If you were perusing the Pro Stock pit area at the 1998 U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis surrounded by 47 highly-competitive entries, you would have laughed aloud at the very suggestion that two decades later, the sanctioning body would be mulling the addition of nonconforming cars from what was then a competing series to help fill its struggling factory hot rod eliminator. And that just weeks later, the class would transition to a reduced 18-race schedule as a result of sharply-diminished participation: inconceivable.
Last month, the NHRA, in a surprising revelation given the excitement and near-certainty that surrounded the exhibition conducted over Labor Day weekend in Indianapolis, announced its decision not to merge the mountain motor-style Pro Stock cars with its traditional 500-inch entries that was seen as perhaps the most viable means of boosting the sagging car count. That, combined with announcements by Drew Skillman, Tanner Gray, Bo Butner, and John Gaydosh that they were exiting the class — and hints of only part-time campaigns by a handful more — has left Pro Stock’s situation looking as bleak as it ever has before.
In the wake of all that took place in the latter half of the season, the NHRA brass made the best decision possible — and perhaps the only logical decision — to shave six events off the calendar for next season, reducing the once-mighty Pro Stock eliminator to part-time status, right alongside Pro Stock Motorcycle, Pro Modified, Top Alcohol Dragster, and Top Alcohol Funny Car.
Gone, perhaps, are the days of three eliminators carrying the ship, instead requiring more of an a-la-carte approach of displaying various categories of competition if the series wishes to maintain its 24-race schedule.
As a traditionalist myself, it pains me to watch the category that produced so many great memories from my youth — a category that seemed solid as bedrock and certain as the morning sunrise — being diluted down to a mere shadow of its former self. But at the same time, rolling back the schedule makes sense in the era we’re operating in.
The Pro Modified contingent, chocked full of business entrepreneurs self-funding their operations or doing so without significant corporate backing, have largely exemplified the mindset of racers today: conducting a professional-level eliminator, but doing so on a basis that is manageable in regards to both time and finances. They have businesses to run and families to be with, and racing is a component of their lives, not it’s sole purpose. Previously contesting 10 events, the Pro Mod series was later expanded to 12, but the racers are adamant that the schedule remain at that number. Basic economics tells us fewer races means less travel and transport maintenance costs, significantly reduced parts inventory, less full-time crew, and so on. Eighteen races — even 12 — of course, is no small undertaking, but it isn’t 24.
In 1987 — 31 years ago — the NHRA schedule featured 15 races. By 2000 there were 23, and in 2013 it expanded to 24.
In interviews with Competition Plus, racers the likes of Matt Hartford, Alex Laughlin, and Vincent Nobile (who is also presently without a ride for 2019) have lauded the move, pinpointing the financial viability and the time commitment of fewer races. Elsewhere in the sport, at venues like the PDRA and the NMCA, series officials and racers — many of them working-class and virtually all racing purely for hobby — adamantly maintain small, feasible schedules, ranging from six to 10 races. In some corners of the sport — radial tire racing, for example — it’s common to find racers who commit to just three major events per season. Chalk it up to economics, to fatigue or a busy lifestyle outside of racing, but in today’s racing world, less might be more.
For decades the NHRA has had its dynamic trio of fast, faster, and fastest — Pro Stock, Funny, Top Fuel — that were the staple of its national events. That any one of them would go missing would be like two slices of bread void of peanut butter and jelly. Like Lucy without Ricky, a Hall and no Oates. But just as other forms of auto racing have been forced to adapt to the times, the NHRA’s age-old format may, too, be outdated. Gone, perhaps, are the days of three eliminators carrying the ship, instead requiring more of an a-la-carte approach of displaying various categories of competition if the series wishes to maintain its 24-race schedule. Fortunately, drag racing’s rapid growth outside of the NHRA’s traditional menu of professional and sportsman eliminators plays into its favor, as today, it can throw Pro Mod, the Factory Stock Showdown, or potentially even its Hot Rod Heritage series classes and the mountain motor Pro Stocks into the mix to fill some of the void left by Pro Stock.
As a traditionalist myself, it pains me to watch the category that produced so many great memories from my youth — a category that seemed solid as bedrock and certain as the morning sunrise — being diluted down to a mere shadow of its former self.
The NHRA has already done this to a degree with Nitro Harley, augmenting or at some events, replacing Pro Stock Motorcycle’s slot in the program. With the Pro Mod and Factory Stock Showdown racers firmly committed to a limited schedule, they both make the obvious case for substitution for Pro Stock. While you can never say never, the trend in racing suggests that we’ll never again see a third-tier professional eliminator at 24 events, and so such a structure is a distinct reality to be embraced.
Adding to that — be it the near or distant future — the NHRA may be forced into a similar scenario of reducing the schedule for its bread-and-butter nitro categories: something the nitro racers have openly and positively presented before. The alternative, of course — and something I’ve been a proponent of — is reducing the schedule back to 16 or 18 events, which makes sense for all parties involved: the sanctioning body, the television producers, the race teams, and the marketing people who don’t have to scrounge up 24 races worth of sponsorship. The only loser in such a case, though are the racetracks who rely on the annual pilgrimage by the NHRA faithful to remain in the black.
By no means is the sky falling, and it’s entirely possible that Pro Stock or some near-future variation of it could rekindle its former glory in time. The sport is cyclical and has seen its ebbs and flows over the years, but that we still have a 24-race, professional drag racing series traversing this nation and being piped to our television sets at home nearly half of the weekends in a year is something we should all be thankful for, no matter how the landscape changes.