O’NEAL: CALL US ‘LUCAS OIL SERIES’ RACERS, NOT ‘SPORTSMEN’
For Don O’Neal, the issue is one of respect.
The Top Sportsman driver of the Litens/NGK/Magnuson Camaro said it’s time to discard the term “sportsman” when referring to the racers in his class and those in the nine other Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series categories.
He said racers in the Top Alcohol Dragster, Top Alcohol Funny Car, Top Dragster, Super Comp, Super Gas, Super Street, Competition Eliminator, Super Stock, and Stock classes deserve recognition for the professional-grade efforts they put into their operations.
They’re “Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series” drivers. And that’s how he’d like for them to be described.
Enough of the “sportsman” label.
“There is nothing that frustrates me more,” O’Neal said, and he isn’t going to keep it to himself any longer. Moreover, he said, “I hope it flutters somebody” to act, to change the way everyone regards these competitors.
He claimed – and rightly so – that in NASCAR, beyond the elite-level Cup Series, racers are called by their series name: Camping World Truck Series drivers and Xfinity Series drivers. He said, “They don't refer to the Xfinity drivers as ‘sportsman drivers,’ because they're not.
“But when it comes to us in NHRA, we're not referred to as Lucas Oil Series drivers. Why do we have to insert the word ‘sportsman’?” he asked. “I hate the term ‘sportsman,’ because you have people like Dan Fletcher and us and the Meyer family that this is what we do.
“We have other businesses, but we run this as a company. We show up. We have commitments. We have sponsors. We’re typically at a racetrack a couple days prior, We’re testing. We're doing R&D. We're operating and we function like any other professional organization. I get so upset when people refer to you as a ‘sportsman driver,’ or [say,] ‘You're not in the professional category.’ I would challenge anybody that wants to come along to come along, because we function that way, and it upsets me. So I think it's a complete disrespect to people that do it for a living,” O’Neal said. “We work extremely hard, and we have great partners that I think have been with us because they see how hard the family aspect of it, what it means to us and how important that aspect is.”
Certainly, the media can play a key role in changing that part of the NHRA culture. However, O’Neal said the NHRA itself should lead the way.
He said, “It's completely disrespectful, and it's not fair. Why does Joe Castello still get labeled as an ‘NHRA announcer’ when he comes into the booth and he's announcing the Lucas Oil Series categories? During that time frame, when he's holding the microphone, why don't we just call him a Lucas Oil Series announcer, not an ‘NHRA Camping World announcer’?”
After all, O’Neal contended, fans can relate more to the Lucas Oil Series drivers more than they can to Camping World Series drivers.
“I do not like the fact that they put such an emphasis on the Camping World Series drivers but when we're talking about the Lucas Oil Series guys, the ones that fans can relate with the most, you downplay us and you make us sound like we're nothing,” he said.
“Can anybody in the stands relate with Antron Brown for what he does for a living?” O’Neal asked.
“You can take the Worner brothers, out of Division One, who are firefighters. There are firefighters, but we don't talk about that. They're ‘sportsman’ drivers,” he said.
What he suggested the announcers do is say something like this:
“Here's a Lucas Oil Series driver who's also a first responder firefighter, and he and his twin brother, they're competing in competition today. If you're a firefighter in the grandstands, thanks for being here. You just might want to go by in the pits and find the Worner family and say hello to them. You probably have something in common with them.”
Furthermore, O’Neal said, “And how are they [Lucas Oil Series competitors] supposed to further their careers and their value with any company or any fan base if the people that are running an organization don't at least try to help by not making it sound like we're a bunch of has-beens, or never-will-bes because we're ‘sportsman’ drivers?”
How much a racer earns outside the racetrack might surprise people, O’Neal said.
“I promise you this . . . whoever has this ‘Executive Vice President of whatever’ in their title has no idea how many millionaires – and I said how many – were in the ‘sportsman’ pits [for example] at Charlotte. I tell you this: there were more millionaires in the ‘sportsman’ pits in Charlotte than there were in the pro pits. They do not understand that they're talking down to people,” he said.
The NHRA often has put out the message that the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series drivers are “the backbone” of the 70-plus-year-old organization. But O’Neal would categorize that as “paying lip service.”
He said, “You're talking to somebody that has 50 employees and is not a mom-and-pop company” and suspected any racer who felt disrespected might not volunteer readily to help the NHRA with a project. A racer who felt that way might say, “You disrespected me, and you treat us bad on a weekly basis at every national event that we show up to like, you don't even want us here.”
The Lucas Oil Series drivers often are inconvenienced to accommodate the Camping World Series schedule, but O’Neal said that simply is a reality that they understand. He just would like for the NHRA executives to speak with them as businessmen and businesswomen on an equal level.
“That in itself moves around, and we are business owners. And we understand that TV pushes the sport,” he said. And when that happens, he said, “We’re not upset. We understand. We run a company. We buy media time. We understand. But if you treat us in that manner, that we understand, or talk to us on a level of [equality] instead of talking down or at us, you'll get more support out of us when you really, truly need it in the Lucas Oil pits, over what you're going to get when people get their beer and start bashing NHRA.
“Again, the people driving the ship have blinders on, because all they're focused about is the Camping World Series,” O’Neal said.
“And when they say, ‘We don't understand why the other parts of our sport aren't growing. We don't know why fans aren’t in the stands,’ he wants them to know “it's because you're not listening to the people that are out here in the community. It's frustrating to me that nobody understands or wants to listen.”
The first thing everyone can do to show inclusivity, O’Neal would say, is to retire the term “sportman” and start referring to these racers as “Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series” drivers – as a matter of respect.