LUCAS FAMILY PULLS PLUG ON TOP FUEL TEAM
The Auto Club Finals at Pomona, Calif. signals the end of the NHRA season, but this time it’s the end of the Morgan Lucas Racing (MLR) Top Fuel team.
Lucas on Friday night informed his team, which features popular driver Richie Crampton and crew chief / car builder Aaron Brooks, of the decision to disband the Brownsburg, Ind.-based organization at the conclusion of this weekend’s race.” Everyone has been graceful about the news,” he said.
Lucas promised, "We are going to retain our involvement with NHRA Sportsman Series and race sponsorships. For us, I think it is obvious to fans, that we are involved in the sport whether the team is running or not."
MLR is the second Hoosier-headquartered Top Fuel team this year to cease operation. Bob Vandergriff Racing did so in April after primary benefactor Josh Comstock died suddenly and his oil-and-gas-industry firm cited economic woes for declining to continue funding the dragsters of Dave Connolly and Leah Pritchett.
The Lucas Family’s choice – one which part-time driver Morgan Lucas said “has been ripping at my gut” – resulted from a combination of factors.
Two are increased corporate commitments for Morgan Lucas at Lucas Oil and a possible cabinet position with President-elect Donald Trump for his father, Forrest Lucas. The elder Lucas has served on an agriculture advisory committee for Trump, and his name has been mentioned as candidate for Secretary of the Interior.
“"It's been ten years of a lot of highs and lows," Morgan Lucas said. He characterized the decade as "a lot of successes and a lot of failures . . . established a good team, a very competitive team at times.” He said, “There are a lot of changes going on in my life and my father's life, a lot of things happening within the company. It's just time to move on from team ownership.”
Performance, which has fallen off this season, played a role, but Lucas said, “On a 50/50 scale, that might have drawn a bit. I'm not going to say that didn't influence a little bit. I'm not going to say that was the basis for this. I think there were a lot of factors that went into this.”
Lucas said, “Richie is an amazing driver, and Aaron is an amazing crew chief. It just wasn't our year this year. When you have to make decisions like this ,sometimes it’s convenient to blame it on performance. There's a lot of things that added into this decision.
"A big component is there are a lot of time demands. Sometimes something has to give,” he said. “And for us, looking at the big picture, as much as it hurts and affects the people on this team, we have the confidence that the talent level of the people on this team [means] they will be able to land on their feet. We will do everything we can to help them make that transition.”
Not insignificant, too, is the rise of multicar teams, an evolution that ultimately handcuffs even a well-funded operation such as MLR.
“We are a single-car team. We are trying to compete against multicar teams. One of the teams has eight cars. They get eight times the runs that we do every session. They have eight times the information, and it is hard to compete against something like that. It's hard to find additional funding for our cars in this situation,” Lucas said. “I'm not faulting them, because they do an amazing job. But when you look at where the sport is, that money was coming out of my dad's pocket to run both of these cars. That's 3.5 million dollars plus. That adds up. What I am trying to say is it all adds up. It's not a 2D decision; it's multi-dimensional.
Charlotte Lucas, wife of Forrest Lucas and mother of Morgan, said, “We were spending way more money than we were getting advertising out of it.”
“It was easily one of the toughest things I have had to deal with in my life," he said, “This is a tough and grueling decision. It's something that has been ripping at my gut. I feel like I have lost six pounds in the last week. I have [loved] and will always love every member of this team. They have given me some of the best wins of my life and some of my best experiences in life, outside of my family.
"I can't thank Lucas Oil and all of the employees enough for all the things they have done to allow us the opportunities to do this . . . Geico, for the years they gave us to come out and compete . . . Mac Tools has been with us since Day One - phenomenal company and phenomenal products . . . Toyota and Andre Jackson have been like family to us. He's just one of those guys always there to give a hug when times are good and bad. He's just a really good person and a great ambassador for the brand.
He said he can’t forget the fans: “I can't thank the fans enough for the support they've given this team over the years. I hope they don't lose faith in Lucas Oil products, because at the end of the day, we still have a passion for drag racing. It's just going to be translated in a different way.”
The political element to Forrest Lucas’ already loaded agenda is something he and wife Charlotte and son Morgan are pondering.
"You could say it is because of that, but at the end of the day, my dad is heavily invested in Protect the Harvest,” Morgan Lucas said. “If he were to get that cabinet position, which at this point is an idea or notion, that could add a lot of time constraints. But the business is growing. We are constantly trying to find a way to add to new markets, trying to find new ways to get that out there.”
Although Lucas has competed only sporadically in the past three seasons, he said the part-time experience requires preparation, which saps time from his business obligations.
