susan_01.jpgIn the name of entertainment, the cable-TV show "Street Outlaws" on the Discovery Channel has done no better than the local TV news stations that report reckless illegal street racing accidents as "drag racing" crashes.

Both have misrepresented the legitimate sport, the news babblers out of ignorance and the Discovery Channel manipulators out of ego, greed, and storytelling license.

However, the National Hot Rod Association also has missed a golden opportunity. Perhaps NHRA officials have missed it for the same reason "Street Outlaws" producers and participating NHRA member racers have ignited the controversy: the NHRA has been a poor judge of how to attract a crowd and a TV audience.

Josh Peterson, NHRA's vice-president of racing administration, sent a letter that warned racers participating in "Street Outlaws" that "future participation in the show or any show of this nature may result in an indefinite suspension of your NHRA Competition License."

The NHRA has a responsibility and a right to cherish, defend, and uphold its mission, which founder Wally Parks defined as a safe and controlled environment in which to drag race. That's certainly reasonable.

Peterson's notice cited the NHRA's Rulebook, "Section 1.3.1, Participant Conduct" as validation for the threatened action. That passage is 152 words long, but Peterson's message could have been reduced to just four (albeit non-legally binding) words: Have some common sense.

Or as Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher put it: "You have an obligation if you are wearing the NHRA on your sleeve to lead kids to safer places to race. It's your obligation. It's why we do what we do.' We are out here doing what we love, and we respect what you ["Street Outlaws" participants] are doing. Be careful of what you're promoting."

Pro Stock champion Erica Enders-Stevens, who started racing in the NHRA Jr. Dragster program and had a Disney movie made about her and her sister's experience, has rejected offers to glamorize street racing. "I have a responsibility as a role model for how to do this sport properly," she said. "We have to be careful in what we do and what we say and what we wear."

The "reality show" is tire smoke and mirrors, for even Mike Murillo, one of the racers under fire, told Competition Plus the show features racing on a public thoroughfare that is closed to the public during filming. He said emergency medical and fire-department personnel, as well as tech inspectors, are present. He told another Internet publication, "If they were truly out street racing, I would 100-percent agree with the NHRA's stance."

Murillo is not the only NHRA member racer who received Peterson's letter, but to his credit, he has stepped up and publicly expressed his side of the story. (He seems like the one in the movies or cartoons who has found himself the spokesman for a cause because the rest of the people lined up with him have taken one step backwards and left him standing out in front.) Agree with him or not, he seems to have been "elected" to do the heavy lifting on his end.

The San Antonio team owner, by all evidence, is a passionate racer who is thoughtful and articulate. He said he has had an NHRA license since 1994, and he said he had planned to race in another reality-TV series, "The House of Grudge."

While many NHRA headliners, including Schumacher, Erica Enders-Stevens, and Larry Morgan, justifiably have pointed out flaws in the choices Murillo and others have made, Murillo – who appears on "Street Outlaws" in a limited role – did toss out one significant nugget.

He estimated that the TV show that's questionable by NHRA standards draws 2.5 million viewers. And he said, "A lot of it has to do with drama, characters, action – and the NHRA had better figure out what it is going to take to get these butts in the stands. I will tell you the Street Outlaws and Grudge Racing scene has it figured out."

He's right. Whether it cares to admit it and address it, the NHRA has had trouble keeping the fans it does attract to stay for the entire day of racing at both qualifying and eliminations. The exodus midway through each day of many national events has been noticeable for more than a year.

It's clear that "Street Outlaws," whether deliberately or inadvertently, is capable of unravelling the positive aspects of NHRA drag racing. But the appropriate NHRA officials need to use this situation as a springboard for a discussion about why these Discovery Channel producers can do what they can't seem to do – have a specific and consistent TV time slot, engage viewers, promote the drama, the on-track rush, and the personalities in its own TV package.

An Autoweek article published last year quoted Jeg Coughlin as saying, "Ask any track owner and they'll tell you their weekly Friday night 'Grudge Races' attract 500 cars. And that's with no payout. But we're missing the transition of getting those folks to NHRA national events or to have them watch on TV."

The reasons are myriad, and frankly, discussed (over-discussed?) publicly by everyone but the NHRA and ESPN, the two parties who could fix the problem.

But let's face it. All the elements for exciting NHRA broadcasts are there already. The NHRA has a dad racing his daughter, a father racing his son, brothers racing each other, millionaires living in the NHRA trailerhood every weekend, a former underwear model with a law degree and two Competition Eliminator series championships, fistfights in the pits (sometimes among teammates), a Lear Jet pilot and airline owner, a Virginia cattle farmer, a celebrity chef, a Top Fuel racer who drives himself to all the races in his own motorhome, a plastic-bag factory owner, an East Tennessee business mogul, a Texas roofing contractor who said his racing expenses equal the income from 800,000 squares (400 18-wheeler loads) of shingles, a team owner-driver who keeps his crew members alert with brain teasers, foreign drivers, minorities and women, a racing mom, in-laws, outlaws, college kids and 60- and 80-year-old men, and one racer who posed nude for a magazine.

