Are Drag Racing Cars Automatic?

Image editorial credit: Bruce Alan Bennett /

There are not many things in life as fascinating as speed. The epitome of that fascination must be drag racing, hands down. I have only once driven a nitrous-powered vehicle with a 3-speed gearbox and was fascinated at how fast it went through the gears. Growing up driving manual, you learn that the faster cars are almost always automatic so, does that mean that drag racing cars are automatic?

Drag racing cars are typically automatic. Using automatic gearboxes greatly increases the speed at which gear changes are carried out and, therefore, the car’s overall acceleration. To be able to withstand the enormous torque forces, every automatic gearbox has to have a high-performance clutch system fitted.

In the NHRA classes for drag racing, there is only one class of cars driven with a manual gearbox, and the rest are all various types of automatic gearboxes. Since the inception of the sport, advances in engineering have reached a pinnacle. The automatic gearboxes used in the sport currently are manufactured using the latest technology and materials. This guarantees top performance and stability in every race. Let us look at the automatic gearbox in drag racing and explore the reasons why drag racing cars are typically automatic.

Why Are Automatic Gearboxes Used In Drag Racing?

To get from the start line across the finishing line as fast as possible, you need to do as little as possible where changing gears are concerned. If you have a manual gearbox, you need to concentrate on the RPM before you can effectively select the next gear. If this is not done as fast as possible while concentrating on the speed, the distance, and controlling the car, you can forget about having a positive run.

Automatic gearboxes are much more consistent, and that is king in drag racing. You will find that automatic gearboxes perform better in 9 out of 10 races. It is all about the physics involved. A manual transmission has up to four teeth in mesh on gear with an automatic transmission, and you will have 12 plus gear teeth in the mesh all the time. It is a much stronger and more reliable product. The automatic transmissions will always be faster than manual.

Are Automatic Drag Racing Cars Faster?

Automatic drag racing cars are some of the fastest accelerating machines ever built. The rate at which they accelerate is almost unimaginable. The reason for this is the specialized transmission and complex clutch system they use and that the driver does not have to lift his foot off the gas to change gears.

If we talk about fast, I don’t mean just breaking the speed limit on the interstate fast. If we take the Apex of NHRA racing, that would be the Top Fuel and Funny Car divisions. Let us look at the stats on how fast they can go;

  • Top Fuel – standstill to 100mph -0.8 seconds.
  • Top Fuel – Top Speed 335 mph
  • Fastest 1000 feet –  3.659 @ 338.17 mph Brittany Force
  • Fastest ¼ mile – 337.58 Tony Schumacher

The Top Fuel class of drag racing uses the absolute best engineering the sport has to offer. These gearboxes are built very differently from the other drag racing classes as they handle more severe forces.

Best Gearboxes For Drag Racing

Since there are so many drag racing classes, depending on which class you wish to compete in, you will determine what type of transmission you should be investing in. Every engine has a transmission that will compliment it. It will enhance the performance and not damage the engine. Let us have a look at available transmission types;

         ENGINES UNDER 500 BHP            ENGINES OVER 600 BHP
RAMRichmond Performance
CentreforceTremec T-56 Magnum
Quarter MasterJerico Racing Transmissions
B & MG-Force

If you are in the market for a new transmission, have the following information on hand when you speak to a qualified technician so they can assist you properly;

  • What vehicle is it, and what is the weight?
  • What engine does it have, and what is the BHP output?
  • What tires are you running on the car?
  • What is the RPM of the current engine?

 This will significantly influence the type of transmission you can fit. Always ask the experts.

Editorial credit: Bruce Alan Bennett /

Manual VS Automatic – Pros And Cons

There are not many cars available to buy off the floor with manual transmissions. In some countries, automatic transmissions are preferred due to ease of driving and comfort when sitting in traffic. On the drag strip, however, that does not influence the gearbox you choose. The only impact you face is how to make your car go faster.

Some drivers prefer manual; there is one class in NHRA that is strictly manual so let’s look at some basic Pros and Cons of both types of transmissions;

Manual Transmissions – Pros

  • Cheaper than automatic transmissions
  • More control over speed.
  • Manual transmissions do not run with the help of computers.
  • More cost-effective to repair.
  • Have more longevity.

Manual Transmissions – Cons

  • Not as prolific as automatic transmissions.
  • Requires a different skill to driving an automatic.
  • The driver has to take one hand off the steering to change gears.

Automatic Transmissions – Pros

  • Very easy to drive.
  • Adaptable to a variety of engines.
  • More readily available.
  • They let you drive faster.

Automatic Transmissions – Cons

  • Are more technical to repair.
  • They are more expensive than manual transmissions.
  • They are sometimes heavier than manual transmissions.

On the straight drag strip, the automatic gearbox will always be superior to its manual counterpart. The reason is that it just shifts through the gears faster than a human would be able to.

How Much Is An Automatic Gearbox For Drag Racing?

Pricing on automatic gearboxes varies depending on the company you buy from. The best way to choose your transmission is to look at your car’s specs and the racing class you compete in or want to compete in.

Automatic gearboxes range between USD 2000, right up to USD 100 000 for high-performance transmissions. Budget is a significant factor to contend with.

It Is All About The Clutch

A tremendous automatic transmission is one thing with a drag racing car, but what makes the gearbox perform at its peak is the clutch. No gearbox is complete without a high-performance clutch system. The preferred clutch systems for drag racing will be a little more high tech than your average sedan,

Drag racing cars like the Top Fuel drag car uses a centrifugal clutch. It has three operating options which are forward, reverse, and high. A centrifugal clutch consists of levers, timers, and clutch discs that make up the complete clutch pack. The centrifugal force pushes out clutch fingers, making them pivot. That pushes the pressure plate into the clutch park and increases the clamping force.

A cannon controls the throw-out bearing and, through a system of timers, limits the clamping force. The crew chief is responsible for setting the timing, using nuts and washers; weight is added or subtracted by the gram. Since this works in sequential, the timer controls how fast the cannon moves. The timers run in series where 1 sets off 2, 2 sets off 3, 3 sets off 4, and 4 sets off 5.

Most drag racing drivers use a five or six-disc system, and it’s all about the transmission you have combined with the engine.

RANDOM FACT – Because Top Fuel dragsters accelerate so fast, to exceed 300mph in under 4 seconds, it needs to accelerate at an average of 4Gs. To reach more than 200 mph before the halfway-mark, the launch acceleration needs to reach about 8Gs.

Before you finish reading this sentence, a Top Fuel dragster reaches over 300mph.


We can safely say that most drag racing cars today use automatic transmissions. The reason for that is that they are more reliable and they make the car go faster. There are decades of design, engineering, and manufacturing behind these gearboxes, and they have been tested for performance and reliability. It is far safer to drive a drag racing car at almost 300mph with an automatic gearbox.

Whether you are more of an old-school manual transmission kind of person, there can be no doubt that automatic drag racing cars are far more efficient and consistent in their performance and winning times. The automatic transmission in drag racing cars will always be king.