Life is messy. And life in NHRA drag racing became messier in September.
Josh Peterson, the NHRA’s vice-president of racing administration, informed pro racers Sept. 8 that their purses were being cut immediately – for the second time since July. This time the slash was brutal: pro winners’ payouts dropped to $15,000 in Top Fuel and Funny Car and to $6,000 in Pro Stock. So the reward for winning in the nitro ranks dwindled from an already embarrassing $50,000 in February to $15,000.
Single-car team Top Fuel racer T.J. Zizzo said, “That also diminishes the value of winning: 70-percent cut to win, 30-percent cut to qualify.”
Racer Magazine reported that even the Indianapolis Motor Speedway halved the Indianapolis 500 purse this year from $15 million to $7.5 million. Never mind that that reduction applies to a single-race purse which still is more than Coca-Cola has paid per season for its entire series sponsorship with the NHRA. Drag racers shrugged it all off as coronavirus-pandemic-related collateral damage.
Then later in the month, the NHRA revealed that Coca-Cola abruptly and unilaterally ended their partnership and that the NHRA had filed a breach-of-contract lawsuit. NHRA President Glen Cromwell had insisted all summer long that the sanctioning body is “in a healthy position. We have run models for the best-case and worst-case scenarios, both for 2020 and ’21. I can assure you, we’ve run every model. We’re very comfortable with where we are.”
Pro Stock owner/driver Chris McGaha, Of Odessa, Texas, said, “They stressed that. And we will know when their 2020 tax return comes out on the Internet. And it had better be what they say it is or I’m going to call bulls—.
“I understand the situation we’re in right now. I totally get it,” he said. “All I can tell NHRA is they’d better restore [the purses] at some point come next year as quick as they possibly can [or] it’s instant death. Anybody can say what they want, but it’s instant death. I’ve witnessed it first-hand in the racing world at my local racetrack.”
McGaha warned the NHRA that if in 2021 its revenue stream starts flowing freely with fans allowed to pour in without restrictions and it doesn’t restore the purse money to pre-pandemic levels, “you’re going to cut your own throat and you’re done. I don’t want any excuses.”
It’s $15,000 to win in the nitro classes. You have to make a minimum of five runs. I wouldn’t go to a match race for that money. – Dale Creasy, Jr.
The NHRA announced Oct. 4 that Camping World is stepping in for 2021 to replace Coca-Cola as series sponsor. But neither party announced restored or increased purses this year or next. The Camping World deal was labeled “a multiyear agreement,” but terms were not disclosed.
Until last weekend, the NHRA had mitigating circumstances, to be sure. But the drivers also had a choice to make, and they continued to race.
The text of the lawsuit states that Coca-Cola sought to back out of its deal (which was to run through 2023) as early as September 2019. It’s unclear whether the racers had been informed about that kink in the plan. But they were at a crossroad Sept. 8 – and they chose to keep driving ahead.
In McGaha’s case, he said decided to continue racing, both in July and when the series broke from its four-race Indianapolis cocoon and traveled to Gainesville, Fla., solely to give his teenage son, Mason, more seat time and to support his crew members financially.
“I’m pretty anti-mask. You pretty much have to force me to put a mask on. I didn’t even want to go race Indy because we were going to have to wear masks. But I said, ‘Wait a minute – there’s a lot of people [team members] depending on me to do this, and I’m paying all these guys. I have to go racing. Yeah, it’s going to cost me a little more to go, but why do I have all this if I’m not going to go? I said, ‘I’ve got to put my selfishness aside. This isn’t about me. This is about all these guys at this point. I just need to fire up and go race and wear my mask and complain about it behind the mask and go on,’” he said. “I put all this together and originally, yes, it was all about me and going racing, but it has become something bigger than that. There’s a lot more people involved. There’s people depending on us, and this is how they’re feeding their families, some of them.”
He said he’s well aware that “Pro Stock’s got the [reputation] that it ain’t nothin’ but a bunch of rich guys racing. Everybody’s like, ‘Oh, they’ll race, no matter what, just because they want to race.’ And that’s true to a certain extent. But at some point, you’ve got to stop the bleeding.”
…to do this right, it costs way more money than that qualifying money will ever generate. If you’re depending on that to do this, you need to pull the plug and quit now, because you ain’t got the money to be doing it. – Chris McGaha
Most reacted to news of the purse reductions with anger and resentment. Two-time Funny Car champion Cruz Pedregon was disturbed by all the criticism, calling it “hating on NHRA” and “bashing” the sanctioning body. His contention was that race team owners shouldn’t write race payouts into their budgets as a guaranteed revenue source.
