There’s that old saying, “Opinions are like a$$holes, everybody has one.”
With the start of auto racing in North America about to begin this weekend (I don’t count the wreck-filled, attrition-riddled joke of an event they called this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona) with NASCAR’s made-for-television race, the Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway and the NHRA’s Winternationals at the Pomona (CA) Fairplex, it’s time to say a few words about the challenges both series face in the coming year. Indy cars (remember them?) which has its own set of problems, start racing next month.
First, the NHRA.
In the past twelve months, the NHRA has done the most thorough management housecleaning in its history, affecting everything from its marketing and competition departments to its communications department. While I’ll not go into a critique of each position that has a new face, I have to point out the most critical change — the hiring of veteran journalist Terry Blount to run the NHRA’s communications department.
I’ve known Blount for quite a long time and not only is he likable and knowledgeable, he’s passionate for auto racing. I’d not known him to be a huge fan of drag racing, but more an Indy car and stock car guy. Nevertheless, his experience in telling the story and his relationships in the media world should help in rebuilding a media and communications department that has essentially been worthless and non-existent since the departure of the late Denny Darnell from that role nearly two decades ago. Darnell was very good at his job and his representation of the sport of professional drag racing helped to shape and mold the sport’s perception in the eyes of the mainstream sports media for a long time.
Blount has a difficult job ahead of him. He will be held responsible for reestablishing what was once the most popular form of auto racing in North America (yes, it was – how many pop songs does Indy car or stock car racing have written about it?) back into the psyche of not only older race fans but the millennial population that worships the speed of technology but not the speed derived from horsepower. Most popular form of racing you ask? How about “She’s Real Fine My 409” or “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena” or “Dead Man’s Curve” or “Little Deuce Coupe” or the countless other surf and hot rod song from the ’60s that glorified fast cars and drag racing. Car songs have traditionally been written about hot rods, an so in effect, drag racing.
Unfortunately, drag racing of the NHRA brand has become a mere shadow of its former self. The grandstands are filled mostly with grandparents who remember those fantastic battles between the Snake and the Mongoose and when nitro fueled race cars traveled down the quarter mile at hard-to-fathom speed. They’re the same fans that if you asked them who the best Pro Stock racer of all time was, they’d (without hesitation) tell you it was Bob Glidden, even though nearly all, if not all, of his records have since been eclipsed.
The sport’s most popular driver is near the end of his career. John Force, the eighth wonder of the world, who continues to strap himself into a 10,000 horsepower Fuel Coupe and hurl himself into the unknown even though he’s nearly killed himself several times doing so, is still the driver most fans come to see and want to meet. He, along with other veterans of the sport like Ron Capps and Tony Schumacher are but a handful of recognizable drivers remaining in the sport that are easily recognizable to most of the NHRA’s fans but to no one else.
I would bet that if you placed the 2015 NHRA class champions in a lineup and asked five avid motorsports fans from all types of motorsports in America to pick them out they’d might recognize one. That’s the problem. The reason for this is that for too long the NHRA believed that the cars were the stars of the show, despite the wild antics of John Force and others who would give amped-up post race interviews so edgy that you’d think they were drinking the nitromethane fuel from the fuel tank. I know. I’ve tried drinking nitromethane mixed with alcohol for a segment back in my television days. Other than giving me flatulence, I suffered no ill effects. Many may disagree with that and I certainly don’t recommend it to others.
The NHRA professional classes are filled with the most diverse cast of drivers in all of motorsports. And it has (potential mainstream sports) stars, from Erica Enders in Pro Stock – who is far more personable, more fan-friendly and certainly more successful than her NASCAR counterpart Danica Patrick – to Top Fuel champion Antron Brown, one of the most articulate, entertaining and congenial drivers to have ever won this or any championship in the history of motorsports. And by the way NASCAR fans, he is African American.
As is many of the NHRA’s fans.
