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Drag Racing Story of the Day!

Is it Time for a New Tournament
Structure for Drag Racing?

2001 by Doug Dornbos

How a race is structured falls under the boorish sounding heading of "tournament theory." Although drag race structures fall under two broad  classifications, elimination races and non-elimination races, their illegitimate child, "the buy-back," must also be considered.

Four main points of interest determine which structure the promoter will use. They are (in no particular order):

to provide the level of participation which meets the expectations of the racers,
to provide fair competition,
time limitations,
entertainment value.

Let's look at some common structures as they relate to these 4 points.

The single elimination

The single elimination is the choice for many forms of competition. The NCAA's "March Madness" is probably the most familiar single elimination tournament in all of America. In drag racing, it is used all the way from the pro classes of the NHRA down to weekly bracket racing programs. It's three main advantages are:

it's easy to understand,
it provides an undisputed winner,
it is the quickest way to arrive at an overall winner.

Its three main disadvantages are:

pairings may be quite mismatched in the early rounds
losers get no second chance -- 50% of the competitors are finished after only 1 round (75% after the second),
the number of competitors must equal a "perfect power of 2" (4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, etc.) to not have bye-runs.

In light of the four points mentioned earlier, the single eliminator is superior in terms of time management and can produce an undisputed winner in one fewer races than there are racers (see the above diagram, 8 racers, 7 races). Due to its simplicity, its entertainment value is also great -- even a child can understand it. The pairings are fair, too, in an ethical way if not an entertaining way. The shortcomings of the single eliminator start to become evident here. Everybody has been to a race where the match ups themselves all but predetermined the winners. Going back to the NCAA "March Madness" example, no #16 team has EVER beat a #1 team. (It doesn't seem to have hurt the NCAA tourney all that much except that first round TV viewership isn't all that great.)

The place where the single eliminator really has a weakness is in the level of participation it gives each racer. Half of the racers get to only make one lap and 75% of them only get to make two. One of the hallmarks of professionalism is a total focus on winning (as opposed to a focus on participating) which makes the single eliminator the most professional tournament structure of all. This is why at youth sports tournaments, the single eliminator is seldom used since the parents want a chance for their child to participate more than they want their child to win all the time. 

There is a direct correlation here to amateur drag racing in that, to many participants, it is unacceptable to lose in the first round of a single elimination event. They wanted to make a day of it but are brought up short. All their preparation, travel time, etc., to participate in their hobby is over in short order. 

Because of their great desire to continue, they are vulnerable to participating in an aberration of the single eliminator known as "the buy-back", a system where the racer can repay their entry fee (or some fraction thereof) to buy their way back into the next round of competition, thus avoiding elimination. This seriously compromises the elimination system because instead of eliminating opponents, all that is eliminated is money from the loser's wallet. This would be considered the ultimate in bad taste in most other arenas. There are plenty of other systems which could be used in order to give every competitor more seat time and a legitimate second chance.

The simple consolation race

This is really just a second single eliminator held between the first round losers of the scheduled event in an effort to give them a chance at making more than one pass. This is different from the buy-back in that the losers truly have been eliminated from the main event competition. Usually, winners of the later rounds of the primary race are not included here primarily because they have already had a chance to make more than one run and also by using the losers from only the first round, the number of rounds for the consolation race is virtually cut in half compared to allowing all the round losers from the primary race from entering as they become available. Wouldn't it be great to find a system where you could keep competing in the main event and still be using a system with integrity?

Mueller-Anderson Playback (1)

This structure has so many advantages it is simply amazing that no one uses it. The entire race is run with only 50% more heats than the single eliminator but does not affect the number of rounds. As long as you keep winning, it works just like a single eliminator but while you eliminate others from the path between you and the winner position, they are not eliminated from further competition because at every level, both the winners and the losers race each other to determine the finish positions behind the winner. In the eight car field shown in the diagram, only a total of 12 races are run but each racer makes three laps and at the end of it all, you can place each racer accurately in their finish position. 

Although the diagram looks a little strange at first, and would take a little effort to make up for a lot of entries, you can see where this system is great especially if your club has a track rented for the day and everyone wants to compete but also wants to make several passes. While this isn't the most professional system, it isn't the least professional either, and represents a great way for everyone to get multiple laps in, provides the spectator several chances to watch their favorite driver, provides great match-ups especially in later rounds, and does it all in the same number of rounds as a single eliminator.

