While that era represented a vast change from the decades that preceded it, our sport has also undergone an obvious transition in just these last 15 to 20 years.
The sport of drag racing has gone through a number of gradual transitions during its 60-plus years of organized existence, and its evolution – be it in a positive or negative way – has largely paralleled the changing psyche of our world, the priorities of our youth, and economic fluctuations. Despite the network television contract and occasional national media attention that the NHRA enjoys today, a debate could easily be made that from a standpoint of public awareness and perception, professional drag racing has been on a downward spiral since the late 1960’s or early 70’s.
I grew up in the 1980’s and 90’s, completely enamored with this sport long before I ever imagined making a career reporting on it. John Force’s first championship, Kenny Bernstein’s 301 blast, and the Dodge Boys versus WJ battles will always be among the memories of mine that stick out. While that era represented a vast change from the decades that preceded it, our sport has also undergone an obvious transition in just these last 15 to 20 years. Comparing the sport to where it has been, where it’s at now, and where it could be, it’s hard to resist some quality time on the soap box.
The Playing Field
Sure, the creme has always risen to the top when the points are tallied at the end of the season and the crowns are handed out, but 20 years ago, the NHRA’s nitro categories were about as predictable as a major league baseball game. You never knew who was going to win any given matchup, and you never knew what singular infamous event might occur when the ambers gave way to green.
These days, the discussion in Top Fuel is whether the final round will be an all Al-Anabi affair, all-Schumacher, or which Al-Anabi car will face which Schumacher car. And the same is true for Funny Car; just substitute John Force Racing in place of Al-Anabi. And this brings me to my next couple of points.
Has Technology Been A Hindrance?
Two decades ago, crew chiefs operated out of a single hauler. Before making a lap, they walked the track, drug the soles of their shoes across the pavement, eyeballed any surface discrepancies, and made their tuning calls. Nowadays, teams roll into the track with enough rolling science labs to launch the space shuttle. Teams employ specialists whose sole job is to monitor the racing surface with Track Meters, temperature guns, elongated bicycles that record bumps in the racing surface, and backpacks, fanny packs, and satchels full of gadgets.
The existence of all this new-found technology and manpower to monitor the race track has served to further separate the top tier, well funded tuners who have it and those lower-funded teams who don’t.
Aside from the obvious points that tire technology has improved and Funny Car bodies have transformed from sleek Dodge Daytonas to downforce-inducing doorstops, I won’t claim to have much understanding of the technical evolution of today’s nitro cars, but the on-track product indicates there’s been a change. At one time, the race could appear in the bag until one or both cars began to blaze the hides beyond the 1/8-mile, turning it into a wild affair with a result no one could predict. But the way these cars operate today is much more slot car-like in nature, and barring a short fuse, the stunning come-from-behind upsets that once made drag racing so exciting and unpredictable has largely been lost.
On that point, one could certainly argue that catastrophic fires and engine explosions have also become largely a thing of the past, but the technology that’s kept these cars glued to the track has also taken away all the excitement to the fan. A week after Force, Hofmann, Bazemore, and others melted one to the pavement, there they were in the pits the following week with another car. They didn’t run out of money and park it, and rarely were they hurt. As much as you and I may not like the very idea of it, shock and awe sells tickets.
Did The Light Bills Get Too Expensive?
Not-so-evening evening qualifying session on Friday at Indy.
Drag racing, however, boasts quite possibly the greatest spectacle in racing: mesmerizing header flames dancing to the tips of the wings and above the roof hatches to a thunderous melody.
Regardless of the genre of motorsport in question, racing is simply better at night. Even the almighty Formula 1 recognizes this, now lighting the three-mile long Singapore Grand Prix to race under darkness to sell-out crowds. Drag racing, however, boasts quite possibly the greatest spectacle in racing: mesmerizing header flames dancing to the tips of the wings and above the roof hatches to a thunderous melody. But somewhere in recent years, the NHRA abandoned the night racing format at St. Louis and began scheduling evening qualifying sessions before sundown. Whether it was done to appease local neighbors, to create a “family-friendly” schedule, or to level out the four qualifying sessions, they’ve taken a fan favorite spectacle right out of the equation, and those fans have responded by not buying tickets.
