum panels, fiberglass dash, and Lexan windows.
|Chassis and body ||Chassis Engineering |
|Wheelbase ||106 inches |
|Weight ||2,300 lbs |
|Horsepower ||770 |
|Camshaft ||Crane Cams |
|Carburetor ||Demon |
|Intake ||Edelbrock |
|Headers ||Hedman |
|Header coating ||Jet Hot |
|Ignition ||MSD |
|Electronics ||K&R delay box |
|Mufflers ||Borla |
|Transmission ||BTE Powerglide |
|Converter ||BTE |
|Shifter ||Frame Works |
|Gauges ||AutoMeter |
|Rearend, axles, brakes ||Strange Engineering |
|Rearend gears ||Richmond, 4.10:1 & 4.56:1 (contingent on track) |
|Wheels ||Weld Racing front, Center Line rear |
|Tires ||Mickey Thompson 33x16.5x15 ET Drag |
|Parachute ||Chute Metal |
|Harness ||Impact |
|Oil ||Lucas |
Regardless of your background, you're obviously at the school for a reason, whether it's to get familiar with drag racing firsthand, getting a refresher course, or for the opportunity to get feedback from the best. For those of you attempting to get your competition license, the thing to keep in mind is that the school is on a very strict schedule, meaning everyone will get the same number of passes. If you listen well, do everything as described, and show control of the vehicle, there's a good chance you will leave with the proper paperwork to obtain your license. However, simply attending the school is no guarantee you will get it. That said, if a certain run isn't signed off for whatever reason and you're adamant about getting licensed, then you'll appreciate that the school offers additional runs at the end of the session at a predetermined rate.
At the end of the two-day seminar, I managed to leave the school as a better driver-and earned my NHRA competition license. While there were so many things I learned in a relatively short time, I will say that regardless of your background, leave your previous driving history and attitude at the door. There's a lot to learn and you'll want to put all of your efforts into paying attention and absorbing everything being said. More importantly, I've always understood the inherent dangers that come with our sport, but the program taught me to treat driving in a well-versed and extremely disciplined manner. When I get behind the wheel now, I have a preset regimen I go through, eliminating any fear of forgetting something and allowing me to completely concentrate on the light and focus on driving. Don't take my word for it-add this to your bucket list. Seriously, if the opportunity arises to attend Frank Hawley's Drag Racing School, I highly recommend it!
From the pilot's seat, the...
From the pilot's seat, the tach is there but not something we really focused on. The biggest concern is keeping an eye on the oil pressure and water temperature gauges. If the oil pressure drops, shut the motor down. If the temperature goes well above 200, shut it down and let it cool before firing it back up. Other than that, the blue button next to the shifter is the line lock, while the red button is the transbrake.
The first time you get in...
The first time you get in the car you have to complete a cockpit orientation test as part of your NHRA competition license requirements. You are completely suited up and blindfolded (or eyes closed in this instance), and must point out on command where every control is located in the car and show that you know how to use them. As the manual explains, "at 150 mph you will be traveling at 220 feet per second." With that in mind, it makes perfect sense to be aware of your surroundings should you get into a predicament.
With the burnout complete,...
With the burnout complete, it was just a matter of backing up in idle past the third set of cones to the front wheels, all while keeping an eye on the groove and lining yourself up correctly. From there, protocol requires you to put the car in Park and keep both hands on the steering wheel. Once you're set, wait for Hawley's signal that you're OK to move forward. He suggests rolling up to the line slowly in one smooth motion while occasionally glancing to your left to see where you are in relation to the prestage beams.
After you're signaled to the...
After you're signaled to the burnout box, you want to center yourself through the water and stop at the first cone. From there, press the brake firmly with your left foot and bring the brake pressure up to 800 pounds. Once you're up to pressure, press and hold the line-lock button on the shifter. You can then let go of the brake pedal and stab the throttle to heat the tires up. Count off one second, then release the line-lock and drive through the burnout at wide-open throttle until the second cone. While you're slowing down, you'll want to shift into Neutral and apply the brakes softly to a stop. Believe it or not, this is actually where a lot of students end up having problems, which can cause them to repeat a run.
Stopping after lighting up...
Stopping after lighting up the first bulb (prestage) on the tree, locate the transbrake button, and creep up on the second bulb, which is where both upper bulbs are lit, normally signaling that you're ready to go. One thing Hawley said was my favorite: "This is the only time you'll ever be in full control of the tree. When you're ready, hold down the transbrake button and floor it." With the rpm holding steady at 3,000 on the brake, Hawley would let the tree go, and it's time to let go of the button and have some fun.
Once everyone has made it...
Once everyone has made it down the strip, it's back to the classroom, where each pass is evaluated. During the first couple of runs, Hawley discussed in detail everything he noticed, giving suggestions on where to improve and explaining where you did well. What you feel in the car initially may not necessarily reflect how the car is reacting. It's great feedback, and the video doesn't lie. Later in the course, Hawley asked all the students what they thought of their pass first, then elaborated on their respective runs.
As small as the class is,...
As small as the class is, you'll still have plenty of downtime in between runs to check out how everyone else is doing. During everyone else's pass, it's not a bad idea to visualize what you would do in the car. Not required, but it's good practice in general.
You have the choice between...
You have the choice between two types of cars in the Super Classes: the Firebird door car or a McKinny Corporation-built dragster. The cost is the same, but it's an entirely different experience. Each is powered by the 720hp GMPP ZZ572. The door car runs mid-9s at 140-plus mph, while the dragster will click off mid-8s at over 160 mph.
Word of advice: Know where...
Word of advice: Know where you are in the lineup, and get suited up when the person before you is up. Each driver is listed, and if for some reason you get confused and forget how far you're supposed to go, check the board.
The View Admittedly, it's...
Admittedly, it's been a while since I've been behind the wheel, and I have to tell you, the first time I released the transbrake, the 1.35 short time was flat-out awesome. My eyeballs were rattling all over the place and the first 200 feet seemed like a blur, but that quickly went away by the second run.
The hardest part of the course for me was getting acclimated to the massive hoodscoop. If you're in the right lane, you can easily see the Christmas tree; however, we were instructed in the left lane. Once you're staged, you better keep an eye on the top bulb, because if you blink for a millisecond you could miss that light.
As for the chassis itself, that thing is solid and very well put together, with all of the latest required safety equipment. The nice thing about this particular setup is that if you do everything in a consistent fashion and drive it all out, your e.t.'s will reflect that by being within a couple tenths on every run. When was the last time you saw nearly identical results like that? I can honestly say this was a first.
At the end of the two-day...
At the end of the two-day course everyone receives a certificate of completion and all six timeslips. If you successfully passed each of your runs, you're eligible for your competition license. Simply turn in your paperwork to your local NHRA office and pay the fees. I applied, paid my fees, and am now certified to legally drive in Super Comp, Super Gas, ET, and Top Sportsman.