What about the Nitro Harleys? They’ve been missing for a couple of seasons now, but is there a chance they could return, too?
Polburn: If it was up to me I would say absolutely, positively. But again we’re out seeking marketing dollars to offset the expense of that. I can’t go to our track owners and
suddenly say, ‘Hey guys, guess what, our expenses just went up $100,000 per race.’ You have to justify it somehow.
In the end we are all about the show and I agree and I think our fans agree that the Nitro Harleys made IHRA unique. And that’s what we have to be. If I learned one thing while I was in Vegas a week ago [at the NHRA national event], I was shocked after being a spectator for a day that—I don’t want to use the term ‘bored’—but after watching 25 Top Fuel cars go down the racetrack it seemed almost ho-hum. Yet it was spectacular. I was pretty excited, but the people around me weren’t. Poor ol’ Tony Schumacher runs 4.48 at 333 and they’re like, ‘Not bad, Tony,’ and that’s awful. And I think a lot of it has to do with variety. You’ve got to change the pace, and that’s why nitro Funny Cars and the Harleys would be important to us.
Never mind Tony Schumacher’s 4.48, how about Clay Millican’s 4.48 here? (Editor’s note: Millican ran the IHRA’s first sub-4.50 pass at Rockingham and officially set the E.T. record to 4.484 seconds.)
Polburn: That was a true IHRA moment. It was funny from a professional standpoint because I don’t know how many people came up to me and said, ‘We’ve arrived, we’re now in the big leagues.’ My opinion was where have you been the last two years? We’re different, but we’re professional and I think we have more fun than anybody else does in drag racing today.
But when Clay did that, it stepped everybody up, it made everybody take notice and when we introduced our new Top Fuel program for next year it got everybody pretty fired up. They’re going to be racing for more money, the bar’s been raised again, and everybody knows it. I think it’s just going to make our program that much better.
Can you describe the new Top Fuel purse payout?
Polburn: Basically it’ll match in rounds one and two the NHRA purse, which is $10,000 in the first round and $13,000 in the second. I’m speaking from memory here, but I think winners in the final will get $23,000 and runner-up $16,000, so all the payouts have gone up thanks to Evan Knoll and Torco. He’s paying for every fuel team’s car and driver entry fee and for up to eight free crew people.
So regardless of whether 10 or 15 or 20 cars show up they’re all covered?
Polburn: They’re all covered. Of course the biggest complaint we always had in IHRA was the entry fee and now we’ve found a way to get that taken care of. If we want to compete for good cars—and let’s be realistic, we’re not going to see Tony Schumacher or Larry Dixon—but we’ll see a lot of the other guys. I think when you compare our 11-event schedule versus their 23-event schedule, to a lot of teams we’ll be pretty attractive just because of the millions of dollars it takes to run a full NHRA operation.
With an eight-car field, if it plays out as you expect it will be a lot tougher to break into an IHRA Top Fuel race.
Polburn: Well it’s not supposed to be easy; that’s why people buy tickets. And it’s funny you should say that because that was the problem in Funny Car; just about anybody could get in. And that’s no longer the case. If you get in the top eight now you know you’ve done a heckuva’ job and you know that on raceday pretty much anybody could take out anybody else at any time. Our objective is to continually increase quality and I think we’ve done that.
How important are Evan Knoll and his racing programs to IHRA?
Polburn: Huge. I’ve come to know the guy not just as a business partner but as a friend, and you can’t help but love his passion for what he does, from a business side and a drag racing side. He’s just an unusual guy. I go back in my lifetime and I can’t think of anyone I’ve met quite like him. He is incredibly important to us business wise, but if he didn’t put a dime into IHRA and I knew him he’d probably wind up being one of my better friends. That’s just the kind of guy he is. But is he a big deal to IHRA? He’s a big deal to drag racing.