NHRA’S TIMING – AND DECISION – ABOUT STARTER ROLE PUZZLING
According to an old saying, those who tell don’t know and those who know don’t tell. (That probably applies to the origin of that theory, too.)
But it’s probably safe to say only a handful of individuals truly know all the background, reasoning, and steps leading to the NHRA’s decision to abandon the traditional role of official starter.
Competition Plus broke the story Jan. 19. Senior Director of Public Relations and Communications Jessica Hatcher’s confirmation is the only peep from the sanctioning body about the change.
So with this bombshell disclosure coming less than three weeks before the start of the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season, the timing is odd – just like the move itself.
But before the drag-racing community becomes too agitated about it, it’s imperative to remind that at least 95 percent of observers don’t know any more than what Hatcher said in a written statement: "NHRA is going in a new direction regarding the structure and role of the starter position.”
What’s missing is the reason why.
Is it a cost-cutting measure to feed the gluttonous FOX Sports broadcast monster?
Is the official starter essentially a figurehead who takes orders from the race-control room of the tower?
Is the NHRA trying to make sure no one person has too much power?
Is a specific incident behind this adjustment?
Is the sanctioning body trying to shake up procedures now that longtime Senior Vice-President of Racing Operations Graham Light has stepped aside and Josh Peterson has replaced him?
The public, including the media, perhaps never will hear the whole story or even get a complete official statement. And as two-time Funny Car champion Matt Hagan told Competition Plus, “At the end of the day, we will have to adapt."
Mike Gittings won’t be there on the starting line at all 24 events. He might not be on the starting line for any of them, for all we know. The Jan. 19 news article here at Competition Plus suggested, without any public NHRA confirmation, that Gittings’ job will be portioned out to a handful of alternates.
Scott Gardner is a partner at Straightline Strategy Group, but before he joined the Clay Millican-headlined organization, he was the longtime owner of storied Cordova International Raceway, a one-time operator at Heartland Park Topeka, and President of the International Hot Rod Association. So he has worked extensively with official starters. He admitted that he is “not privy to their [NHRA’s] plans, so it’s very premature to comment about something that you really don’t know what you’re commenting about.”
However, he did say the decision “came from out of left field” and called the situation “odd” and “weird.”
From his unique perspective, he said regional replacements for one official starter “is a little bit worrisome. Even on a week-to-week bracket program, I had some different starters, but I really always tried to have the same guy do the money races because of the way they do certain things. People get used to that style. It doesn’t mean that another person’s style is wrong. It’s just different. So that is going to be a learning curve, not only for the NHRA, but also for the racers themselves – if that is the case, if they switch out and have different people. Maybe they’ve come up with something I don’t know about. It just seems odd.”
It is puzzling, for sure, considering track preparation was an ongoing experiment last season that eventually settled into a groove but caused a stir in the process. And four-wide racing – which expanded from the one spring Charlotte race to the spring Las Vegas race, as well – was another aspect of the sport that Gittings was involved with closely.
And Gittings was thrust into the official starter’s role unexpectedly following the death of his close pal, Mark Lyle. So that was a lot for him to try to master in a short time after being elevated to the job that predecessors Buster Couch and Rick Stewart each ruled for many years.
“I really don’t think there’s going to be an issue,” veteran Funny Car driver Ron Capps said.
“It’s going to be strange. More than anything, it’s not us drivers. What the starters do up there [at the starting line], their role is diminished with the autostart [function on the Christmas Tree]. But the big role has been managing the starting line and the communication with the crew chiefs. That’s the big deal,” Capps said. “And Tobler [Rahn Tobler, his tuner for the NAPA Dodge]. He’s one of those crew chiefs that’s vocal and he’s also very good at communication.”
Capps said Tobler often referred to nuggets of information he gleaned from visiting, even ever-so-briefly, with Gittings.
“So I know that they were talking a lot,” Capps said. “He replaces somebody who got to be very special with us and w got very close with. But I think the role with the drivers [interacting with Gittings’ replacement/s] isn’t going to be that drastic. I know for a fact the crew chiefs got to really be close with him. And he was very honest about what was going on at the starting line and how the prep was. And he managed the starting line very well in that respect. I just hope that doesn’t change.”
In defense of the regional or divisional starters, Capps said, “They deal with a lot and lot of different cars. They’re all pretty good. I don’t think there’s going to be any issue.
“The biggest transition is Graham Light not being there. He took a lot of crap from a lot of people. I told people, ‘You should feel lucky we have Graham, an ex-racer, in that position. Obviously, he was never going to make everybody happy. But the transition with him being gone, that’s going to be bigger. That’s going to be the biggest change,” he said.
Capps said the May 2018 addition of Ned Walliser as the sanctioning body’s vice-president of competition, represented a strong and stabilizing change. He had worked with the drag-racing body from 1994-2000, as Pacific Division Director then as Director of Racing Operations. He was the COO of Maingate and served of the SFI board.
“Great guy,” Capps said. “He was probably the biggest change with NHRA and the track prep and communication with crew chiefs. I’ve known Ned a long time. He has been around NHRA in different positions. When he came back, Tobler didn’t know him that well, and I said, ‘You’re going to like that change.’ Ned’s very good at communicating what’s going to be done with the track prep on a certain run, why they changed the track prep run to run, why they did it the last run, whatever it may be. That was probably the biggest hire. A lot of people didn’t know Josh was starting to run the show as Graham stepped back, even before Graham announced his retirement. I think Ned Walliser coming back was the biggest asset we saw.”
Because of Walliser’s influence, he said, “I think it’s going to be good this year. I don’t think it’s going to be as sticky as it was in the past, but at least the crew chiefs will know when we go up there [to stage]. And that’ll make it good side-by-side racing. I really think so.”
So despite the late timing and the appearance of a disorganized policy change for unknown reasons, maybe the racers, crew chiefs, and fans won’t experience an upheaval. If they do, they always can go back to what worked for 60-plus years.