State Of The Sport - Part 1

(This was first printed in the November print issue of Drag Racing Edge. It is a very honest and frank report on how we perceive the sport we all love is positioned in this day and age, although it is only part of the story. Part 2 appears in our January issue out now and has already been mailed to subscribers. If you haven't already subscribed, please do so in order to receive future issues, along with contacting us to purchase back issues.)

The First of a Two-Part Outline on the State of Our Sport - Words/Photos Drag Racing Edge Staff

Ideally, this would have been a single article, but as we began delving into the many aspects of drag racing we realized that properly telling this story would require more space, so we’ve expanded our study into two parts. The second, and concluding portion, will appear in our January issue, which will be available mid-December.

As we constantly hear, there are two sides to every story, but things aren’t quite as simple as that, because there is a considerable difference between the public face of drag racing and what takes place behind the scenes.

While almost every sporting event is suffering from decreased attendance, drag racing is no different. Despite that, as of this writing, there have already been six Mello Yello events which the NHRA has promoted as “sold out.” And yet, motorsports as a whole is reaching more eyeballs by way of social media and the Internet.

One overwhelming fact is that while there are factors within the sport which might seem negative, the sport really is thriving in many areas, most assuredly when it comes to high dollar bracket racing, heads-up events and the like. So, here’s the reality: There will always be drag racing. It may not be in the exact form we see today, but it will be there, for whenever two people come up beside one another, whether they’re driving cars, trucks or horses, one is going to inevitably decide that his ride is faster than the other guy’s.

In our next issue, we’ll deal with those “other” forms but what the public typically sees is the “big show,” so we’ll deal with this aspect first.

In mid-July the NHRA announced the Saturday crowd at the New England Nationals was a sellout. It was their sixth such announcement of the season. Acknowledging that the spectator seating capacity at Epping isn’t much larger than the desk space of our luxurious (not!) office, and also pointing out that the Internet defines a sellout as “the selling of an entire stock of something, especially tickets for an entertainment or sports event – an event for which all tickets are sold,” this was nevertheless good news. Total sellout or not, the increase in the spectator turnout for the spring race in Las Vegas was nothing short of stunning, although we could chalk it up to the novelty of it being the first four-wide event in Glitter Gulch.

In addition to the increased crowds at some events, the on-track action has generally been very, very good, particularly in the fuel categories. As of this writing 18 races have been completed. Only three of them attracted less than full fields, all in Top Fuel. Top Fuel enjoyed a high of 19 entries (Phoenix and Indy) and a low of 14 at the Winternationals. Funny Car has twice pulled in 20 competitors (Pomona and Las Vegas 1) and has had 18 cars at 10 races. Pro Stock has had just 16 cars at 13 races, with a high of 20 entries at the U.S. Nationals. While this has made for pretty darn good Sunday action it’s also meant that qualifying is somewhat less meaningful, as everyone’s known going in they’d be participating on race day. More than one competitor has taken the path of least resistance, making a single, often early-shut-off “attempt” just to get a time slip to qualify for eliminations.

HBO’s award-winning anthology series Real Sports ran an excellent segment on 16-time champion John Force and his family in their March edition. Shot largely against the backdrop of the Gatornationals, reporter Jon Frankel didn’t hold back, asking Force pointed and tough questions, a few of which caused the usually loquacious Force to pause before responding. It was not only great sports television, it was a break-through appearance for major league drag racing in front of a large audience – right up to the end of the segment, where it all came crashing down.

John Force might be the most prolific name in our sport today, but we have to admit that our world is really small when compared to the actual population of the United States.

The show’s format calls for the reporter to spend a few moments with host Bryant Gumbel at the end of each segment, adding a few parting thoughts or updates. All went well until Gumbel asked Frankel, “Had you ever heard of John Force before doing this story?”

“No, never,” he replied.

“Me either,” said Gumbel. “Okay, let’s move on…”

In the space of maybe ten seconds the reality of drag racing was driven home like a carpet tack being driven into a floor by a 15-lb. sledge hammer. In our little world the name John Force is synonymous with drag racing, but our world truly is a lot smaller than many of us are willing to acknowledge. Two years ago the population of the United States topped out at 323.13 million, and it’s higher today. Drag racing, regardless of which alphabetized organization stages an event, attracts about two million paid attendees per year (this figure does not include the number of fans who attend more than one event per year, which likely drops the number of actual fans to about 1.5 million). Yes, that number is an infinitesimally small percentage of the country’s total population.

Worth mentioning at this point, considering that we’re discussing the state of our sport, is that NHRA had nothing to do with making the HBO connection for Force. It was managed by the outside agency he hired more than a year ago, and this, too, is telling about our sport. If the endeavor’s acknowledged leader is unable to engineer this kind of positive exposure, what does it say about their ability to lead the sport into the mid-21st Century and beyond?

