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How to be a drag racer in one lesson

Wheels contributor Bill Taylor goes to drag-racing school for a day.
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GRAND BEND — At risk of committing heresy, what’s the cheapest, most-reliable way to make a 1998 5-litre Ford Mustang go faster?

Put a 5.7-litre Chevy under the hood.

Hey, Ford fanatics, don’t go burning me at the stake. It’s Erik Derkzen who came up with this for cars that have to clock consistent 12-second quarter-mile dragstrip runs several dozen times in a day without breaking.

It works, too. When one of the two ’Stangs he’s letting absolute beginners beat up on at Grand Bend Motorplex falters, it’s a starter-motor problem.

“How lame is that?” says Derkzen. “You’re supposed to blow an engine or a transmission at the drags, not the starter!”

He runs Derkzen Motorsports in London and is into his fourth season of the Derkzen Racing Experience. While he stops short of calling it a school, a day either at the Grand Bend or Toronto Motorsports Park (Cayuga) dragstrips is very instructive.

It’s not as easy as it looks. Derkzen’s two Mustangs (he plans soon to expand the fleet) can run in the high 11-second bracket. But of the 14 guys at this session — maximum is 16 — several can’t master burnouts, a couple never dip below 13 seconds and one stalls the car on the line three times, which is no mean feat with an automatic.

Another manages a 12.2-second quarter mile but takes three seconds to react to the starting light.

“As long as that?” he asks afterwards.

“If I’d been behind you,” someone says, “I’d have honked.”

My best time is 12.3 seconds with a 0.181-second reaction time. Terminal speeds approach 185 km/h, or 115 mph. (Few drag strips use metric.)

Derkzen and Dennis Demeyre baby-step the class through putting on the helmet, climbing in past the rollcage and strapping into the single seat.

Optimum shift-point for the three-speed Turbo 400 slushbox, with a B and M racing shifter, is 6,500 rpm.

Flick the ignition and fan switches and press the starter. The car reverberates with the unmuffled roar of the Chevy. The unpowered steering is heavy and imprecise at low speeds.

Stop just short of the line. Demeyre hoses water across the track. Drive through it and press the red button on the shifter. This locks the front brakes as you gun the motor and get the rear slicks pouring smoke to make them sticky for maximum traction. The sidewalls are designed to flex when the car launches to counter wheelspin.

As you reach the start-line, two lights at the top of the “Christmas tree” come on. Better be prepared, with the engine at about 1,800 rpm. Three ambers flash at half-second intervals and then the green.

You shouldn’t actually see the green. On the last amber, floor the throttle and aim for the end of the track. You’re shoved hard into the seat and then, with the first shift, even harder. With another upshift to come, it’s a busy place to be.

You seem to be going very fast indeed – “it felt like 1,000 miles an hour,” someone says – and the car’s moving around. Ignore that and don’t oversteer. The noise is a cacophony and the vibration is enough to blur your vision.

Over the finish line, off the gas, on to the brakes and wrestle the car onto the return road. After awhile, your heartbeat returns to normal.

The course costs $250 and you’re guaranteed at least four runs. It’s a popular Christmas and birthday gift and, Derkzen says, not just for guys.

If you want to try real competition, $600 gets you a car and Derkzen’s support at a race meeting. There are worse things to do with 600 bucks…

The Derkzen Racing Experience runs regularly at Grand Bend or TMP into October. For more details, visit www.derkzenmotorsports.com

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