UP FRONT: IT'S ABOUT FIXING THE SHOW

 

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Before we begin, the importance of this topic resulted in our consulting a half dozen others, seeking their input on these topics. The people who provided that input are anything but in complete agreement with everything, and we’re good with that. Even though this is an editorial, seeking wide-ranging opinions has helped set the tone while also helping to clarify our own thoughts.

After our last editorial (http://www.competitionplus.com/drag-racing/editorials/26057-up-front-racing-is-killing-drag-racing1) we were overwhelmed by the support it received. In addition to e-mails and calls, the number of Facebook and on-site “Likes” topped 4,500, while the “Didn’t Likes” numbered less than one percent of the total respondents, or less than 50. During a recent national event we heard a number of strong supporting comments, some from surprising sources, which included NHRA executives, race team owners, track operators, corporate sponsors, mechanics and drivers. The only conclusion we can draw is there’s widespread belief that the current “show” aspects of NHRA Drag Racing are sadly lacking, and something must be done about it to not only attract new fans, but keep the ones we already have.

 

 

 

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asher05.jpg

Before we begin, the importance of this topic resulted in our consulting a half dozen others, seeking their input on these topics. The people who provided that input are anything but in complete agreement with everything, and we’re good with that. Even though this is an editorial, seeking wide-ranging opinions has helped set the tone while also helping to clarify our own thoughts.

After our last editorial (http://www.competitionplus.com/drag-racing/editorials/26057-up-front-racing-is-killing-drag-racing1) we were overwhelmed by the support it received. In addition to e-mails and calls, the number of Facebook and on-site “Likes” topped 4,500, while the “Didn’t Likes” numbered less than one percent of the total respondents, or less than 50. During a recent national event we heard a number of strong supporting comments, some from surprising sources, which included NHRA executives, race team owners, track operators, corporate sponsors, mechanics and drivers. The only conclusion we can draw is there’s widespread belief that the current “show” aspects of NHRA Drag Racing are sadly lacking, and something must be done about it to not only attract new fans, but keep the ones we already have.

The one common thread through all the comments was that no one had a plan for addressing the problem. Everyone feels something has to be done, but exactly what remains as elusive as enough clothing to cover the gyrating body of Miley Cyrus.

We have some ideas and recognize before we start that these concepts are exactly that – mere starting points with which to begin the discussion. You may hate what we suggest, but we can deal with that just as long as this isn’t another one of those situations where the initial urge to do something is replaced by apathy and inertia. Drag racing simply can’t survive without putting on a better show for the people who buy the tickets or tune in to the television show.

We also know that a significant number of racers and tuners are initially going to ridicule and object to the suggestions we’ll make. They’ll do so for largely selfish, or even unknown reasons. They’ll likely cite increased costs without truly being able to prove such elevations will result, or how much those increases might be. They might cite safety concerns when there really might not be any (the 21 safety-related rules changes that NHRA has instituted in the last few years have had a positive impact). In short, in the isolated worlds of some tuners, it’s all about them and not about the fans. It’s one clear problem that is far too often ignored – the recalcitrance and refusal to change by some of our leading race engineers until they’re forced to do so by rules changes.

We have to recognize that everything that goes down the track has to be for the entertainment of the fans. Remember what happened to the ill-fated Pro Stock Truck category. That wasn’t solely a Glendora decision. It was driven by a lack of corporate support and an overwhelming lack of interest on the part of the fans. Don’t be fooled by those inward-looking competitors who constantly promoted the idea that these were the best small-block racers in the country – which they most assuredly were – because that meant nothing to the fans. They were completely bored by non-wheelstanding Trucks that, by comparison, made Pro Stock cars seem exciting. The logistics of their demise was mishandled, on that we can all agree, but regardless, you could actually see the beginning of the end on the very days the Trucks were introduced. They were boring from the moment they debuted, and remained so until they were mercifully sent to the drag racing junkyard – and unless things change from the showmanship standpoint, other classes could end up going the same route (without the lawsuits).

Let’s begin.

PRO STOCK

Can we first agree that Pro Stock racers are their own worst enemies?

Think that’s unfair? Try this on for size: Due to their paranoia and insecurities over their own positions within the class, almost every competitor believes that every other competitor is out to steal his secrets – and there may be some truth to that. I once published a photo of a racer adjusting his carburetor showing about one half inch of the top of the side of the carburetor. The racer had a fit, yet when I showed that photo to a half dozen racers and engine builders, they acknowledged there was absolutely nothing to be learned from seeing a half-inch of metal. But, the result of this rampant paranoia has been the creation of a pit atmosphere that is as anti-fan-friendly as it could possibly be.

By pulling their cars nose first into their pits and then (the majority) covering up everything in the back of the car with pre-made covers, there’s nothing for the fans to see. We can think of only one Pro Stock regular who rarely has ropes at his pits, and never covers anything on the car. When we asked why he was so open, he said, “I don’t care who sees it, and if the fans want to look, that’s what we’re here for – them!”

Surprise, surprise, the fans come to the pits not just to meet the drivers, but to see the cars. If there’s nothing to see, they won’t come around. When they don’t come around the sponsors lose non-quantifiable audience impressions. When there are fewer eyeballs on their cars, there’s less reason for the sponsors to remain involved. It’s that proverbial vicious circle that’s incredibly detrimental to the racers – and they’re the only ones who can change things.

Unless the racers figure out ways of making their pits more welcoming their popularity is going to continue to decline. If you’re naïve enough to believe there hasn’t been a decline in Pro Stock’s popularity you’re not watching the same racing we are. And that decline definitely includes visits to the Pro Stock pits. The racers themselves can check this by simply comparing the number of handouts they’ve distributed in 2013 as compared to previous years. The honest ones will admit a decline.

A man I have tremendous respect for due to his encyclopedic knowledge of all things racing recently said “A modern Pro Stock car is a brutally efficient machine that’s incredibly boring to watch.” I wish I’d said that.

Want to eliminate the boredom? Either eliminate wheelie bars completely or, at the very least, make it mandatory they be a minimum of eight inches from the ground. Cars leaving the line with the wheels up will bring the fans to their feet (have you seen their reaction to Factory Stock?), or at least keep them in their seats, which certainly doesn’t happen now.

Yes, the elapsed times will be slower and speeds may also be down, but so what? If everyone is running with raised wheelie bars, everyone is in the same situation, so it all balances out, and the show is considerably improved. Think of it this way: Back in drag racing’s Stone Age Don Garlits once called me raving mad about having to replace his lightweight aluminum clutch can with a steel version, claiming the additional weight would slow him down too much. “Don, if everyone has to have a steel clutch can, won’t you all be carrying the same additional weight?” Slight pause. “Ya know, I never thought of that.” Click, buzz, and gone. You get the point.

Just in case you think our dire predictions are unfounded, trust us when we suggest you’ll be seeing major shifts in sponsorship support in 2014. A better show might keep those sponsors interested – and it’s evident by their public comments and private conversations that more than one of those sponsors has had enough. At least some of them feel they’re paying too much for too little, and it has nothing to do with winning. It has everything to do with empty grandstands when the cars run, and lightly peopled pit areas between sessions. The NHRA can help here, but they, too, will have to approach things with an open mind and a willingness to change to improve the show.

One way to enhance the “importance” of Pro Stock would be a schedule change calling for the class to run start to finish on Saturdays. This argument has been raised before, even by some in the NHRA marketing and media departments. The roadblock has reportedly come from the competition department, which reportedly responded to a detailed outline of “Pro Stock Saturday,” “We don’t have time for that.” Sorry, but in 10 minutes we could put together a four-run qualifying program and an outline for eliminations that would most definitely work. Have three qualifiers on Friday and a last-ditch effort Saturday morning at 10:30 AM (great fodder for exciting PA announcements and pre-race press releases) and then go right into eliminations. That’s right, start pro qualifying with Pro Stock eliminations.

