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New problems, new solutions as LED lights trickle down to grassroots racing
By Brian Wood
Photos by Brian Wood and Roger Richards

In January of 2003, the NHRA announced that it would be implementing the use of LED (light emitting diode) lights on the Christmas Tree starting system, replacing the traditional yet damage-prone incandescent lights.

"The biggest advantage is that the vibration, especially that caused by the Top Fuel and Funny Car classes, won't cause the LED bulbs to burn out like it will an incandescent," said NHRA's Graham Light at the time. "Amber bulb failures, especially during full Tree countdowns in the Sportsman classes, lead to re-runs and other problems. We are trying to avoid that problem as well as step up our technology. Racers are advised, however, that the LED lights illuminate quicker, by about three-hundredths of a second, than the incandescent lights."

Bob Brockmeyer, left, and Royce Miller were behind the development of the new Compulink CrossTalk program.

Sure enough, the racers took notice, and quickly, as a flurry of red-light starts soon became a hot topic of conversation among fans and competitors alike. As Light had warned, there is a decided difference in the time it takes an incandescent bulb to come on versus an LED bulb. When power is introduced to an incandescent bulb, it takes a short period of time for the current to heat the filament and make the light visible to the human eye, usually two to three-hundredths of a second. In an LED bulb there's no heating of the filament, so when the power hits it the light comes on instantaneously. This explains in part why so many racers all of a sudden had better reaction times, because they could see the light sooner after the power was introduced to the bulb. This was a very positive thing for a lot of drivers who were on the slow side normally, but those who had a tendency to cut it close now found themselves fouling out at the line.

Eventually, over the course of the season, most adapted to the new lights, and at the national event level, at least, the LED system became an accepted part of the game.

Thundering fuel cars were taking a toll on incandescent bulbs in the Christmas tree, creating a demand for something better.

As the evolution of the LED light continues, however, new problems arose, particularly when the new lights were used where vehicles were using delay boxes for handicap racing. To explain just what these problems are, and the resulting solution, we asked three key people in the sport to shed some light on the situation.

They are Bob Brockmeyer, of Compulink Timing, developer of the timing system most often found at dragstrips around the world, Royce Miller, owner of Maryland International Raceway and co-developer with Brockmeyer of the Auto Start system and John DiBartolomeo, sportsman racer and editor of Drag Racing Action magazine.

“The catalyst that started this deal was the fact that the fuel cars were breaking the elements in the incandescent bulbs traditionally used in the Christmas Tree,” said Miller, reiterating the information released by the NHRA. “Of course, this was in issue at national event tracks. At the local track level there wasn't much of a reason to change other than the fact that the amber incandescent bulbs were just getting harder to find. They're still available, but you have to dig harder to find them.

The new LED lights come on quicker, initially causing a flurry of red-light starts among the professional ranks of the NHRA.

“It all actually trickles down from the time when the NHRA and IHRA went to the three amber tree a number of years ago in order to speed up eliminations at national events,” Miller added. “With national events setting the standard for drag racing in most cases, whatever happens at that level eventually works its way down, and that's just what's happening with the LED lights – they will soon be the standard on a number of levels. The NHRA introduced LEDs at the start of the 2003 season, as we know, and the IHRA has made the commitment to use them at national, divisional and select bracket finals beginning this season. At this point, the use of the LED lights at bracket finals is dependant on the vote of the track operators involved. As far as the rest of the industry goes, it's a per-track decision at the local level.

There have been some concerns raised regarding the use of LED lights where bracket racing is concerned. The reason for this is the fact that the peripheral display from an LED is less than that of an incandescent bulb. In other words, unless you're looking directly at an LED bulb you don't get a lot of light to react to. This restricts a faster racer's ability to cross over and leave off an opponent's bulb. If you're not staring straight at an LED bulb, it's very hard to see it come on. That's the reason Compulink developed the CrossTalk system. Now, all lights on a driver's side of the tree are pointed directly at him, eliminating the need to look to the other side because the top ambers come on together.

