Drag races occur on straight, level tracks of (generally) one-quarter (402.33 meters) of a mile in length, with additional distance for the competitors to slow down after the finish. One-eighth of a mile tracks are also popular, especially in the southeastern USA.
The National Hot Rod Association, (NHRA), organization oversees the majority of drag racing events in North America. The next largest organization, the International Hot Rod Association, (IHRA), is about one-third the size of NHRA.
There are many classes of drag racing, featuring everything from motorcycles, stock and near-stock street-legal cars, to heavily modified and altered purpose-built race cars, to the "Funny Car" which are exotic custom-built drag cars with bodies that look (somewhat) like standard production vehicles, to the open-wheel, nitromethane-burning "Top Fuel" dragsters, the so-called "kings" of the sport. There is even an orgranization called the National Electric Drag Racing Association, (NEDRA), which races electric vehicles against high performance gasoline-powered vehicles such as Dodge Vipers or classic muscle cars in 1/4 and 1/8 mile races.
The fastest 'Top Fuelers' can attain terminal speeds of over 330 miles-per-hour while covering the quarter mile distance in roughly 4.5-seconds! It is often related that Top Fuel dragsters are the fastest accelerating vehicles on Earth; quicker even than the space shuttle launch vehicle or catapult-assisted jet fighter. Additionally, through the use of large multiple braking parachutes, the astounding performance of 0-330mph-0 in 20 seconds can be obtained!
The faster categories of drag racing are an impressive spectacle, with engines of over 4000 horsepower and noise outputs to match, cars that look like bizarre parodies of standard street cars, and the ritual of "burnouts" where, prior to the actual timed run, the competitors cause their wheels to spin while stationary or moving slowly, thus heating up the tires and laying down a sticky coat of rubber on the track surface to get optimum grip on the all-important initial "launch."
To allow wildly different cars to compete against each other, some competitions are raced on a handicap basis, with faster cars delayed on the start line enough to theoretically even things up with the slower car.
While usually thought of as an American/Canadian pastime, drag racing is also very popular in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the Caribbean and most European nations, especially the Scandinavian countries. At any given time there are over 325 drag strips operating world-wide.
Drag-racing has traditionally been the domain of big - usually American - cars with high-capacity engines. However, the horsepower to weight ratio of lighter, usually imported, cars has allowed them to be successful when their engines are modified and bodies lightened. The Volkswagen "beetle" was one of the first to be exploited this way. Recently there has been an increase in what has been called (outside of Japan) "import drag racing", where smaller Japanese cars are raced. The somewhat derogatory term for these cars is "rice rockets". Use of a turbocharger or supercharger is very common, and often necessary to break through the 12-second quarter-mile barrier.
One of the negative side-effects of import drag-racing is that the cheaper cars involved are often raced (illegally) on the street, where they cause trouble, with many drivers making a public nuisance of themselves. Illegal import street-racing was glamorised in the movie The Fast and the Furious. This phenonomon is just a resurgence of the problem, which has existed ever since there have been cars and "hot-rodders" (cf. American Graffiti, Rebel Without a Cause, etc.).
A few all-time stars of Drag Racing: