Watch Closely: Indy Summernationals Could Be NHRA’s 2020 Swan Song

As coronavirus cases spike, the NHRA remains committed to a revised 16-race schedule that’s as uncertain as the original one was when plans for racing – and most sports – halted March 12.

Billy Torrence (Top Fuel), Matt Hagan (Funny Car), Jason Line (Pro Stock), and first-time winner Ryan Oehler (Pro Stock Motorcycle) maxed out their opportunities to race this past weekend at the E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis.

A second special event – the Lucas Oil Summernationals – at the track that traditionally hosts only the U.S. Nationals in September, is set for this weekend. With many states tightening public health and safety restrictions, more than a few observers say they would not be surprised if the NHRA shelves the rest of the season.

Bandimere Speedway’s Aug. 7-9 Dodge Mile-High Nationals is on deck. But the racetrack still is  entangled in a dispute with Colorado’s Jefferson County that stems from a largely unmasked July 4 crowd that allegedly violated attendance limits and social-distancing mandates. Judge Tamara Russell is expected to rule on the case July 21. That’s a little close for NHRA planning comfort.

The current status is that the venue, a mainstay on the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series tour, is under a temporary restraining order that limits fans to 175 “per activity area” (which can be grandstand segments, the pits, and food areas, all of which must be at least 50 feet apart).

In Minnesota, where the series is scheduled to travel from Denver, Minneapolis NBC-TV affiliate KARE indicated state officials are keeping an eye on the rising numbers of coronavirus cases statewide but not yet talking about shutting down the Aug. 14-16 Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd. So while it’s still a “go,” that could change.

Minnesota state epidemiologist Dr. Ruth Lynfield told KARE, “We’re still experiencing the pandemic, and we are in fact at a worrisome point in that the numbers are going up.” She said 41 states are experiencing case increases, and she predicted, “I do expect to see an increase in deaths in the coming weeks.”

Is there a point it does not make sense to go forward? There could be. We’re going to continue moving forward until we can’t. – NHRA President Glen Cromwell

Lynfield’s unattractive warnings don’t sound like Minnesota is exactly rolling out the red carpet for drag racers. She said, “This really is a moment for all of us to take a step back and think what we can do to slow transmission and to slow the course of this virus,” she said.

And on down the line it goes with the remainder of the NHRA agenda. Like drag racing fans and teams, President Glen Cromwell and his colleagues at the Glendora, Calif., headquarters only can say, “I don’t know what’s going to happen.” And that’s the absolute truth.

“We’re starting here,” Cromwell said at Indianapolis last weekend. “Over the past four to five weeks, the country’s position has changed tremendously. We have set a course, and we’re going to do our best to follow that course. If the state [any of the remaining 11 states on the schedule] can’t do it, we’ll have to make a decision. It’s not a one-way decision. It’s not just the NHRA – it’s our race teams and everyone. Obviously, if circumstances change, we’ll have to adjust. We don’t know what it’s going to look like three or four weeks from now – just like four or five weeks ago we were in a different position than we are today.”

He said he knows everybody is asking, ‘Is there a point it does not make sense to go forward?’ And there could be. There always could be. There could have been back in June. There could have been that in July. We talked about that with the stakeholders. We said, ‘There could be something we never expected.’ We never expected that certain states were going to explode five weeks ago. We are where we are. We’re taking everything into consideration. We’re going to continue moving forward until we can’t.

“And when I talk about the economics of this, I want to stress that we’re not just talking about the NHRA, Glendora, our business. We help represent the race teams, the racetracks, and our employees,” Cromwell said.

(Since March 12, the NHRA has laid off or let go most of its employees, and a virtual skeleton staff is holding down the fort.)

The competition side has seen a handful of significant changes.

A no-brainer was the suspension of the Countdown, which began in 2007.

The NHRA reduced the purses by about 30 percent, a move naturally unpopular among the racers – who already received payouts that have remained static for many years and were widely considered well below what they should have been. According to NHRA Vice President of Racing Administration Josh Peterson, the NHRA based the decision on the fact all events (except the U.S. Nationals) have become two-day events rather than the traditional three. The logic was that without Friday qualifying – and therefore with no Friday revenue and also no operational expense to the teams – a purse reduction is part of a cost savings for all involved.

