By Michael McKown
For those who have not yet experienced what it’s like to be on a drag strip with your Tesla MS Plaid, this post is for you.
Most US drag strips operate under rules of the National Hot Rod Association, which is fine unless you drive a really quick, unmodified (stock) electric car. The Plaid can scoot through the quarter mile in around 9.2 or 9.3 seconds. NHRA rules stipulate that a car that can do the quarter in under 10 seconds must have a roll cage, a parachute, the driver must wear a fire resistant suit, and also possess a special racing license. I think there are more restrictions, too.
A few years ago when Dodge released its one-year-only Demon with 840 horsepower, they claimed it was so quick it was “illegal” at NHRA tracks. Dodge marketed the car using a letter that said the car — in stock form — could not run on NHRA tracks. Cool sales ploy, and the Demon did the quarter mile in the high 9-second range. Interestingly, I’ve heard nobody else has matched that time in that car in stock form, whatever that may mean. To run at an NHRA track in the 9s, the rules about the roll cage, parachute, etc., apply.
Some NHRA track managers have told Plaid drivers to hit the brakes at the 1,000-foot marker so as to not dip into the 9s, but what fun is that? If your unmodded Plaid does the quarter in under 10 seconds, you’ll be told to leave.
Now, I’ve been racing at Willow Springs International Raceway in Rosamond, CA, which is in the desert about an hour and a half north-northeast of Los Angeles. It’s not an NHRA track. And it’s about 1,040 feet long (quarter mile is 1,320 feet). It’s a run-what-you-brung place, which is great if you don’t want to deal with pro drag racing’s bureaucracy. Thirty-five bucks gets you in the pits and to the starting line.
Willow Springs opened in 1953. It’s a road racing place. Drag racing occurs on the straight near the stands, usually at night. I’m of the opinion they ought to buy an adjoining parcel of desert land and make the strip regulation length, but whatever. You will need a racing helmet that meets certain specifications; check the race track’s website for their requirements. Then do a Google search for a helmet that meets those requirements. They are easy to find. Some tracks offer rental helmets.
There are things to sign which make you assume all the liability if bad stuff happens. After registration, you’re good to go. Your auto insurance will almost certainly not cover you at a race track (check your policy), but you can buy track day insurance online. Put the car in Drag Strip Mode to bring the battery to optimum temperature. When you get the red-orange indicator on the instrument panel, the car is ready. Put your suspension at the lowest level. It’s time to race. Drive to the entrance of the staging lane. An official may draw a number on your glass.
Cars will move forward as race officials direct them, in pairs, to move to the starting area. In the burnout box, ICE cars will often smoke their tires to clean off any debris and to warm up the rubber for improved traction. It’s an impressive display but it really is pointless for most when they’re up against a Tesla Plaid. All-wheel drive and traction control means you can’t smoke the tires, so don’t even try. Just gag on the smoke as you drive through it and roll unimpressively to the staging area and stop where the official tells you to.
After the cars ahead of you take off then clear the track, you will be signaled to move to the starting line. That thing between the lanes with the colored lights on it is called the Christmas tree. One set of lights is aimed at you, the other set at your opponent. There will be two white lights at the top. Move forward slowly until the first white light turns on. Then stop when the second white light turns on.
Immediately put the car into cheetah stance; don’t wait. It takes several seconds to get ready. Left foot down on the brake very hard and hold. Right foot all the way down on the go-pedal and hold. When the official sees both cars are correctly in position, he will start the countdown. There will be four more lights turning on about a half second apart. The first three are amber so you get the rhythm. The fourth light is green. Anticipate when to release the brake. If you release too early you will see a red light, which means you screwed up and lost.
And here’s the fun part. It almost doesn’t matter what kind of car is in the other lane. No doubt you’ll hear the roar of an engine before the green light. Chances are good it’ll be a Charger, Challenger, Camaro, Corvette, or a Mustang. ICE cars are at a big disadvantage compared to electric cars. Engines have a narrow torque band, which is why they have transmissions. The point of a transmission is to keep the engine in its torque band as the car accelerates. Your Plaid has no such issues. You have 100% torque from the instant you release the brake, and no time is lost to shifting gears.
And it’s a massive amount of torque (1,050 lb.-ft.). Your instant torque means you leap out front with no delay. For your opponent, the challenge is to catch you within several seconds, and good luck with that. Another advantage of that quick leap off the line is you may well be out of the way if the other guy blows up (shrapnel, oil), or crashes.
When the light turns green and you take your left foot off, you’re slammed hard into the seat and whoever is in the other lane instantly disappears behind you. Poof, gone! The roaring engine sound fades. You’d think you’re all alone on the track, serenely accelerating, just racing against the clock, were it not for the receding headlights in the rear view. The steering gets light so stay alert. Focus, ignore that other car. That finish line is coming at you quickly. At Willow Springs, it’s marked by white cones. There is a device at the cones which will record your finish.
When you pass the finish line, you enter the shutdown area. Decelerate and be aware of the other car. Enter the return road. When you get back to the pit area, an official will hand you your time slip. It contains info for both cars, including driver reaction time, speed at the finish and the ET, or elapsed time. The lower the time, the better.
At Willow Springs, the shutdown area is very short. The instant I pass the finish line, I’m hard on the brakes. When racing at Willow at night, I’m usually off the accelerator or on the brakes before the finish. Darkness means I want a little more time to slow down. This shutdown area was really not designed to handle very fast 4,800-lb. cars. At Willow, I can cover the more-or-less 1,040 feet in 7.9 seconds at 135 mph. That’s a lot of energy to scrub off.
I recommend you research the track layout before racing, especially at Willow Springs since you’ll need to slow down so quickly.
Drag racers love quick cars. You’ll get some thumbs-up and probably some scowls. The word is out. A lot of guys won’t want to race you. If they have a stock car, it’s a guaranteed loss. Plaids have spanked a lot of heavily-modded cars, too. But some *dedicated* drag cars (dragsters, etc.) will spank you! You won’t win ‘em all, but in most cases you will lose only if you mess up.
The Model S Plaid isn’t really a race car. It’s just a nice, quiet family sedan. Which happens to have long, curved claws and razor-sharp teeth.