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Statistically speaking ...

Why stats are so important in drag racing; a look at the printing presses that produce National Dragster
28 Nov 2007
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

Let's face it: Numbers rule our lives. Pretty much every electronic device you own is programmed with a code based on two numbers (1 and 0) and let's not even get into having to memorize phone, PIN, driver's license, and Social Security numbers, birthdays, anniversaries, and the like.

And don't even get me started on computer passwords. To enhance security, our passwords contain at least three of the following: lowercase letters, capital letters, numbers, a wildcard ($, &, @, and the like), an Egyptian hieroglyph, a Sumerian cuneiform, an improper fraction, and your second cousin's sister's babysitter's middle name. Or something like that. You must change your password about every 90 days and your password can’t even remotely resemble any of your previous 150 passwords. I'm not making this up. (Well, most of it I'm not making up. For security purposes. So forget that part. I was never here.)

We signed up an extra statistical burden once we became drag racing fans, trying to remember how Don Garlits ran 5.63 at Ontario in 1975 and Kenny Bernstein 301.70 in Gainesville in 1992, that Don Prudhomme won 13 out of 16 events in 1975-76 and Greg Anderson 15 of 23 in 2005. Hardcore fans live and breathe these kind of stats.

The funny thing about numbers is that they're tricky little devils. For example, if you’re batting .300 in baseball -- three hits for every 10 at bats -– you’re an all-star. Drain just three shots out of 10 in basketball and you're on the bench. Save only three of 10 slapshots in the NHL and you're back on the bus in the minor leagues. The difference, as explained to me by almost-big leaguer Bob Wilber, is that hitting a baseball is infinitesimally tougher than anything else in sports (believe me, he could write a book on the subject; ask him to blog about it) but it kind of boils down to the fact that trying to a hit a round object (the ball) with a round object (the bat) is tricky. Quoth Wilber: "As far too many announcers have said, 'You have to swing a round bat at a round ball, and hit it square.' The difference between a pop-up and a line drive, on the face of that bat, can be less than a quarter-inch. It takes something like 14-hundredths of a second for a fastball to leave the pitcher's hand and cross home plate, so a hitter's reaction time has to be almost immediate. He has to recognize the release point, and then instantly calculate things like release angle, rotation, and arm action to figure out if this is a fastball (swing NOW) or a curve (wait and take it to the opposite field) or a change-up (override all of your instincts, and wait, wait, wait, even though your eyes saw the same arm action as the fastball release.). Mix in a sinker, a slider, or a knuckleball, and the mind boggles how these guys can ever hit a ball hard."

Okay, fair enough, but that all got me to thinking: What's drag racing's most important stat? For drivers, you’d immediately want to say "reaction time" but, as we insiders know, the reaction time is a combination of driver reflexes, staging depth, and tune-up. I remember Frank Hawley working to devise a system a few years ago to measure driver reaction time but not much ever came of it in the way of centralized stats. The stat also doesn't take into account, for example, drag racing's version of a change up: a staging duel. Or runs made in dark conditions. Or having to find the Tree in the glare of the setting sun.

So, a few years ago when we created a giant back-of-the-book stats section for National DRAGSTER, one of the stats we dreamt up was the "first-leave" stat which is exactly what it sounds like: How many times did you leave first against an opponent. It's not a perfect stat either, but it at least is a head-to-head stat based on near-identical conditions.

With the new Countdown format, round wins are not necessarily a good indicator, nor is winning percentage. Tony Pedregon had just the fifth-best overall winning percentage, yet finished the season champ in Funny Car with less round wins than Robert Hight and Ron Capps. Curious, right? Yet he had the best head-to-head winning percentage among fellow Top 10 points earners and possessed the season's best reaction time average. Ditto for Top Fuel king Tony Schumacher, whose winning percentage was just the third-best in the class, yet he was 20-9 against his fellow top 10 racers –- far and away the best in the class -- meaning he won the crucial matches against those with whom he was most directly doing battle. Sure, he had a ton of first-round losses, but the majority of those wins went to non-championship-contending racers.

I think a good indication for a crew chief might be completed runs –- how many times a car went A to B without breaking or smoking the tires -- but that doesn’t take into account losing lane choice and getting stuck in a tricky lane or "testing" passes once already safely qualified. Again, a tricky task.

We're not alone. Have you ever seen the NFL's quarterback rating formula? It goes a little something like this:

(a + b + c + d) / .06

where
a = (((Comp/Att) * 100) -30) / 20
b = ((TDs/Att) * 100) / 5
c = (9.5 - ((Int/Att) * 100)) / 4
d = ((Yards/Att) - 3) / 4

a, b, c and d can not be greater than 2.375 or less than zero. Okayfine. What he said.

A lot of guys out there -- Todd Veney, Bob Frey, Lewis Bloom, Jim Hawkins, and "Nitro Joe" Jackson – crunch drag racing numbers for a living and I bet they're still searching for the truth, too. Maybe they can come up with something like the QB Rating. I'd be interested in hearing what you all think is a great new (or improved) stat for our sport. Drop me a line with your ideas.

Before Thanksgiving, I mentioned that we had completed that week's issue ahead of schedule so that it could go on the presses at Conley Printing early so that the fine folks there who have printed National DRAGSTER for nearly 20 years could enjoy a day off. Turns out I spoke too soon. Edward Russell, a press operator at Conley, dropped me a line to let me know that, indeed, the presses were running Thanksgiving Day in beautiful downtown Beaver Dam, Wis., and he wanted to give a shout out and recognition to the guys working the ginormous G16 press that day.

I asked Lois Harmsen, one of our fine customer service reps at Conley, for some details about the presses that churn out your ND for you week in and week out. In addition to your favorite weekly racing paper, Conley publishes approximately 85 other publications, some weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, bi-monthly, even a few quarterlies. According to its website, Conley Printing’s history in Beaver Dam (population 15,000, not counting the beavers) can be traced back to 1856 with the publication the Dodge County Citizen, the city’s first weekly newspaper.

"We have three Community presses that can run heatset and non heatset paper (normally just newsprint), and the one Baker G16 that can pretty much run anything, most size publications and newsprint and gloss papers," she said. "The G16 can run approximately 22,000 pieces per hour and is powered by a 200-horsepower motor. The Community presses run approximately 19,000 pieces per hour and are powered by 100 horsepower motors."

Conley has other sites in Colorado and Arizona, but the place in good ol' Beaver Dam is pretty impressive, with more than 200,000 square feet of manufacturing and office space.