Q&A: How Traction Control Is Changing Drag Racing

As recently as a decade ago, traction control was one of those topics, like nitrous oxide in Pro Stock or the infamous Matty Box, that you simply didn’t dare talk about. A taboo subject if there ever was one, the technology that had long been a part of circle track and road racing was largely prohibited in all of the major drag racing series and sanctions of the one sport where traction was most paramount.

Gradually, respected manufacturers began working to legitimize the technology that had been such a hush-hush subject in decades past, making it possible not only to equip a race car with it in a professional and well-engineered package, but do it in an affordable manner. The problem however, at least in terms of heads-up racing, was that would-be customers had nowhere to run it.

In the early to mid-2000’s, the world of outlaw doorslammer racing took to the technology and spread it like wildfire, thrusting the previously forbidden topic into the limelight. Suddenly, a system that was previously the center of conspiracy theory chatter during a rain delay was something that racers would openly promote and talk about. And it passed tech with flying colors.

Although traction control is still barred and heavily policed in the NHRA and countless other racing series, it’s become a generally accepted part of the game. From Top Fuel to Pro Extreme, between and below, teams are utilizing the data that it provides to improve their performance and deliver better, closer racing.

In this round table Q&A session, we’ll take a look at the current state of the traction control debate from the perspective of the racing series that both prohibit and allow it and the manufacturers that campaign heavily in favor of it. Among those in our panel are:

  • Promedia Director of Events Trey Capps
  • X-DRL Technical Director Chris Bell

Traction Control At A Glance

It’s difficult to pinpoint when and where traction control entered the sport of drag racing, and with so many forms of RPM, timing, nitrous, and boost controls at a racers’ fingertips today, the lines between what is legal and what is illegal is undeniably blurry. At the heart of a legitimate traction control system is a device capable of capturing and relaying information to the engine management system, pulled from sensors on the driveshaft, the transmission, or the rear end housing, that quickly and efficiently result in adjustments to the timing or the engine RPM to correct the tire spin. These systems are not only infinitely adjustable, but many modern systems are self-learning, meaning they’re capable of comparing the rate of acceleration of the crank to a calculated threshold value that’s adjusted in relation to the average of previous calculated measurements.

Unlike the rudimentary systems that racers and sneaky electricians hacked together years ago, today’s traction control systems are affordable and incredibly compact, making them nearly undetectable if a racer truly wants to conceal one. Likewise, with data recording such a common and attainable element of racing in this day and age, smart racers can tune their race cars to cope with traction loss in perfectly legal ways, begging the question: what is traction control and what isn’t?

Read on as we speak to the aforementioned figures in the sport and the manufacturing industry to learn their take on this always-popular topic.

DZ: As far as you know, when did traction control first enter the sport? Do you think there were hidden, home-made systems used by racers long before traction control systems were mass-produced?

MSD Performance's Technical Support Manager Joe Pando.

Shannon Davis: We put together our first drag racing pieces in 2002 or 2003, and it was the first time that we had adapted a circle track system over to drag racing. It was fairly successful, and those older units were better at saving a run, but not necessarily making it faster. As this technology evolved, however, the aim was not just to save a run and have a pick-me-up crutch, but make the car run faster.

I’m sure that there were hidden traction control systems prior to that, but I don’t know how effective any of them were, because you never saw them take off. But it’s likely that there were some top pro teams that were using it. There are a lot of smart racers and crew chiefs out there that could’ve certainly built something, so it’s likely that teams had a system that worked off of wheel speed sensors or, theoretically, even ground-based lasers.

Traction control is something that’s hard to do remotely, because in the past, remote communications weren’t fast enough and certainly not without having something obvious like a large antenna on the car. With a system like that in that day and age, by the time the lasers could send the proper signal, it would’ve been too late.

DZ: The topic of traction control has been very taboo, but do you think it’s becoming more accepted around the sport?

Joe Pando: I don’t think you need to look any further than the ADRL, which is a major series that’s legalized traction control. Its use doesn’t create a lopsided sport, because if you look at the list of winners, it isn’t always the same racers. There are several teams that are using our traction control and those from other manufacturers, and no one racer is dominating.

Example Data Of A Run Using Davis Traction Control With Nitrous Oxide

Chris Bell: Allowing it, but keeping an eye on it, has allowed it to become more acceptable, and other organizations have begun to accept it more because of that. Other series have looked at it and seen that it does produce a better show and that it’s a little safer because they get up and down the race track more consistently.

