FROM THE GRANDSTANDS: KICK THE TIRES AND LIGHT THE FIRES?

2_5_2008_grandstands.jpgOne of my favorite parts of working on the starting line at the Mile High Nationals is when "race master" Gary Ross stands between the first pair of Top Fuel dragsters on a bright Sunday morning, looks at both crew chiefs and says, "Are you guys ready? Okay guys...fire 'em up!"

I get chills thinking about it. If you love NHRA drag racing like I do, I'm sure you just got goose bumps, too. Traditionally, I get those same feelings as the season opens up in Pomona, Calif.

However, as the 2009 NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series begins, for some strange reason, I just do not have that same level of excitement and anticipation that I have had for the past 30 years.

Am I the only one who feels this way?

"Kick the tires and light the fires?"

timglasseup.jpgOne of my favorite parts of working on the starting line at the Mile High Nationals is when "race master" Gary Ross stands between the first pair of Top Fuel dragsters on a bright Sunday morning, looks at both crew chiefs and says, "Are you guys ready? Okay guys...fire 'em up!"

I get chills thinking about it. If you love NHRA drag racing like I do, I'm sure you just got goose bumps, too. Traditionally, I get those same feelings as the season opens up in Pomona, Calif.

However, as the 2009 NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series begins, for some strange reason, I just do not have that same level of excitement and anticipation that I have had for the past 30 years.

Am I the only one who feels this way?

I want to see NHRA broadcasts delay the NASCAR coverage on ESPN 2. I want to see President Barrak Obama invite Doug Herbert to the State of the Union for his work with Be Responsible And Keep Everybody Safe (BRAKES). I want to see a Top Fuel dragster idle onto the 50-yard-line to deliver the game ball for the Super Bowl (and be the driver doing it).

So, yes, I have lofty expectations of NHRA drag racing, and the issues we are dealing with in 2009 lend me to feel that the sun may be setting on the future of our sport.

For me and many other NHRA fans, the 2009 NHRA Full Throttle season began Labor Day weekend 2008. Traditionally, many professional drag racing teams and even the NHRA use the U.S. Nationals as a platform to announce major changes for the upcoming season.

Last year, we were all informed of the creation of the Alan Johnson Al-Anabi Racing team. This is a partnership between Alan Johnson and His Highness Sheikh Khalid Bin Hamad Al Thani. Their goal is to promote the domestic and international awareness of motorsports in the nation of Qatar. With this announcement, the "silly season" for 2009 officially began.

 


 

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Within minutes of the press release, the Internet drag racing message boards were swamped with posts about who would be selected to be the driver(s) of the two fuel cars. Heck, I even threw my name in the mix, but unfortunately for me, A.J. chose two experienced drivers in Larry Dixon Jr., and Del Worsham.

Many of us die hard fans were hoping this announcement would be the start of bigger and better things to come. However, as the weeks continued after Indy, it was obvious that this would be the only positive story that would occur this year. The silly season continued with rumors of changes in NHRA policies, sponsors leaving, teams
folding, many drivers and crew members preparing to be unemployed after
the season-ending World Finals.

Who would have thought this time last year that drivers like Tommy Johnson Jr, Melanie Troxel, Angelle Sampey, Hillary Will, David Grubnic, Bob Vandergriff, J R Todd, Hot Rod Fuller, Phil Burkhart Jr., and even Warren Johnson (signed a new one yesterday) would be without primary sponsorship going into the 2009 season?

Who would have thought that drag racing fans, who have been attending NHRA national events for decades, would be basing their decision on attending an event not on whether or not they could afford it, but based off of car count and whether or not they were going to race at 1,000 feet?

It was about time I started to ask myself some questions about why I was feeling this way. What are some of the issues NHRA drag racing is facing for the 2009 season? After consulting five die hard drag racing fans, four pro drivers, three current or former owners, two racing columnists, and a partridge and a pear tree, I came up with a list of eight pressing issues.

The opinions they expressed, in no particular order they include:


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- Making changes to the Countdown to the Championship

- Finding a way to return to 1,320-foot racing in the nitro ranks

- Asking NHRA to loosen up its need for official sponsors, and create a fair level of competition which attracts more companies to sponsor cars and events.

- Finding a way to improve the television coverage on ESPN2

- Focusing on improving the safety of the facilities we race on

- Having IMG develop a realistic marketing plan that will target larger demographics

- That the NHRA should work with PRO (the Professional Racers Organization) to come up with a safer and more affordable nitro car

- And the NHRA should return to its roots and focus on the growth of the sportsman divisions.

In order to capture the pulse of the NHRA drag racing fan, I figured that I would ask the same fan base who discuss these issues daily. I posted a poll on nitromater.com and in the forum on CompetitionPlus.com and asked the racing community to vote on which issue they believed was the most important.

