As drag racers, we tend to operate in the present or in the relatively near-term; we need FedEx to get that torque converter or set of tires here so we can go racing this weekend; we’re pissed off that the supercharger combination in X275 didn’t get hit with enough weight this week; we need that sponsor to get us to the next race; the track prep this weekend isn’t to our standards and we can’t break the class record. I believe because we’re so fixated on the now, we are blind to the realization that drag racing is at or very near a defining time in its existence. And it’s keeping us from asking the question: what are we doing to preserve the sport of drag racing for both ourselves and future generations?
As an acceleration contest at its very core, drag racing is unique in the world of sports. Stock cars don’t necessarily need to go faster to continue being relevant, interesting, and entertaining; baseball players don’t need to continually throw harder or hit further with each passing generation; quarterbacks don’t have to score more touchdowns than previous stars to make the NFL popular. But drag racing has always been about the pursuit of greater performance — of showing people something they’re never seen before. Fellow journalists may argue that numbers don’t matter — I would say they wholeheartedly do matter to the overwhelming majority of racers and fans — but even if you take away the numbers, this sport is nevertheless entirely about the never-ending pursuit of going quicker and faster. Because that’s how you win a drag race. If 87-year-old Chris Karamesines had decided back in the 1950’s that he was going to stop trying to go faster and just beat ‘em on the tree, he’d be about four-seconds slower than the Top Fuel field today. Going faster is what it’s all about, pure and simple, and lest you believe otherwise, check out the spectator count at a bracket race sometime.
Drag racing stands at a crossroads for a number of reasons, but one of those is that it’s on the verge of taking that element — that element which has captivated racers and fans as records and performance milestones have come and gone — out of the equation. Can drag racing survive merely on side-by-side competition, of numbers people have seen before, and not on that of continual mechanical pursuit?
The NHRA, in concert with professional nitro teams, has effectively instituted an “index” of late by diminishing the preparation of the racetrack to contain speeds. Pro Modified racers have alluded to concerns over increasing speeds and will likely stall in the near future. Radial-tire racers won’t even touch the quarter-mile. The factory-built cars from Ford, Chevrolet, and Dodge are already being performance-limited. Drag Week-style cars are close to a theoretical limitation of maximum performance for a street-driven car. Drag racing has never been in this position before: where it can’t rely on ever-shinier numbers to polarize a crowd and entice participation.
It’s also at a defining time because wages and therefore discretionary income are stagnant for the families buying tickets. The costs of racing are rising — at the highest levels, they have skyrocketed. Participation has declined in some venues and sponsors are increasingly less enthralled by drag racing. And the generation of men and women who cultivated this sport and who lived through the era of muscle cars and American fascination with the automobile, are slowly fading away.
Don’t get me wrong: drag racing is alive and well at present and some would argue (and I would agree) that these are the good old days everyone refers to. And I want to see it remain the good old days.
The response to my column published in July, The NHRA Must Trim Cost Of Pro Class Racing: Here’s How It Starts, was both overwhelming and inspiring. Our Facebook page and my inbox were flooded with messages — many of them in support, many who opposed, a few who wanted my head for proposing eliminating their local national event from the NHRA schedule, and others who just wanted to bicker about Pro Stock or throttle-stop racing. People were fired up for a variety of reasons, and they should be, because the future of drag racing is important to anyone reading this right now.
The thoughts and ideas proposed in that column were expressly for the purpose of creating a better tomorrow for drag racing at its highest level — ideas than can trickle down to make the sport as a whole more prosperous, more affordable, and still entertaining, even if the cars stop getting — or being allowed to go — faster. Drag racing is, in some ways, going to have to reinvent itself because, again, it’s nearing a place that it’s not been before. And, it’s handing itself off and entrusting a new generation to shepherd it.
In 1974, an anthropologist and author, Ernest Becker, wrote a book entitled The Denial of Death. In it, he explained that on an unconscious but semi-conscious level, we’re all aware that we’re going to die, and that this inevitably scares us all. And so we compensate by constructing a conceptual self that will live on forever. This, he explains, is why people put their names on buildings and statues, have created cities and government, and why people have families and work to build a foundation for generations of offspring to come. We put names on grandstands, cars in museums, plaques in halls of fame, but don’t take steps to make sure it all lives on forever.
Folks who helped build this sport from its earlier years— the aforementioned Karamesines, Don Garlits, Steve Gibbs, Jim Dunn, and so on — this generation is sadly dwindling, but they are still with us. In the grand context of human history, the 70 or so years that organized drag racing has been around is but a blink of an eye. Even in the context of industrial society, the time drag racing has existed is short. And drag racing has changed so much in that brief span of time; imagine how it could be in another seven decades. If there were flocks of Top Fuel dragsters 50 years ago and 15 on a good weekend now, how can we expect that negative trend to change if we don’t step in and do something? If your local track is suffering, what’s going to change if it doesn’t seek change? Albert Einstein had a unique definition of insanity that applies here; look it up.
Firstly, we need to thank our lucky stars we live at a time in human history when automobiles and drag racing (and all of the modern conveniences of life) exist; can you imagine having lived in a cave without coffee makers, LTE wireless data, or tacos?
Then, we need to ask ourselves: what are we — me, you, the board of the NHRA and its team owners, the leadership of the NMCA and PDRA, Donald Long and John Sears, Bill Bader and Kyle Seipel and Peter Biondo, and even individual racers — doing to preserve the sport of drag racing both for the younger fans and racers among us, and the generations to come? Are we going to focus solely on today, make the money while it’s hot, complain about rules until no one is left, let costs spiral out of control for our own selfish pleasures, squeeze the pulp dry and leave nothing for later? Or are we making decisions that entice participation and interest in acceleration contests and ensuring that drag racing outlives us? Are we leaving the place better off than we found it, even if the decisions we have to make don’t seem so great in the here and now?