Land Speed Racing "Primer"
First of all, why would anyone participate in going as fast as possible in a vehicle? When asked this (and boyoboy, folks ask me all the time!), I refer them to the decals on the front fenders of my pickup truck. That's where it says "Didn't you ever want to open 'er up wide open and see what she'll do?" That's why we do this -- to see how fast we can go. Land speed racing is a unique form of speed competition, mostly because vehicles do not compete simultaneously against one another, but rather are timed one at a time over a measured distance - which two parameters, when computed, yield the speed the vehicle was traveling.
So we build a vehicle -- car, truck, or motorcycle, and build it to confirm to the class we've decided to race in. There are about three thousand classes (counting all three of those vehicle styles), so zillions of variations are allowed. By racing in class structures we can compare our speed against someone else's whose vehicle is pretty much the same. It wouldn't be fair, would it, for a super-duper turbocharged motorcycle to be compared to a 1954 Crosby "clown car", would it?
Okay, some basics first: the distance over which speed is measured is either a short distance -- like 132 feet (which is 1/40th of a mile), or a mile (which is, silly, one full mile). The distances are measured very carefully -- by surveyors -- to accuracy of better than a thousandth of an inch. And the time the vehicle takes to get between the beginning and the end of the measured distance is measured by very accurate clocks -- accurate to better than a hundred-thousandth of a second. Speeds are calculated and reported to racers accurate to .00001 mph. For purposes of record keeping the number is shortened to "only" .001 mph. Still, pretty darned accurate, especially with many vehicles well over 200 mph.
The biggest obvious difference between land speed racing and most other racing is that LSR racers have plenty of time to get up to speed -- it's not a drag race where "quickness" is important. Take your time -- the starter person tells the racer that it's time to leave the start line, the racer moseys down the course, and builds speed slowly. These vehicles aren't geared for quick take-off -- heck, that 1954 Crosby I mentioned could beat many LSR vehicles in a drag race. But once we get going -- well, one time I was working on another aspect of my bike and so didn't bother to shift into high gear when I went down the track. My speed was only 191 mph -- and again, that's without shifting into high!
Okay: Here's what it's like to make a run. I suggest you go to the page that shows me getting into Bill Murphy's #548 Mustang, at Maxton, to see some of the safety things we go through -- like the safety belts, the roll cage, and so on. That stuff must be done -- and is checked by the starter -- before we can even think of going down the race track.
Okay, now I'm all ready. The process is that the vehicle before me leaves the start line, goes down the track and through the timing lights, and gets to the far end. The course watcher at the far end radios to the main timing tower that the racer is "clear of the course". When he hears that the course is clear the chief timer, in the tower, radios to the starter that the course is clear and also asks "What's the next vehicle number?" The timer looks at my vehicle and reports the number to the tower, who enters it into the timing computer, and then tells the starter "Okay, send him on!" At this point the starter usually asks each racer if he's ready -- while paying attention to whether the racer looks so nervous that he's about to wet his pants, or is turning blue because the seat belts are so tight, and stuff like that. Assuming all looks okay -- the starter makes sure the racer's helmet face shield is closed and then tells the racer to go ahead, leave the start line.
Now it's up to me. Twist the throttle/step on the gas, let out the clutch (if there is one), and go like hell. Shift quickly but not so violently that the reaction jerks the bike or car around and makes it handle poorly. One reason for the smooth shift and the idea of not making the vehicle "get out of shape" is that it takes a bit of time -- and we're trying to spend all of the time we've got before getting to the lights gaining speed. If we're busy steering or shifting gears slowly -- we're not accelerating. Go straight -- zig-zagging wastes time, too. Anyway, hold the throttle WFO ("wide f****ing open") until through the lights. WHEW! Now it's time to slow down, keep it under control, turn off the course promptly -- so that the process can begin for the next racer in line.
Here's some stuff that we're told during the driver's meeting -- which is always held before the beginning of an event. We are informed of which way to turn off the course if we decide we need to "abort" a run. If we think that we should quit for some minor reason -- like the engine isn't running right, or because our glasses slipped down and we can't see correctly -- we are told to turn (unh, say) to the right side of the course. This signals everyone that we've decided to quit the run, no big deal. But -- if we blow up and engine and think that we might be on fire, for instance, or think we've left parts on the course, or a tire goes flat and we're darn near out of control -- we're told to turn left (or right, again depending on the rules of the course). When a vehicle turns left EVERYBODY knows that that is a call for help. The chief timer up in the timing tower blows an air horn and everyone jumps. The fire truck and emergency rescue truck and those crews get going towards the vehicle, the race director and his safety people scurry to the scene of the incident, and everyone else stays put -- nobody else is needed and we'd only get in the way if we went to the scene.
More often than not it wasn't a big deal -- but safety is cheap, so we practice it always. And now you know about turning off the course before the lights.
Let's see, some other stuff is called for. Once we've gone through the lights the computer will calculate our speed and print out a timing slip so we've got a paper record of how fast we went. The racer goes to the timing slip printer and collects his slip, and -- if the speed is a record (that is, if it's at lest .001 mph higher than the existing record), he celebrates -- by taking his vehicle to an impound area. In impound the racer is allowed four hours to do routine maintenance on his vehicle -- an oil change, check the tires, adjust the chain tension, stuff like that. Then the racer goes back to his pit area and enjoys the admiration of his buddies -- and starts to get nervous in anticipation of having to do it all over again tomorrow morning.
If you're interested, there a real nice history of Land Speed Racing at Landracing.com