Over the period of two weeks, 213 people responded and the results are:

* 32 percent (68 people) thought the biggest issue facing the NHRA was the need to open the door to more companies in regards to becoming a sponsor within the NHRA.

* 27 percent (57 people) believed the NHRA needed to find a way to return to a 1,320-foot racing track for the Top Fuel Dragsters and Funny Cars.

* 19 percent (41 people) said the NHRA should market the sport to a different demographic.

* Less than 2 percent of the vote argued the NHRA should focus on the sportsman racers (which represent the largest individual membership base of the NHRA).


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I really was not surprised by the results of this poll, as it is very obvious to me that our most loyal and passionate fans of the NHRA are truly split on this subject.

One voter said, "I had to vote for the sponsorship policy. Without sponsorship, this sport is in trouble as we have seen over the winter."The voter continued, "It amazes me how NHRA follows NASCAR into making similar mistakes. Cell phones and energy drinks being two big things these days, so you get them as series sponsors and exclude all the others from being able to participate? I just don't get that. I still don't like the countdown or 1000' but they won't matter if there aren't any cars to run."

This argument pretty much sums up the stance of the group that wants to see full fields of nitro cars, sporting new corporate sponsorships, and compete with NASCAR for the title "biggest and most exciting motor sport."

Another popular opinion was shared with this voter:

"Drastically improving driver safety, massive reduction in cost of operation, facility mandates, better television, improved relationship between the teams/owners/drivers and Glendora, and standardizing the racing distance (I don't care what it is just as long as everyone races the same track). However, I believe that if any forward progress is to be made in any of those areas the key to it all is cutting the costs in half...burn less nitro, use less oil, spend fewer tires, wear out fewer chassis, drive fewer rigs, operate on leaner staffs, etc., etc. If that can be achieved many of the other points will be in closer reach."

Of all the opinions, statements and debate that occurred in this poll, no single statement best summed up my own position on this subject than this one that came from a woman on the West Coast who has many years of racing experience:

"I'd like to see NHRA brass admit they need to do anything. Unlike every other sanctioning body, they've not said one word about what's going on with their racers and that the economy might hurt them next year in any way. Typical head-in-the-sand approach they always take.....and look where it's gotten them. I do think every national event track should have the same safety measures. I also think that if they go back to 1,320', they need to look at slowing the cars down....perhaps like Dale
Armstrong suggested."

Apparently, somebody in Glendora was listening to this woman.


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Recently the NHRA posted an open letter from NHRA president Tom Compton which can be found at Compton's Letter .


In this letter, Compton discussed some of the very issues that we have talked about in this poll. He talked about working with marketing partner IMG to "to help secure league and team sponsorship and introduce NHRA Drag Racing to a blue chip list of Fortune 500 companies eager to find out more about our unique sport and incredible value."

He also spoke of the need to focus on the safety of our sport, "In addition, we will remain at 1,000 feet in the Top Fuel and Funny Car categories for the entire 2009 season. Although not implemented as a cost-saving measure, a by-product of the change was cost savings for both nitro methane categories."

But the part that surprised me was when he addressed the fans:

"For fans, we will develop and implement new and creative promotional programs with our sponsors and advertisers to bring fans out to an NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing event. In addition, at NHRA owned facilities in Pomona, Gainesville, Atlanta and Indianapolis, as well as other participating national event tracks, we will:

* Set aside a portion of general admission, each day, at a discounted rate for adults.

* Offer free general admission to children 12 and under when accompanied by an adult.

* Implement a military appreciation program offering one free Friday reserved ticket to active military personnel with ID at the box office."


After I read this letter, I was stunned. Not because of the substance of the letter, but because of the letter itself. It marked the first time in recent memory that the brass of the NHRA had publicly stated that:

1) There is a problem (and the first step is admitting you have a problem, or so I'm told)

2) We have a plan to address this problem

3) This is how we intend to not only keep our heads above water, but plan for the future.


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Honestly, who would have thought that the NHRA would publicly announce anything that does not help the public image of this association?

It's not a cure, but it is admission that there is a problem, we see it, we hear you, and were going to try to resolve it. I applaud Compton on the effort but I also encourage him to not lift his foot off the accelerator.

In the past few weeks, I have read columns, debated in message boards on the internet and spoke with many other fans and drivers who believe that everything is going to be ok. I still am not convinced. 

NHRA continued to offer some relief to the pro racers in the following weeks. In a move designed to help curb the costs of operating a nitro team, they announced a policy on limiting the amount of times a pro team could test their cars during the 2009 NHRA Full Throttle season. They also suspended their oil down fines for the 2009 season. Both of these decisions will help lower the costs of operating the top two divisions in NHRA drag racing.

