Can Drag Racing Support Yet Another New Series?

Few drag-racing legends matched the competitive intensity of four-time NHRA Top Fuel championship runner-up Cory McClenathan. That’s why he earned more than 500 elimination round-wins and is eighth on the all-time Top Fuel victories list with 34.

Funny Car veteran Jack Wyatt is plenty smart. He called nitromethane “the most powerful solvent in the world: It dissolves marriages and checking accounts instantly.”

And it would be hard to find a more thoughtful, passionate crew chief than Tony Shortall.

The only real question mark is whether the drag-racing world or the motorsports world, for that matter, needs the Nitro Outlaw Drag Racing Association (NODRA) they have helped form.

We already have so many auto-racing series – Formula One, IndyCar and its feeder system, NASCAR and all its touring series, NHRA, IHRA, World of Outlaws, sprint cars, midgets, dirt late model stock cars, road racing, off-road racing, trucks, Monster trucks, diesel, motorcycle, go-karting, drifting, endurance racing, land speed racing, and more. In its December issue, Speed Sport Magazine listed the champions for no fewer than 101 different sanctioning bodies – excluding IndyCar, NASCAR, NHRA, and IHRA…and individual track championships.

That represents a virtual shredding of our discretionary dollars, or entertainment dollars.

NASCAR and IndyCar, whether they choose to admit it, have seen the challenge of attracting fans. But what if the Big Three in Motorsports (including the NHRA) joined forces to promote motorsports?

Clearly, an organization such as the Professional Drag Racing Association (PDRA) speaks to a wholly different kind of racer and fan. And by all accounts it is functioning strongly. Even in the elite NHRA playground, two entities are operating hand-in-hand – the sanctioning body itself and a partner organization, Real Pro Mod. They have a symbiotic, or mutually beneficial, relationship. Both sides are content with their arrangement, and the fans seem to be happy with that. But that’s a unique connection.

Even so, the NHRA doesn’t have all the drag racing spectrum covered. Its program – which is divided between the professional (Mello Yello Series) and sportsman (Lucas Oil Series) – features only a fraction of straightline interests. Under the drag racing umbrella are such diverse styles as heads-up, index racing/bracket racing, Jr. Dragsters, drag radial, no-prep, jet cars, various grassroots offerings, and, well, the list is dizzying. And in the past five years, the original and once-viable American Drag Racing League (ADRL) disintegrated into blame and shame, and the seemingly well-intentioned Xtreme Drag Racing League (XDRL) flamed out before it really got started. Some prefer racing in the traditional quarter-mile, some in the eighth-mile, and some to 1,000 feet.

Can we afford any more styles?

Raising the question means no disrespect to those who try to offer an alternative to the NHRA, which new ADRL owner Jeff Biegun called “the King Kong of our business, and that’s all there is to it.” However, it does signal that the NHRA isn’t meeting the racers’ needs, at least not the needs of everyone.

That, in turn, brings up another thought: Are the unmet needs widespread? Should the NHRA be concerned that it needs to change to be more inclusive, more affordable, and more fun?

Biegun and ADRL President Larry Morgan, the longtime NHRA Pro Stock owner-driver, speak the same language as McClenathan.

The NHRA has the same problem every racing venue does. There’s not enough participants, because they’ve made it too expensive. So the average guy’s out. – Jeff Biegun, American Drag racing League

Biegun addressed three NHRA characteristics that the ADRL is trying to improve: cost and time commitment for fans, return on investment [ROI] for sponsors, and expenses for racers.

He said his version of the ADRL is keeping the original ADRL’s policy of free tickets: “Yes, we charge 20 bucks for parking, but put five people in your car and come see a show for 20 bucks. It’s the deal of the decade. We just want to re-introduce people [to drag racing]. We’ll continue to do that, because nobody else can fill places by charging 20 bucks a head or 10 bucks a head. People are not that interested in bracket racing anymore, unless you want to do some type of show. And that’s why we have our Nitro Pro Mod and we have all of our stuff [competing on the racetrack], to entice those people to come out with their families for a four- or five-hour show.

“We’re doing more of the grassroots racing…box and no-box, sportsman, Top Sportsman. We were running all of the bracket classes, Junior, Outlaw Pro Mod. We’re presenting a show people want to come and see,” Biegun said. “We have problems drawing people to the bracket events. So we have a Monster truck that crushes cars. We have a Monster truck that gives rides. We do two jet cars racing. We’ve got Nostalgia Pro Mod, and we’ve got the Nostalgia Funny Cars. We basically have all the classes the NHRA has, the scaled-down version. And we do all of our bracket racing through Friday and Saturday and we’re out of there Sunday morning.”