"In order for me to get a foothold inside the business, with also my family life, my focus has to be going towards this even though I am not driving. I still spend a lot of time thinking and preparing and getting in shape, trying to stay sharp when I get into this car. It does take time to do this stuff. It's not like jumping on a bike. You have to stay sharp to be in one of these things [dragsters]. I like to win. I don't like to lose."
Lucas is pragmatic.
"All good things come to an end,” he said. “Drag racing, like any other sport, is fickle: It can be great now and horrible later. That's just what it is. You’ve got to ride the wave while you are up on it. You try to get back up on it when you can. I cannot say that I never thought it wouldn't happen. I just didn't know when. I never stopped being passionate about the team, because I care so much about the guys on this team that when something like this happens it sets you back a bit."
He said he hoped his passion for fielding the Top Fuel team wouldn’t wane when he stepped from the cockpit on a fulltime basis.
"I had hoped everyone would retain the passion and see the marketing value that came from it,” he said. “I was very excited to see the increased numbers of the FOX broadcasts this year. Regardless, when the car ran well, we still didn't get the TV time. When it didn't, we didn't get the TV time. The show was focused on certain people at times. That made it really hard to get that exposure we needed to get that cost per impression in a good zone. It was one of those decisions we had to make. I applaud NHRA for building a show that was interesting for the fans.
“I hope sponsors don't look at us pulling out as a sign because it's not,” Lucas said. “The sport is healthy, and the sport is good. It's just for us, we have saturated this market. We would like to continue with this market. We need to find ways to expand into other areas.”
Those, he said, represent a big unknown.
“What people don't realize is that Lucas Oil is a diverse company," Lucas said. "My dad has been good at trying to expand things. We have investments in a lot of areas. It's not like that money is going to be in a slush fund and we will use it somewhere else. Three-and-a-half million bucks is a lot of money to any company. That's a lot of money to Geico, and they are a multi-billion dollar company. You have to look at the reality of the situation.
"We don't know what is going to happen with the economy of the country and of the world,” he said. “Sometimes you just have to be smart."
Neither Morgan Lucas nor his mother, Charlotte Lucas, could predict whether MLR might make a comeback or under what conditions that might happen.
"I can tell you that I am open-minded,” Morgan Lucas said. “A lot of fans ask me if I am ever coming back full time. The way I look at it, John Force is 67, and he's still throwing down. That guy is a shining light to someone like me who is 32. I still have a whole 100-percent of my life to go. [As] my kids get older, they might want to take a crack at it. I don't know. I'm open-minded about it. I love this sport. I'm not saying I'm not going to drive anything. I just don't see a Top Fuel car in the foreseeable future.”
Charlotte Lucas said she told him, “If you want to get a kick out of it, I’ll let you drive my car. It won’t go as fast. My car’s sitting right there in his shop, so he can g play in Division 3 all he wants. He told me he would be my crew chief. So maybe one week he can drive and the next week I can drive, something like that. It’s something where we can bring [Morgan and Katie Lucas’ sons] Hunter and Austin [along] and a have a lot of fun with it.”
Ever since he began racing a Top Fuel dragster in the pro ranks, Morgan Lucas has offered suggestions for helping NHRA in its marketing efforts.
“What I respect about NHRA is they are making changes – good, bad, or indifferent – to try and improve the quality of the sport. That says a lot about the fact they are not stagnant or complacent. They are trying, and marketing is a tricky thing,” he said. “It's not what you want. It's what the fans want. You’ve got to take care of the fans, because we are a show and we are the entertainers. At the end of the day, we are racers, but we are also entertainers.
"I'll give my input,” Lucas said. “Whether it falls on deaf ears or not, I don't know. I know our sport as a whole is headed in a better direction. Look at some of the sportsman categories and the numbers are growing. A year ago, we saw struggling car counts at certain events, and that's starting to turn a corner.
"Realistically, the Top Fuel class has priced itself out in certain ways,” Lucas said. “It costs you $3.5 million to run one of these cars, and it's tough to track down that kind of sponsorship money. You have to compete with the world of social media, and I think that is the short-term gratification the youth are looking for. I have faith that the [NHRA] leadership will continue to try and find stuff that will work and grow the sport."
Lucas is regarding this race as his swan song.
“We love the sport of drag racing. Guys like me, because of my financial background, don't get picked up to drive cars, especially on a part-time basis. So this might be my last hurrah behind the wheel,” he said. “If it is, I hope it is a good one. If it's not, I still have twenty-something trophies at home I can look at. I still have memories of all those trophies.”
For the record, Lucas has 12 Top Fuel Wally trophies and 11 from the sportsman-level Top Alcohol Dragster class. Crampton has seven Top Fuel victories. Shawn Langdon, Melanie Troxel, and Brandon Bernstein also raced for MLR.
"I can say we had a good ride ... a good run, and we racked up quite a few trophies. I'm proud of what we accomplished."