Tech Stuff

How Track Prep Has Changed Drag Racing

The Sultans of Stick


Story and photos by Tom McCarthy

Today there roams the world a new breed of racing surface technicians, traction experts really, who are in high demand. They are significantly impacting the sport of drag racing at most every level. Traction in drag racing is like ice to ice-fishing: you simply can’t do one without the other.


Traction leads to action in drag racing; it’s importance can’t be overstated.


In a sport where quickness wins races, the ability of a race car to go from a standing-still start, then accelerate like a Saturn rocket off a launch pad blasting from zero to 200 MPH in about 3.5 seconds, is just astounding to see and hear. In drag racing, it’s the visual impact coupled with the auditory assault on the senses that makes it a heart-pounding spectator sport. But without traction, everything goes up in smoke very quickly.


A very wise drag racer once stated, “I don’t care how much power you have, it only matters if you can put it to work.” An inescapable truth resides at the heart of the matter: racers can only go as quick as they can put the power to the pavement. In 2019 traction rules the action now more than ever.


When the NHRA was struggling to slow down the fuel cars from going over 330 MPH, they tried all manner of rulings to impede power production. No matter what the NHRA did, the racers found a way to go faster and quicker. That is until the NHRA finally realized they had the answer all along in their track surface preparations. If the cars can’t grab the race track, they can’t go too fast. So, the NHRA adjusted its track prep to slow down the big 10,000 horsepower fuel cars.


In drag racing traction is the key to unlocking higher performance. Remember, power only matters if you can put it to work.


But this begs the question, what if you took the locks off and created a racing surface so tight, so sticky that that cars and teams could unleash their full fury? If racers had a racing surface with the ultimate grip, how quick and fast could they go?


While the NHRA chose to back off on track prep to prevent the fuel cars from going too fast too quickly, this gave rise to a new era in drag racing, beginning the radial tire wars. As the NHRA shied away from too much track-bite, others embraced it, developing new techniques in race track preparation. These events spurred the growth of radial tire racing. From the confluence of this sprang the Sultans of Stick: the men who use art and science to create racing surfaces with so much adhesion, it’s nearly impossible to spin a tire on the racing surface. These men have become game changers in drag racing.

This is Mark Woodruff’s car under full power laying down a 3.77 @ 212.16-MPH pass at the Sweet 16. Look closely at his tire tracks. The silver dash marks you see behind his car are his tire tread imprints in the sticky racing surface. To do this there is NO tire slippage at all, just a radial tire perfectly stuck to the racing surface.


Today cars can be glued to the track surface so that “zero wheel spin” is present. While tune-up artists call it wheel spin, it’s really zero tire rotational slippage on the track surface. If conditions and preparations are correct, the Sultans of Stick can create a racing surface no tire will spin freely on. In 2019, these men are sought after by race tracks all over the world. From Qatar to Puerto Rico and back on down to good old Cecil, Georgia, these Czars of traction are in very high demand.

Kurt Johnson. (He’s the other one, not Warren’s son.)


Tyler Crossnoe


The Sultans of Stick include track prep experts like Kurt Johnson of Total Venue Concepts, Wade Rich of Orlando Speed World, Tyler Crossnoe of Virginia Motorsports Park, Jason Miller of Maryland International Raceway, and Jimmy Bradshaw formerly of Darlington Dragway. For certain there are others, but these men typify the core element of today’s track preparation specialists.


Their initial development began somewhere around the year 2010, just as radial tire drag racing began to take off. Door-car racing was exploding in popularity at this time in drag racing history and as it did, more race tracks needed better traction to host major door-car events. This was the impetus for the Sultans of Stick to begin cultivating and expanding their craft. New equipment and techniques soon followed.

Primary traction preparations during this time frame came from track dragging and spraying, which was the basic methodology at the time. Most modern racing facilities owned a tire-dragger: a machine that drags used drag slick segments behind a big tractor and with pressure applied to the tire segments while dragging them, they deposit rubber onto racing surfaces wherever applied.

How dragger treads are made.


Then in 2010, a new machine was invented by Larry Crispe of Bandimere Speedway, near Denver, CO, commonly referred to as a Tire Rotator Machine. It features four giant drag slicks that rotate opposite the direction of travel for the machine and when they are pressed against the racing surface and rotated, the high friction deposits rubber onto the track surface everywhere it’s in contact with the track.

Wade Rich takes the Tire Rotator for a spin.


The significance of this invention is while the rotator lays down rubber everywhere it goes, the tire dragger tends to take rubber off of high spots in the track and drag the rubber into the low areas of the track surface. These machines used in concert with one another can take an average racing surface and improve it greatly by transforming the surface into an improved level of flatness.


The tire rotator and dragger combination can also be used to lay down an entire new layer of rubber onto a race track. By scraping off old contaminated rubber and laying down fresh clean rubber, the track technicians are in control of the layers of rubber and the bonding between them, thus giving them complete control of the racing surface.


The old gunky track surface has to come up.


Wade Rich commented, “One of the most important elements of track prep is to start with a clean surface. It’s like preparing a car for paint – you wouldn’t paint over contaminants, would you? The paint wouldn’t stick for long, would it?”