If all that – plus putting these characters in cars that run 330-or-so miles an hour in less than four seconds – doesn’t scream reality series, nothing does. NASCAR went from moonshine-running to Madison Avenue seemingly overnight by promoting their personalities. The NHRA has wilder characters than that.

All that aside, NHRA drag racing has burnouts, burndowns, oildowns, red lights, deep-staging, holeshots, plenty of fancy elapsed times and speeds, and even a Christmas tree — and diapers aren’t what you think they are.   And former Funny Car fan favorite Dean Skuza said, "We're not like NASCAR. We don't conserve fuel. We don't conserve tires. We don't conserve nothin'!

What’s more American than that?!"

It's time for the NHRA and ESPN to ditch the parade of cars sailing or limping down the track and adopt a spicier and more successful format.

So what does "Street Outlaws" have that the NHRA's ESPN broadcast doesn't?

It has some cool camera angles, ones ESPN could use more often.

It has some pushing and shoving matches. But they're no more entertaining than the one between John Force and Tony Pedregon at the 2009 U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis. Or how about the 2002 Reading, Pa., staging-line burndown between Doug Herbert and Clay Millican and the scuffle that Millican team owner Peter Lehman instigated by shoving Herbert after the drivers were ordered from their dragsters?

"I could hear the crowd in the grandstands – sold-out race – above two 8,000-horsepower Top Fuel cars," Millican said, recalling the dispute. Incidentally, Force told Millican later, "That's the greatest thing I've ever seen!"

(Force loves those moments, as long as he isn't one of the combatants. In his early drag-racing days with uncle Gene Beaver, Force remembered a wild day at Sacramento Raceway. "I was in my little Chaparral trailer with four bald tires, race car wouldn't start, broker than a church mouse," he said. "And over here is TV Tommy Ivo with his big rig and his friend, Don Prudhomme," Force said. "And I heard Prudhomme scream. And Tommy Ivo came out of that trailer – and Tommy Ivo threw a piston at Prudhomme – across the parking lot! And I was standing there, saying, 'Oh my God! They're going to fight!' And Beaver said, 'Don't care about the fight – get that piston!' It was brand-new piston he threw at Prudhomme!")

"Street Outlaws" has some characters with macho-sounding names: Murder Nova, Kamikaze, Big Chief, Farmtruck, and the not-so-politically-correct Freakin Rican and Azn (pronounced "Asian"). Ah, but remember Jungle Jim? The Snake and The Mongoose? The Bounty Hunter? Grumpy? The Zookeeper? Sneaky Pete? The King, Ace, and Joker? This NHRA bunch and their predecessors can match those "Street Outlaw" guys when it comes to memorable nicknames.

It's useful, too, to point out what else the NHRA has that "Street Outlaws" does not.

The NHRA has an incredibly skilled and swift emergency rescue and medical team, the Safety Safari, that's on hand all the time at sanctioned events and working together with the precision of the Blue Angels. Their response time is astoundingly quick.

The NHRA has 60-plus years of experience at hosting events.

The NHRA has grandstands, and it invites fans not only to watch the on-track action but to watch and meet the racers in the pit area and seek autographs and photographs.

The NHRA has continually evolving safety innovations, some mandatory and some optional but all researched and tested by some of the sharpest technological minds in the business.

The NHRA has a network of respected, entrenched manufacturers with integrity and excellent customer service.

The NHRA has a framework, structure. Sometimes it takes hurricane-force abuse, but it remains standing after decades.

The NHRA has a system of racetrack facilities with safety standards and fan-comfort requirements.

The NHRA has cultivated a web of media contacts that have produced seemingly countless newspaper and magazine articles, photographs, videos, films, books, and other forms of published media – none of which have borne the burden of faking circumstances or the fear of revealing too much and alerting authorities or betraying the sources. All the independent publicity is publicity the NHRA, even with its profits, never could afford via media-buys. 

So the bottom line is that these two factions could come together to hammer out a gripping, engrossing NHRA drag racing TV package that would boost the ratings and compel fans to attend races in person.

Antron Brown, a Top Fuel champion, suggested a dialogue with the "Street Outlaw" racers. 

"I think we could have been more proactive to get them to the place where they need to be racing at:  our NHRA national events. It would have been cool to see NHRA invite them to our events," Brown said. "They could see first-hand and maybe let them race on Saturday night, after we are done. There are always different ways to do this. We just need to pull them in the right direction. The direction is over here with us and having fun."

Both he and Schumacher said they respect the passion the “Street Outlaws” stars have for racing, too.
Maybe they'd feel a whole more charitable, though, if the TV stars didn’t glorify an activity that incites reckless and dangerous behaviour. Then maybe no drag racer or fan would have to become aggravated at the TV talking heads on the 11 o'clock news - because maybe then they wouldn't have any illegal street-racing wrecks to report.


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