What Will NHRA Pro Mod Class Look Like With New Format In Place?

NHRA President Glen Cromwell confirmed to Dragzine during last week’s Dallas event that RPM “will dissolve” at the end of the year. (For tax purposes and other legalities, RPM might remain intact.) Although RPM’s contribution to the evolution of Pro Mod racing is undeniably powerful, Pro Mod racers will have no quasi-union (like PRO, which serves racers in the NHRA’s Mello Yello Drag Racing Series). In allowing RPM to fade, Pro Mod racers have relinquished their leverage to direct scheduling and rules issues – or perhaps more precisely, have transferred their influence to the sanctioning body.

However, Cromwell said, “We’re working with all of them as a group. We had a meeting in St. Louis, and the message from me was we’re going to be helping with all of them. We work a lot with Steve Matusek. Steve was a big part of RPM.

“We’ll probably have two-three-four Pro Mod meetings throughout the year,” he said. He explained the NHRA will “bring in Ned Walliser and Josh Peterson [from the competition side] and marketing and PR [representatives] and myself. We’ll go through things that are going well and things they might have questions about – just to open that line of communication.

“We’re in a good place with them,” Cromwell said of the Pro Mod interests. “It was an open and great meeting in St. Louis. We’re trying to build participation. We think it’s a great category. Things are good. We still have a lot of challenges.”

E3 Spark Plugs will remain the series sponsor for the NHRA Pro Modified class. J&A Service, thanks to generous owners – and racers – Jim and Annie Whiteley, still will be presenting sponsors of the 12-race class.

As the class evolved, we needed to make a change, not just from an accounting point of view, but also to fully embrace the potential of our sport as a whole and our class specifically. – John Waldie, RPM

Dragzine visited with RPM’s John Waldie and with Ryan Haas, managing partner of the Forward Sports Marketing agency that’s the advertising/promotional group of the Pro Mod racers. Waldie – along with board members Danny Rowe, Eric Dillard, Jim Whiteley, and Matusek – has been instrumental in developing the class and building a strong relationship with NHRA executives. Haas is working with the series to find funding to cover its financial needs.

Dragzine (DZ): This was a defining shift in the direction the Pro Modified class is headed. What are your overall thoughts initially?

John Waldie (JW): Everything happens for a purpose in life, I believe. And we really have a partnership with NHRA. They’re going to substantially increase our TV, not just on FOX Sports 1, but they’re going to link it to FOX Sports 2. That’s what we’ve asked for the last two or three years. I think we’re on the cusp of some pretty exciting times.

DZ: What is RPM’s role now?

JW: RPM, for all intents and purposes, has served its purpose. We’ve done it for six years. We raised the money for the class. Now, thanks to NHRA, we have a partnership with NHRA. And NHRA has the resources: social media, tracks, safety, tech, everything. This is where we want to race. As the class evolved, we needed to make a change, not just from an accounting point of view, but also to fully embrace the potential of our sport as a whole and our class specifically.

DZ: What will this partnership produce, going forward, that constitutes a distinct change?

JW: They’ve given us the green light to raise our money through our sponsorships and return that money to the Pro Mod group. We asked the NHRA if we can take the money we have and give it all back to the racers. The NHRA will keep the series sponsorship money [from E3 Spark Plugs] and the entry fees. We’re going to leave the event winner and runner-up alone, and we’re going to leave the points fund alone at $50,000 to win. But we’re hoping to pay the top 10, not just the top two.

RPM’s John Waldie.

DZ: Where is the extra money going to come from, and what will it do?

JW: We’re on the [fundraising] warpath. We’re moving along OK. We’ve got a target. We want to raise $300,000 between now and the PRI Show, Dec. 12-14 at Indianapolis. And if we do that, we’ll not just double or triple [the current payouts]. The first-round money will be five times what it is now. We want to take care of the racers with more qualifying money and more money for quarterfinals and semifinals, too.  The other money is locked in. We’ve really got our work cut out for us, Ryan and I. But we’re committed, and the racers seem to be really happy, the happiest we’ve ever been.