This official release from Compulink further explains how the new CrossTalk system works:

“A new option, named "CompuLink CrossTalk" can be used in all electronics classes that use the full tree allowing top bulb cross over.

“With this option, the tree can stay completely blinded with the amber lights focused directly at the driver. The top amber light in each lane will activate with the start of the slower dialed car's tree countdown, the slower car's tree will continue on its normal .5 second countdown to green.

“The faster car's top light will stay on for the standard .5 second duration plus the amount of handicap between the two lanes, and then it will continue to countdown after that at the .5 sec countdown to green.”

A little clearer, perhaps, but still in need of additional input, which Miller was happy to provide. “I think this address a lot of the problems that were created by delay box racing,” he said. “When delay box racing first came in and we used a full blinded or shielded tree, all the drivers were slowing their cars down to 12-seconds so they could be the first car to leave and get an unobstructed hit at the tree just as they had during time trials. Later, we exposed the top amber lights which gave each driver the same response on the same light, but this gave the faster cars the luxury of a second hit on the tree. They got the slow car's top, their top, and in some cases, they got the bottom on their side as well, allowing them three reference points on the tree. The slow car still gets his one at the top, and if he's good enough, one on the bottom, but anyway you measure it the faster car got the extra hit.

“What happens with the use of LEDS is that if you leave the bulbs pointed straight back so a handicap racer can cross dial, it hurts the Pro Stock drivers because they can only see the top bulb over the hood scoop if they're in the left lane,” Miller continued. “With the bulbs pointed back, their only view is of one bulb which they can hardly see. It's raceable, but it's not ideal. By turning the LED bulbs out to face each individual racer, instead of one facing back and the other two angled out, the footbrake racer has a nice straight line for his countdown. In addition, the Pro Stock racer also has a better view of the top bulb and it makes his life easier as well.

“The new option creates a lot of benefits, but there are also a couple of negatives. The first is that not every track has a Compulink timing system, so the CrossTalk system can't be implemented. Secondly, in today's cross-dialing world, if you have a 7.50 car in one lane and an 11.99 car in the other, the faster guy will hit on the top bulb on the other guy's side and then he'll bring the RPMs up so he's not hammering on the two-step for that long of a spot. As soon as his top amber comes on, he'll put it to the wood for his side to count down and leave. As a result, for that three or four seconds of handicap difference he's not leaning on the two-step.

“With CrossTalk, his top amber will come on at the same time as the other guys and then hang on until the second amber in his series starts down. He now has a decision to make – he either has to stay on the two-step the entire time, or he's going to have to be really quick and have a real responsive motor because he's only going to know to go to the load pedal once his second amber comes on, not his first.

“The use of an auto start air solenoid throttle set-up seems to be the best answer to the situation, and in this day and age it's not an overly expensive proposition. A lot of people, including a number of engine builders, like that over a two-step because it's not breaking up the ignition or working the crankshaft so hard.

“We're going through a lot because of a situation caused by fuel cars that don't race at every track or at every event, but the LED is going to be the standard, and it's going to trickle down. Racers won't want to go to local tracks to test if they're going to run at a track with an LED system, so eventually everyone will have to step in line so that we can make the starting line as standard as possible.”

At this point “John D” weighed in, saying “I really question the reasoning behind the whole need to change to LED bulbs because of the fuel cars, which are such a small percentage of the tens of thousands of vehicles racing each and every weekend. But, the fact is that they're here, and we have to do our best to adapt to them.


“At first, the new system will only effect bracket racers at any of the big-dollar bracket events, of course. It is definitely going to take some getting used to since you can no longer hit both sides of the tree because both top lights come on at the same time. Let's say I'm the faster car and you're the slower car. Both our top lights come on at the same time, which allows me to hit off your side of the tree. But my top bulb is not going to go out until my tree starts counting down, which means I'll be sitting there staring at a lit bulb for whatever the handicap is.

