Volume IX, Issue 8, Page 1

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‘Team orders’ are here to stay

On Aug. 27 Graham Light, Sr. VP Racing Operations for NHRA, sent out a memo to all professional teams and drivers that basically said that “team orders” would not be tolerated in the NHRA. As a professional observer of motorsports for over 30 years now, I have come to the conclusion that there are damn few absolutes in the sport. However, I have noticed one and it is: As long as professional racing series offer championships, huge payouts for winning those championships, and allow one owner to field multiple teams, “team orders” are going to be a part of the sport. Period, end of argument.

From F-1, the NHRA, dirt trackers and bracket racing, team orders have been and always will be a part of the sport. NHRA drag racing has a long history of “diving” for the sake of points or a Championship. The latest example being the race between teammates Del Worsham and Jeff Arend and their CSK-backed fuel coupes at Reading, PA. That event probably caused Mr. Light to issue his memo.

Actually I have no issue ethically with team orders. After all, drag racing really is a team sport much like football, baseball or any other major sport. To win a race requires not just a driver, but a tuner, a whole crew of specialists, PR representation, sponsors and a plan; each one of those specialties are necessary to have a winning race car team. The days of one guy building, tuning, and driving a competitive race car in a professional drag racing class is long over, if, indeed, they ever existed.

All of the emphasis the fans and sponsors place on teams to contend for the POWERade points championship has made finishing in the top ten an absolute must for most. The sanctioning body ties parking placement and other preferential treatment to the points program. Many of the manufacturers either give free parts or preferential treatment in getting parts to those teams finishing in the top ten. In many cases, getting or keeping a sponsor may hinge on a team finishing in the top ten in points.

With the new NHRA Countdown, only the top eight points earners in each of the professional classes get a chance to compete for the series’ World Championships. For team owners, drivers, and crews, bonuses from the sponsors to the team or from the team owner to the crews are tied to where they finish in the points.

You can bet that in the future, should the NHRA keep the current World Championship “Chase” system, that sponsors will write penalties clauses, with legitimate reason, into sponsorships for not making the “Elite Eight” or the “Fortunate Four.” The pressure on multi-car teams to keep advancing will become enormous.

I believe that in the future more and more racers will concentrate more on qualifying and going rounds than on running cars on the ragged edge and winning races during the first part of the Countdown. This year Jim Head made no secret of the fact he was not as concerned with winning as going rounds and making the field of eight.

I ask, so what if there are team orders? The practice is as old as motorsports itself. The only thing I really object to is when someone blatantly loses as we saw recently. But at least they were up front about what was happening.

Today’s NHRA drag racing is more about the show than the racing, so the real issue is about a good show versus a bad one. Sitting on the line while your teammate leaves first is bad, but having the crew chief put in a tune-up that locks the clutch and blazes the tires a hundred feet out is a good show. Is it real racing? Absolutely not!

But in almost every case the fans in the stands and those watching on TV will never know for sure if there are team orders unless those who tune or own the cars go completely brain dead and blatantly lose. To the fans it will just look like the action they often see in qualifying or racing these days.

Like it or not drag racing has become all about the points, the show, and the stars. Where you are in the points has a lot to do with your driver getting an interview (win or lose) after a race. Often these days if the winner is a back marker or didn’t make the Elite Eight, he or she is ignored. And as the “Chase” goes on this practice will only get more onerous.

The one thing you can count on in the future is that teams with multiple cars will issue “team orders” if doing so means the difference for one of the team’s cars to get to the next level of the Chase. There will simply be too much at stake for them not to do so.

The only effect the missive from Graham Light will have is that the teams will have to be much more creative in assuring one car advances over the other. And, despite what the memo says, there is basically nothing that NHRA or anyone else can do to prevent it. Who’s going to make the call that the tuner brought the clutch in too soon or too late, or that the driver lifted a micro-second too soon? Are we going to start having an “inquiry” sign on the scoreboards like they do in horseracing when the officials think that something untoward has happened on the track? I don’t think so.

I’ll give Graham Light his due; he made an effort. He threatened racers who are deemed to be involved with “team orders” and taking dives with fines, loss of points or even suspension, but in the business of drag racing today, where millions and millions of dollars are at stake, racing isn’t all the sport is about.

Today’s drag racing (and most big-time racing for that matter) sadly for purists is as much about show biz as racing. For example, when Tony Stewart compared NASCAR to pro wrestling he got taken to the woodshed and retracted his statements. But the retraction didn’t change the fact that in small and sometimes blatant ways the rules are bent to make sure the NASCAR “show” is as entertaining as possible even at the risk of the actual racing. In recent years the NHRA has mandated an rpm limiter for safety reasons, but the limiter also went a long way towards “leveling the playing field” and making the racing “show” closer.

The only real solution that NHRA could offer to stop team orders is really simple: Limit the teams to one car in each professional class. Team orders would then never be a problem again.

In the meantime, drag racing fans and officials better get used to what fans of F-1, NASCAR, and 24-hour racing have lived with for decades: that there always will be “team orders” as long as there are multi-car team organizations. Next subject. 


jeffburk@dragracingonline.com

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