Limited-Edition Print of 630 (13"x19")
Signed and numbered by the Artist.
Early Thursday morning and the Gassers go to the line to tryout this new timing system. You can see by the tire marks that only a couple of cars have been down the track so far. It looks like "Big" John is on his way down track; and is that "Stone-Woods&Cook next in line? You can see that the ex-flagman is still in animated form as dances and signals for "Cookie" to bring it to the line. The tree has no staging lights at this point, but there are a separate set of lights just before the tree. By the next year, the staging lights were placed on top of the tree, but only a single set of lights signifying "Staged." This painting was created from an old b&w photo that I ran across somewhere, so this is really the actual scene of the event.
Following is the complete story
The First Christmas Tree, Indy 1963.
We thought it would be nice to share this story of the first Christmas tree, the first NHRA Christmas tree that is, and to show there is a story behind every picture.
Anyone who has ever seen a Drag Race knows that the starting line system is an integral part of the sport. For most us, the flag waving starting line system was well before our time, for the rest, the image of flagman starter is either a distant memory, or something they read about in some old magazines or books. However, the Christmas tree, well that’s another story all together.
The Christmas tree is one of the most important facets of Drag Racing, since the whole sport is based on timing. Trying to figure-out how to count down the amber lights to get the best reaction at the green light, well, that is the whole point. When I was young, for us kids, the Christmas tree was synonymous with the sport. It was unique and a seemingly high-tech starting-line system that was fair and impartial to everyone. To this day, the “Tree” has become an icon of the sport; it has evolved into an enduring symbol that is one of the most recognizable images associated with Drag Racing.
Because the Christmas tree is such fundamental part of Drag Racing, it might come as a surprise to realize there was quite a controversy surrounding the inception of this new tree.
Drag racers are a group of highly competitive people with strong egos, and as with most strong willed people, they sometimes resist new ideas. It also brings to mind that old saying, “no matter things change, some things remain the same.”
What follows are some articles culled from the pages of old magazines. I think you will enjoy some of the responses to this new “Tree” from some of the legends of this sport. I particularly liked “Big John” Mazmanian’s little tirade.
Dateline: Sept.1963, Indianapolis Raceway Park, the Ninth annual US Nationals. NHRA initiates a new starting line system nicknamed the “Christmas Tree.”
(The following is an excerpt from Hot Rod Magazine dated 11-63):
As expected, everyone was interested in the new starting system. We had speculated about this new devise since we first heard about it and checked with Ed Eton, Event Director, to get a run-down on the operation of the system.
It was developed by Drag-Tronics on the East Coast and basically is what can be called an anticipation starter. A light stand nicknamed the “Christmas Tree” stand at the place once occupied by the starter. This system has 4 sets of 7 lights each. One set each for the 2 running lanes and the 2 remaining sets pointing towards the spectators on either side of the strip. The starter stands between the cars behind the starting line and controls the Christmas Tree through a remote electronics box. When the strip is clear he punches the start button and at specific intervals the 5 top lights click on. These are yellow. The 6th light is a green one signifying “Go”. In the event the driver should get over-anxious and leave to early, he trips the 7th light, which is Red. This seems to be the best solution to date to ensure fair starts, and the general reaction among participants was good.
That was the introduction of the infamous tree and Drag Racing has never been the same. The following is excerpted from Drag Racing Magazine dated May 1964.
The following authentic, first-hand material was gathered by your editors (of Drag Racing Magazine) to emphasize the inequities of the “Tree” and to reveal to drag racers everywhere the uncensored feelings of the sport’s most experienced and knowledgeable personalities.
The most important single instance of revolt against the starting lights is the recent action by NHRA’s leading West coast location, Pomona Drag Strip. They tried the lights and took them down! Installed to provide practice for the drivers in preparation for the Winternationals, the “Tree” was inconsistent and troublesome. Stan Adams, Pomona’s public relations man, says, “The guys wanted to practice with them, but we had to many complaints and removed them until the Winternationals. The trouble seemed to be that the “Tree” was supposed to be hooked up with the flag, and foul lights, etc. and there was some confusion.” Prominent drivers speak freely of their experiences with the system, and offer these direct quotes on the subject of the lights.
