I won’t argue that drag racing, the ultimate of grassroots gearhead endeavors, is a participant sport. But you know what it also is? A show. Or, at least it’s supposed to be. But racing promoters have seemingly forgotten the very basic of principle of putting on a show. That’s not a reference to fireworks or a daredevil being shot out of a cannon; no, it’s giving the paying spectator the show they were promised, at exactly the time they were promised, at an hour they and their families can stay to watch it.
An interesting and disturbing trend has presented itself in recent seasons that’s worthy of conversation, in that promoters are, seemingly, okay with the lack of spectators. It’s not that they don’t want spectators to show up, because every ticket sold has a direct impact on profit or lack thereof. But rather, they’ve learned to improvise; charge exorbitant dollar amounts for entry fees and crew passes, and find a few class sponsors who are kosher with the lack of spectator turnout. Then, schedule a racing program that caters to the racers first and the spectators a distant second. So long as there a few hundred people watching on the live feed and there are enough entries to make the race a financial success, it’s okay.
But it’s not okay.
I’m not here to knock racing promoters whose grandstands are consistently void of spectators. It’s a tough time to put on any kind of public event, and especially so in motorsports. There’s less disposable income out there, the gearhead demographic has gradually aged its way out, and today’s youth aren’t as interested as their fathers and grandfathers in drag racing. It’s a challenge, and I get it. What I am here to knock are promoters who race in the middle of the night (often intentionally) or who are consistently hours behind schedule and EXPECT there to be fans in the stands. It just doesn’t work that way.
…even I, as a paying spectator before working in the media, have walked out of events because I grew tired of waiting for the show that I was promised and paid my hard-earned money to see.
I’m one of the diehards, conditioned since my youth to spend ungodly hours at a drag strip, and even I, as a paying spectator before working in the media, have walked out of events because I grew tired of waiting for the show that I was promised and paid my hard-earned money to see. This happens because promoters think of their racers first — all of the racers, not just the professionals — and refuse to upset the apple cart by upending their racing schedule to give the fans what they came to see. That’s because they’ve already put the racers first — they are more concerned with pleasing the racer and keeping their dollar, than the dollar of the fan. These promoters have already lost and they don’t even realize it.
The National Hot Rod Association may not do everything right, but no one understands the importance of satisfying the fan more than they do, and they’re not afraid to do whatever is necessary to make it so. This has been a point of heated contention for years between the series brass and sportsman racers, as their sessions and rounds become as fluid as the fuel in their tanks so the professional categories can be catered-to. If you’ve been reading my columns long enough, you know that I’m a sportsman drag racing fan first and foremost, and I’ll go to bat for sportsman racers all day long. But this is one instance that I can only issue a stand-down on. I wish more than anyone that 25,000 people would buy a ticket to watch Top Alcohol Dragster, Super Stock, Super Comp, all of them. But the reality is, they didn’t. The overwhelming majority came to see the fuel cars, the Pro Stock categories, and Pro Modified, and as such, they must be the priority.
This isn’t a problem that’s exclusive to drag racing by any means; a couple of weeks prior to this writing, I attended a professional tractor pull at our local county fair. I’ve been going there for the better part of thirty years, and while I enjoy all of the classes, I’m particularly interested in the Super Modified tractors. You know, the ones with several engines on them. they’re the Top fuel of the sport. So eight o’clock passes. Then nine. Then ten. Then eleven. Still no Super Modifieds. Finally, I picked up my chair and I left. And as I walked out I thought to myself, “You know, I may not come back next year.”
At a recent drag racing event that stretched well into the next morning, I heard one racer comment, and I quote, “I’ve never been so happy to lose in all my life.”
…And I’m one of the diehards. If I’m contemplating not returning, what do you think those casual fans who saw the pull advertised on a flyer and came out for the first time are thinking?
This was a failure by the promoter to grasp what the fan wanted to see and planning appropriately.
At a recent drag racing event that stretched well into the next morning, I heard one racer comment, and I quote, “I’ve never been so happy to lose in all my life.” He probably wasn’t alone in that thought.
As spectator counts have dwindled and the bottom line of drag racing events have become increasingly more reliant on entry fees, the balance of power has transitioned to the racers. The money they spend is of the utmost importance, and ensuring their happiness maintains that cash flow. The spectators, if they come, aren’t the sundae, they’re just the cherry on top.
I’m not here to name any names, but those promoters and racing organizations know who they are. They schedule their racing programs in a fashion that any thinking man or woman knows is mathematically an impossibility to conclude before the wee hours of the morning. They bend to the demands of the racers to provide fast conditions. They outright plan their events for the late-night hours so they can earn the distinction of setting a world record.
And then they wonder why no one is there to see it.
I’m not suggesting that such ideologies are the cause of today’s spectator problem. But I can tell you that it’s not doing anything to help bring the fans back, either.
Indeed, this is a participant sport. Without racers, you have no racing. But if you want there to be spectators, if you want your bottom line to rely less on the racer, then a delicate balance that prioritizes both is absolutely vital. The show should start when you said it would, it should end at a decent hour, and it should be condensed as tightly as you can feasibly make it. You can’t advertise your event as family-friendly and run the final rounds at three in the morning.
The NHRA typically fits its professional qualifying program inside of a four to four and a half hour window. On raceday, it condenses four rounds of eliminations in its four professional categories — 64 cars and bikes — plus three rounds of Pro Modified and Top Alcohol Dragster and Funny Car, and two to three rounds of sportsman classes in between, into roughly five hours. That’s the kind of show the concert-goer, the football fan, the average family can relate to in regards to time. And if the NHRA can do it with that many cars, any promoter can do it.
Might you sell more tickets with fireworks and a daredevil being shot out of a cannon? Perhaps. But how about we focus on the basics first.
Think of your fans. Stop racing in the middle of the night.