The World – And Drag Racing – Is Changing. The Sport Must Adapt

After having worked as a journalist covering drag racing for more than 50 years I stepped away in 2018. Despite my not having personally attended an event during the ensuing years I’ve paid close attention to what’s taken place both on and off the track. I’ve also maintained my personal relationships with numerous competitors, team owners, journalists and track owners. I’m mentioning those points just to assure our readers that I’m not firing blindly with this guest editorial, nor do I have any axe to grind with NHRA or anyone else in the sport. As I have said – and written – numerous times, I want only the best for NHRA and everyone else involved in the endeavor. Put more succinctly, a healthy and vibrant NHRA is beneficial to everyone involved.

The success of the SCAG PRO Superstar Shootout in Bradenton, Fl. should have been a wake-up call for the National Hot Rod Association’s management team, but to date, there’s been no public indication that it made an impact on them. I’m not finding fault with that, but they can’t wait too long before publicly reacting.

While there were apparently some minor teething problems in Bradenton, by and large the event was an overwhelming success. Our esteemed publisher/editor Bobby Bennett termed it one of the top five races he’d ever attended, and his list tops 400 events. In an editorial on the subject (, he warned that others in drag racing should be paying attention to how the PRO staged and managed their first-ever “real” major event, and I’ll second that warning. Simply put, with the PRO’s forward-looking momentum, NHRA can no longer consider itself the only game in town.

The first attention-grabbing thing the promoters of the Superstar Shootout did was to announce a winner’s purse of $250,000 each for Top Fuel and Funny Car, along with $125,000 to win in Pro Stock. In early February NHRA informed the teams that the winner’s purse at most Mission Foods-backed events would top out at $54,000 in the fuel categories, with proportionally less in Pro Stock. The U.S. Nationals winner’s purse in T/F and F/C would be $100,000. Critically, in order to collect that winner’s purse the competitors are required to make every qualifying run, regardless of whether the event features three, four, or in the case of Indy, five qualifying sessions. To be clear about this, NHRA is “forcing” the competitors to make every run if they want to collect the full purse. So, gone are the days when a racer could make one significant blast on Friday and then sit back until Sunday, polishing his car and saving his money. We’ll no longer be treated to the likes of Paul Smith, who was well known for his one-run-and-I’m-in approach to national event competition.

Four or five years ago, when COVID was raging, I had a conversation with a highly respected member of the motorsports community who was then contemplating taking a larger position in drag racing. In response to the first question I asked he said without hesitation that he’d pay $100,000 to win in the fuel categories, with considerably more on the line at Indy, should his plans come to fruition. “It’s doable right now,” he added. “That kind of money could be paid right now without hurting the bottom line for each race significantly.”



While others may be loathe to say it, I won’t hesitate: The cash purse offered by NHRA is not only an insult to the competitors who fill the seats with paying customers, it’s demeaning to the very organization that stages those events. Even the most naïve among us understands that the corporate world revolves around money, and when a young man or woman is literally risking his or her life at over 300 miles per hour he should be compensated accordingly. Further, and in this instance of major importance, when the corporate world takes note of how little the sport is paying its main attractions, what incentives do they have for becoming involved? The basement-level purse structure sends a message that NHRA Drag Racing might be a third-rate activity not worth investing in.

Adding insult to injury are the additional fiscal punishments NHRA is inflicting on what are really their partners in drag racing. Their partners, not their customers or clients. NHRA is, in effect, punishing their competitors for, well, trying too hard. NHRA will penalize competitors for centerline violations, for oildowns and, for all we know, wearing and/or trying market a T-shirt they find offensive. Gee, if I’d’ve only been making up that last part.

Moving on, the centerline violations begin with a loss of 10 points and $1,000 and escalate upwards rather rapidly. It’s the same kind of scenario with oildowns, starting with points deductions, but not, apparently, including financial punishments, at least at this point.

But here’s the thing: Is NHRA so hidebound in their thinking to actually believe any competitor intentionally crosses the centerline, risking life and limb to say nothing of a lost run? Is NHRA so hidebound in their thinking to actually believe any competitor intentionally damages his powertrain to the point of dumping fluid on the track? Do they not realize that engine damage like that is already costing the competitor untold thousands?

These are really easily solvable problems. Yes, I’m aware that there’s very recently been the first sit-down, face-to-face meeting between the competitors and NHRA management in a very long time, and we’re all hopeful that there will be many more – fruitful discussions that will bring about meaningful changes in the way drag racing is conducted. But at present the ball remains firmly in NHRA’s court. They’re the ones who can decide to make sensible changes to the oildown and centerline infraction policies. And they’re also the ones who can make the same kind of sensible changes to the national event purses.

Failure to take action on these issues is going to ultimately strengthen the resolve of the racers to take ever-greater control of their own racing destinies. It’s going to ultimately result in an expansion of events like the Pro Superstar Shootout until there could be as many as 10 such events in a single calendar year – and where will that leave NHRA, historically the leaders of drag racing? With a 10-race slate of events there are bound to be conflicting race weekends, but it won’t take anyone long to figure out where the competitors will be headed. Decide for yourself. Would you rather be racing for $54,000 and having to make 8 runs to earn it, or would you rather be making four or five passes for $250,000? If the Jade Grenade was still around you won’t have to guess where we’d be heading.