It’s hard to say that traction control is bad for the sport when you look at the competitive racing that goes on in the ADRL.

Trey Capps: I don’t know that it’s more accepted, but it’s certainly more understood and more accessible for racers to acquire.

Shannon Davis: Traction control is definitely more accepted in the venues where it’s allowed, because we make a living at it. Where it’s not allowed, I’m sure that it creeps into conversations, because we have several racers that compete in the ADRL and then go over and run with the NHRA.

It’s hard to say that traction control is bad for the sport when you look at the competitive racing that goes on in the ADRL. – Chris Bell

Overall, I think people are more accepting of it around the sport. The phrase “time heals all wounds” might describe it best. But I think the sanctioning bodies and the racers are realizing that traction control isn’t a process of just writing a check, installing a black box in the car, and setting world records. That’s just not how it works. The best tuners in the business are still going to run up front, and that’s the same way that it worked in circle track racing before we brought the technology to drag racing. The traction control never made anyone a hero.

I think there’s just a misunderstanding that a racer can hook up traction control, make 10,000 horsepower, and the car is going to magically hook up.

DZ: Why have you opted to permit the use of traction control, and do you continue to support that idea today?

Trey Capps, Event Director at Promedia Events for the NMRA, NMCA, and NMCA WEST Series.

Bell: We definitely still support the technology in our series, and we haven’t seen any detrimental effects from it in our classes. Early on, no one knew how many cars had it and it was tough to keep track of, but we monitor it closely to ensure that no one gains a performance edge from it.

We’re not afraid of technology, we just make every effort to understand the technology and make our decisions based on that.

DZ: Do you feel that traction control has allowed the ADRL to boast a better show for the fans? We see equally good racing in other doorslammer venues, so does it really make that much of a difference?

Davis: There are a lot of arguments to this, but it really comes down to whether you want to see the cars blow the tires off or if you want to see them make side-by-side passes. Whether a team bolted in a traction control box and learned how to use it, or they figured out how to make consistent runs some other way, it’s exciting to see a racer like Frankie Taylor run in the 3.50’s. The crowd is on their feet and everyone’s excited. But, close racing can be done with or without it.

Traction Control Comparison Video With Pro Extreme Racer Mike Janis

When Frankie unloads off the trailer, their traction control may engage six or eight times on the first pass, and then they take that data and see where the car needs help. From that, they can make adjustments and on the second run it might only come on three times. Eventually, they’re looking to see where it didn’t come on and they may try another degree here or there to see if it spins, and generally by the time they get into eliminations, the traction control is only coming on at the shifts. You could ask whether or not it needs it, and that’s the big question. The only way to know for sure is to run the car with it and without it.

Bell: I think that it’s allowed teams a little more data to learn and tune from, and therefore, it’s improved their program. It’s allowed them to make more complete runs.

It really comes down to whether you want to see the cars blow the tires off or if you want to see them make side-by-side passes. – Shannon Davis

We’ve made some significant gains in our track prep procedures over the last couple of years, and because of that, traction control has become less of a factor and racers aren’t relying on it as much as they had in the past. If it had never been instituted or if we prohibited it now, though, I believe that you would see an increase in the number of aborted runs and less side-by-side competition.

DZ: Do you think traction control belongs in bracket racing, or does it provide a tangible competitive advantage?

Capps: More than anything, it’s just one more thing that a racer has to buy. The thought process is that if one racer has it, you have to have it, and if you don’t have it, you won’t be competitive. It’s just one more expense to add to what’s already a very expensive hobby. A racer still has to hit the number, but if you can tie in traction control with all of the systems that are available to a bracket racer, you’re really not driving the car anymore.

Current X-DRL (and former ADRL) Technical Director Chris Bell.

Pando: As it is right now, in the .90 classes in the NHRA and IHRA, there are often 32 cars or more that are bunched up with only a few thousandths of a second between them, and thus traction control wouldn’t create much benefit for those racers. Simply look at what they’re doing right now without it. Bracket racers in general have their combinations down so well, and the racing is so close, that little would change with the use of traction control.

Davis: Most bracket racers aren’t on the ragged edge of what their tires can handle, but almost any car tends to have some slip on the shift. By minimizing that slippage, you have a more consistent run. Some racers swear by it, and they run really well with it. That slippage on the shift is just one more variable that we can take out of the equation. Really, the big argument is the cost, but who do you know that ever went racing to save money?

DZ: Is traction control an advantage for the more experienced race teams, or those getting their feet wet?

