COMMENTARY: HOW THE WORLD SERIES OF DRAG RACING WENT FROM SOMETHING TO NOTHING
“The event could not grow any more in Cordova…we have potential to draw from a wide area coming to this venue.”
Those words, taken straight from the mouth of current IHRA president Mike Dunn in an interview with the Quad City Times this past week, are among the most haunting and damning words I have read in quite some time.
“Could not grow any more…” Just let that marinate in your mind for a bit.
The World Series of Drag Racing. The pinnacle of exhibition drag racing. One of the longest running races in the sport. A fixture at Cordova since 1954.
Oh, and successful. In this world of diminishing crowds and reduced interest in all things fast and loud, the World Series of Drag Racing had withstood the test of time and continued to thrive with large crowds and staging lanes maxed out with racers from across the country.
So what do you do with an event that has both nostalgia oozing from its title and, yet, still a bit of a current, hip feel to it? One that continued to draw in fans by the thousands. One that families circled on their calendar a year in advance and saved up to attend?
Well, you move it to another venue of course. You move it to a venue struggling to attract large, meaningful events and you do it under the ruse of buzz words like “growth potential.”
In other words – what the hell were they thinking?
That was the thought ruminating through my head the moment I discovered that IRGSE – the current parent company of IHRA – had finally pulled the trigger on moving one of the longest running motorsports events in the country to a new location. It was also the thought circling my mind when I heard where they were moving the event to. And, in a cruel twist of fate (or, as some say, karma), it was on my mind all weekend as I watched the event unfold like a bad horror flick.
To be fair, this event was doomed from the word go. All the media tours and puffy press releases about big-name sponsor involvement weren’t going to keep this ship afloat. Too many people have been burned. This was mismanagement at its finest by folks that don’t truly understand drag racing.
IRGSE checked off every single box on the how NOT to handle a potential PR nightmare checklist. You relocated a long-standing, tradition-rich event from a venue that desperately needed that event to survive. You moved it to a venue with little chance at making it work. And you did it all with no real remorse for the people that were hurt along the way. You stayed quiet, you deleted negative comments from your Facebook page and you pretended like everything was A-ok while the house was burning down around you.
Before we move any further, a little full disclosure is in order. I am a big supporter of the IHRA. I served as the Media and Public Relations manager for the organization from 2009 to 2015. I have friends that still work there (those that have survived the onslaught), I still wear my IHRA gear now 200 miles away from my previous home in Norwalk. I loved every minute of my time working with racers, promoting races and even butting heads with those who didn’t buy into the IHRA way of life (including, at times, the editor of this very internet magazine).
But this is not the IHRA that I fell in love with. The writing was on the wall in the latter months of my time with the company. Instead of savvy promotors and PR wizards running the show, it was billionaires and investors driving the ship.
I knew, in time, that they were going to move the IHRA south. I knew, in time, there would be few left who truly cared about the tracks, the racers and the fans. And I knew, in time, the IHRA would look nothing like it did just a decade ago.
And the debacle known as moving the World Series of Drag Racing from Cordova to Memphis – both tracks owned by IRGSE – just surmise those beliefs.
I watched as IRGSE hired a smart man, former Cordova general manager Scott Gardner, as IHRA President to replace a man that I have immeasurable respect for, Mr. Aaron Polburn. I watched as IRGSE purchased Cordova Dragway and renamed it Cordova International Raceway. And I have watched as that same company took from that track its very history.
I remain, to this day, friends with many of the former Cordova employees who joined IHRA following the buyout (and subsequently moved on to greener pastures). I have seen the pain this whole ordeal has caused, not just to the community and local businesses, but to the fans who made the pilgrimage every summer.
Why not create a unique standalone event for Memphis? Why not take the World Series of Drag Racing on tour to a couple of different tracks? Why not do any number of things that make more sense than taking a successful, foundation event from one of your own tracks and giving it to another?
Oh, that’s right, “growth potential,” as Chris Lencheski, CEO of IRGSE, told the Memphis Daily News.
So how did the reinvented, reinvigorated World Series turn out with all of that potential? Exactly as you might have expected. A few hundred fans on Friday, a bit more on Saturday. Whoops.
It would also be appropriate to mention that Lencheski does have a history in the Quad Cities area where Cordova is located. RELATED STORY - FANS STILL FUME AS CORDOVA SITS SILENT THIS WEEKEND
I certainly don’t fault any track or any organization for taking risks. I don’t hold anything against them for trying, especially in this topsy-turvy motorsports economy. But this is beyond trying to make a buck. The story of how IRGSE acquired the track in Cordova only to bastardize one of the few great motorsports events with as much history and success as the World Series of Drag Racing, is a cautionary tale that will be told for years to come.
Maybe the 64th version of the event will return to Cordova. Maybe not. A recent press release touting a new IHRA Dragster 1: World Series of Drag Racing Series (which sounds hilariously similar to the American Dodgeball Association of America from the movie Dodgeball) speaks to other uses for the name. And, while we are at it, as a huge supporter of Formula 1, I have a few questions about the logistics of obtaining Top Fuel cars and boxing them up for events around the world. But that is a discussion for another time.
I still love my IHRA. I still remember fondly all of the friends I have made along the way. I am still proud of what we accomplished in my time there. But I don’t know when this train jumped the tracks.
“This event could not grow any more in Cordova…”
This is true. It would only have continued to be one of the most successful races in the country.