With the advent of the many high-dollar bracket races on the 2018 drag racing schedule, we thought it best to re-publish this story on splitting purses which originally ran in the November 2016 print edition of Drag Racing Edge. It can better explain just what really takes place at these events with regards to the purse.

The Purse Advertised Is Not Always The Purse Paid
Words/Photos John DiBartolomeo

With the proliferation of high dollar bracket racing over the last couple of decades, it might surprise you to find out the actual cash purse advertised is really not what is paid out. Naturally with all fairness, in the case where the purse is guaranteed by the promoters, the advertised purse is paid out completely, just not in the manner as advertised. This is all due to a little thing called the split.

High dollar bracket racing has become more closely associated with gambling than anything else. Racers plump down a specific amount of money (entry fee) in the hopes of hitting it big. You probably could liken this to sticking a coin in the one-armed bandits (slot machines) hoping for all 7s to show up in the window. Fortunately for racers, there is a little bit more skill involved.

There’s little doubt that bracket racing has been the savior of the sport on the local level. It has also spawned the many high-dollar races all across the country, races that many will attend on a regular basis.

Race promoters over the years have found that the advertising of a high-dollar purse is what brings the racers in. The number $10,000-$20,000 and up to win is the hook racers look for. However, those numbers are often associated with rather low round money.

The purse at most high dollar bracket races is usually top heavy which almost encourages racers to make deals to split the money better. The “split” usually begins in the later rounds.

“A long time ago,” says Royce Miller, former owner of Maryland International Raceway (MIR), “I took a purse where it was $5,000 to win for a $100 entry fee and I divided it up so that second round losers got their entry fee back. The only caveat was that it made it only $2,000 to win. Nobody showed up.

“We have a very top heavy paying sport,” Miller adds. “As a promoter, I’m all too happy to spread the wealth around but the fact is the more money you try to pay down, the less you have to pay up. However, you need that ‘carrot on the stick’ to get them there.”

If nothing else, bracket racing equates to close, tight races sometimes separated by only thousandths-of-a-second at the finish line. Because the competition is so tight, racers will often choose to split some of the winnings in a more amicable pattern.

Hence, splitting has become an almost certain part of the sport.

“It used to be that runner-up money was generally about half of the win money,” says racer Mark Dennebaum. “This meant that if it was $1,000 to win, runner-up would pay $500. It’s not like that anymore as you might see a $10,000-to-win race followed by only $2,000 to the runner-up. That big drop almost forces racers to split the purse up amongst themselves a little more amicably.”

Naturally the promoter doesn’t care as he is committed (if in fact the purse is guaranteed) to paying out the money anyway. It doesn’t matter that in the above example the racers in the final might rather make it $8,000 to win and $4,000 runner-up. Oftentimes the split starts earlier in the rounds. Racers seem to have a habit of not being aware of the round money. This is not to insinuate that you don’t believe you can win, but the cruel fact is that only one person is going to do that. While the odds aren’t against you, the fact is the smart racer keeps his or her options open to at least earning a little bit of money. Why then attend a race where you have to go several rounds before you make any money? Wouldn’t it be better to have a race where the purse is better divided up?

As is usually the case, racers will get together before the semifinal or final rounds, sometimes earlier, to discuss more than just the track conditions. It’s a financial negotiation that can even take away from the racing.

“As a promoter,” says Kyle Seipel, one half of the successful promoting team of the Spring Fling brand of races, “it really doesn’t matter to us and we generally stay out of any negotiations when it comes to the split. The only thing we stay aware of are the actual dollar amounts paid so that we can make the checks out to the racers for the correct amounts.

“We did get a little involved at last year’s Million Dollar race in Vegas,” adds Seipel, “in that my partner Peter [Biondo] gave them two possible scenarios as to how to split the remaining money. But of course it was entirely up to the racers. And once any split is made, we will go to each racer individually and make sure they are okay with the decision, but that’s the extent of our involvement.”

“The only caveat to the split is when a bye run is involved,” says Miller. “If you know you have the bye run to advance to the next round, why then would you agree to splitting any of the money?”

Former NHRA world champ and perennial big money winner Dan Northrop knows the value of the split. “I’ve missed splitting a couple of times, got beat and really kicked myself,” he said.

“I think it was back in 1981 when I first heard anything at all about purse splitting,” says bracket racing standout Johnny Labbous Sr. “I got a call to attend a race in North Carolina and when I got to the final, it was only $1,000 to win. My opponent suggested we split it and the fact that he was the one who invited me to go to the race, just made me agree to the split.

“I usually won’t initiate the split,” Labbous adds, “but if I’m asked, I certainly agree to it. Let’s face it; there’s a lot of guys who maybe can’t win, but we need to have those guys coming back. The big money on top will bring out the big guys, but a race can’t survive on just them. We need to have the little guys showing up too and giving them a little more in the form of better round money is the key to having them return.”

