There’s no doubt that this year’s newly rechristened Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals was a pretty darned great drag race, with lots of drama, close and exciting racing, Don "the Snake” Prudhomme as grand marshal, and much more, but through all of the hullabaloo of the annual Big Go, we all somehow forgot that the event marked the 50th anniversary of the debut of the now iconic Christmas Tree.
Yes, race fans, it was at the 1963 event where NHRA rolled out its electronic contraption, much to the consternation of many of the racers who had honed their anticipatory and body-language-reading skills for years on acrobatic human flag starters.
Although flag starting was an accepted method, because it involved humans, it was fallible, could be gamed, and was sometimes controversial. There sometimes were charges of favoritism in early tip-offs between flag starters and their driver buddies or, because at the time the starter also was the sole judge of a foul start, of those being overlooked or incorrectly charged. Clearly, if NHRA Drag Racing was going to continue to evolve, the human element in the starting-line officiating had to be limited.
Improvements were made along the way to limit those indiscretions. At several events, NHRA kept the flag starter, but instead of him flamboyantly whipping the flag up from various positions, the starter used the tip of his flag to depress and hold a button on the ground that was linked to a beam that ran across the starting line. When the button was depressed, an overhead green light was illuminated (but oddly was not the sign to go). Once the starter was sure that both drivers were ready, he would whip the flag up from its position, and the race was on. If a driver left the starting line before the flag released the button, a foul start light came on next to the green. At most events, drivers were given two free false starts before disqualification on the third. When this system was used at the 1963 Winternationals, it reportedly resulted in 80 percent fewer foul starts than the flag-started 1962 Nationals.
NHRA National Field Director Ed Eaton, left, and Division 1 Director Lou Bond, who developed the starting system that became known as the Christmas Tree
Early in 1963, NHRA officials let it be known that a change was coming and that the Countdown Starter (as it was initially known; the Christmas Tree name apparently didn’t come into use right away) would debut in Indy. It was billed as "Foolproof in design [and] an equal start for all is assured."
Designed by then Division 1 Director Lou Bond, it consisted of five amber lights, a red, and a green on a skinny pole positioned between the two lanes. There were no pre-stage and stage lights, so the system was activated by the starter once he judged that both cars had their front tires on or pretty near the starting line. There was one staging beam to determine a foul start, but the cars didn’t have to be in it for the Tree to be activated (the birth of shallow staging?).
Initially – and, actually, through the end of 1970 – the Tree was a full five-bulb countdown for all classes, including the Pros, which probably most raised the ire of veterans who thought that their reflexes, honed by years of experience, were being negated by a series of “get-ready” blinks so that it became a matter of timing rather than reflexes or reading the starter’s body language.
Don Garlits, who famously red-lighted away the Top Eliminator final to Bobby Vodnik at that 1963 event, wrote in his book, Tales from the Drag Strip, "We had all gotten pretty good at reading the flag starter just by watching his eyes. We could read the muscles in his arms and how they tightened up just before he threw the flag. … The older guys hated it when the Tree came in. We eventually adjusted to it, but we really didn’t want it."
Yesterday, I chatted with supercharged gas legend “Ohio George” Montgomery – whom I see each year in Indy, when he is a guest in our National Dragster suite – to ask his memories of the 1963 event. By that time, Montgomery was the only driver in Indy history to win the Big Go twice (back to back in Little Eliminator at the 1959 and 1960 events in Detroit), and he obviously had no problem with the Tree in 1963, when he added a third title, this one in Middle Eliminator.
Montgomery remembered that he had seen the new system just a few weeks prior to Indy, where it was showcased at a Division 3 event. He and his fellow racers didn’t get many cracks at it, but it soon became apparent to him and others that the instructions to not leave until the green light came on was the fallacy that we all know today and may have given him an edge in Indy (though his fierce opponent in the AA/GS battles, the Stone, Woods & Cook team, later alleged that NHRA had disabled the foul start for Montgomery).
“There were no reaction times back then, so you never knew how close you were to red-lighting or how well you had timed it, so we learned as we went,” he said. “I actually liked the system because it had gotten to the point where there were a lot of complaints about the flag starters, especially for us guys back East. It seemed like NHRA always brought in the West Coast starters, and the West Coast guys all knew their moves. The button system helped change that for all of us because he always started from the same position.”
The creation of the Christmas Tree also led to the ability to handicap cars and classes based at the time on their class’ national records (before then, and only on a local basis, handicapping was done informally based on car lengths), which further leveled the playing field, especially in the Sportsman classes where a car from a much faster class invariably beat a lower-classed car in the catchall final eliminator runoffs, and, of course, led to today’s current formats.
The pre-stage and stage lights and beams were introduced at the 1964 Winternationals and billed as "the automatic line-up system," though the pre-stage and stage bulbs weren't yet actually on the Tree but rather positioned on the starting line itself.
The Tree has evolved numerous times since. The first Pro start as we know it took place at the 1970 Supernationals, where drivers in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock, and Top Gas got only one bulb (the fifth and final amber) before the green. The Tree later was shortened to three ambers for the Sportsman-driver countdown at the 1986 Winternationals, which turned out to be an enormous time-saver (believe it or not, one second per pair during a weekend really adds up).
The Pro start also changed to the simultaneous flash of all three amber lights (meaning that Pro Stock drivers in the left lane no longer had to peer over their ever-growing hood scoops), and the extra bulbs made the start a little more fail-safe should that lone amber burn out or break, an ongoing problem that was also eventually addressed when LED bulbs replaced the breakage-prone incandescent bulbs in 2003 (officials reportedly were changing out an average of 20 bulbs per race). Also in 2003, the Winternationals marked the debut of the .000-is-perfect reaction time (previously, .400 was perfect on a Pro Tree, .500 on a Sportsman Tree).
The Tree remained basically unchanged until the smaller yellow incandescent pre-stage and stage bulbs were replaced in 2011 with the current scheme of two semicircles comprising smaller blue LED lights, with the top half illuminated when pre-staging is complete and the bottom half when a car is fully staged. The new look, which took a while to get used to, was first implemented at the Four-Wide Nationals that year to make it easier for drivers to track their opponents’ staging progress across four lanes and later was adopted schedule-wide.
The Christmas Tree has come a long way in 50 years, and who knows what may occur between the lanes in the next 50. Can a hologram Tree be far away?