Ryan Haas (RH): We are working with NHRA to raise funds to help pay for anything that goes with the class, from purses and awards to banquets and all of those good things. There’s a tremendous amount of assets for any partners that are out there. If somebody’s been interested in getting involved and getting exposure at an NHRA national event, the Pro Mod class is a great way to do it. It’s got tons of assets on-site at the events, from midway space to jumbotron commercials to P.A. announcements. They can be a sponsor of a 30-minute TV show for the Pro Mod class. They have their own dedicated show on FOX through FS1 and FS2. There’s opportunity for digital advertising on NHRA.com. There are tons of assets for sponsors to be involved.

 

DZ: With this season coming to a close pretty soon for the Pro Mod class and a short winter break before the 2020 season-opening Gatornationals, you don’t have a lot of time to spare to implement these purse increases you want to see, do you?

JW: Last year at SEMA, I had seven people to speak with. This year I’ve got 27 to speak with. Last year at PRI, Ryan and I divided a list that was 26 or 27. This year, it looks like we’ll have 75 people to speak with at PRI. That’s a legitimate number. So we’re knocking on doors, and we really feel we have a better opportunity, not just because of increased television, but also because NHRA is now allowing us to take that money and give it back to the racers.

DZ: What’s the significance of that?

JW: We no longer have to buy races, which is what we were doing before. We realize we were paying to play, although the first time it was expressed to me that way, I was taken back. But we realize that is the fact of motorsports today.

DZ: In a conversation this summer, Richard Freeman, who fields Pro Mods as well as Pro Stock cars, said he hadn’t been a fan of the previous Pro Mod format. He said, “The Pro Mod platform is not very smart, in my opinion. It’s just my opinion. Smart isn’t to pay to race.”

JW: I understand what Richard was saying. I really respect Richard. He has saved the Pro Stock class, no question. But what you have to understand is the NHRA rolled back their [Pro Stock class’] money considerably. They took that money away from Pro Stock and gave it to Top Fuel. So I understand. We need Richard. I get quite a kick out of him: he’s opinionated and “Go for it!” He’s focused.

The packed crowd during Pro Modified qualifying at the NHRA U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis.

DZ: How easy is it to sell the Pro Mod class? Our guess is it’s pretty easy to sell.

RH: I think it’s a very popular class with the fans. It’s popular with the competitors. And there are lots of assets. We do some great promotions with companies for the entire season long. Some companies do just one highlighted race. A big race like Indy, Hot Wheels did a great promotion there. Some companies want to do things at multiple events. MGP Connecting Rods does something at every single race. They have an award during qualifying for racers. Theirs is the for the best reaction time during qualifying. Quick Drive does the No. 1 qualifier award. Race Star Wheels has one that’s for top speed during qualifying. They’re all qualifying awards. It’s unique to the Pro Mod class.

What’s really good about that is they gave every licensed NHRA Pro Mod driver eight grading points. Eight is the most you can possibly have. So come Jan. 3, everybody who wants to enter can enter the races they choose – all of them, if they want. – John Waldie, RPM

DZ: Do you interact with the teams to get leads? How does it work with your task, Ryan?

RH: We do. We will work with teams in terms of working to fulfill a race sponsor. In some cases, they might have a great relationship with a company that’s headquartered near a track. And they might say, “Let’s work on this together,” where something can be on their car and sponsor of the race. That benefits the entire sport.

JW: Our racers have lots of connections to the industry, and we have international relationships.

DZ: Do you see this business model transferring to the Mello Yello Series?

JW: The Pro Mod class did not become part of the Mello Yello Series with this new agreement, or format. The money raised for Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock, and Pro Stock Motorcycle comes from [Coca-Cola and] Mello Yello. The money for the sportsman racers comes from the Lucas family, Lucas Oil. The money for the Pro Mod class is the money we raise, and it all goes back to the racers. We raise the money, and the money we raise now we’re giving all of it back to the racers.

RH: NHRA has a very big part in everything that goes on with the Pro Mod class. They know the structure. They’ve set the agenda for the 2020 season. It didn’t change dramatically from what we’ve been doing, in terms of the assets that we have to offer sponsors. I think they’re fully aware of everything that’s being accomplished, because they’re a part of it.

DZ: It wasn’t a unilateral decision to do what you’re doing.

RH: No. Between [RPM board member and negotiator] Danny Rowe and John Waldie – and other people who have put a lot of time and effort into making sure the Pro Mod class is where it is and where NHRA is taking it going forward – it’s a great place.