Match racing

The match race is usually thought of in terms of a booked in show where two racers race for best 2 out of 3, but this structure can be applied to races with large entry lists as well. The Pure Stock Muscle Car Drag Race is one race that operates a 100+ car field on this system with everybody going two or three rounds of racing. The pairing is done by the promoter and is based on qualifying times. The disadvantage is that there is no single winner of the race. The advantage is that half the people go home as winners. 

You may be tempted to think at this point that it isn't very professional to give the loser so many chances to come back, or in other words, to not eliminate them with the first win. In professional sports however, the entertainment factor rises to the surface and for that sake alone, this is often the structure of choice. Consider the world series (baseball) with its seven games. Would anyone really want that to be a one game deal?

The "Chicago style" race

Bill Pratt detailed the nuances of "Chicago style" racing which you can read on the 7/16/00 Draglist Story of the Day, Chicago Style Drags and Match Races. I can't add anything to Bill's great description there so rather than quote him at length, you'd be better off to just go there and read it all.

The ladder (2)

A great system for sportsman racing is a structure simply called the ladder. The advantage is that everybody races the same number of rounds (whatever number is picked in advance or there is time for) and there are virtually no byes. The disadvantage is that the contestants have to make a paradigm shift in their thinking away from "did I win the race?" to "how many rounds did I win?" In the first round, the #1 qualifier is paired with the #2 qualifier, the #3 vs. #4, #5 vs. #6, and so on to the end of the entries. The winner of each pair moves up for the next round to race the loser of the pair just above them on the qualifying list. The losers of the round drop back to race the winners of the heats just below. This way, the winners keep moving up and the losers keep moving down. 

This is especially suited to large groups of racers who want to race heads-up and where the performance difference between each qualifying position is small enough so as to make moving up the ladder possible. If heads-up racing is what people will sit in the stands for, then this provides it. One disadvantage though is that after several rounds, the racing could stagnate with multiple rematches between the same competitors.

Test and tune, grudge racing

You know all about this. There is no structure really. Anybody runs who wants to and as much as they want to and if they want to hang out in the staging lanes waiting to line up with somebody special, well then, OK. If they get to the end and say, "Well, I wasn't really racing," well, OK then, too. Actually, there are many tracks with a profitable test and tune night. Of note is Piedmont Dragway, who has a monthly event named the Big Dog Shootout which really packs the joint.(3) 

Of interest to the track and promoter is that no prize money is needed. If there is any cash advantage to winning, it's usually supplied by the losing driver as part of a gambling scenario. A final thought: unless you count racers keeping track of the ETs of the other cars, there is no qualifying in grudge racing. This makes running without the clocks an interesting event in that people will be more prone to challenge another driver out of boldness rather than by crunching data. This is as loose and unstructured as it gets.

Time for a change?

Many people have speculated on the whopping success of stock car racing in the USA and have wondered why drag racing has not been able to duplicate this type of success in terms of spectator appeal. When you look at the single elimination ladder as is used in all the top drag meets, you can see that no matter who your favorite driver/car is, you only have a 50% chance of seeing them perform more than once. What would happen to the success of stock car racing if the fan only had a 50% chance of seeing their favorite driver/car past the first lap? I don't know the answer here, but it has always struck me as an advantage for the fans over there. 

For the hobby racer whose expense of getting to the track may greatly outweigh their expense of making additional passes, the single eliminator certainly becomes a limiting factor to their week-end or afternoon of fun. Several people I have talked to have given up drag racing to pursue other forms of motorsports purely because of the "seat time" issue. On both sides of the issue, professional and sportsmen, I just thought it was worth a look at some of the other options.

Next time, we'll look at qualifying positions and the importance of where they get placed into the show.

As always, I welcome your feedback.

Doug Dornbos


1. Intramural-Recreational Sports: Programming and Administration (5th edition) by Pat Mueller & John W. Reznik

2. Organizing Successful Tournaments (2nd edition) by John Byl.

3. Inside Motor Sports, May 2000, p.58, The Sandtrap: A Day at the Races. Several, actually..., by Jon Paulette


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