Volume X, Issue 11, Page 49

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Notes scribbled on my cocktail napkin from the Just One More Lounge in North Las Vegas, Nevada

IT’S THE ECONOMY, STUPID

I spent five days in Las Vegas both at the NHRA race and at the SEMA Show looking for a reason to be upbeat about the future of NHRA and IHRA nitro racing as it is structured today. The truth is I didn’t find anything to cheer me up.
The general consensus is that it takes about three million dollars to run a competitive Top Fuel or Funny Car team for the full NHRA schedule. Successful nitro racers Doug Herbert, Bob Vandergriff, Hillary Will, Del Worsham, Steve Torrance, Jerry Toliver, Tommy Johnson and others have lost sponsorships. Next year more than ever, the Fuel classes are going to be dependent on the ability of men like Connie Kalitta, Ken Black, and Kenny Koretsky to fund basically unsponsored fuel teams.

The NHRA has acknowledged that they are going to lose teams and their move to bring in IMG and George Pine is a step in the right direction. The teams I talked to told me that IMG is trying to help and has opened some doors for the teams, but so far  no team has secured a new corporate sponsorship.

This problem now extends beyond the fuel teams to the Pro Stock ranks. GM, Ford, and Chrysler’s financial help is going if not gone. In the meantime, the NHRA, as it does business now, continues to wring every penny it can out of the racers and manufacturers through fees regarding pit space and hospitality. 

I hope I’m wrong, but I think the “bubble” in NHRA professional racing is about to burst. NHRA drag racing remains a great bargain in terms of corporate advertising, especially if you consider the all-important CPM (cost per thousand) but I’ll say this: Unless the NHRA takes some drastic measures -- just like the rest of the country is currently doing -- I think they will be in deep do-do next season.

NHRA MAY BE OUT OF OPTIONS REGARDING 1,000-FOOT RACING

After talking to NHRA officials and racers at Las Vegas I’m not sure they have any real options to the current 1,000-foot track. First, understand that most of the team owners, tuners and drivers now prefer the 1,000-foot distance and that the racers themselves demanded that NHRA shorten the track after Scott Kalitta’s accident.

Since the change to the shorter distance, the tire-failure issues that have plagued the nitro racers for a decade apparently are solved, and there hasn’t been a single Funny Car or Top Fuel massive engine explosion (especially the variety like those that the Pedregon brothers and Scott Kalitta experienced this year).

Also, virtually every single racer I have talked to says that teams are saving a good deal of money with the shorter tracks. The NHRA and its track owner/partners are not anxious to spend any additional money given the current state of the economy to lengthen tracks, install soft walls or do other expensive safety measures that would allow a return to quarter-mile racing.

But, all of that aside, there is another factor hardcore fans should consider. I am absolutely positive that the NHRA management will never, never allow nitro cars to exceed 320 mph again much less go over 335. If the distance were to return to a quarter-mile the NHRA will use either the rev-limiter already in place or drastic engine rules to slow down the Top Fuel and Funny Cars.

For me, I’d much rather see “balls out” 1,000-foot racing without rev-limiters kicking in or nostalgia fuel racing, which NHRA has said will continue to be on quarter-mile tracks, than watch 1320-foot “spec” where I know for sure that engine RPM and speeds will absolutely be regulated. But that is just my personal choice. Not going to see nitro racing because the track isn’t a quarter mile isn’t an option for me.
       
Want to see what kind of engine rules the NHRA needs to mandate if they want to return to the quarter-mile, turn-the-tuners-loose nitro racing? You need look no further than the current rules for nostalgia racing. Small blowers, single mags, spec fuel pump and 100 percent nitro. I would have no issue with those rules being applied to NHRA’s and IHRA’s nitro classes.

MAJOR SPONSORS MAY BE GONE

Make no mistake, GM, Ford, and Chrysler are getting out of racing as fast as they legally can. Companies in bankruptcy simply can’t spend advertising dollars and engineering talent on racing where the cars and engines have absolutely no relationship to what they sell and the public wants to buy.

The buzz on manufacturers’ midway in Vegas was that Harley-Davidson was going to pull out of the NHRA series after this season. I also heard from one of my Detroit pals that GM was going to sell or close ACDelco. I know for a fact that they have already pulled some racing-related sponsorships they had committed to for 2009. I’ve also heard that GM Performance is gone. Don’t be surprised if Warren Johnson is down to a one-car team in 2009. I’m betting the NHRA manufacturers’ midway is going to look a lot different and probably a lot smaller in 2009!

FREE TICKETS FROM NHRA!?

The NHRA is offering FREE tickets to active duty and military veterans for Friday at the Pomona Finals. If this isn’t a sign of the changing times, I don’t know what would be. I cannot remember the NHRA EVER giving away tickets to one of the premier ticket sales days of one of their National events. You don’t suppose they are having problems selling tickets, do you?

I can’t see validity in the argument from some of my pals that 1000ft will run off fans. A sold-out reserved seat section at Vegas and a sold-out Sunday crowd at Bruton Smith’s Concord opener don’t seem to indicate any of those fans cared about the distance. I think part of the reason is that drag racing is attracting a much less knowledgeable crowd than it used to.

I know I’m obsessing about next year’s NHRA nitro fields. I can’t help it but I would be remiss in not mentioning that the Las Vegas race had more than 40 nitro burners on the property, and watching a round of qualifying in the 1,000-foot grandstands at Vegas, just a short walk from the frozen margarita stand, is still one of my favorite places to be in all of drag racing.

PRO MOD FUTURE LOOKS STRONG

Although the NHRA insists on labeling the JEGS ProMod Challenge an exhibition class and series -- probably because of some court-mandated agreement from when the Pro Stock Truck lawsuit was settled and the NHRA got spanked -- fans and racers know better, and it may be healthiest of all professional classes in drag racing. I heard that some 34 teams have already committed to the series next year, which is both a benefit and a problem as only 24 teams will be allowed at each of the races held at NHRA National event tracks.

NOSTALGIA HITS THE MIDWEST BIG-TIME

I spoke with a couple of Midwest promoters at the SEMA Show and I would say there is a very good chance that next year in addition to the three Goodguys-sanctioned races that will feature AA/FC, AA/FD nitro cars there is a 95% chance that there will also be three Hot Rod Heritage Series-sanctioned races at prominent Midwest tracks with a points series and (if it can happen) a points fund.

Midwest promoters have discovered that nitro cars sells tickets and they don’t have to be NHRA or IHRA Top Fuel or Funny Cars.