Joe Pando: Traction control is a great thing to have on bad race tracks. If you look back to the NHRA race in the fall at Charlotte, the track preparation and the weather changed the racing surface and the Pro Stock racers were entirely opposed to racing on it, but were forced to, and unfortunately, Shane Gray destroyed a race car. There were a lot of aborted runs prior to and after that, and had there been some form of control over the race car, it could’ve changed the outcome of that event.

MSD's 7531 box features what's known as a"Slew Rate Rev Limiter", which is tunable by the end user to adjust RPM should engine exceed a pre-set acceleration limit, in essence creating a form of traction control. Because of this capability, the box is outlawed in some venues.

Traction control won’t make a fast run any faster, but it will decrease the number of aborted runs. In the end, could traction control have created a better show for the fans? We really don’t know the answer to that without trying it.

Davis: It definitely speeds up the learning curve on the beginner or a racer with a new car or combination, because if you go out there weekend after weekend and blow the tires off or lose races because you spun, there’s a good chance you’re going to get frustrated and quit or not get any enjoyment from it. However, if you can get out there and have some success, you’re certainly more into the game of it all.

Most of the big teams look at it as a tuning tool to help them dial the car in during testing, and generally by the time they’re in race mode, they’re hardly relying on it. That may be driven by sportsmanship or by their ego, but it’s hard to say. It’s in the car and it’s turned on, but it’s set to a point where they’d have to get in a lot of trouble for it to come on.

We have a lot of customers that use is solely for testing, so they can see where the tires are breaking loose in real-time and adjust their setups.

Capps: Traction control won’t make a good run better, but it will improve what’s otherwise a bad run.

How It Works: MSD’s PowerGrid And ARC Module

One of MSD’s latest systems featuring traction control capabilities, the PowerGrid and ARC Module uses a driveshaft curve rather than an engine RPM curve with an 8-point magnet driveshaft sensor that quickly reacts to changes in driveshaft speed (tire spin). The ARC Module features three curves (A, B, and LIMIT), that pulls engine timing based on a pre-set A and B driveshaft curve. The LIMIT curve acts as a hard RPM rev limiter once the spin develops beyond the B curve. Essentially, the ARC Module address tires pin with timing, more timing, and finally, an RPM limiter.

Bell: Obviously the less experience that you have, the more beneficial that traction control is going to be. It allows you to get up and down the race track, and that builds a library of data that will help the racer to better understand what it takes to make clean passes. A tuner that’s been doing this for years or even decades that has a lot of data to tune from will know where the edge is and what it takes to get up and down the race track.

DZ: From delay boxes to Bump Boxes to air shifters, drag racers have many “aids” they didn’t have 25 years ago. In essence, traction control is really just an aid, so why is it still being shied away from?

Davis: Mainly, the series just don’t understand it. They think you can bolt the box into the car and it will take all of the tuning out of it. But it doesn’t — it’s just one more tool that a racer has in their arsenal. It’s just like a delay box, in that just because you have it, it doesn’t mean you’re going to win. You have to learn how to use it too. Smart tuners like Steve Petty and others learn how to use the tools that are in that car, and through that knowledge, they can then use them to their advantage.

Pando: Using Pro Stock as an example, the racing is already so tight without the use of traction control, that the series doesn’t see a need for it. If there was a wide disparity between the cars and one racer was dominating, they would probably take a closer look at why it is that way.

People will always blame what they don’t understand, and generally, it’s always the racing series and sanctioning bodies that are the last to want to understand the technology. It’s this black magic that a lot of people don’t want to touch. It just has this stigma.

The racing series don’t see any reason to muddy the waters, so to speak, but it would be interesting to see what it would do for the racing on some of the marginal tracks.

Capps: We’ve not instituted the use of traction control in our series for a couple of reasons. The first is the cost. If one racer has it, then every racer in the class has to have it to stay competitive, and that just raises the cost to go racing. Secondly, it’s a very hard thing to police. We have to go in there and see what the racer is doing with it and how they’re tying it into all of the various systems of the vehicle. It’s possible that we may allow its use in the future in some of our heads-up classes to create better side-by-side racing, but at this time, we don’t have any plans for it.

DZ: Would you consider traction control a safety feature?

Capps: I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a safety item, because you still have to have a drivers that’s cognizant of their own vehicle. Honestly, traction control isn’t anymore of a safety item than a wheelie bar or an air shifter is.