Don Nicholson (Past S/S &A/FX National Champion)
“I don’t like it. I feel that it’s unfair for the following reasons: 1. The slower of the two will naturally take a chance at jumping the lights, for he has nothing to lose. Without the anticipation system, he would not know when to attempt a jump. 2. It steals from the pro an advantage, which he developed over the years. His sharp reflexes no longer get him off the line first, for the amateur can get ready no matter how slow his reflexes. 3. The driver that waits for the green loses because he did, because you line up 18 in. behind the starting line, and actually start to move on the last yellow light, not reaching the light until the green. You can’t anticipate like this with the flagman/button procedure. I feel that the flagman/button start or yellow/green light is the best method. Foul lights govern both, and anticipation is impossible.”
Tom Strum (1962 NHRA National Points Champion)
“It’s just a guessing game. The fellow that gets the good lane and knows the lights is bound to win. Did you see that left lane at the Nationals? They control the flashing of the lights in each lane. The flagman/button is the only fair system that works.”
Gordon Collett (Top Speed & Low Et AA/D at 1963 NHRA Nationals)
“I don’t like the “Tree” because the eastern drivers have the advantage of having raced against it for a year before anyone else. They also race against it every week, where a traveling driver only sees it once in a blue moon. “Another bad point is that there is no control of the ling up procedure. One car can start way behind the lights and be smoking the tires because he knows that the green light will come on at a certain instant. “The flagman/button start is the best way yet.”
John Mazmanian (B/MSP & A/GS Record-Holder)
“Get rid of them! I raced against them at the Nationals and saw to many good machines get shut down just because of ‘em. I stood on the line trying to figure them out and I swear that the lights for the left lane were lighting up before the right-hand lane. I tried to register my complaint to the officials in the tower, but have you ever tried to get past all the guards at the base of the tower? I told the NHRA boys that if they intend to use the “Christmas Tree” lights next year, old John will be racing someplace else. I don’t mind getting beat by a good running car, that’s part of the game, but I’m not about to get beat by a Mickey Mouse starting system.”
Walt Weney (Bliss-Weney-Bless Record Holding C/D)
“I fell they give the advantage to a fellow with slower reactions because he can time himself to the sequence of the lights. Also, I think the slower car in a class has an advantage because he has nothing to loose by trying to jump while a good car must be more cautious and make sure he doesn’t jump. “I’d like to see one yellow light and one green light to eliminate the anticipation.”
Arnie Beswick (A/FX Winner of World Series, Drag News Invitational, Daytona Winternationals)
When racing at strips that use this method, I’ve noticed that out of every hundred starts, there are but one or two even matches off the line. One of the cars seems to get disqualified by light jumping, or there are so many car lengths difference between the two cars engaged in the race, that there is no suspense as to which car will win. “If an owner is looking for a quick way to discourage contestant and spectator interest, and attendance as well, I would strongly advise using the “Christmas Tree.” “If not, I would suggest using the most widely accepted and liked system. That is the flagman along with a set of cheater lights operated by a button. This way if a driver should attempt a jump-start before the flagman raises his flag off of the cheater light button, and if the cheater lights have gone on the blink, the flagman will be there to catch the jump. There would be no two to three hours of illegal races because of some strip manager’s belief that his lights are foolproof. “For anyone wishing to see a system like this in operation at a National drag event, I suggest visiting the World Series drag meet or the NASCAR Winternationals.