Pro Stock Saturday would accomplish very positive things for the class and its sponsors. First, it would salvage an otherwise moribund Saturday television show, which couldn’t possibly be more boring. The current show appears to attract an audience in the hundreds, not hundreds of thousands (a non-verifiable statement!). A show featuring eliminations would attract a larger audience. By racing on Saturday the racers would garner the Sunday newspaper headlines – and every daily newspaper’s biggest circulation day is Sunday, not Monday. As things now stand we’re lucky if the winner’s name is even mentioned in the Monday wrap-up.

Can’t deal with “Pro Stock Saturday?” Well, do something to enhance things. It might not seem like it at present, but today’s super-expensive Pro Stock car could be replaced by what’s already running in Factory Stock, and if you think that won’t happen, check back here in three to five years. Pro Stock is already pricing itself out of existence, and NHRA can actually be held accountable for that because they’ve allowed the use of probably unnecessary hardware, hardware that might not have been approved in the first place if there was one simple rule in the books: “No equipment of any kind, regardless of application, may be used in NHRA Drag Racing without the prior approval of the Tech Department.” If a rule like that were in place we might not have shock absorbers that cost $19,000-plus – per pair – or rearend housings that cost – better be sitting down -- $250,000 –- without axles and gearing.

Fuel injected Factory Stock cars are a heck of a lot closer to the real thing than is a zillion dollar race car running hopelessly out-of-date carbureted induction. Don’t think the factories – along with NHRA and the sponsors – don’t see that. Heck, even hidebound NASCAR has adopted F.I. while drag racing again lags woefully behind reality.

TOP FUEL & FUNNY CAR

The nitro burners are our center ring attraction, but they could be writing bolder headlines with a better show. That better show should begin with a return to full quarter mile racing. This is a major issue, one that can no longer be ignored. Rather than cover the same ground again, here’s the latest on the quarter mile topic: http://www.competitionplus.com/drag-racing/news/26783-is-the-quarter-mile-coming-back-to-nhra-fuel-racing.

In addition to the emailed survey, Hot Rod Magazine has posted a single-question poll, which we urge you to take at: http://blogs.hotrod.com/tell-us-should-the-nhra-go-back-to-quarter-mile-track-lengths-86871.html#axzz2i1CUJAPP. Hot Rod will turn the results over to NHRA in a couple of weeks, but as of this writing those voting in favor of quarter mile racing total more than 94 percent of the respondents.

As far as the so-called “straight press” is concerned, they’re completely baffled by 1,000 foot racing, and are even more confused by elapsed times that are now considered “good.” They’re further confused by some vehicles racing the full quarter mile and others only 1,000 feet.

The one thing that can’t be ignored are the wishes of the fans. There must be a way of satisfying the concerns of the team owners while at the same time responding to this seemingly overwhelming desire of the fans for traditional, quarter mile drag racing. The only way this issue can move forward is if the racers and NHRA sit down and address it, but as of this writing no progress towards a solution has been made.

Whatever the racing distance, a better show starts with longer and more exciting burnouts, but the only way that’s going to happen is if enlightened team owners force their tuners to consider the show as important as a quick elapsed time. As things now stand, it’s the tuners who appear not only hesitant to enhance the show, they seem adamantly opposed to doing anything that might upset their personal tuning combination. Simply put, some of them don’t seem to even care about the show, because if they did we’d be seeing those longer burnouts.

But, give them their due. It could be that they’d be cool with the problems caused by longer burnouts – if everyone else was doing them, or at least trying to.

Not surprisingly, it’s the drivers who have been the most responsive to the idea of longer burnouts. They seem to understand even better than some team owners that the show is all-important (besides, every driver I’ve ever spoken with thinks they’re fun). If the show sucks, who’s going to pay to see it? At a recent race one driver of a two-car operation told me if he and his racing partner ever made a final round together the fans would be treated to the longest burnouts ever done by Top Fuel dragsters. I was a bit skeptical until I turned to see both of his co-crew chiefs nodding in agreement. Wait a second, are you guys tacitly agreeing with the idea of long burnouts as being important? They were – but were they willing to send their driver out there right now for one of those long burnouts? They were not – unless the car in the other lane did the same thing. Beginning to see a problem here?

