Volume IX, Issue 4, Page 1

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Did drag racing begin a new era at Atlanta?

5/4/2007

For the last week I’ve been mulling over NHRA’s recent national event at a track they own and operate, Atlanta Dragway, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the race could go down as the first event of a new age in professional drag racing, A watershed event in the history of the sport.

I submit for your review the following observations regarding events that occurred at that particular venue that may change drag racing as we have known it in the past.

At the Atlanta race I looked at the qualifying sheets for Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Modified and I made note that the separation in ET between the number one qualifier and the 16th qualifier was I believe closer that in any other time in history. In Pro Stock  .069 of a second separated the field. In Pro Mod the spread was .190. Neither of those two numbers are historic; we have come to expect those classes to qualify in that matter. But then I did the math for the fuel cars and those numbers kind of shocked me. Only .097 of a second separated the quickest fuel coupe from the slowest and in Top Fuel the number was even closer at just .073 seconds.

Perhaps the performances in the fuel ranks at Atlanta will prove to be just an oddity, but if it isn’t and we see that kind of close qualifying for the fuel classes on a regular basis going forward then nitro racing will have undergone a significant change. And at least for me, not a change I’ll be happy with.

I personally have never liked watching spec racing as a fan. I was attracted as a kid to Top Fuel cars and Funny Cars for many reasons but mostly because cars in those classes( which at the time were practically unlimited as far as rules and regulations) and totally unpredictable -- you never knew what you might witness. Sadly, that is now no longer be the case.  Top Fuel and Fuel Funny Cars became just too quick and fast for most of the tracks they raced on and tires they ran on. The NHRA acknowledged that as fact and has taken steps to limit performance in those classes by reducing nitro percentage, installing rev-limiters and mandating spec engines. If the performances in the fuel classes we saw at Atlanta become the rule instead of an exception then NHRA will have achieved what they set out to do the day after Eddie Hill broke the 4-second barrier , which was to slow down the cars, level the competition, and tighten up the pack. A necessary action perhaps and one that I have endorsed but that doesn’t mean I like what has happened to the nitro classes .

For the first time in my memory (spanning nearly 30 years of attending NHRA national events) by all accounts the Atlanta race actually was Standing Room Only on Saturday and SOLD OUT on Sunday! Sold out as in close the gates, don’t sell any more tickets sold out. And that information came from a reliable source. And from all accounts most if not all of the NHRA races have had very good crowds regardless of the speeds and ET’s of the cars, ticket prices, parking or lack of general admission seats. So the only conclusion I can draw from those facts is that the current NHRA management know what the fan base they have cultivated want to see and what they will pay to see. And they are giving them what they want, so I’m going to try really hard not rag on the NHRA about the performance restrictions for the nitro cars, high ticket prices, lack of general admission seats, or paying a fee for a ticket upgrade.

The fans that support the sport have spoken and so, to quote Bernie Partridge, I feel like I’m “beating my head against a dead horse” in criticizing the sanctioning body, so until something changes radically I’m done with that crusade.

Perhaps newspapers, even ones as significant as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (arguably one of the largest and most influential papers in the Southeast), aren’t as important or as necessary to the success of a race as they once were. For the 30 days surrounding the recent NHRA national event at the NHRA-operated Atlanta Dragway the AJC didn’t have a single story about the NHRA or the race itself. The paper evidently didn’t even bother to send a reporter to the race and the only coverage of the event the AJC had was in their Monday motorsports round-up, where they gave it about three ‘graphs and got the facts wrong (they confused Mike Ashley with Ashley Force). They evidently didn’t even bother to assign a staff writer or photographer to cover the race.

As an old newspaper editor I just can’t understand why the AJC didn’t have coverage of the event. The NHRA series is sponsored by a division of one of the largest companies in the world (Coca-Cola), a local racer driving in one of NHRA’s premier classes is sponsored by another Atlanta Fortune 500 company (UPS) and a Georgia resident and certified star of the Pro Stock class (Warren Johnson and son Kurt) have teams backed by General Motors and divisions of GM! And the AJC didn’t see any value in covering those racers or the event?

I don’t understand why someone senior at Coca-Cola, UPS or GM didn’t pick up the phone and call the managing editor at the AJC and ask why a national racing series they sponsor wasn’t getting any coverage while NASCAR got a couple of pages of coverage each day. After all, you can be sure all three of those companies and the NHRA spent lots of dollars supporting that paper with their advertising. But it wasn’t as if those companies would have been seeking some kind of quid pro quo from the AJC. With more than 500 participants, national television, and SRO crowds for three days, the NHRA race at Atlanta deserved some coverage by any journalistic standards. Maybe with the continuing loss of print readership drag racing can survive and indeed thrive without the help of newspapers. They seemed to do fine at Atlanta.

Despite the best efforts of the NHRA and IHRA sanctioning bodies (not to mention John Force Racing), who in recent times have invested their money in buying ad space in the USA Today paper, drag racing coverage in that publication lags far behind NASCAR, F-1, IRL and other motorsports.

At least part of the problem for drag racing is that it just doesn’t yet have the economic impact of NASCAR. The NHRA’s gross income for a year is probably in the $100-125 million range based upon their tax returns. Add to that number the income they split with the track owners and you might make a case that the NHRA series grosses $200+ million per year. Compare that to the probability that the gross receipts for just the NASCAR race weekend at Talladega last weekend out-grossed  NHRA’s total receipts for all 23 events in 2006. As Deep Throat said to Woodward and Bernstein, “Follow the money!” 

The bottom line as I see is this. By all accounts NASCAR is a franchise worth $50-60 billion if it were to be sold by the France family. By comparison, if the NHRA were able to be sold it would probably be valued in the $800,000,000 to $1 billion range. So NASCAR is the big deal, but as long as NHRA and its sponsors and management are content with the status quo that is how the NHRA and by association drag racing will perceived in the minds of the mainstream media: as a “small time” sport.

Perception is Reality!  


jeffburk@dragracingonline.com

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