MICHAEL KNIGHT - TOP TEN BUSINESS OF DRAG RACING STORIES FROM 2015
A hearty Happy New Year’s to all CompetitionPlus.com readers.
That being said, it’s time for this column’s annual listing of the year’s Top 10 stories in the Business and Politics of Drag Racing.
10. Blount Talk: At the core of the job description for NHRA’s vice president, public relations and communications, is increasing media coverage. I’ve long said essential to making that happen is developing good one-on-one relationships with key journalists. Jerry Archambeault, who had the title for many years, didn’t do it. Geno Effler, who had the title for a few months, didn’t do it. Now the sanction has turned to longtime sportswriter Terry Blount. That announcement raised concern among those with professional PR experience because Blount is forced to report to Gary Darcy. Any well-established PRer would have made it a deal-breaker to report directly to President Peter Clifford. In the early going, Blount’s enthusiasm has impressed those in the press box, but a fair assessment can’t be made until after the 2016 season.
9. The Don: Drag racing’s Roger Penske/Rick Hendrick, Don Schumacher, battled his way back to the track after cancer treatments. That was good news for even non-DSR fans because the competitive depth of the Top Fuel and Funny Car classes would be devastated without him. The Don is, quite simply, NHRA’s most important non-driver. Antron Brown won him another Top Fuel championship while Jack Beckman and Tommy Johnson Jr. contended in Funny Car but couldn’t out-race Del Worsham for the title. That was, no doubt, a source of great angst for Schumacher -- especially after paying Big to bring Jimmy Prock and John Medlen to Beckman’s team. Schumacher has consistently shown he’s not shy about doing whatever he thinks is right for his organization. Ask Spencer Massey.
8. The Mello Sponsor: This annual “honor” has been well-deserved by The Coca-Cola Co. and Mello Yello for continuing to treat its NHRA title sponsorship like an unwanted step-child. The one constant has been the lack of enthusiasm and meaningful activation and marketing support for the series. My yearly question: Why bother?
7. Crash Happy: NHRA’s biggest mainstream media moment of the year wasn’t victory. It was survival. Larry Dixon, the three-time Top Fuel champion who finally returned to full-time competition with Bob Vandergriff Jr.’s team, flipped violently and spectacularly due to a chassis failure in the Gatornationals. By walking away from the wreckage, Dixon got more national media coverage than class champions Brown, Worsham, Erica Enders-Stevens and Andrew Hines.
6. Paying the Bills: Let’s begin by recognizing Terry Chandler, who personally funds the Beckman and Johnson Jr. Funny Cars to raise awareness for Infinite Hero Foundation and Make-A-Wish, respectively. And Forrest and Charlotte Lucas, who continue to be NHRA’s best corporate friends. Elsewhere, though, sponsorship issues were an on-going story. Brittany Force eventually got Monster Energy for her dragster but John Force Racing still was not fully funded. Alan Johnson fielded Shawn Langdon’s Top Fuel car on a race-to-race basis when Al-Anabi pulled out just before Pomona but had to park come the Countdown. Valvoline stepped away (Schumacher got Pennzoil) and the poor motorcycle competitors got hosed in the Miramonte Records Pro Stock Bike Battle fiasco. Many, many teams were just hanging on financially. And, now, the economists I listen to say America is overdue for a recession come 2016. Fingers crossed, everyone.
5. Saving Pro Stock: What a mess. Years of neglect, poor decision-making in Glendora, and ridiculous spending by the few who could afford it made the class irrelevant to the average fan and close to an endangered species. The argument can be made saving Pro Stock was Clifford highest priority when he became president. There were some late-season rules changes and policies to make the class more fan friendly but . . . well . . . it’s a challenge to come up with a positive story other than Erica Enders-Stevens’ second consecutive championship.
4. Not a Force: Courtney Force went winless for the first time with a demoralizing FIFTEEN first-round loses. She only made it past the second round three times, and if you don’t think that was a media and fan downer, ask any national event promoter. John Force and Robert Hight won but had to scramble to keep the team going following the Ford and Castrol withdrawals. Force’s inventory of Ford Mustangs quickly became Chevrolet Camaros. (? !) Big budget cuts meant a Brain Drain as top tuners Jimmy Prock and John Medlen left for DSR. Brittany has now gone three seasons without visiting a Top Fuel winner’s circle.
3. Changing Channels: Tension in the NHRA-ESPN relationship had been building for years as other programming priorities meant qualifying shows were often bumped into early a.m. hours without notice. The sanction rejected the network’s recommendation to reformat event presentation into a shorter, more fast-paced package. Even though a year remained on their contract, a split seemed inevitable, with Clifford finally announcing what -- on paper -- looks like an impressive schedule of mostly live coverage on Fox Sports 1 and even a few races on the Fox network. NHRA has taken on the responsibility -- and cost -- of producing these shows so anyone with complaints can point directly to Glendora. Sadly, Mike Dunn -- motorsports’ best TV analyst -- won’t return.
2. Compton Out: The Tom Compton saga could have made for a soap opera or TV mystery. Compton, president since 2000, suddenly disappeared from the tracks and office and with no explanation from the sanction, NHRA teams, sponsors and promoters were left to wonder. No surprise, that void was filled with lots of rumors, certainly not helpful to the Business of Drag Racing. Board Chairman Dallas Gardner announced Clifford’s promotion in an arrogant and embarrassing July 1 teleconference with the handful of reporters who bothered to participate.
1. Clifford In: And so it was Peter Clifford, who joined NHRA in 1997, who moved up to the top spot from his role as executive VP and general manager. Over the following months he issued a series of announcements which all seemed good, at least on paper. Let’s see how things look come the Winternationals and especially after the Auto Club Finals.
Follow Michael Knight on Twitter: @SpinDoctor500