Variable-timing tree puts drivers to test

It was the most nerve-wracking eight- to nine-tenths of a second in NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing, that sliver of time after the combatants were staged and before the starting lights flew on the Christmas Tree.

Now imagine the tension with the moment about to be a full second, or 1.3 seconds, or eight-tenths -- and your hands are clenched at the starting line with no idea as to which one is coming.

That's the new wrinkle at the start line this season in the Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock Car classes, an expanded variable-timing tree that has taken anticipation out and put driver skill back in. For many years, the system was the same -- .80 to .93 seconds from stage to three simultaneous amber lights, four-tenths from amber to green -- and therefore almost predictable.

"There were too many guys taking shots and guesses," said Ron Capps, winner of the season's first two Funny Car events for Don Schumacher Racing. "It's not good when you come home to your kids and you explain that you lost on a holeshot because a guy guessed at the tree. So we're trying to eliminate that."

The new tree, moving from stage lights to amber randomly between .8 and 1.3 seconds (.8 to 1.1 in Pro Stock) and changing with every run, is a product of drivers' conversations this past year with the NHRA on ways to improve racing. When longtime starter Buster Couch ruled the starting box from the early 1960s to 1995, Capps recalled, the tree was truly in his hands. ("You didn't leave until you saw amber. If he wanted you to wait, you waited," Capps said.) But the tree later evolved into a near-robot with a narrow timing window drivers became attuned to.

It was predictable enough that drivers could "take a shot" at the tree to try to leave first against a perceived better car or driver. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. The new tree won't prevent drivers from continuing to chase that reaction-time advantage in a sport decided by hundredths and thousandths of seconds at the finish line, but it's now going to be more of a prayer than an educated guess.

Last month at Phoenix, Top Fuel driver Troy Buff, a No. 15 qualifier, faced a juggernaut in the opposite lane in five-time defending champion Tony Schumacher. Buff's BME/Okuma dragster would be a long shot to beat the DSR U.S. Army car on equal footing, so Buff looked for an advantage off the line. He went red by .042 seconds and Schumacher didn't have to make a full pass, having seen Buff's mistake.

"He went awful red. This new tree is doing its job," Schumacher said after the run. "It's meant to keep people from guessing. It's making you wait, it's slowing reaction times down. It's more difficult, but it's doing what it was designed to do -- that's to keep the sport fair."

Through the first two events of the season there have been seven red lights in eliminations, up from four over the same time this past season. That's a small sample size but likely shows how much of an adjustment it is for drivers to get used to the tree.

"You wouldn't think, logically, it would be that different, but I tell you what, it's like an hour, sitting there at full throttle," said four-time Pro Stock champion Jeg Coughlin of the long end of the random timing.

"It's added another level of discipline. To guess at all is hazardous."

Pro Stock faced its new tree for the first time at Phoenix after a number of drivers were impressed with the nitro racing at the season opener and asked for a version of the timing in its class (the smaller gap of .8 to 1.1 seconds is to accommodate the cars' high-RPM clutches). NHRA officials said there are no plans to alter the tree for Pro Stock Motorcycle when that class' season begins this weekend at the 40th annual Gatornationals.

Drivers are still able to practice for the new tree, using simulators in team haulers and at home. It is taking some getting used to, but the reaction -- so to speak -- to the change has been positive.

"I raced Robert Hight in the semis at Pomona and I had won the race, a close race, and we were more excited about how the tree made us wait," said Capps, an excellent starter who has left first in seven of his eight round wins this season.

"If there's any drivers complaining, then they need to go back and practice some more. And I say that because I could very well red-light the next race, but the fact is we did it as a group because we wanted to bring the driver back into it more."

John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.