So who’s going to be the first team owner who addresses this topic at a PRO meeting? Better still, who from NHRA will have the ability to convince the team owners that longer burnouts are a positive for drag racing? That will take courage on the part of both NHRA and that first agreeable team owner, not just in facing his peers on a touchy subject, but he’s got to make his presentation forceful and professional so that the others understand the importance of the showmanship issue.

Those same team owners, several of whom had reportedly initially agreed that a return to the quarter mile was important, were quick to change their minds and refuse after the word got around and others in their peer group objected. Are they so immune to what’s going on around them that they’ll also fail to address the issue of longer burnouts, an issue that could be handled internally in a PRO Board meeting?

A prominent racer who requested anonymity said during the Toyota Nationals, “I don’t know why everyone changed their minds (about quarter mile racing). Nobody knows what it’ll cost to do that, but we’ve gotta find out. We have no right to tell NHRA not to test. They should go ahead with that so that we have some facts. Then we can argue about whether or not we want to do it.”

If there’s a return to quarter mile drag racing it’s going to come with a performance “cost” – there won’t be any more speeds in the neighborhood of 335 MPH. It will be necessary to slow the cars down significantly so that quarter mile racing can take place at all the venues. Further – and this is the usually unspoken reality – Goodyear doesn’t want the headache of building tires for those excessive speeds. So, we might be able to have quarter mile racing, but it will be a bit slower than it was the last time around. Deal with it.

We’ve previously addressed “personality suppression,” but it’s worth mentioning again. Over zealous public relations people working for insecure team owners have fostered a world in which the slightest off-message comment by a driver can have long-lasting ramifications with his team owner. That’s “team owner,” not sponsor. We’ll wager no team owner has had the cajones to even ask his sponsor if he minds a little outrageousness. If they did we think they’d be surprised at the response. In 50 years of drag racing I don’t know of one single instance where a sponsor left because of an outspoken driver. Despite what some team owners think, the sponsors usually embrace that outspokenness, as long as it doesn’t cross the line to the point of insulting the sponsor, his products or his potential customer base.

Years ago one of those outspoken drivers was in a meeting with his team owner and sponsor. He asked the backer if he was expected to mention the sponsor’s name. “As often as possible,” he was told, “But we don’t care how you get there.” In other words, don’t embarrass us, don’t embarrass yourself, say our name whenever possible, and outside of that, spit out whatever you feel like saying. Drag racing could use a lot more of that, just as we could use some real rivalries. Right now there’s a tremendous rivalry building between two drivers, but you’re not going to hear about it from one of them – because his public relations person has told him to keep quiet. One of the individuals who provided input for this gave me the perfect line when he said “We need Whit Bazemore and others just like him.”

Two current drivers we spoke to separately had comments on this topic in Las Vegas, but would speak only if we paraphrased their thoughts and used them without attribution. The first said, “I’d like to shoot my mouth off a little more, but when I look around here there aren’t a lot of jobs available, so I just keep quiet. It’s not what I want to do, but I really don’t have a choice.” The second driver said he’s also tried to hold himself in check. “I’m absolutely positive (name withheld by request) had his wrist slapped at least twice for the things he’s said. He never said anything that was really bad, and I certainly never heard anything negative from the sponsor, but (the team owner) freaked. So, you do what ya gotta do to stay employed.”

Okay, so NHRA Drag Racing isn’t the WWE, but can we at least be as “bold and outspoken” as are NASCAR drivers? If drag racing’s leading drivers (with that one exception) were any more plain vanilla the media would be gagging in disgust at their verbal “nuggets.” Actually, we often are, because even the most inexperienced of us knows bland, meaningless BS when we hear it.

We interviewed one driver in Las Vegas, and after listening to his first three sentences interrupted to say, “Please don’t give us PR answers. Tell us what you really think.” Hard as it may be to believe, the driver actually exhaled and visibly relaxed, and then gave us five minutes of great insight into his situation, information that we’ll be posting shortly. We’ve interviewed this driver before, and every answer was a cliché-ridden, “everything’s-wonderful” response that wasn’t worth using, not even once. This time, though, he clearly spoke his mind, and the difference was enlightening, interesting, thought-provoking and worth using. They were the kind of responses that will actually garner him a wider fan base, and isn’t that what his sponsor would want?

