In terms of mental muscle required per second, drag racing is likely one of the most demanding sports out there ... at least if you want to be good at it.
That's the lesson that Chris Warner of Gypsum has learned since he took up the sport in 2002 and it's the theory that propelled him to a championship season in 2012.
Last month, Warner collected the Grand Prix Motor Sports Pro Elapsed Time Championship from Bandemire Speedway near Denver. The award recognized Warner for collecting the most points during a series of six race events running from September through October. Warner said winning the 2012 title came as a surprise, albeit a great one.
"I didn't really think I was competitive enough to win a championship. I always say I'm competitive enough to make the top group, but not enough to win the series championship."
While Warner launched his racing career a little more than a decade ago, he has been around drag strips his whole life.
"I grew up in central Illinois and there were three race tracks within an hour's drive," he said.
Warner's teen years during the 1960s marked a national high point in drag racing and one of his friends raced a '67 Chevy Chevelle. But while he loved drag racing, Warner's interests took him in a different direction. Eventually he started competitive ski racing on the Pro Moguls tour and his love of that sport brought him to Colorado. Warner has resided in the valley since 1976. He and his wife, Carol, have been Gypsum residents since 1987.
Back in 2001, Warner's interest in drag racing was re-ignited when he went down to Bandemire with a friend. "I think most of the people in the stands were thinking, 'I really want to do this,'" said Warner. The difference is, Warner actually did.
In 2001 he purchased a 1999 Firebird and he began racing in Grand Junction in 2002.
For the uninitiated (i.e. the author of this story) drag racing isn't simply a contest of which car can go the fastest down a quarter-mile track. That's especially true in Warner's division - Pro Elapsed Time.
In this division, racers each declare a predicted speed for their vehicles between 9.5 to 13.8 seconds (or between 135 to 90 mph). A handicap is awarded to the slower car. While the faster vehicle wins each single elimination bout, speed is just one factor in a race. A driver cannot "break out" of the car's predicted speed.
"If you go too fast and you break out, you lose," said Warner.
The basics of the sport are to first know your car's performance capability and to predict its racing time as accurately as possible. "That sounds simple, but horsepower is only one component in the mix," said Warner.
Drivers in his division have made the conscious decision to race at the specific speeds of between 9.5 to 13.8 seconds but any car capable of that speed can race. That means a wide variety of vehicles end up pitted against one another - on average between 90 and 130 cars per race event.
"Competition is single elimination so you have to win or you are out of an event," said Warner. "Fifty percent of the people there go one run and then go home."
On an average race day, the gates open at 8 a.m. and a minimum of four and a maximum of seven classes will be competing. The race day can stretch until the wee hours of the morning.
"The first race I remember winning was in Grand Junction in a Chevys-only race. My winning time was posted at 2:30 a.m. and at that point I still had to pack up all my stuff and go home," said Warner.
As a driver wins individual bouts during a race event, he or she earns points toward the championship series tally. And, as the daily competition narrows, drivers make their way into the money rounds. "When you get that far, come Wednesday you do get a check in the mail," said Warner.
Warner believes there are three central challenges to winning a race:
• Mechanics - having a car that is performing well and as predicted. "It's not just the fastest car. It's is being able to predict what your car will run," said Warner.
• Mental Toughness - having a better reaction time than your opponent. "Each of us has to react to the light at the start of the race. To win you must have the fastest reaction to the light and the closest speed to your dial-in without breaking out."
• Luck - "Every once in a a while, your car wins a race. Every once in a while, I win a race. The third challenge is just being in the right place at the right time," said Warner.
Drag racing is a thinking person's sport. It requires patience to truly determine your vehicle's predicted elapsed time to the precision required. At this point in his racing career, Warner said on average he only has to spend a couple of hours a week tuning his car. "Of course, that is offset with times when I have to work on it for four or five days straight when something needs attention," he said.
Racing also requires discipline at the start line, especially when your car is positioned next to a vehicle that might be taking off a couple seconds sooner than you can.
A "Christmas tree" light timer at the starting lane tells drivers when to take off. The light timing is in half second intervals and the sequence is amber, amber, amber, green. Warner's Firebird is dialed in so that he knows to initiate the launch on that third amber so that his car will leave the start line when the light turns green. But that's easier said than done. Warner has run countless rounds on the track to dial in on that half-second interval.
For other racers, it has literally taken decades to get to that point.
"There are people who have been doing this for generations. It's not unusual to see three generations of them at the track together," said Warner.
Warner said because its a multi-generational sport, race tracks often have a friendly overall atmosphere. "There are a lot of families racing and a lot of camaraderie between opponents," he said. However, the chumminess has its limits.
"Nobody shares their secrets with one another," said Warner.
Ultimately, he said, experience is what makes a driver better. "You really don't understand drag racing until you have worked your way through it."
His racing work has taught Warner that superstition has no place in drag racing.
"There are two things you have to accept: It doesn't matter if you go early or late in a round and it doesn't matter if you go left or right on the track. Once you have accepted that, you have matured enough to race," he said.
There's also a third hard fact of drag racing life. The luck of the draw sometimes pits the best cars against one another in the early racing rounds because line-up order is arbitrary. That means top cars can lose out early and the old sports idiom is very true - a driver is only as good as his or her last race. Maybe that factors into Warner's admitted reverse racing psyche.
"I am most nervous at the start of a race event. When I get closer to actually winning I am usually calmer. That's unusual. I calm down as I get nearer to the end and the stakes are higher," he said.
Warner said his drag racing journey has featured a progression of goals. His first goal was to successfully transition from Grand Junction to the more competitive Bandemire track. His second was to improve his performance to become competitive at his new racing home.
"Then it was to go far enough to get a red money stamp on my time sheet," he said. He also "enjoyed" the first time he had to declare his drag racing money as income to the Internal Revenue Service. "Its sort of cool when you get a 1099 from drag racing. It may be a net negative, but it is still cool."
After he started making it into the money rounds, Warner's goal was to have enough series points to make the Bandemire divisional racing squad. The track's top drivers compete in a Divisional Championship each year. Warner was first named to that squad in 2009 and making the team each year remains one of his big goals.
Of course, as he looks ahead to the 2013 season, Warner has a championship to defend. That would be no small feat. In the long turn, Warner said consistency pays off, but with the sheer number of drivers participating in the sport and the skill levels of the top drivers, its darned difficult to consistently remain at the top of the heap.
But drag racing is a sport where winning is incremental and a competitor can keep focus on the race that's happening right now.
"I just like to go rounds," said Warner.
That's why next summer will find him back down at Bandemire, making the most of those mentally demanding nine-second moments.