DZ: Surely the NHRA had its own demands, or requests, in this agreement.

JW: The biggest thing they came back with that we didn’t see was they want 34 or 35 to 40 cars at every race. So they’ve totally opened it up. There’s no more quota or anything like that. What’s really good about that is they gave every licensed NHRA Pro Mod driver eight grading points. Eight is the most you can possibly have. So come Jan. 3, everybody who wants to enter can enter the races they choose – all of them, if they want. And the reason NHRA did this is . . . I said to Josh Peterson, “You’re going to raise another $100,000 for yourselves with entry fees. They’d already figured that out. So they took the quotas off.

DZ: So provisionals are gone?

JW: Provisionals are gone. Everybody who has an NHRA Pro Mod license gets eight grading points, the maximum you can ever have. That’ll allow you into every race.

DZ: To the envy of most Mello Yello Series classes, the Pro Mod class seems to bring enough entrants for two full fields at each event on the schedule. But what happens if you don’t get 35-40 cars like the NHRA is expecting you to bring?

JW:  They said, “You might have a track where you might not be able to get 40 cars on ground.” But they’re really wanting and encouraging every Pro Mod racer to enter. Next year we’re going to have 35-40 Pro Mods. The NHRA has rolled out a wonderful partnership program with the Pro Mod group to encourage sponsorships and participation. If a team wants to come out for only two or three races, that’s all right. No problem at all.

DZ: You both have mentioned the class’ 30-minute TV show earlier. The Pro Stock class experimented with that concept, having its own show earlier this year – and it lasted for one episode. That Pro Stock show got some negative feedback because of its programming placement. It ran several days after the event. But the Pro Mod TV show has run two weeks after the event (when everyone knows who won and how eliminations played out). It runs on a Thursday, although it does air in a prime-time slot. Why is the Pro Mod class content to see its performances broadcast two weeks after the race? Why is the Pro Mod class not complaining?

RH: I think they’re super-excited to be on the FOX Network on a prime-time slot. If you look at it, that’s a night the NFL plays, if that tells you how prime-time Thursday evening is. I think they’re happy to be on there. They’re all happy to be receiving positive exposure.

We’re a family group. We have the passion for Pro Mod. Family comes first to us. Then we have to be realistic and look after our businesses. NHRA certainly has exhibited to us a passion for this class. – John Waldie, RPM

JW: The meeting [NHRA President] Glen Cromwell had with us at St. Louis was wonderful. Certainly the encouragement we received at the meeting showed that NHRA is 100-percent behind [the September agreement]. They really treated us as professional racers. I like to think of ourselves as partners. And the TV production people were more than helpful. They said, “We’ve never been exposed to this before. This room is alive with these Pro Mod guys! There’s personality here! We can really run with this Pro Mod class!”

DZ: Are you working toward piggybacking the Pro Mod broadcast onto the end of the same-day Mello Yello Drag Racing Series broadcasts?

RH: That’s completely in NHRA’s court. They determine all of the availability for when the shows will be. That’s completely in their court.

JW: We’ll retain our own FOX Sports 2 TV show on Thursday nights. We’re going to keep a much more open relationship between it and FOX Sports 1. And we’re going to receive more coverage on FOX Sports 1.

DZ: Many publications have written that the NHRA is on an upward trajectory. Do you feel that, do you see that, when you speak with people?

RH: Yes, absolutely. Our agency does a lot of different sports and promotions. And NHRA is a very positive property to put out there to any client.

JW: I have always believed that we have the greatest sport. We have some wonderfully successful businesspeople in our class, and we have a lot of racers who just love Pro Mod and race as a family. We probably have only six real professional racers, but we have a lot of people who are employed in the Pro Mod community. So we’re a good group. We’re a family group. We have the passion for Pro Mod. Family comes first to us. Then we have to be realistic and look after our businesses. NHRA certainly has exhibited to us a passion for this class. Kasey Cohler [NHRA vice-president of track management and operations] has done so much for us. The Pro Mod group within the NHRA family is really pleased, going forward. We have a working relationship we’re really pleased about. A good partnership is something that’s progressing. It’s like a marriage. You can’t always have it your way. But we were looking for a true partnership, and that’s what we have now.

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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