Bell: We haven’t looked at it as a safety item, but we have seen runs where racers have gotten in their own oil and it’s pulled timing out to help stabilize the car, but it’s still the responsibility of the driver to take over control. I wouldn’t want to say that it’s not a safety item, but I wouldn’t want to rely on it either.

Pando: You could look at traction control as a safety item. If an inexperienced driver is making the move to a faster class, it would definitely help in their transition.

Davis: I don’t like to say it, but obviously if you’re not spinning the tires, you have more control of the car, and when you have more control of the car, it’s safer. We won’t try to sell traction control as a safety device, and it’s not going to keep you from crashing, but it helps.

Davis Technologies' TMS-Drag Pro 2 is a high-end unit that's fully self-learning, with adjusable starting line and ending RPM as well as the null zone, and is capable of reacting within 1/8 of a turn of the driveshaft.

Both Frankie and Joey Martin ran into situations where they got into their own oil and saved the car through a lot of good luck and great driving. When we looked at the data on the computer, the traction control was on and it was on hard, and before you see the driver make any reaction to the situation, the traction control is already on. In fact, Joey told me that he felt the motor lay over before he even realized that it was in the oil and spinning the tires.

DZ: How do your technical departments keep traction control out of the cars? What methods are they employing?

Bell: We look for the tell-tale signs, such as extra sensors and magnets on the driveshaft, and we’ll pull Racepak data from the cars and analyze it. We’ll also pull ignition data from some of the cars to study. We have several devices that we can use to check for it, but we’d rather not go into too much detail on that.

Wherever a racer is going to hide it, it can be found. It’s just a matter of looking deep enough. – Trey Capps

We generally pick a few cars for a spot-check at the scales at every event, and usually that gets everybody talking.

Capps: We do perform regular spot checks on the cars by inspecting the wires and the data on the computers and laptops. Regardless of where a racer is going to hide it, it can be found. It’s just a matter of looking deep enough.

Pando: We work closely with the NHRA, and they were on board with us when we developed our traction control systems. To ensure them the comfort level that they have, we built tools for them that will go in and detect traces of traction control, whether or not it’s being used, and provide a footprint to see how long ago it was there. With these tools that we supply to them at their disposal, they in turn are accepting of us developing products with technology designed for non-NHRA classes that won’t migrate into their playground, and if they do, they’ve got tools to look for it and keep the racers honest and the playing field level.

We provide these tools for any sanctioning body that wants to use them, and we have them in Australia, the NHRA, IHRA, and the ADRL. In essence it’s a custom hand-held unit that they plug into the Canbus that will sniff it out and return information about the use of traction control. These tools can also deliver a time stamp that will inform officials when the feature was last used. Teams are allowed to test with it, so as long as the time indicates that it hasn’t been used during the event, that’s acceptable. The sanctioning bodies just don’t want the racers racing with it.

DZ: What does the future of traction control look like? Are these systems as advanced as they can be, or is this only the tip of the iceberg?

Pando: It’s amazing to think what we’re doing today with just a single sensor. If you really want to get after it, it’s all based on cost. The systems that we have available today can do most of the functions of high-end systems, and our goal is to keep the cost down for the racer.

Davis: Traction control systems in the future will be faster, much more tunable in terms of how much timing is taken out and at what point on the race track, and they’ll be mappable, where you can set a target driveshaft speed that you want to run and it will hold true to that.

We don’t want to let the cat out of the bag too much, but we have some things in the works for the near future.

DZ: Do you envision traction control eventually becoming legal in many or all sanctions of drag racing?

Davis: I can’t speak to them, but they may come around at some point and realize that it’s not a crew chief in a box. It may produce better racing, and it’s safer, so why not?

Pando: I work closely with a lot of the sanctioning bodies, and many of them have classes that they simply won’t allow the use of traction control because they don’t feel that there is a need for it, so it’s hard to say what the future holds for the technology.

In Closing…

Few technologies once considered controversial and unspoken of have gained acceptance as swiftly as traction control in drag racing, and innovators and trailblazers like those in our guest panel are to thank for that. There’s no question that the technology and it’s reach has influenced the sport, and whether that influence has been positive or negative is a matter of personal opinion, but it’s safe to say the technology is here to stay.

About the author

Andrew Wolf

Andrew has been involved in motorsports from a very young age. Over the years, he has photographed several major auto racing events, sports, news journalism, portraiture, and everything in between. After working with the Power Automedia staff for some time on a freelance basis, Andrew joined the team in 2010.
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