Unfortunately, the top heavy purses still remain as the big draw to getting racers to show up. Once again, the onus falls on the shoulders of the racers themselves to divvy up the money in a better way.

While the number on the “check” might not be exactly what the winner’s take is, it does little to dampen the excitement of the win.

Let’s look at a perfect example where you have a race that pays $20,000 to the winner with only $5,000 to the runner-up. The semifinal round losers only receive $1,500 while the quarterfinalists receive $600 and so on. As you can see, the money drops off fairly hard after the win. At best, there remains only eight cars in the quarterfinals and at that point there would be $30,400 left to pay out.

Naturally no one expects to lose. However, racers understand the odds and in most cases might not be willing to gamble. Then again, you have some who are. One racer explained his position on the split in this way, “I’ve been to ten final rounds in the past five years and I’ve won every one of them. So if I get to another final, I won’t split because the odds are I’m going to win.” Pretty confident, but the odds could favor him losing as well.

For former NHRA Super Gas world champ Dan Northrop, who has been on an almost steady diet of bracket racing, the answer is simple. “Anymore, the competition is so tough that I’ll always agree to a split,” he says. You just never know when your competition is going to lay one down and you lose. Naturally if we’re racing for let’s say $2,000 to win or so, I might not split but when the money gets up in the $5G or more range, definitely as long as the other guy agrees. I’ve missed splitting a couple of times, got beat and really kicked myself.”

Not everyone likes the split though. “Splits are for bananas,” says Numidia Dragway owner Bob DiMino laughingly. “At one of the ‘Flings, my son Robert was in the final of the dragster race where both winner and runner-up won a dragster. Why then run the final? As for me, it’s winner takes all.”

Splitting on the NHRA side of the fence is also becoming a little more common. The problem there is that because of the extra contingency money available to the two finalists, there is a big drop off when you lose in the semifinals. As an example, even though contingency money is a lot lower today than ever before, the winner in the sportsman categories can usually take home at least $10,000 or more if they’re smart in playing the contingency decal game. The runner-up might bank at least $3,000, but to lose in the semifinals gets you only a check for $600 or so.

“I’m not racing NHRA as much as I used to,” says Northrop, “but I’m hearing about more and more guys cutting 10-percent deals with their opponents in that the winner of the round has to cut the loser back 10-percent of whatever they make.”

Back to our $30,400 example though. It’s about this point in eliminations when racers get together and talk “the split.” Taking a little bit of the $20K win money and dividing it up seems only fair, which is usually what transpires. However, everyone has to be on-board. If one or two of the remaining racers don’t agree, then it doesn’t take place. It’s then where racers might talk amongst themselves to cut their own deals. Racer A who has to face off with Racer B might suggest the winner cuts back some of his winnings to the loser of that pair.

Most race promoters don’t mind the split as long as they’re aware of what each individual contestant receives in order to keep their records straight.

“The problem with the split is the eliminations ladder,” Miller says. “When there is a bye run which typically goes to the person with the best reaction time, that person is going to be the first one naturally to nix any kind of split. For that reason, I began a system at MIR where the bye run is determined by a deck of cards. But I would imagine that roughly 75-percent of the time, the remaining money in the purse is moved around.”

Not everyone is in favor of splitting though. “Splits are for bananas,” says Numidia Dragway owner Bob DiMino laughingly. “I just believe it takes away from the final. Some of these splits are so drastic that why run the last three rounds? When you get down to eight cars, just total up the money and divide it by eight. That’s what really happens anyway. At one of the ‘Flings, my son Robert was in the final of the dragster race where both winner and runner-up won a dragster. The other driver came over and asked which car Robert wanted, Robert said the Race Tech and the other guy said ‘great, I want the American.’ Why then run the final? It was over at that point. The lights were both terrible and neither guy cared who won. As for me, it’s winner takes all.”

“It can get pretty heavy in discussions,” says former NHRA world champion and winner of the 1999 version of the Million Dollar Drag Race, Sherman Adcock. “There is so much money on the line at those races that you have to stop and think about it. On top of that you have to be concerned with the actual racing itself. There’s a lot of pressure and I remember that once we all agreed to the split at the Million Dollar Race I eventually won, you could see that a big weight was lifted off everybody’s shoulders. Then we all just concentrated on the racing.”

I will never split,” said noted bracket racer Frank Mark Sr. “I feel as if I work too hard making my car perfect to just give away money. I’d be doing an injustice to myself to split. And if I ever were to split, I’d feel as if it would be a bad omen and I’d lose, so I never do. Let’s put it this way: If I were in the final with my mother… she better not miss the ‘tree, cause I’m going after all the money.”

Bottom line: Splits are every bit a part of the sport as reaction times and triple-0 finish lines. Like them or not, they’re a valuable secret in drag racing.

Due to the purse structure on the NHRA sportsman side of the fence, losing in the semifinals can be financially devastating. For that reason, more NHRA racers are becoming aware of splitting and just how it works.