“As I said, this means that I can no longer hit both sides of the tree as I could in the past, and it's going to take some time to learn how best to work with the new system,” added DiBartolomeo . “Having said that, however, I have to say that I think on the whole bracket racers are more adaptable as a group of racers than any other drag racing faction. You can throw anything at them and they'll pick it up because they just want to race. Their attitude is ‘tell us what the rules are ahead of time and we'll live with it.' It's going to change some things, yeah, but I don't think it's going to be a big deal in the long run.”

Compulink's Bob Brockmeyer and one of the new amber LED lights.

To wrap up this discussion, we bring in the man behind the plan, Bob Brockmeyer. “The tree for the NHRA used to be blinded all the way from the top amber to the green,” he said. “All the amber bulbs were pointed straight at the driver, so there was no cross-over at all. When they ran divisional events, they would lower the shield, expose the top amber and point it straight back like the IHRA does so that the Top Sportsman racers could cross-dial to those top ambers. It helped them out somewhat, but it really upset the Stock, Super Stock and Competition Eliminator guys who were used to seeing the ambers coming down straight. Now they had the top amber pointing straight back, and it made it harder to see.

“Now it's even tougher to see because the focal point of the LED is narrower than that of an incandescent bulb. An incandescent bulb has a large mirror reflector behind the globe which gives it a wide angle, around 35-degrees, while the LED has a more concentrated and direct beam of about 20-degress. We tried to work with the tracks and division directors to ease the situation last year by using different shields and so on to make the amber more visible, but in the end we realized that we had to do something more.

“The idea for the CrossTalk system actually came from something Royce Miller did at MIR years ago when he ran a class called Top Comp. We took something called a Cyclops bulb and set it right at the top of the tree where the blue bulb usually was. That was actually the crossover bulb and we had it rigged to where it would come on with the amber of the slower car, and the faster car's driver could cross dial against that if he wanted to. We did that for a couple of seasons at MIR and it actually worked out really well. CrossTalk is actually a lot like that, except that all the bulbs are pointed directly at the drivers and the top ambers come on simultaneously, allowing the faster car to cross-dial.

“This is not a fast car development – it actually levels the playing field for both cars,” Brockmeyer added. “A slow car now gets a straight-on shot at his top amber, whereas before it was pointed straight back so the other guy could see it. On the other hand, the faster car now also gets a straight shot at his top amber. If they're using delay boxes, of course, it limits the hits to two per side. Some guys claim they get three hits at the tree, but this system limits them to two. It also allows both drivers to get a clean shot at the top bulb, so it eliminates any sort of advantage there, and like I said, it levels the playing field to a certain extent.

“We ran the new system at the final Division 7 race in Las Vegas last fall and it worked really well. They have a class called Top Comp, and they always exposed the top amber bulbs and pointed them straight back when that category ran. They then had to stop the race, re-aim the bulbs and raise the shield so the other classes could run. The CrossTalk system solved their problems because now they can run everything the same way. They had 47 Top Comp racers at that event and they all loved it – there wasn't a single complaint.

“NHRA then ran the system at the Summit Champions portion of their event in Pomona, and it was well received there as well, even though most of the racers had never even heard of the system because it was so new. They ran a high-dollar bracket race in Vegas after that, and out of 187 Super Pro competitors there was one guy who didn't want to run with the crosstalk on, and we were able to accommodate him. CrossTalk is software controlled and can simply be turned on and off. The fast car in a pair can opt to not use it, and in that case an “N” is marked beside their dial-in and the system is turned off for their run.

“We've developed the system with a lot of input from racers, track operators and sanctioning body officials, and so far it seems to be working out well. With the IHRA going to LED lights this season, we'll hopefully be instituting the CrossTalk system at some of their tracks as well. It's in the air right now, and I think that once the Top Dragster and Top Sportsman drivers hear about it they'll want to work with it themselves.

“It looks like we'll have the opportunity to do a lot more real world testing with everything in 2004, which is what we're hoping to do. We're not doing this to make a whole lot of money, because we won't. We just want to do what we can to improve the racing experience for as many people as possible.”

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