Volume IX, Issue 3, Page 151

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I want to see real factory hot rods in drag racing

03/08/07

Evidently the major auto racing sanctioning bodies have come to believe that as long as their factory partners logo, brand name or an image of the manufacturer’s grill is prominently displayed on factory-supported race cars in professional classes the cars themselves don’t have to even remotely resemble what comes off the assembly lines or drives on the highways -- the fans will still bond with the cars and brands. Based upon the current swoon of new car sales for all of the traditional Detroit brands including their so-called “factory hot rods” perhaps there is a problem. Maybe racing fans really want to see cars they can identify in the dark. Personally I think little by little over the last 20 years or so the sanctioning bodies, factories and racers have placed winning and performance way in front of actually developing fans of brands, and instead are concentrating on the drivers way too much. And we all know that too much of anything is not good for you.

What got me thinking about this issue was my watching a televised NASCAR test session of the “cars of tomorrow” while planted in the Burk-a-lounger. To the old Burkster’s feeble peepers those cars, many of which were in black primer, all looked alike…like no car that I recognized. They all featured a big adjustable front spoiler and a rear wing I usually see affixed to the trunk lid of an aero’d-up Toyota street cruiser. To me NASCAR’s COT looks more like a torpedo-shaped Art Deco toy car than any U.S.-built car I’ve seen recently. If it weren’t for the announcers telling me which car was which (especially the cars in primer) I wasn’t able to tell the difference between a Toyota, a Ford, a Mopar or a Chevy! I had another cocktail and drifted into to a fitful sleep.

Then it struck me. I have the same problem watching NHRA Pro Stocks and Funny Cars and to a lesser extent the same classes in the IHRA. Fuel Funny Cars have virtually no resemblance to the Mustang, Stratus, GTO or Impala SS they are supposed to be. I defy any casual or new drag racing fan to look at an unpainted or painted fuel coupe head-on or from the side and recognize it as a Ford, Chevy, or Mopar.

The only way to identify the brands and makes of Pro Stocks and nitro coupes -- especially the fuel funny cars -– are by the paint jobs featuring a factory grill, a brand logo or the factory assigned name lettered 18-inches high on the front spoiler. It’s no wonder that all of the Detroit-based companies supporting the major drag racing series are having trouble selling their high-performance sedans. New fans can’t tell if John Force is driving a Mustang or a Toyota and I believe that same issue is relevant for fans trying to distinguish a GTO from a Cobalt from a Stratus from the grandstands.  

It wasn’t all that many years ago that the NHRA and IHRA tech departments began allowing teams and car builders to chop, channel, and section the bodies that found their way onto the chassis of Funny Cars and Pro Stockers. It was done in the name of performance, but it took the personality of the class away. And nobody bothered to ask the fans or car buyers if they liked it.  

But all of the blame shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of the sanctioning bodies. The factories opened up their wind tunnels, turned the designing of Fuel Funny Car and Pro Stock bodies into a design playground for their engineers and began homogenizing the classes and the cars. They engineered the personality out of the cars, creating a void filled by Nostalgia Drag Racing.

The aerodynamic bodies that were the result of all that engineering excellence resulted in cars that the NHRA have at times deemed to be too fast, and they took steps to slow them down. In the case of fast doorslammers I’ve been told by some pretty knowledgeable racers and car builders that aerodynamics plays a very small part in increasing the performance of Pro Stock cars in quarter-mile competition. Of course in today’s Pro Stock bracket racing classes where thousandths of a second can be the difference between racing on Sunday or driving home, a case could be made for improved and expensive aero, but at what cost to the class? Remember when there used to be 50 cars trying to qualify at every national event?

I remember with some fondness when Bob Glidden’s boxy Ford Fairmont (one of the most dominant cars in Pro Stock history) raced against Reher-Morrison’s Camaro. I recall Grumpy Jenkins’s Vega lining up against Dick Landy’s Dodge, or even further back Jack Moss’s ’63 Galaxie lined up against the Gay family’s Pontiac Catalina. In Funny Car mercury Comets raced Chevy II’s, Vega’s squared off against Pinto’s. Back then we were not only fans of the drivers but also serious fans of the brand.

My point is that there was a time when fans in the stands or on the fence could easily identify the make of the cars their heroes were driving and they didn’t need the announcer to help them. That simply isn’t the case anymore.  

The way I see it, motorsports sanctioning bodies like NASCAR and NHRA take the major car manufacturers’ involvement with them as some sort of entitlement that they are due. The sanctioning bodies all get in line for company cars, trucks and other perks, and then inexplicably rent the wrong brand of rental car and drive it to the track or use an opposing brand of truck for track purposes and then try to shrug it off.

I see an opportunity here for drag racing to steal a little of NASCAR’s thunder. NASCAR arrogantly decided that they’re going to make their own brand of body but allow the teams to paint them with a brand’s grill or stick on headlights or have stock “C pillar” openings, and they obviously believe the fans will embrace them. Maybe they will, because NASCAR is marketing racers not race cars, but I don’t think that is helping their partners in the automaker world sell cars. 

The great Wally Parks used to espouse the opinion that drag racing’s attraction was the cars not the drivers. I never agreed with that philosophy 100% but it surely had some merit. Maybe it is time for Tom Compton, Aaron Polburn or Kenny Nowling to pay attention to the history of drag racing and really give the factories, whose support they covet and need, a little more bang for the buck.

Ford’s best selling car (the Mustang) sales are off about 20% from a year ago. GM found out they made a mistake killing the Camaro and they are bringing it back. Chrysler’s best sales successes in recent years have been fast V-8 powered sedans.

So, I ask, why don’t the major sanctioning bodies support American car manufacturers and make Pro Stock body rules requiring bodies to have stock roof height, body width, and windshield angle. After all most of the Pro Stock teams build one or more new cars for each new season and almost never drive a car with the same body more than two years. 

If that isn’t feasible, add a showcase class for real “factory hot rods” and I mean the real deal -- showroom stock models the factories pimp at the car shows and on their slick Super Bowl ads. Cars that fans or potential buyers can actually identify, relate to, and perhaps actually want to buy and take to the local drag strip. Hey, you could call it the Factory Hot Rod class. 


jeffburk@dragracingonline.com