COMMENTARY - BOBBY BENNETT: TO SPLIT OR NOT TO SPLIT; SOONER OR LATER REALITY IS GONNA HIT
I've said it before, and my opinion hasn't changed.
On May 13, 2003, I wrote a commentary detailing the reasons why the NHRA has reached a point where it needs to separate the professional and sportsman categories from the national event scene. At the time, I suggested an all-out divorce was needed.
As a divorcee, I understand the cruel nature of a divorce is inherently adversarial. So, maybe divorce is too hard of a solution.
Maybe a partial separation is a better fix for everyone involved. You know, the kind of relationship where you are clearly apart but still get together a few times each year for a dinner and a movie.
This is clearly what needs to happen in the NHRA.
At the time of the initial commentary, two high-profile sportsman related incidents fueled the fire. There was the death of a racer during a late evening qualifying session and a parking issue where the sportsman pits became flooded and racers were subsequently sent home without an opportunity to race.
I fully believe NHRA couldn't have avoided either situation, short of not allowing either to race at the events to begin with.
NHRA made significant steps to bridge what was a massive disconnect between sportsman racers and the professionally-focused race series.
The parties involved need to revisit the quickly changing landscape at drag racing's premiere sanctioning body. Issues pop up from time to time which threaten to reopen the old wounds.
Last Sunday we were given an object lesson in Chicago.
Super Comp racer Holden Laris, during a semifinal bye run at the NHRA Route 66 Nationals, lost his brakes and ended up in the sand. He was uninjured, and the car, though dusty and filled with sand, was repaired and returned to the staging lanes for the final.
The car apparently had a soft pedal prior to the burnout, and Laris pumped the brakes a few times and the pressure returned. Laris then staged the car with the brakes but a master cylinder failure at the finish line sent the car off the top end.
Reports of the soft pedal apparently made their way to the control tower, where Laris was disqualified from the event for knowingly racing an unsafe car.
Laris and crew pleaded their case to the race officials, even going as far as providing a computer graph which showed computer readings that indicated that there was brake pressure while staging.
Laris had traveled 1000 miles one way to participate in the event and only needed to take the stage light to win the round and reach a monumental final round per NHRA rules. He ran a perfect 8.900 on a run he didn’t even need to make.
When you put down the circumstantial evidence, it really makes no sense to believe Laris would knowingly try to tear up his car on a round he’d already won.
Could the NHRA been a bit more focused on this issue, or was the pressing need of live television broadcast of higher precedent? The answer should be a resounding, yes and yes.
More situations like this example are likely to surface again.
The sportsman racers today are not the same as those of the 1960s and 70s. The majority travel in major hauling outfits which include a coach and double-stacker trailer with multiple vehicles. Many race cars are an intricate mix of mechanical genius and the best parts money can buy. The equipment investment of these so-called amateur racers can often rival the professional teams.
And what do they get for the investment? They often have to show up as early as Tuesday just to park, and more times than not with high dollar rigs parked in the grass, and sometimes mud.
More times than not, sportsman racers hit the track when the stands are empty. They race with the roosters and finish up with the crickets. If the schedule gets backed up, those sessions are often cut.
There is no more dedication in drag racing than the sportsman drag racer.
This is one side of the fence.
On the other, nine out of ten paying spectators come to the races to watch the professional show. They come to watch the thunder and lightning of the nitro show and a healthy helping of the other professional entities.
So much depends on the front gate [spectators] of a national event as opposed to the back gate. Big time drag racing today is about the show, with a portion focused on the competition.
In today's world where the entertainment dollar has many options, NHRA is battling the likes of which it didn’t face in the early years of the sport.
With this said, the NHRA faces a crucial crossroad in the upcoming three weeks with a combination of live television broadcasts and on a major network. For the sake of the sport jumping up to the next level, 100 percent of the focus needs to be put on making this show shine like never before.
No offense, but where does the sportsman racer fit into this?
Simply put, it doesn't. And that's a shame because of the sportsman racer's passion and investment in the sport.
If I've heard it once, I've heard it a million times how sportsman racing is the backbone of the sport. I don't disagree. Drag racing has changed dramatically, and sportsman drag racing is three levels above what it used to be.
In Major League baseball, it's the minor leagues which provide the foundation for the big league, yet do you ever see the Single A Greenville Drive playing at 7 AM ahead of the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park?
There are those who would argue the back gate [racer entry fees] of an NHRA event carries the race series, but when you do the math, it clearly doesn't add up to support the theory.
There becomes a point NHRA and its management should ask itself, “Would we rather be great at one thing, or mediocre in ten different others?”
Right now, the NHRA has very little choice in the matter.
Give the sportsman racers their own series, and a healthy schedule of Sportsman National events. Provide them with real events with the same enthusiasm of the 1970s Sportsnationals. Build these programs with the same enthusiasm many minor league baseball stadiums create interest in local attendance.
And, maybe in five events or so, bring the sportsman racers back over to the big show for the Jegs All-Stars, the US Nationals and other traditionally rich sportsman venues.
Right now, the NHRA needs to be 100-percent focused on the big show. It needs to find a way to turn a 16 hour marathon day into a compacted four hour show, a little over the length of a baseball game.
In this day of limited attention span, and entertainment options NHRA can ill afford to make this anything but the greatest show on earth.
A separation is the last thing any one of us should want, but maybe, in this case, it's what our sport needs.
Maybe it’s what the sportsman racers deserve, even if they don’t quite understand why.