General Thoughts

NHRA Drag Racing is going to continue proverbially spinning its wheels until we produce a million dollar winner. This is a far bigger problem than you might think. Exaggeration or not, when the little dirt track around the corner is paying its season champion a million bucks, what does that make drag racing look like?

The IndyCar series is in serious trouble. Its title rights sponsor is bolting. Its television ratings are often inferior to drag racing’s, and its attendance is in the doldrums. Yes, the Indy 500 is the exception, but it’s the only exception. Despite that, series champ Scott Dixon picked up a bonus check for a million.

We might get to a million dollars if only someone in Glendora had the ability to sell Coca-Cola on the worth of that magic number. In terms of a dollar investment, it would only take $750,000 -- $250,000 to Pro Stock to bring it in line with Top Fuel and Funny Car, with that last half million going to the overall points winner among the three. On the off chance you think we’re asking too much of the company, the latest figures we could find suggest their world-wide advertising/promotional budget topped $2.5 B – that’s “b” as in “billion.”

A constant refrain you’ll here from the corporate community is “Bang for the Buck.” They want the most for the least, and drag racing’s fans also want that, but ludicrously out-of-date marketing thinking from Glendora has helped keep the fans’ BFTB much lower than it could be. Why isn’t NHRA encouraging sample marketing? Why isn’t every single aftermarket company involved in the sport as a primary sponsor allowed to distribute parts catalogs? Why weren’t Castrol, Valvoline, Pennzoil, Amalie and every other lubricant company involved handing out product discount coupons years ago? Why can’t race teams hand out huge posters rather than the standard handout cards? What’s wrong with a driver handing out hats to every kid he sees under six years old? Yeah, I know. NHRA views every freebie as a potentially lost sale.

Heck, why isn’t Coke handing discount coupons for Mello Yello to every fan walking through the gate?

Let’s figure out a way of doing better track prep, and for goodness sake, can we cut down on this endless, time-wasting, spectator-enthusiasm-killing track spraying and dragging? This is how bad it’s become: On Friday night at Indy, following the first session of F/C qualifying, they ran the finals of Factory Stock and the Hemi Challenge. Two runs. Two cars down each lane. But, before they fired the first pair of fuelers they stopped to drag the track again. Why? Did some fuel racer think those two doorslammers were dropping clutch dust or parts? Another 10 minutes of our lives gone forever.

Think we need one more? Okay, we’ll do one more.

If NHRA can’t make “Pro Stock Saturday” happen, change the run schedule to improve the sponsorship exposure for Pro Stock. You know the drill in eliminations. After the fuel cars run they stop to spray and drag the track. That always results in a mass exodus from the grandstands. Most of those people don’t return until the fuel cars have already begun to run, and the Pro Stock sponsors see this just like we do. They know there are fewer people seeing their logos, and they don’t like it. If there’s no change, why should they stick around to have their cars perform in front of less than half the people on the grounds? They won’t.

Why can’t we open the Sunday show with Top Fuel, then run Pro Stock and come back for Funny Car? Open with a bang, keep the fans in the seats to watch Pro Stock, ‘cause they will stay to see Courtney, John, Ron and Jack, and then close the round with Funny Car. If that seems like forcing the fans to watch Pro Stock, it is, but what counts are the results – people in the grandstands watching sponsored cars.

NHRA Drag Racing is at a major fork in the road. Taking the wrong turn could result in the continuing decline that we’re all sensing and often seeing. We’ve seen the empty grandstands in Las Vegas in April, at Chicago in June and again in Charlotte in September -- and there are others just as weak. We can’t continue like this.

It’s time for the team owners in every professional category – and NHRA -- to stop dithering around and start acting like what they really are – the gears that, when meshing together perfectly, make drag racing “work.” Each needs to really see things as they are from both perspectives. They need to face each other across a conference table without antagonism so they can work towards better, more visually stimulating, wheelstanding Pro Stocks and quarter mile-raced, long-burnout-doing Funny Cars and dragsters driven by men and women with real personalities.

I should only live so long…..

 

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