In the last three years, I’ve witnessed some of the most exciting drag racing in nearly a decade of covering the sport for Car Craft, and I’ve been to everything from NHRA to NMRA. The most exciting races have a total of zero acronyms in front of them. Instead, they have names like Lights Out, No Mercy, Prize Fight, and Shakedown. Consisting of just a few classes, relatively simple rules, and big cash payouts, racers flock to the events. Spectators pack the stands and the vibe is electric.
Generally speaking, you’d call this stuff small-tire racing and entire weekend events are based on the theme of cars racing with either a 275 or 315 radial tire—witness the Lights Out and No Mercy races that bookend the racing season at South Georgia Motorsports Park in Valdosta, Georgia. Those races are put on by Donald “Duck” Long, the larger-than-life personality behind Duck X Productions. Duck knows how to put on a show, and on those two weekends, SGMP is known as The Home of the Flying Cars. He was the first race promoter to devote an entire racing event to radial-tire cars, and the notion has taken off in the years since, spawning similarly themed races across the country.
Prepped vs. Unprepped Track
What’s a no-prep race? The best way to answer that is to first look at what track prep is. We talked with Jason Rueckert, Midwest regional manager for VP Racing Fuels. He and his buddy, Tyler Crossnoe, are often called in to do track prep at big events. Jason is obviously partial to his company’s brand of traction compound, Lane Choice 7, but he says all traction compounds—whether it’s VHT or Pimp Juice—work in a similar manner: they are an adhesive that bonds rubber to a concrete surface. Anyone who’s been to a drag race is familiar with the routine: traction compound is sprayed on the track, followed by several passes with tractor dragging old tires over the compound. The two steps are both necessary because a chemical reaction takes place between rubber and the traction compound that forms a sticky surface along the length of the track.
“I think of it like a dough,” Rueckert says. “Similar to the ingredients you use to bake a cake, the chemistry in traction compound reacts with rubber to form a dough that is spread on the track. When it’s applied correctly, you can see it, especially on the starting line. I call it the rubber carpet. It has a smooth, even finish. It works best when it’s less than 1/8-inch thick.” When it gets too thick or becomes uneven, track officials will either scrape the excess “dough” from the track surface or apply more traction compound and re-drag the track.
By contrast, a no-prep race doesn’t necessarily describe a race run in virgin concrete. Generally, a no-prep race is run on a track that hasn’t been prepped on the day of or during the event. That is appealing to many racers, but seen as a recipe for disaster by many others. “I get it, they’re wild races, but I think they’re dangerous as hell,” Rueckert says. “It would actually be safer if they ran on virgin concrete because the rubber left over on the track from previous races can have less grip than plain concrete, depending on how much time has passed.”
King of the Streets
No-prep races were conceived as a way to run a street race at a safer venue: a dedicated racetrack. We spoke with Trent Eckhart, who, along with local racer “Hey-Yo” Steve Gillespe, puts on the King of the Streets race in the Chicago area. “No-prep is an evolution of street racing,” Eckhart says. “We started running Real Street Drags at Great Lakes around 1999 or 2000, and at first, we ran it on days when the track wasn’t officially opened.” He explained the Real Street Drags is a loosely formatted, grudge-style race run on an unprepped surface. Racers can call one another out, give car lengths to a slower car, start on a flashlight or arm drop—basically, the same stuff that happens at a street race.
Real Street Drags is still happening at GLD, only now it’s part of the official schedule and run with a safety crew present. The format remains the same, though. Eckhart and Steve conjured up KOTS, which is basically the Super Bowl of unprepped grudge racing around 2006, and it has grown in popularity since. Car Craft covered some of the action at KOTS in 2014 and it was thrilling. “We allow close spectator participation,” Eckhart says, “and we wanted to keep that street-race vibe.” It did feel like a street race, too, with a crowd lining the track and gathered behind the starting line. The rules are simple, with just three classes—Senior, Junior, and Gangster—and simple rules. “The tires are basically the limiting factor,” Eckhart explains. Senior cars race on up to a 28×10.5 tire and need a parachute, Junior cars can’t run larger than a 275 or 8.5-inch tire and stock suspension. Gangster class is made for street cars; they must be registered, insured, and working lights, horn, and wipers.
KOTS is run on a track surface that is not prepped prior to the day of the event. Eckhart believes racing on an unprepped surface levels the playing field. It’s unpredictable—like on the street, anything can happen—and the fastest or most expensive cars don’t necessarily win.