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News & Analysis
There was a time when the IHRA was in serious competition with the NHRA to be the dominant sanctioning body in drag racing. IHRA founder Larry Carrier and NHRA founder Wally Parks waged a very public and often rancorous battle for sanctioning body supremacy.
The IHRA and NHRA both were sponsored by tobacco giant RJ Reynolds and their Winston cigarette brand at the same time. RJ Reynolds got out of drag racing and eventually Carrier sold the sanctioning body to a group of Pro Stock racers. Over the years the IHRA was sold numerous times and, except for a brief period when Billy Meyer owned the IHRA and really panicked the NHRA management, the IHRA brand continued to weaken. Meyer cut his losses and the IHRA was sold again. The legendary Bill Bader and his family bought the IHRA from Meyer, but he too failed to make the IHRA into a competitor for the NHRA’s sponsors and racers.
The sanctioning body continued to change hands and leaders until former Bader protégé Aaron Polburn was elevated to the presidency when Bader was forced out of the job after basically failing to dramatically change the IHRA.
When Polburn took the reins of the IHRA, it was owned by Barnum & Bailey circus owners and entertainment giant, Feld Entertainment. Polburn’s first major change was the virtual elimination of not only professional nitro classes, but also the two pro classes most closely identified and unique to the IHRA: “Mountain-Motored” Pro Stock and the iconic Pro Modified class. In fact, they basically dismantled the professional racer classes of the IHRA and replaced them with a “Nitro Jam” traveling road show made up of a few Top Fuelers, Fuel Altereds, Nitro Harleys, Nostalgia Funny Cars (renamed Prostalgia), and Jets.
Under the guidance of President Polburn, the IHRA virtually eliminated traditional pro racing from their program, though still naming “World Champions” (even though sometimes there were just two to four cars competing in a class). But with those changes the IHRA went from a not intentionally non-profit company to one that actually was making a little money for the sanctioning body and its track operators.
In 2013, once again the IHRA was sold, this time to a group of Florida businessmen who had acquired the West Palm Beach track and the former Memphis Motorsports Park, led by drag racing industry veteran, Jason Rittenberry. The team opted to keep the status quo while hinting of changes to come. And come they did.
At the last event of the 2013 season at Memphis, the newest IHRA ownership announced yet another change to the IHRA. They announced an 11-race schedule for 2014 and a new format for those races.
The latest change is a return to a more traditional way of operating -- apparently due to pressure from fans and sponsors – with a return to a “real racing” format with “Nationals” returning to the event names. The newest IHRA has an expanded Nostalgia Funny Car class and an expanded Nitro Harley classes with traditional qualifying and racing, but instead of open competition the teams racing in those two classes would do so by invitation only!
As I understand it, the IHRA will try to convince enough AA/FC and Nitro Harley teams to sign contracts to guarantee full fields at all 11 of the national events on their 2014 calendar. In order to encourage the racers, the new owners announced a significant raise in the purses for the FC and Nitro Harleys, plus a significant points fund. According to their press release, the AA/FC teams will split a $50,000 purse.
I’m told the FC winner at an IHRA race will receive a $12,500 check and qualifiers will be paid $3-4,000. That is significantly more money than either the NHRA Heritage or the DRO Mickey Thompson Tire/Comp Cams series pay. In both the Heritage and DRO series, the winner is paid between $4,000 and $6,000 and the points fund are either very small or non-existent.
The winner of the 2014 IHRA points chase will take home $50,000 and the runner-up $25,000. In all, the new IHRA has guaranteed they will spend $650,000 on their Nostalgia Funny Car program in 2014!
The only possible problem for the IHRA is, are there enough semi-professional AA/FC and Nitro Harley teams that can or will commit to an 11-race tour at tracks both east and west of the Mississippi River (two in Canada) and at four sets of races during the season that are on consecutive weekends? The schedule will require the team owners and their often all-volunteer crews to make significant financial and time sacrifices.
I believe that IHRA’s announced $50,000 purse and $12,500 winners share per race and $100,000 points fund might cause some “professional” Alcohol Funny Car teams to convert to nitro burning AA/FCs. I also think that a guaranteed 11 booked-in races might cause some of the former IHRA FC team owners, like Jack Wyatt or Dale Creasy Jr., to convert their NHRA Big Show cars to Nostalgia FCs.
The IHRA plan for their Nitro Harley class will also cause some changes for those racers. There are quite a few series in Canada and the U.S., including the NHRA, that have a series built around Nitro Harleys. The IHRA’s $18,000 per race purse and $50,000 points fund will no doubt affect attendance in the NHRA and Canadian nitro bike.
It is a sure bet that racers in both the AA/FC and Nitro Harley ranks are going to look at attending IHRA races much more favorably than in the past specifically because of the near trebling of both purse and points fund money the IHRA is offering.
If there is a gamble or downside to the IHRA’s return to traditional racing, it is the increased money the IHRA’s track operator partners will have to spend to have a race. The cost of racing the Nitro, Pro Stock and Pro Mod classes is what caused the old IHRA and their track owners to drop those classes. They were risking $200-$250,000 in expenses before the first ticket was sold and needed to have about $500,000 in revenue to get any reasonable return on their gamble. And believe me, financing and producing a drag race is serious gambling.
There is no doubt that Jason Rittenberry’s new IHRA program will not only improve the racing but add legitimacy to the series in the eyes of the drag racing industry and community. The only question is, will the new program attract more race fans that will pay $25 and more?