He said, “The NHRA has the same problem every racing venue does. There’s not enough participants, because they’ve made it too expensive. So the average guy’s out.”

The Jupiter, Fla.-based owner of RJS Safety Equipment and Seat Belt Solutions and partner in Performance2Way Racing Communications, said, “We take a business approach to it. It’s got to make money or we don’t continue to do it. I bought the ADRL for one reason. There’s really no place to advertise anymore where you feel like you get a good ROI. That’s why we bought it, and it works out well.”

Morgan boiled it down to this:

I want to do it the way that makes sense, that I go out there and have a chance of winning.  That’s why we all come. We’ve got to make it economically fair for everybody to do this. – Larry Morgan

For then fans, he said, “It’s common-sense stuff. Don’t beat the guy up that’s coming in the gate and charge him $150 for a ticket. We’re making a show out of it and making the best we can out of it for the fans – and making it as inexpensive as you can do it.”

On behalf of the racers, he said, “I want to do it the way that makes sense, that I go out there and have a chance of winning.  That’s why we all come. We’ve got to make it economically fair for everybody to do this.”

Using Biegun as an example for sponsores, he said, “if he doesn’t come out and have a good time and promote all the companies he’s got, it would make no sense for him to torture himself.”

For McClenathan, the NODRA exemplifies cost-efficiency and freedom.

“We want people to come race with us. I know a lot of the guys are going to want to stick with the NHRA thing and I totally get that. But I think we’re trying to put something out there where people can come and do this and where the parts in general will last longer. I know what it takes to go run hard in the NHRA events now, and it once again came down to being hard on parts,” McClenathan told Tracy Renck of CompetitionPlus.com. “Would I love to be with NHRA? Hell, yes. But at the same time, this gives me the opportunity to run a fuel car a few times a year and still keep with my truck deal.”

The Nitro Outlaw Drag Racing Association website says it’s “owned by racers for racers,” the same motto the PDRA used when it formed in 2014. It also promotes “common sense rules and racing,” the same emphasis the revamped ADRL places on its practices.

…we’re trying to put something out there where people can come and do this and where the parts in general will last longer. I know what it takes to go run hard in the NHRA events now, and it once again came down to being hard on parts. – Cory McClenathan

The Nitro Outlaw program will break tradition in its qualifying format. Teams will have one test-and-tune pass, then racers will “challenge” an opponent for first-round pairings. To engage fans onsite and from the NitroTV.org audience or elsewhere, the sanctioning body will have them determine lane choice via text or website voting.

That represents a couple of the myriad ideas fans have suggested in constant brainstorming that has occupied them for the past few years, since displeasure with the NHRA for one reason or another has simmered among observers and racers alike.

The NHRA needs to look past its elite status in the industry or it’s liable to lose it. Evidently a number of racers and enthusiasts think they can build a better mousetrap, and they’re trying. That’s diminishing the strength of the sport, and the NHRA should ask itself what culpability it has in that trend.

NASCAR and IndyCar, whether they choose to admit it, have seen the challenge of attracting fans. But what if the Big Three in Motorsports (including the NHRA) joined forces to promote motorsports?

Only a handful of NHRA venues – St. Louis, Bristol, Las Vegas, Chicago, and Charlotte – could host such a three-in-one “motorsports festival” in a single weekend. But how feasible, profitable, and dramatic would such an event be? An auto-racing version of an EDM [electronic dance music] festival or music festival or Rio’s Carnaval or New Orleans’ Mardi Gras or Munich’s Oktoberfest should grab media attention and raise awareness, rake in a boatload of money, and provide a rush for motorsports fans. All three motorsports giants could benefit from the cross-pollination.

Presumably, the answer depends on how creative, interested, ambitious, and industrious the decision-makers in NASCAR, IndyCar, and the NHRA are when it comes to increasing fan awareness and profits. Mickey Thompson used to say that when people tell you your idea is crazy, start selling tickets.

If these Big Three sanctioning bodies are King Kong, they might do well to remember that King Kong was captured and besieged by fighter planes and ultimately fell off the Empire State Building.

About the author

Susan Wade

Celebrating her 45th year in sports journalism, Susan Wade has emerged as one of the leading drag-racing writers with 20 seasons at the racetrack. She was the first non-NASCAR recipient of the prestigious Russ Catlin Award and has covered the sport for the Chicago Tribune, Newark Star-Ledger, St. Petersburg Times, and Seattle Times. Growing up in Indianapolis, motorsports is part of her DNA. She contributes to Power Automedia as a freelancer writer.
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