News & Analysis

The New Nitro Jam: It’s a Drag, But Is It Racing?

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Over the last few years, it's been clear to everyone in drag racing that the International Hot Rod Association [IHRA] was on the ropes. Its media presence was minimal and the big names in professional drag racing had stopped showing up for its national events. As a result car counts and attendance were low and declining. The organization was losing money, and so were the tracks that hosted its major events. Despite a flourishing sportsman series, the IHRA seemed to be headed for oblivion.

That would have been a shame. Despite the fact that the IHRA has long been content to be a sometimes vigorous, sometimes lethargic number two to the National Hot Rod Association's number one, its record book is studded with some of the biggest names in drag racing -- Don Garlits, Bunny Burkett, Bob Glidden, Kenny Bernstein, Ronnie Sox, Warren Johnson, and Scotty Cannon, to name just a few. And its sportsman series continues to rival the NHRA’s.

But fans don’t go to the track to watch history. They want a show, and too often the IHRA wasn’t giving them one. Recently the organization has suffered the indignity of seeing its number two position snatched away by the upstart American Drag Racing League.

All this set the stage for last year’s sale of the IHRA to Feld Entertainment, owners of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Disney on Ice, and monster truck shows, among other things. It’s a company that knew very little about drag racing, but a whole lot about the fine art of separating customers from their money. You didn’t have to be a fortune-teller to know that big changes were on their way.

The changes weren’t subtle. Old classes were discarded and new ones materialized, one of them, Pro Fuel, seemingly out of nowhere. The race day format was reinvented in a way that made people ask whether “racing” was still the right word.

Nitro Funny Cars, Alcohol Funny Cars, Pro Mods, and Mountain Motor Pro Stocks all bit the dust. Into the fold came Pro Fuel (essentially Top Fuel without the blower) and Prostalgia (Nostalgia) Funny Cars. In some cases the logic was clear enough. For instance, it makes a certain amount of sense, from a cost-saving point of view, to eliminate two Funny Car classes, one of which was very expensive, and replace them with a cheaper nitro-burning class that has great fan appeal. The logic of the move didn’t make it easier for the Nitro Funny Car and Alcohol Funny Car teams to take, but the business case was clear enough.

The case for eliminating the two fast doorslammer classes was much less obvious. The cost of fielding a team isn’t prohibitive; the cars have a large and sometimes fanatical following; there was no replacement class in the new format (unless you count Top Sportsman, which I don’t) and, most galling of all, the IHRA had nurtured them both. No classes were more associated with the IHRA than Pro Mods and Mountain Motor Pro Stocks. And now they were gone.

The final big change came in the way the events were structured. There would be no qualifying in the three professional classes. The fields were set by invitation. With no qualifying, every round counted. But advancing to the final depended on running one of the two quickest winning E.T.s.

The new Nitro Jam series ventured into the heartland of the old IHRA this year on April 30 – May 2, when it made its first trip to North Carolina’s Rockingham Dragway. While it was clear that the IHRA is trying to achieve a balance between spectacle and racing, it sometimes seemed that the organization was betting that sheer spectacle is what fans really want.

Take Top Fuel, for instance. These 300-mph beasts were there to put on a show, not primarily to race. Sure, when they were lined up on the track, it looked like they were racing. But they weren’t.

Like Pro Fuel and Prostalgia Funny Car, the four Top Fuelers (down from eight last season) were there by invitation. They didn't have to make qualifying runs to make the race. In the first round of competition, they were racing the clock, not the car next to them. The cars with the two quickest winning E.T.s went to the finals.