The NHRA welcomed an estimated 2,000-2,500 spectators to Lucas Oil Raceway, marking the first major sporting event in the state of Indiana with spectators since March.

It sounds logical enough, but a team owner such as Top Fuel racer Terry McMillen counts on that revenue to supplement his budget.

McMillen said, “Ultimately, that’s what helped pay for the nitro. That’s what helped pay for hotel rooms. And now you don’t have it. Some will argue that you’re saving money because you’re not running two extra runs. But the fact of the matter is the fixed costs are still the fixed costs. It takes X amount of dollars to get here, X amount of dollars towards the hotel rooms. So, those things don’t change. And what we have to do is shrink the purse, and that’s just tough. I understand the situation. We’re all in it right now together. I’m hoping that next season they come back and change that – and even look at raising the purse, because we’ve had the same purse for…gosh…it seems like it’s been the same forever.”

Eight-time Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher’s two-race return following more than a year and a half on the sidelines was a highlight of the Indianapolis event.

Meanwhile, nitro prices have risen, from $1,512 for a 42-gallon drum to today’s rate of $1,680. That’s a steep increase, especially considering racers burn about 18 gallons per run.

About 75 pro racers were at the first Indianapolis race, but the one driver everyone talked about the most was one who wasn’t even there: Funny Car’s John Force – along with Brittany Force, Austin Prock, and Robert Hight. Other racers opted out of the restarts, notably Mike Salinas, Scott Palmer, Cameron Ferré, and Pat Dakin.

The NHRA icon skipped the restart of the season, following seemingly contradictory statements. He said, “I can go racing tomorrow with four teams ready to go. John Force Racing is going to be standing here if this thing comes back.”

The John Force Racing shop in nearby Brownsburg was desolate during race weekend.

It came back, and he wasn’t there. None of his teams were – the first time since the April 2007 Houston race following the death of team driver Eric Medlen.

Rather cryptically, Force also had said, “One of the statements I made [at a PRO meeting] is that I’m not going to vote that I’m going to run 16 races. If my sponsors pay, I will. But if you have a race or two that’s right there in Indy and I don’t have to travel and spend money, I’ll be there. But all of this is based on what sponsors do and how much money I’ve got that I can spend myself. And the sponsors have only got so much money. I’m ready to go racing tomorrow. My rigs are loaded. I’ve got everything but nitro, and it’ll be at the races. But we’ve got big problems – if we can’t have crowds, we ain’t going to race. It’s that simple.”

The price of a barrel of nitromethane hiked more than $100 during the hiatus from racing, coming at the most challenging of economic times for money-strapped race teams.

Force said, “We could wake up tomorrow and there’s a miracle cure and it would be business as usual. But if this thing [coronavirus] hangs around a while or gets worse, then [the season is] going to be put off until next year. And we may have to move everything to next year. But I don’t make that call.”

So, was he saying he expected the NHRA to pull the plug? Was he saying the back-to-back Indianapolis races were off the table? Was he saying he would race the events after the doubleheader? Was he saying he was done for the season? Actually, he wasn’t saying anything, which started the rumor mill churning.

Cromwell said, “I think it’s important for John to answer for himself.”

Ron Capps, his longtime Funny Car competitor, said of Force, “He’ll talk when he’s ready.

“I know that when he does come out and say what’s going on, it’s going to be something that’s unselfish on his part,” Capps said. “And I guarantee that it’s going to be for the better for his family or for whoever he’s trying to help, for whatever reason. He’s not going to throw somebody under the bus.”

Moreover, Capps said, “He’s not going to come out here and lose money. Bottom line, if he was to come out in these next two races, he would be spending his own money. And thankfully, he’s smart enough not to spend his own money.”

How much money will everyone spend trying to stage enough races to declare a champion in each class?

One thought from Force might have said it all: “If it don’t come back, it don’t matter if I’m standing here or not.”

About the author

Susan Wade

Celebrating her 45th year in sports journalism, Susan Wade has emerged as one of the leading drag-racing writers with 20 seasons at the racetrack. She was the first non-NASCAR recipient of the prestigious Russ Catlin Award and has covered the sport for the Chicago Tribune, Newark Star-Ledger, St. Petersburg Times, and Seattle Times. Growing up in Indianapolis, motorsports is part of her DNA. She contributes to Power Automedia as a freelancer writer.
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