On May 2, 2015, arguably the two greatest fighters —pound for pound — of their generation touched gloves to begin what was one of the most anticipated sporting events in history. The highest grossing and most-watched pay-per-view boxing bout ever, an estimated 50 million people in the United States and tens of millions more around the world watched as Floyd Mayweather, Jr., a five-division world champion, and Manny Pacquiao, an eight-division world champion, faced one another for the first time in their careers. This last point served as the catalyst for this historic (albeit ultimately disappointing) fight: inarguably the two greatest active boxers on the planet, who had accomplished virtually all there was to accomplish in the ring, had never stepped into the same square to declare once and for all the superior boxing being of the 21st century.
This idealogy of a showdown, of a once-in-a-lifetime, winner-take-all event has played into the minds of sporting fans countless times before in the boxing realm and throughout sports history. Even on a scale of greater frequency, the existence of rarity and exclusivity — of a matchup truly meaning something — plays to the benefit of the sporting business: only once, perhaps twice a year do the greatest thoroughbred horses in the world assemble in the same starting gate. For 94 years, teams from Major League Baseball’s National and American Leagues would only face each other once a year, in the World Series, meaning many teams had only squared off once in nearly a century. Out-of-division teams of the National Football League, not including the playoffs, will face each other once every three to four years, and its playoffs are a one-game, 60-minute affair with no best-of-seven to make up for a loss. Truth is, like boxing, football’s popularity is largely owed to its showdown nature — teams prepare all summer, analyzing video and practicing to take on specific opponents in one annual contest.
One game, one race, between the best of the best — it’s what builds excitement and atmosphere, and ultimately, long-term popularity.
… there’s a certain value in establishing a demand for your event and its racers and limiting it to over-exposure.
But drag racing — and the motorsports world in general, really — diametrically opposes this idea of rarity, of an event or a match being limited and exclusive … of something truly special, that means something.
As an example, John Force and Cruz Pedregon, the two most decorated Funny Car drivers of the past 30 years, have likely lined up opposite of one another hundreds of times, between qualifying and eliminations, in their careers. Warren Johnson faced Bob Glidden who-knows-how-many times. NASCAR’s Cup Series drivers are on the same racetrack 36 times a season; IndyCar 17 times; Formula One 21 times. It’s difficult — if not impossible — to create hype or to build a rivalry between competitors, because they’ve faced off countless times before and will do so again, meaning no singular matchup on any given weekend — perhaps with the exception of the NHRA’s Auto Club Finals, where one pass can and has decided a championship — carries any significant meaning.
This truly defies some of the early essence of drag racing, wherein racers from neighboring towns or opposite ends of the country might meet up once or twice a year in a central location or infiltrate the others’ home turf, thereby attracting newspaper and radio headlines for their once-per-year or even never-before-seen match. This played a key role in putting the sport on the map. In a certain sense, you could say that drag racing incorporating itself into a traveling roadshow was a detriment, effectively turning these once-special matchups into the several-times-a-season shows we know today that carry as much drama and anticipation as a Harlem Globetrotters-Washington General basketball game.
Fortunately, drag racing has some recent examples that illustrate how rarity equals popularity.
In the early days of the Street Outlaws franchise, few had actually seen the show’s cast race one another before, and certainly never the out-of-towners they encountered. When Kye Kelley burst onto the scene and boldly proclaimed himself as the nation’s fastest street racer, there was incredible hype around a matchup between he and Justin Shearer. But as time waned and the two locked horns on a few occasions, the excitement of seeing those two race again likewise diminished. Then, as the no-prep scene came to be, those who might compete once a season on television were suddenly racing one another hand-fulls of times a year. Just like that, the luster was gone. I don’t know the proper terminology, but ‘oversaturated’ seems fitting.
Noted promoter Donald Long has, in what is a stroke of genius, maintained a twice-per-year structure to his drag radial extravaganzas in Georgia, and playing into his favor is the fact that some of radial tire racing’s elite only race twice a year, or maybe a handful of times at most. And that means only two times per season are all of the best on drag radials in one place, and that has unquestionably kept the aura surrounding his races alive. If those same 32 Radial vs The World competitors lined up 20 times a season, though, it just wouldn’t be the same … no different than if Frazier and Ali, Riddick and Holyfield, battled week in and week out, year after year.
… drag racing — and the motorsports world in general, really — diametrically opposes this idea of rarity, of an event or a match being limited and exclusive … of something truly special, that means something.
There are other examples, like the once-per-year import versus domestic World Cup Finals, and TX2K, and diesel racing’s Ultimate Callout Challenge.
Because drag racing is a business as much as it’s a gearhead pastime, there’s generally a focus on growth — on expanding one event to two, two to five, five to 10, and so on. And there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that, but at the same time, something is undoubtedly lost when you create that much saturation of your product. It’s not something with an easy answer or solution, particularly for the NHRA or the PDRA, which have successfully and admirably grown their organizations into traveling, championship series but are now trying to spawn the very same fascination and anticipation with its races that made Mayweather-Pacquiao such a spectacle.
For the NHRA, their formula of 24 races works for them, but for the Donald Long’s and the upstart race promoters of the world, there’s a certain value in establishing a demand for your event and its racers and limiting it to over-exposure. Because more may not always be better.