Volume X, Issue 2, Page 46

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How can something so simple get so damned screwed up?

As I sit here writing, the 49th annual NHRA Winternationals at Pomona is in the books. There was nitro, alcohol, race gasoline and rubber burned aplenty. There were fans sitting in the stands taking in the sights and smells that make drag racing the uniquely glorious motorsport that it is.

So, why am I uneasy about NHRA and IHRA drag racing these days? How did a sport so gloriously uncomplicated get so fundamentally complex, and drive so far away from the core values that made the sport so popular in the late 1960’s and ‘70s?

Could part of the problem be that Funny Cars and Pro Stock cars, once easily recognizable to the Mopar, Ford, and GM faithful in the stands, now are basically only identifiable by their paint? Could it be a lack of leadership, a disease of reactive decisions based upon the bottom line instead of what was best for the sport?

NASCAR is finding out, perhaps too late, that race fans want to root for their favorite brand and they want their racecars to look fairly close to what they buy and drive. You cannot shove whatever you want down the fans’ throats for long periods and expect them to like it. Just ask CART and the IRL. The guys in charge there decided they knew what was best and damn the fans, and they may have ruined forever that motorsport.

Could that be the reason that the average age of an NHRA fan is approaching 50 – because the X and Y generations see no cars at the dragstrip they can relate to on a personal level?

I’ve beaten this subject to death in the past but, dammit, something has got to change here. The drag racing fan base is graying and that is a big problem for the sport.

What happened to great leadership in this sport? Where are the next generation’s Wally Parks, Jim Tice or Larry Carrier? At a crucial juncture in the history of drag racing, NHRA president Tom Compton was nowhere to be found at the first race of this season. He was reported to be sick.

The NHRA finally has a story that the national press is interested in – mainstream press were at Pomona this year! – and instead of taking advantage of the opportunity, the NHRA tried to sweep the story under the rug. Even though the news coming out of the proposed HDP deal ended up not so good, the interest marked the first opportunity for NHRA to make its case and perhaps court new partners. At Pomona Compton and the NHRA PR corps had the opportunity for a national forum where Tom could have laid out his plans for the sport or touted its strength. Instead, they opted to ignore it and missed an opportunity that may not come again.

Where the hell has the leader of the NHRA been during this entire HDP story? From a PR perspective, his lack of communication with the press is simply inexcusable. A company must take charge of breaking news, not hide from it.

Somewhere, somehow, drag racing quit developing leaders that loved and understood the sport and instead turned it over to account executives and finance experts who saw drag racing as a business where making a profit was their paramount job – finding ways to “monetize” the product was job one. I’m convinced it was a blessing that Eddy Hartenstein and company didn’t get the NHRA. It was obvious from the start they knew nothing about the sport. Imagine if you can what those guys would have done with drag racing. I tell you it gives me the sweats.

I ask you, why should the NHRA ever do more than break even financially? Why does the sport need more luxury boxes or to raise ticket prices or to cut back on expenses when the racers who make up the NHRA never seem to get a raise unless they boycott. Aren’t the executives making enough money now?

Tom Compton, Dallas Gardner, and the rest of the NHRA VP’s and Board of Directors collect their six-figure salaries no matter what happens. Without Wally Parks, now who is to control or influence what they do? Who do the people on the Board answer to?

Unfortunately, the answer would appear to be no one. As a result, the sport itself now is just treading water with a soggy life jacket. Pay no attention to the voice behind the giant talking head.

The NHRA’s 2006 tax return indicates that profit for the sanctioning body has been on the rise for the last four years. That’s the good news. The NHRA tells us that total attendance is up. But data from other sources, like the respected Joyce Julius service, show that overall television viewership is down.

If all this sounds like I’m angry, it’s because I am. Angry about the arrogance and apparent ignorance of the people running drag racing, who think, despite the fact that this country is having severe economic problems, that they can raise ticket prices, cut purses and payouts to the sportsman racers, and build more luxury boxes and that the racers and fans will just keep showing up, paying the entry fees and buying expensive tickets and that Corporate America will still join them.

C’mon Bruton, step up to the plate before it is too late. 


jeffburk@dragracingonline.com