Snap-on Tools-sponsored Pedregon said in an online video, “Not once have I gone to the racetrack as an owner and counted on the money that I win from the purse as part of my budget. The purse money is a nice little bonus you can count on, based on your performance. What you put together, sponsorship-wise, to attend that event is really what’s going to pay your bills. So this notion that NHRA is killing the sport – no, that’s not how it is. If you have that business model, you need to stay home, really. NHRA has never been responsible for paying your salaries, your race shop, [or] your vehicles, parts, and equipment. It’s corporate sponsorships that provide the money. What NHRA provides is the TV package to create the value. And that’s how you make it work.”
“That all sounds fine and dandy,” U.S. Nationals Pro Stock Motorcycle winner Scotty Pollacheck said matter-of-factly, “but that depends on your ability to acquire sponsorship. But guys like me don’t have that machine in place to go get you that type of sponsorship.” He owns a tire store in Central Point, Oregon, and he said, “I have 80 hours a week of something else to do. I don’t have the availability of time to find a big corporate sponsor that would pay you enough not to worry about the purse money. For me, the purse always has been a huge part of it.”
Funny Car privateer Dale Creasy Jr., who for years has run a part-time schedule, mostly within a 500-mile radius of his Beecher, Illinois, home, said Pedregon’s assertion is “foolish” for a small-budgeted team. “That’s easy to say if you’ve got that kind of a budget [like Pedregon has],” Creasy said. “That qualifying money is all you get” for many teams.
“I’m not saying he’s wrong. He’s wrong for my point of view,” Creasy said. “I just want to go racing. If I didn’t love racing so much, I wouldn’t go. It never was about the money, because there never was enough. But I can’t run my car for seven-grand. It’s just impossible.
“We’re getting paid less now than we did when I started 25 years ago,” Creasy said. “It’s $15,000 to win in the nitro classes. You have to make a minimum of five runs. I wouldn’t go to a match race for that money.”
Pollacheck said, “I can’t believe it has come to this.”
McGaha agreed with Pedregon: “He’s 100-percent right. There’s a lot of people out there that are depending on that qualifying money – that’s what it takes to do it. I get it, and I respect it. I’ve even helped guys who have that model. But it’s also borrowed time. At some point, that car won’t be on the racetrack. And I’m like, ‘Guys, to do this right, it costs way more money than that qualifying money will ever generate. If you’re depending on that to do this, you need to pull the plug and quit now, because you ain’t got the money to be doing it.’
“We’re not depending on the qualifying money. It just helps to take the sting out of what you are spending,” McGaha said. “I’ll put it in perspective. In 2015, when I won those two races on the Western Swing, I qualified No. 1 at both. I brought in nearly $60,000 from those two races, just from qualifying and winning. I told my mom, ‘There’s your 60-grand.’ And she goes, ‘Yeah, but my credit card bill is $57,000.’ I would probably do it anyway, but it sure helps take the sting out of it.”
He said, “Let’s look at the business model of everybody involved, so let’s start at the top, with NHRA. This entire organization and everybody involved with it are putting their heart and soul basically into a bunch of guys’ hobby. You’re setting your business model up and depending on it to pay your salary based off of a bunch of guys out there getting in a p—ing contest.”
But the beat seemed to go on after the U.S. Nationals. Each of the nitro fields at Gainesville was a racer short. However, if McGaha’s plan is everybody’s plan in 2021, the fields might be much shorter in all the pro classes.
“Next year, no matter what, if they don’t raise it [purses] back up, we will pick and choose the races we want to go to. We’re not going to haul all the way to Seattle. It’s three days driving there and three days driving back. We just can’t justify it. When you’re throwing money at moving guys across the country, buying diesel, airfare. It was nice when you used to get $5,000 to qualify in Pro Stock and maybe win a round here or there and break even for the weekend on expenses. It’s nice to break even on expenses, even if you do have the money to do it. At some point, you’ve got to go, ‘It was dumb before…how much dumber is it going to get?’”
Moreover, Pollacheck expressed many racers’ sentiments when he said the nitro cars and the Pro Stock cars and bikes comprise NHRA’s products and indicated the NHRA could lose teams: “That’s your show, and that’s what you’re selling tickets to see. How can you not pay them? You’ve got to have some other kind of a plan than that. With the purse the way it is, there’s so much other kind of racing we could go do for way more money than what we’re getting paid now.
“It’s a very awkward position,” he added. “NHRA’s always been the cream of the crop, the place everybody wanted to be. But I’m sure a lot of people’s minds are going to change – like the purse. Most of us can afford to take a loss like this for only so long.”
In the end, just about everyone is echoing McGaha’s feelings: “I hate it that it’s been a broken year and things are so fouled up.”