This is vital to modern era track prep because through the development of track preparation science over the years, track prep experts have discovered that full adhesion between the layers of surfacing is necessary to prevent shifting or separation between the layers. For this reason and others, less is more when it comes to rubber on a race track. Also, quality not quantity is paramount: the quality of the rubber being laid down and the bonding between the layers.


Track preparation experts like Kurt Johnson, who worked with and studied Crispe’s inventions and applications, went to work and over the years has perfected his dictum: “tight and thin.”


Johnson explains it like this, “Myself, I owe much of what I know to him. What Larry means by that is keep the layer of rubber thin and the track tight. Now to do this the layer must bond well with a very clean track surface or what you put on top of that will not matter. By watching Larry, and applying his principles of scrape, wash/dry, then spray and drag; this is the bedrock procedure for preparing a race track.”


These traction masters have discovered that the basic substrate of the race track weighs heavily into the equation. They approach an asphalt race track differently than they do a concrete track. What they lay on top of that matters greatly and how the layers bond to one another is vital in building a quality racing surface. Once sufficient rubber is down, the art and science move to another level with the spraying and development of the glued surface.

Traction compound or “the glue” sprayed onto the rubber surface becomes the next step. Knowing exactly what to spray and when to spray it is the difference between a good racing surface and a great racing surface. It is common knowledge that spraying traction compound can enhance traction if done properly. It can also kill traction if done improperly.


There are different grades and different manufacturers of traction liquids. They can be combined or they can be diluted; it’s up to the applicator what is put into the spraying tank before he drives out onto the racing surface. One application might be very effective on a cold track, but that blend would become ineffective when track temperatures rise greatly. The Sultans of Stick have learned what to spray and when to spray it.


“You have to look at when the heaviest competition will take place, the high horsepower applications and think about how hot it will be, how much sunshine will be present at that time and prepare for that – the heaviest usage,” Wade Rich at SGMP commented.


After the spraying, a certain amount of track dragging will sometimes take place to further groom the surface, but not always. It depends what the ambient conditions are and the traction compound blend applied to the track. Now for the important part: the results are measurable – somewhat.


Traction meter surface analyzers have been around a while now and basically they are a device with a rubber foot pad that is spring-loaded and when applied to a racing surface, a racing crew member puts the traction meter to work, applies a torque wrench to it, often measuring increments with inch/pounds readings and the device will yield a reading taken at several different locations on the track. Common readings on major sanction prepared race tracks are often in the 280 to 300 range. They want a certain amount of slippage to their prep. But such is not the case for radial tire racing prep.


When the Sultans of Stick get serious, they lay down a track surface of 350 to 400 and will push 450 if required. This is where actual traction meter readings become questionable. One traction master explained it this way, “Track surface temps vary across the race course and so too will every reading. Not only that, but once a track is prepped and sprayed, I don’t care what device you are using, it’s in contact with only the upper glued surface. What it’s really encountering is its contact with the glue and the bond between it and the glued surface. So, ask yourself, is it measuring the glue-tack or is it twisting in the glue?”


Frankly, this does not matter. What matters is what each team learns each pass.


What’s required under these racing conditions are that race teams build a library of data for a specific racing machine, use only that type of tire every time, then carefully measure ambient conditions of the sun, air and racing surface – record everything, then correlate this to the run results. Only by doing this and building a library of data can a team then equate what they know about track conditions to their tune-up.


The results of all this are that these men can create on demand a racing surface that can hold thousands of horsepower and it matters not if the drag car or motorcycle has a drag slick on it or a DOT-approved radial tire: hook and go is about to happen courtesy of max traction. This new ability is now impacting the very history of the sport, for higher levels of performance are only attainable if the track conditions are there. Consider this: in 2013 a Radial Vs the World car laying down a 3.99 elapsed time was a big deal. In 2017 the magic number dropped to a 3.79 and now in 2019 the RvW cars are entering the 3.50 elapsed time zone.


What’s different is the cars are making more power and the Sultans of Stick are giving them a racing surface they can grab and boogie with. As so often is the case in drag racing, it’s all about the combination. Of course, there are also consequences for these actions.


During the Sweet 16 2.0 event held on March 23, 2019, with track prep by Wade Rich and Nelson Hoyos, the Donald Long-hosted event yielded a stunning low qualifier elapsed time of 3.578 at 214 MPH set by Daniel Pharris of Sikeston, MO, who set the new world record for RvW cars. This was not without great expense by the concerned parties. Ten barrels of traction compound, four sets of rotator tires, two sets of skid rubbers, and hundreds of man-hours went into that track prep. Somewhere in the neighborhood of $15,000 was spent, just on the track prep of the three-day event held at South Georgia Motorsports Park.


But the racing surface was just incredible. The world’s most powerful door cars, the Radial Vs the World machines, were running new personal best numbers. History was made on Thursday night during Q-4, when Kevin Rivenbark of Clinton, NC, brought the RvW class faithful to their feet with a stunning 3.587 pass and in doing so brought the RvW world into the 3.50’s as many predicted would happen at this event. It didn’t matter if the cars were running at night or under a bright sunny sky: the track was on point.


Herein lies the magic of the Sultans of Stick: traction on demand, when you need it, as you need it. 



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