News & Analysis

Is the Big Go the Big Went?

The Big Go, Indy, The Nats or whatever you chose to call the just completed 57th annual U.S. Nationals was for at least for three-fourths of the professional class racers that made the finals, an experience they will never forget. Too bad the fans of NHRA drag racing don’t seem to share their enthusiasm for the race.

For the first time in my experience with this iconic sports event, which began around 1961, there wasn’t a single day this year that the place was filled to capacity. Now I grant you I have missed a few races in the last five years so maybe I’m just misinformed.

As a fan and racer I have always considered the NHRA U.S. Nationals to be on the same level of historical importance as the Indy 500 and the Daytona 500, but I’m afraid that, unlike other historic sports events that have maintained significant attraction to the fans, the U.S. Nationals just isn’t the must-see race it once was.

Some will say that the miserably hot then rainy then cold weather was to blame but I just don’t think that the weather alone is the culprit for the dramatic drop in attendance of drag racing’s premier event.

I was at Indy this year Thursday, Friday and Saturday and then came home Sunday and watched the race on ESPN2 on Monday. I was struck by the fact that when two drivers with history at this event, Larry Dixon and Antron Brown, were asked why the U.S. Nationals was so important their basic answer was “because it’s Indy!”

That might be reason enough if you are a drag racer or a drag racing fan over 50 years of age, but in today’s hyper-competitive entertainment industry just putting on a race for more than a half-century doesn’t guarantee a sold-out crowd.

When the U.S. Nationals was at its peak as a race there weren’t 22-24 national events on the schedule each year. There wasn’t 10 hours of coverage on ESPN2 or ESPN3 that a fan can get for a lot less than the cost of a ticket without having to sit baking in a grandstand.

At its peak the Nationals offered fans and racers an experience they could get nowhere else. The 1970s had 32-car Top Fuel fields, a nitro bike class that was basically unique to Indy, and at one point NHRA multiplied the points a racer got by 1.5 for Indy only. There was the Big Bud Shootout and other similar races that were unique to the Indy experience.

Over the years the current management has gradually removed everything that made Indy really special and reduced it to just another race on a 23-race grind. The only thing special about Indy for the hardcore fans is the extra qualifying session and the confusing and no longer relevant program that negates some laps on the first two or three days of qualifying. All that has accomplished is to make some racers sit out until the last two sessions.

These day the ONLY special races or perk that the current U.S. Nationals offers it fans, racers and the national press is the Mopar Hemi Challenge for 47-year-old Super Stockers and the Pro Mod class, and the NHRA PR department do their absolute best to make it as hard as possible for the fans and press to get any information on either class. They don’t even pass out qualifying information for either class in the pressroom or make the races part of the advance publicity. The Hemi Challenge cars are not noted separately, they are just lumped in with all the Super Stock cars.

What did Mopar and Roger Burgess and the racers in those classes ever do to the NHRA for them to treated as if they were invisible and not worthy of notice?

It’s time for the president or VP in charge of this part of the giant NHRA machine to come to the realization that there is no bad coverage or uninteresting classes at the U.S. Nationals.