By The Racer, For The Racer
Years ago, drag racing was a sport that existed by the racer, for the racer, of the racer, and any other such “of the racer” statements you can make. Wally Parks, the man who took hot rodding from the salt flats to the abandoned air strips of America, and who co-founded or was instrumental in the founding of such staples as Hot Rod Magazine and Motor Trend, manned the ship. He was the car guy’s car guy, and he was a racer.
Drag racing was a sport that catered to the racer, that reached out to the automobile-loving public, and was largely sustained by the high performance automotive industry that birthed the sport. But over the years, the sport has morphed into one that’s pushed the automotive enthusiast and its own history aside, dumbed itself down, and become something else. Reaching out to new demographics that’s never seen a drag race and courting non-automotive sponsors is absolutely paramount, and sure, the way America views the automobile has changed, but lets not forget where we came from here.
Why So Serious?
In it’s heyday, drag racing didn’t need some generic “Nitro Generation” marketing schemes that tried to promote how youthful and diverse the sport was. Young and old, black and white, male and female, rednecks and successful businessmen, the well-groomed and the caveman – drag racing had it all and needn’t conform to this modern image of athletic, educated youth to market itself.
Would John Force sell his soul for an extra 30 seconds of air time? Probably. But give credit where credit’s due that “the champ” remains the only racer who regularly shows any form of personality and enthusiasm outside of what’s learned in corporate speech training courses. And knock ’em all you want, but even before the honchos in Charlotte loosened the proverbial leash on the Sprint Cup competitors, there was still plenty of attitude and personality to get people talking, be it positive or negative. Drag racing has become akin to golf, where everyone is straight-laced and professional. Take Tiger Woods and his “transgressions” out of the equation and there’s nothing to captivate people and get them interested.
Not Mo Money
It doesn’t take a degree-carrying financial analyst to see that the cost of professional drag racing has tipped the balancing point. Be it slowing the cars down, mandating the use of more cost-effective parts, or somehow limiting the astronomical cost of research and development and one-off parts, something needs to be done to bring the costs of racing back to some sense of reality.
“Big Show” drag racing will never again be a sport where a couple of blue collar partners in a little corner speed shop in Southern California can go Top Fuel racing, but using simple logic, if you can shave a million-plus a season off the budget to go nitro racing, you at the very least open the doors to more folks interested and financially able to go racing at that level. And I’m willing to bet that more sponsors will hear you out if you come them with a proposal for 2.5 million rather than four.
Independent and underfunded racers like Bob Bode are far more rare than they were a decade or more ago. In an underdog feat rarely accomplished anymore, Bode drove to victory lane at Brainerd in 2010.
Case in point: Pro Stock used to feature 30-car fields everywhere, with upwards of 40 and over at select events. Now the class is bordering on bye runs on Sunday morning. The costs simply became astronomical. It was always expensive, but it went from one rank of wealth to a smaller rank of wealth, and to a price that most sponsors weren’t willing to spend.
Take a look at the Sprint Cup Series. Today, very few cars carry one primary backer all season, instead carrying different colors every few races. The cost of being a primary backer became too much for most companies to reason. Bring the costs and therefore the proposed dollar amount in line, and odds are you’ll have corporate America a little more involved in drag racing. While businesses are cutting costs at every corner, racing in general continues to climb. What’s wrong with this picture?
Professional drag racing would be wise to not only adapt to the times, but look in the rearview mirror to a formula that served them well. In business, they say if you want to survive and prosper, you must adapt to the market. At the top level, drag racing isn’t a hobby, it’s a business. Adapt or die.