INSIGHT: How to nail an NHRA Top Fuel run

Rebilas Photo

INSIGHT: How to nail an NHRA Top Fuel run

Insights & Analysis

INSIGHT: How to nail an NHRA Top Fuel run


In the 3.8 seconds it takes Shawn Langdon to muscle his Kalitta Motorsports DHL Toyota Top Fuel dragster down the track, he’s processing a million things.

OK, Langdon admits that might be a small exaggeration. But there’s certainly a lot going on, and Langdon puts in just as much work leading up to sitting on the starting line as he does during the run itself. Spend some time with him in the pits of an NHRA event, and it’s clear his mind is always going.

It starts back in the pit area where Langdon packs his parachutes and warms his car up. He also mixes the fuel, which he has down to a science. A warm-up is about 60 to 70 seconds and will require fuel top-off.

“I’m kind of a hands-on guy,” Langdon explains to RACER. “I don’t have anything against being a part of the team. I enjoy it. I like to be busy rather than bored. I find the time rather than just be bored sitting in the lounge waiting for the next run.”

When Langdon isn’t entertaining the media or visiting the team’s hospitality area for meet and greets, he does plenty of other things. Is his safety equipment all together for when he heads to the staging lane? There also needs to be time to debrief with crew chief Kurt Elliott about their most recent run.

“He’s looked at the RacePak (data logger), so he knows all the information,” Langdon says. “But I tried to relay information to the crew chief of what my last run felt like and the things that happened that I felt or that I saw, and then I try to correlate that with what he saw on the RacePak.

“If I tell him things and he says, ‘Yes, this is what I saw on the RacePak,’ I feel like I’m more in tune with what’s going on with the car, rather than if I go in there and say, hey, I felt that, and he says, ‘No, that’s absolutely not what happened.’ Then it’s kind of like, OK, well, I’m just completely out of touch. Something must have distracted me, or I’m not in touch with the car.”

Take the recent 4-Wide Nationals at zMAX Dragway in Concord, North Carolina. After the early qualifying run on Saturday, Langdon relayed to his crew chief that it felt like a cylinder went out and shut off 750 feet down the track.

“And he quickly looked at the RacePak and showed it actually shut me off at 753 feet. So, for me, mentally, I feel like my track awareness is within three feet going at that point, probably 280 miles per hour, so that’s probably as close as you can get. So, I feel like, OK, I’m in touch with what’s going on with the car.”

Langdon likes to take a hands-on approach with his team. Rebilas Photo

The team brings the car to the staging lane about 20 to 30 minutes before a session begins. As they do, Langdon gets changed and makes his way there. Langdon might look like he’s just patiently waiting to climb into his car and roll to the starting line, but the time spent in the staging lane is when Langdon is really inside his own head.

“Usually coming up the lanes, I’ll be looking at the run sheet to see how we’re racing. Just to mentally prepare – everybody kind of has different run processes,” says Langdon. “Some people are a little faster, some people slower. Some people like to stage a little quicker; some like to stage a little slower. I do a mental checklist to make sure I’ve got all my equipment again, understand which lane I’m in. Some tracks have different characteristics for a lane.

“Some lanes may run you to the wall a little bit. Some lanes maybe run you to the centerline a little bit. Sometimes, depending on the way the sun is, it may be right on the tree, or the tree may be shaded. There are a few things like that I go over, and I go over to the crew chief just to kind of talk with him if I have any additional questions.”

Something else you should know about Langdon. He’s a stats guy, and there is never enough information to dig into. He likes to analyze things.

“I like to get in-depth on things; I like to figure out the thousandths of a second,” Langdon says. “That’s how I keep my mind occupied to where I don’t overthink things in the car, such as the overall run procedure. One big thing on the starting line is cutting fast reaction times and not overthinking that part of it. That’s what keeps me focused. Like, OK, I’m going to be in this lane. This is what the tree settings are like. I may go with a clear shield or a dark shield or amber shield to see the tree best.

