Volume X, Issue 3, Page 43

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Drag racing the way it used to be: Fun!

Two races that were run last weekend -- the March Meet at Bakersfield and the ADRL’s Dragpalooza IV race at Houston -- in my opinion demonstrated that the sport of drag racing can be both entertaining and profitable without requiring mega-million-dollar-sponsored teams and ticket prices on a level with those charged by major league sports.

While the attendance numbers for those races may be disputed by the so-called experts in our sport, both races attracted massive crowds without the benefit of so-called major stars or classes of the “elite” drag racing sanctioning bodies. Make no mistake, there were some certifiable “stars” participating at both events, but it’s my belief that in both cases the attraction that brought fans in record numbers were the events themselves and the affordability of the tickets.

Both the March Meet and Dragpalooza had SRO (Standing Room Only) crowds and part of the reason for those crowds was the price of admission. For the March Meet you could get a three-day ticket for $75 while at the ADRL race the most expensive ticket was $20 and with little effort you could get into the ADRL event for only the price of a parking pass.

The crowd at the March Meet. (Darr Hawthorne photo)
At the March Meet race fans, especially the nitro junkies, were treated to almost 20 AA/FD and 30 AA/FC. That’s more than you get at most NHRA or IHRA national events where a single ticket on Friday night costs about $40 and you may still have to pay for parking.

They were standing seven- or eight-deep at the fence in Houston. (ADRL/Ian Tocher photo)

At the ADRL event the crowd on hand -- some standing for hours at the fence -- got to see 75 of the fastest doorslammers and bikes in the sport, and Saturday saw a complete race from qualifying to winners circle in just over 10 hours.

The ADRL announced their exact attendance at exactly 53,882 for the two-day event and the Bakersfield track management announced their attendance at an estimated 35,000+ for three days. Interestingly neither the NHRA nor the IHRA reveal official attendance figures for their races and will likely take exception to those numbers, but I was at Houston and this magazine had a crew at Bakersfield and the photographs of the crowds and parking lot back up the management claims.

I covered the ADRL race at Houston for DRO and I wish I also could have been at the March Meet because from all accounts I’ve heard both races were complete successes both from the fans’ and racers’ point of view…and the promoters’ bottom line. To steal a line from one of my peers, “A good time was had by all.”

These two races have put me in a very good mood and lifted some of the recent concern I have had for the sport. They convince me that the core idea behind drag racing -- that the entertainment value of drag racing is not who can spend the most money but who has the quickest and fastest hot rod -- remains the core attraction for spectators, competitors and ultimately sponsors such as the ADRL’s National Guard sponsor. 

Other than strict safety, the classes in the ADRL have no rules. To quote Bill Kuhlmann, “It’s run what ya brung and hope ya brung enough.”  So, the drivers and tuners with the most skill generally rise to the top, and the fans know and appreciate that.

At the March Meet the AA/FC and AA/FD teams in attendance have been operating under basically the same set of rules since the classes were conceived. For the Funny Cars it’s 6-71 blowers, a single “points” mag and a small fuel pump. For the dragsters it’s also a 6-71 blower, narrow and hard tires, and a small fuel pump. The dragster guys have figured out how to run 5.50/260 and the Funny Cars 5.80/235. Their performance depends on their skill as tuners and drivers and not so much on how deep their pockets are.

But the reason for my really good feeling for drag racing in general goes beyond the car count and crowds at Houston and Bakersfield. I’m exited and hopeful because for the first time in many years the racers and fans I talked to from both events, many of whom were at their first race or their first race in a very long time, were truly exited about seeing drag racing and going drag racing.

Many of the 50,000 or so fans that attended the ADRL event were at their first drag race. Those fans cheered and rose to their feet every time a fast car went down the track! When one car failed to stage, the crowd boo’d him, they were so into the action! These weren’t your normal, jaded drag racing fans. I’m telling you it gave me goosebumps.

As far as the racing at Bakersfield went, my pal and avowed non-spectator, former driver and car owner, Paul Romine, called me from the track absolutely geeked about watching the AA/FC racing.

My long-time friend and a guy I worked with for almost 20 years, Jim Oddy, had retired from the sport last year simply because it quit being fun. He came out of retirement this year to tune Joshua Hernandez’s Pro Mod and he called me after the Houston ADRL race so happy that he was almost incoherent. “The track personnel were actually glad to see me,” Oddy said. “They made me feel welcome and wanted. Pro Mods were the stars of the show. I’ve been wanting to race like this for 20 years!”

And I made note at Houston that not one spectator expressed disappointment about a short track, and more than one racer told me that it’s a lot less expensive to run the eighth!

The response from racers, fans, and my peers in the press in regards to AA/FC racing reminds of the buzz that went through the sport back in the early ‘90s about Pro Mod. Promoters want Outlaw Pro Mods and AA Funny Cars, and fans have demonstrated that they want to see ‘em.

Now outlaw Pro Mods and nostalgia nitro cars are not “cheap” to build or race, but compared to a competitive IHRA or NHRA Top Fuel, Fuel Funny, or Pro Stock operation they are. Any professional class team owner in the NHRA or IHRA will tell you that the cost of fielding just a good team will cost a couple of million dollars a year after they buy the rolling stock.

With the cost of gasoline way over three bucks a gallon nationally and estimated to average about $3.50 this summer and the cost of diesel already approaching four dollars a gallon, racers and fans are going to have to get some financial relief from somewhere. I think that relief can be supplied by one-day nitro shows where the ticket is $25 or a two-day Pro Mod show with quality cars for about the same fan investment.

I’m not saying that NHRA and IHRA national events aren’t a good value or entertaining on their own. I will always love the sound and fury of quarter-mile nitro racing and I’ll be attending some of those races, but I am saying that I don’t think there will be as many fans who can afford the $125-150 per person to attend events or racers who have to spend a couple million dollars or more to compete. And I am saying that there now are viable alternative classes and races.