That's wonderful that NHRA seems to be protecting the owners from themselves, but honestly how does that help you or I; the average race fans? Or how does it help put other teams that are sidelined back onto the track.

True, it is not the responsibility of any sanctioning body to find sponsors for teams. They do, however have the duties to provide those teams with marketing research, demographics, and solid economic models that will show a potential marketing partner a strong return on their investment. In previous years, NHRA has provided those numbers to many teams. It looks like some of the teams are trying to change that.

Bob Vandergriff and a group of NHRA drivers are taking a unique approach to secure funding for their teams. They have launched this website: http://www.sponsordragracers.com/ as a forum to educate marketing agencies about the value of sponsoring a professional NHRA drag racing team. Nice job Bob! I'm glad we see eye to eye.

Who would have thought that a former Fed Ex employee would agree with a guy who used to be sponsored by UPS? Oh, and by the way Bob, if your looking for a development driver give me a call, we do have the same hair cut.

Even though many jobs across our country have been lost, almost 35 percent of last year's full time Top Fuel competitors are side-lined, and the economy will, as President Obama said, "worsen before it improves," we have the potential to solve darn near every issue listed in this poll. I believe it requires some creativity like that shown by Bob Vandergriff and his group. It involves cooperation between the NHRA, racers, track owners, media, sponsors and fans. It will require that some pride and ego get pushed aside for a while. Most importantly, many people believe it will take patience from all parties involved, especially the fans. Last time I checked, when your patient and a drag racer, your late!

Yes, our sport has many issues facing it. We are nowhere near out of the woods. There is light at the end of the tunnel, but it will take time to get there. Maybe it will require a new map or somebody to step up and lead the way? Yet even though I am a person who always tries to look at the positive in things, I am just not sold yet.




 

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I hate to sound selfish, but how does the fan relief help me? The relief package only includes the NHRA owned tracks Pomona, Gainesville, Atlanta and Indianapolis. The last time I checked I lived in Denver, Colorado. I can drive to Topeka, Kansas but there is no help in Jayhawks country. I could call up a few of my buddies and make a road trip to Las Vegas-once
again ticket prices and concessions are still the same.

-Strike one.

As a guy who works on a military base, I asked about 100 service men and women, who are very loyal motorsports fans whether they would take advantage of the NHRA's free ticket program offered for Fridays at NHRA owned tracks. The most popular answer was, "If it is Friday I have to burn a day of personal leave. Why don't they offer it on Saturday when I am off?"

-Strike two.

How does keeping the racing at 1000 feet create excitement for many fans? As a driver, I understand the need to slow these cars down and provide the drivers with extra distance to stop these extremely fast race cars. Brandon Bernstein just ran 323 mph to the 1000 foot finish line. How are we slowing these cars down? These are my friends out there competing, and I want them to be safe.

I'd rather see side by side 4.90's at 290 mph at 1,320 feet than a quick squirt to 1000 foot. To me, there is nothing in the world that sounds sweeter than a fuel engine in the last 300 feet of the quarter mile race track without that rev limiter. There is nothing cooler than watching a race start with a hole shot, having the cars pull even about half track then seeing another car out accelerate the competition to win the race.

Drag racing is still an acceleration contest right?

-Strike three, and away I walk dejected back to the dugout.

In previous years, "the Association" has copied many of the things done in the world of NASCAR racing.  For once, I'd like to see them do that. For this years Daytona 500, the track announced ticket prices across the board were lowered, and concession prices slashed by 25 percent. This decision truly helps the fans. NHRA stated that there will be a 10 percent discount for officially licensed apparel at NHRA approved nitro mall sites. So what? Is buying souvenirs a higher priority while attending a race then keeping hydrated with water bought at the track.

This week, the nitro will pop. Larry Dixon Jr., Fast Jack Beckman, and Mike Edwards will all begin their march towards their 2009 Full Throttle world championships, (you heard it here first folks). Parker Avenue will be filled with fans, (hopefully) and my pals, Joe, Greg-o, Mark, the three Chris', and Pablo will be there to provide me with their thoughts on how the season opened up, and rub it in that they are eating In-N-Out burgers and Carne Asada burrito's from El Merendero. These guys like me are diehard drag racing fans, and even they are a bit leery about the 2009 season.

Myself, I will watch the coverage on ESPN 2 with my son Andrew. During commercials, we will match race on the NHRA Countdown to the Championship Play Station II video game. I will listen to the audio broadcast each day, and tune into Competitionplus.com for updates from the race track. But, this time, when they say "fire em' up" I really don't know what I will feel- which is truly sad.


Thank you to everyone who took the time to offer their support and suggestions for this column. If you have any ideas for me, please send them here: [email protected]

We will see you next month.....From the Grandstands.



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