In order for drag racing to reach a wider audience, its promotional and marketing efforts must be expanded, upgraded and peopled by career-long professionals who are personally linked to members of the media so they can reach out on a personal level to generate the kind of publicity that will help us expand our reach. Could it be that the NHRA or other promoters and such are reluctant to spend the money necessary to hire those seasoned professionals? Furthermore, in NHRA’s case, the on-going policy of holding pre-race media luncheons late in the week of the actual event continues to be counterproductive. Are we the only ones who understand that family weekend planning happens days, not hours before the weekend? Pity the fan who sees a clip on Thursday’s late sports show and says, “Wow! I’m going to the track this weekend,” only to hear in response, “No, you’re not. We’re taking the kids to my mother’s. You promised on Tuesday!” Guess who’s not going to the track.

There appears to be an upswing in participation at a number of events, most notably high-dollar bracket and heads-up affairs, but could that question participation for the local week-to-week events?

In discussions with professional marketers another topic of consternation is the policy of doing in-market promotions inside of a two-week window before the race. Those professionals believe selected markets should be “invaded” three or even four times per year to tell the NHRA and event “story.” Trying to tell it at the last moment simply doesn’t work. Believe it or not, newspapers and the broadcast media actually prefer a little lead time to tighten up their stories before they’re broadcast.

Up to now we’ve barely mentioned Pro Stock, so let’s dive into that one right here. Unbeknownst by most, or probably forgotten, is that just about a year ago NHRA announced a reduction in national event appearances for the category from 24 to 18. The outraged response came instantly from but a handful of competitors who ultimately agreed to accept a significant reduction in their purse structure, and also “guaranteed” NHRA they’d have full fields at every race in 2018 if allowed to compete in all 24 races. Thus far they’ve delivered. Just five have had more than 16 entries, but here’s where that difference between what the public sees and the behind-the-scenes action comes into play. Numerous sources have told DRE that some of those fields have been filled out by team owners suddenly fielding an “extra” car, in some cases maybe underwritten by the teams themselves.

From its earliest incarnation as heads-up Super Stock on the AHRA Grand American Series trail to more recent times one important factor in Pro Stock’s popularity has been the mixture of brands, but that era has emphatically come to an end. With both Ford and Dodge formally abandoning the category, every national event field consists of Camaros, with an occasional appearance by an (unfortunately) always uncompetitive Dodge. This is not a mixture guaranteed to excite the fans – and it’s unlikely that NHRA’s plan to allow any engine and body combination; as they did this year; will do anything positive either. Fans expect Pro Stock to be “pure” – Chevies powered by Chevrolets, Fords powered by Dearborn-built powerplants and Dodges pulled by Hemis. The prospect of Mountain Motored cars being included is already being questioned with a single word – why? Or maybe – how? (See our website – “www.dragracingedge.com/featured-news/the-mountain-motor-pro-stock-indy-story” for more on the Mountain Motor subject.)

One really bright spot in the “big show,” has to be the Factory Stock class where there is a mix of entries from the Big 3 manufacturers. Could some form of it help the current Pro Stock class?

Maybe it’s just plain stubbornness, but why can’t we all acknowledge the obvious? And maybe the replacement is right there – Factory Stock, or some form of it utilizing factory powerplants.

One of Pro Stock’s original appeals was its sort-of relationship to real world, showroom-available cars. That all ended when Bill Jenkins rolled through the gates of the Winternationals with his SRD-penned tube-framed Vega. Today’s highly sophisticated Pro Stock car may be interesting, but it’s anything but “real world.” A Factory Stock car is, at least more so than its so-called big brother. If there’s anything “stock” in a Pro Stock car, please show it to us. If a fan is super-stoked by Sunday’s Pro Stock racing, can he go to his local Dodge/Ford/Chevy store on Monday to look one over and place an order? Uh, no.

In terms of brand participation, let’s consider the U.S. Nationals. While not a perfect mixture, of the 26 entries that competed in the Factory Stock class were five Challengers, six Mustangs and 15 Camaros. Unlike Pro Stock, Camaros did not dominate qualifying, as Dodges filled the top positions for most of the weekend and earned winner and runner-up honors, which may have earned them a 25-pound weight increase while the Chevrolet and Ford competitors received a weight decrease.

Based on several important personnel hiring’s, departures and retirements there is a very real possibility that the logjam surrounding Pro Stock’s future will have been broken before the 2019 season begins, maybe even prior to you reading this. Sooner rather than later would be best for drag racing’s future.

We know from painful experience that the few remaining competitors in Pro Stock will see our words as an attack on their class, but they will be wrong. Like so many others we came to really appreciate Pro Stock through the days of Dyno Don Nicholson, Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins, Warren “The Professor” Johnson and the immortal Bob Glidden. Sadly, those iconic racers are no longer part of the scene, and with them went much of Pro Stock’s mystique and, yes, personality.

As we said at the top, there’s a lot going on in drag racing that takes place behind the scenes, and it is, ultimately, every bit as important as who gets the win light. In our next issue we’ll have a complete report on those usually-out-of-sight issues, but in the meantime don’t skip the sidebar discussion of drag racing’s print exposure in a changing world.