Gary Cagle (Newhouse Automotive National A/MR Record)
Drag Racing should be competitive between driver and car and driver and car, not a cinch for the guy who has figured out how to beat the lights. For example: Lets say you have two cars coming up for Top Eliminator, one car has an Et of 8.30 and the other car of 8.10. The guy with the 8.30 knows he is going to get beat if there’s an equal start, so what he has to do is leave the line a split second before the 8/10 car. If he gets a red light in the process, so what! He’s going to get beat anyway. To my way of thinking this isn’t racing. The “Christmas Tree” lights invite this kind of thinking.”
Hayden Proffitt (“Mr. Stock Eliminator”)
“They are absolutely no good, but the drivers must put with it because the NHRA says they are going to be used. Some of the faults of the lights are: 1. You line up behind the lights and jump before the green. 2. Each driver sees the lights of both lanes. This is confusing. “NHRA officials have told me that they don’t like them either, but I’d better not mention names.<>Art Malone (A/FD Winner of Bakersfield, AHRA Nationals, etc.)
“In my opinion there never has been a mechanical starting system which could take the place of a good flagman who knows his business.”
Fred Forkner (Most consistent AA/D winner on East Coast)
“There are better starting systems, in my opinion. The “Christmas Tree” type to much of an anticipated start. It’s like a telegram that the green is coming. The best anticipator is the best off the line.”
Jerry Mallicoat (Consistent B/GS winner)
“As it stands now, the “Christmas Tree” system does not work. I raced against them at the Nationals and they can be jumped, so I don’t like them.
Frank Cannon (Veteran owner of gas & fuel dragsters, UDRA Council member)
“ I don’t like’ em, never have and never will. I can’t see any advantage to them. They’re just not getting the job done. The most important thing in drag racing is the start! The “Christmas Tree” begs for cheaters (by cheaters I mean the guys that have figured the system out and try and anticipate the green light.). Too many god cars have been beaten because they waited for the green light. The UDRA has spent many hours trying to come up with a system that is fair to all racers, and we think we’re on the right track. This system was brought about by drag racers, and that in itself is half the battle.”
Pete Robinson (1961 NHRA National Top Eliminator, “1320” titleholder.)
“In actual competition, the system does not work as well as was expected because cars with slower ET’s try to anticipate the green and leave before it actually flashes on. This results in red light starts or a big jump over a competitor. During eliminations, cars with slower ET’s take a chance at starting and not getting the red light. However, the quicker cars cannot afford to gamble as they are almost certain of a win if an even start is realized. This system employs time anticipation which varies widely in individuals. A driver can no longer leave the line by seeing green, but must react before the green so as to break the starting eye a split second after the green light comes on. In this anticipation, he might very well get the red light. The results of this type of starting showed an increase in red light foul starts, or races won by slower ET cars that gamble on not getting a red light. Thus, faster cars were eliminated because they couldn’t afford to gamble on the red light. This starting system has introduced gambling into starts rather then quick reactions. No system is perfect, but in my opinion, more even starts would realized by the simple yellow green starting light.”
Joe Schubeck (A/FD “1320” titleholder Lakewood Chassis Co.)
“ The anticipation feature is no good. The Nationals proved that there are at least three times the number of jump-starts because of it. Slower cars take the chance of jumping and either win the race because they guessed right and got a two-car lead or lose to a red light. The underdog assumes an advantage because he has nothing to lose by trying to jump the lights and his opponent. “The proven flagman/button start with a set of line-up lights is the best system yet. Watch how many red lights there are at the 64 Winternationals, and then remember the previous years.” It’s good too see that most of the complaints by these racers were dealt with. The two staging lights (pre-staged and staged) at the top of the tree did away with those rolling starts, and the “Pro” tree, adopting the one yellow and one green light, that stemmed the anticipation factor. Although this “Pro” system start wasn’t initiated until the seventies. In 2003 NHRA unveiled a new high-tech digital “Tree.” This allows the lights to illuminate and dissolve at a much faster rate then the previous filament bulbs. This new digital system was also meet with baited skepticism from the modern day equivalents of those old competitive spirits. They have now accepted the change and moved forward. Now some forty years later, it’s true that some things just never change, they just get passed on to the next generation…