“This is (the other driver’s) run process; they may be a little faster than me, slower than me, so this is what I’m going to do it either speed it up or slow it down. Those are the things that I can do to keep my mind occupied and not overthinking things and messing up a run.”

Even on the starting line, Langdon is still thinking about the previous run and possible scenarios that could happen.

After the burnout, Langdon may have to change his approach. Adapting is a part of the game, and sometimes he might be backing up after doing a burnout and knowing he needs to do something different. The side he burns out on will determine what side of the track Langdon runs, to avoid running over his tracks.

“Unless you are on a really good track,” he says. “I try to be really precise on my run time. I have a timer on my dash that tells me the amount of seconds that the car has been running since fire up. These things burn off a gallon (of fuel) every 12 seconds or so, and every gallon is 10 pounds. You burn off an extra gallon, and you have 10 pounds less on your nose, which can throw off the balance on the car.

Langdon leans heavily on data, and makes constant adaptions right through the build-up to his run. Rebilas Photo

“I try to be very precise as far as the amount of time that I roll into the water box. What’s my number? The time I come to a stop, what’s my number? The time I back up and come to a stop, what’s my number? The time I pull forward, back to pre-stage, what’s my number? And then what’s my range from pre-stage to stage, and how long do I have to potentially wait a guy out or to stage?”

Through all of that, Langdon also has a good idea of what his opponent will do. All the information and data he likes to look at helps with that. He’ll know whether to get in quick or stage shallow. Langdon also knows how they’ll react to a long or short tree.

“I always kind of keep myself on my toes,” he says. “There is nobody out there that is going to throw me a curveball, because I’ve already thrown myself three curveballs by the time I’ve done a burnout and backed up. I like to challenge myself in certain ways; I like to find my weakness on the starting line, and then I like to exploit my own weakness and work on them to make me better in the worst-case scenario.”

Then it’s finally time for the run, and processing a lot more information.

“You think about, oh, well, I think it’s smoking the tires. Well, it’s probably been smoking the tires for 100 feet now, and it’s probably already blown the motor,” says Langdon. “A lot of times with your body, it’s really just like a seat of the pants situation where your body does things. There are times that it goes out there, and my foot lifts off the gas, and I’m mentally thinking, I could have sworn it smoked the tires. I wouldn’t bet every dollar I had on it, but I think it started to smoke the tires, started to drive the tires off. But there is sometimes that your brain reacts so quick to these things it’s way faster than you can process.

“From the time you hit the gas to the time you throw the parachute, from zero to 1,000 feet, everything happens. And then from 1,100 feet to the time you turn off the track, you’re processing what happened. You’ll say, oh, wow, it might have picked the front end up, or it might have had a lot of wheel speed early. It might have done this or done that. You really gather all your information and thoughts in the shutdown area to where you can come out and hopefully give an intelligent interview for TV, and then tell your crew chief.”

A driver is fighting their car through that 1,000 feet. It is not going as straight as it may seem to the naked eye. After having done it for so long, Langdon realizes that he leans into the car as it launches, and his gut clenches. When getting ready to pull the parachute, there is a lean forward in expectation. The car shakes from its 11,000 horsepower, and it’s not until a driver watches an in-car camera that they truly understand what their body goes through.

Langdon describes how his head gets shoved into the roll cage when he hits the gas. How throwing the parachute causes his neck to sling forward, and his chin is in his chest.

“You’re like, wow, my body really moves that much?” he says. “Even though you have a fitted seat, you have a seven-point harness, and your HANS, you still move more than you think. Yeah, you watch the in-car camera, and you’re like, oh my gosh, I didn’t think my neck was that flexible.”

Langdon was knocked out in the first round of Elimination Sunday at zMAX Dragway. The team seemed to fight mechanical gremlins most of the weekend. But the 2013 Top Fuel champion didn’t appear fazed. Instead, he quickly reset after each run and began his systematic preparation for whenever the next run is.

“I have a sickness to racing,” says Langdon. “I wake up at 6:30 in the morning thinking about racing. I got to bed at midnight thinking about racing.”