Far more must be done to make the drivers more recognizable and acknowledged as the skilled and courageous sportsmen they are, reaching beyond limits with every pass down the dragstrip.
Speaking of fans, the NHRA has the most ethnically diverse fans in all of motorsport, although the series has yet to take full advantage of it. I’m not about to tell them how, but eventually they will figure it out.
Unfortunately things are not rosy on the competition side of things. When you attend an NHRA event one of the first things you will notice is the lack of Fortune 500 sponsor names on the sides of the race car. In fact, you’ll see many cars without any major sponsorship at all. That’s not because there isn’t room. It’s because there isn’t room in the marketing budget for a racing series that doesn’t appeal to the target demographics most F500 (or F100) companies aim for. What makes things worse is that the majority of team owners in the professional classes are self-made businessmen who self fund their race teams (mostly out of necessity) and who are more than willing to accept whatever sponsorship they can find for far less than its worth. Some has used their sponsorships for business-to-business (B2B) relationships. But most just want to have someone’s name other than their own on the side of the car and care little about nor know much about activation of sponsorship. Those that do are easy to spot. They’re the ones with a huge hospitality presence at the race track.
Did I mention that in the NHRA hospitality guests sit right next to the race cars in the pits, able to watch everything? If you’re a NASCAR fan visiting an NHRA pit for the first time you’ll have a hard time believing this happens at every national event. Ideal for B2B relationships.
Teams also have a difficult time in establishing a worthwhile return on investment (ROI) for its sponsors, since the NHRA’s demographics lean too old and until this year the sport’s television package was, to put it kindly, garbage that often was relegated to being aired in the early morning hours. Some of this year’s broadcasts will remain in the wee hours of the morning, but that’s usually because of the geographic location of the event.
The television package for 2016 and the near future is now on FOX Sports which has shown in the past that it understands and appreciates live motorsports. Bringing production of the television product in-house to the NHRA is also a step in the right direction. However, airing live drag racing is a lot like sex. Some times it’s just not good and you wish it was and it’s often filled with awkward gaps of nothingness while you’re wishing something exciting would happen. Live drag racing has been done in the past and despite all the changes being made to speed up the show and prevent delays by mechanical meltdowns, cleaning up a nitro engine explosion is a tremendous bummer and a waste of very expensive television time. The jury is out on this and I wish the NHRA and FOX Sports nothing but the best of luck with their live broadcasts and in dealing with this inevitable issue.
For 2016, the NHRA has finally moved the last true manufacturer vs manufacturer class in the sport — Pro Stock — into the 21st century by mandating fuel injection on all entries. This is long overdue and should make this class, which has become excruciatingly boring in the past decade, much more exciting and competitive as some teams will get the new combination right and others will not. There’s nothing like a good old Ford vs Chevy vs Dodge battle to capture the attention of race fans. NASCAR tries to do this but it just doesn’t work.
And finally, one of the changes not made for 2016, but most drag racing fans are literally begging to happen is the return of nitro class racing to the full quarter mile (1320 ft). Pro Stock remains as the only pro class that runs the traditional quarter mile and while there’s many reasons too maintain the current 1000 ft distance for the fuel cars, the NHRA needs to respond to its fans in the way that NASCAR does (now) and bring this one critical and historical element of the sport back. I know the arguments, but it can be done and would bring back many of the sport’s fans that left when the playing field was shortened.
If you’ve never been to a professional drag racing event, it’s bucket list stuff. It’s impossible to describe the other worldly feel of watching two 10,000 horsepower race cars in full song. It’s scary, exciting and sexy. Yes, sexy. Take your best girl (or guy) to an event and expect them to be talking about it for weeks afterwards and then be expecting to go again the following year. It’s just that remarkable of an experience.
Professional racing begins tomorrow (2/12). Final eliminations will be live on Sunday beginning at 5:00 PM ET on FOX Sports1.
I’ll address NASCAR tomorrow. And Indy cars (remember them?) in the near future.
Thanks for stopping by.