Volume X, Issue 9, Page 5

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Behind the headlines

“Three NHRA drag racers die from crashes in one month.”

While the above isn’t an actual headline, it certainly could be. In the time since the U.S. Nationals concluded on September 1, three NHRA racers have died as the result of top end crashes sustained at NHRA-owned tracks.

In one month’s time wives and children have lost their husbands and fathers. Any way you want to figure it, this series of crashes and deaths has cast a pall on the sport of drag racing. Who among us wants to tell the mothers, wives or kids of those racers that died that what happened to them is just part of the sport and the risk drivers accept when they strap themselves in the car and we are going to do nothing to try and make it safer? Not me, brother!

So, the question is, what will be the result of these tragic accidents? And the answer apparently is that the NHRA is going to make their decision to shorten the track length to 1,000 feet for nitro cars permanently and, from what my sources tell me, they probably are going to make 1,000 feet the official distance for all classes competing in the NHRA.  Whether you like this idea or not, at this point the NHRA has virtually no choice. They have to do something to show they are making an effort to make drag racing safer.

Consider what changes NASCAR went through after the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. and then consider what they would have to do if they were to have three fatalities in one month resulting from crashes at Daytona, Charlotte, and Dover.

Make no mistake about it, after three fatalities the NHRA and all of the sanctioning bodies are going to be hearing from the insurance companies telling them they better do something permanent to make racing appear to be safer or their rates are going to skyrocket. And those increased rates will be passed on to every track and track owner and eventually to the competitors and fans.

From what I am told, the NHRA will soon announce that 1,000 feet is going to be the distance and that new records will be set starting at the Winternationals in Pomona in February 2009. 

Five deaths resulting from crashes at NHRA tracks in one year is five too many. NHRA and indeed all of drag racing is going to have no choice but to make a public effort to make racing safer, and so far reducing the length of the track to 1,000 feet seems to be the most easily done change that the racers and most fans will accept.

I’ll tell you this, the sport of professional drag racing cannot continue to prosper if it continues to have the number fatal crashes we have had so far in 2008.

IHRA DROPS FUEL FUNNY CAR CLASS

I don’t know who was responsible for this decision at the IHRA and, frankly, I don’t care. The question I have is what reason or reasons they had for this decision because to me, from a fan and marketing point of view, it makes no sense to keep Top Fuel and let Nitro Funny Car go.

The NHRA is having difficulty filling its own Top Fuel16-car fields and that sanctioning body offers the racers and their sponsors a lot more than the IHRA can. Even the IHRA has had issues with filling eight-car fields in 2008!  There is absolutely no question that there are more Fuel Funny Cars available for IHRA events than Top Fuel cars.

Then there is the matter of marketable-name teams racing with the IHRA. The fact is that, with the exception of Clay Millican, every quality Top Fuel team that raced with the IHRA has moved to the NHRA as soon as they could. In the past couple of years since adding Fuel Funny Cars racers the likes of the Pedregon brothers, Gary Densham, Paul Smith and Bob Gilbertson -- all of whom are serious players in NHRA Funny Car class and have major sponsors -- have supported the IHRA by racing with them.

Then, of course, there are racers like Matt Hagan, Jack Wyatt, Dale Creasy and others who have supported the IHRA and in some cases brought sponsors to the party. And let’s not forget Bob Tasca III, who wanted to race with the IHRA but was advised not to come by IHRA management. 

The fact is that Nitro Funny Cars have the most major sponsorships of any professional class in drag racing. Gee, maybe if the IHRA had opted to keep Fuel Funny Cars, sponsors like Monster Energy Drink and Rockstar, who got the boot from the NHRA, may have had some interest in taking their sponsorships to IHRA fuel coupes.

Look, I’m a big fan of Top Fuel racing and I’m glad that those IHRA Top Fuel teams will have a place to race next year, but from a business point of view I just can’t understand the IHRA’s decision to drop Fuel Funny Car. Like it or not Fuel Funny Cars and their drivers are the most popular class for fans that drag racing offers. That’s why the sponsors love them.

I do understand that keeping the eight-car Nitro Funny Car class adds over $100,000 to the promoter’s cost of putting on a national event and that IHRA national events just don’t attract enough paying spectators normally to support the class. I understand that if it weren’t for Evan Knoll’s money the Nitro Funny Cars would have never returned to the IHRA. But they did.

Now the question is, will the IHRA fans pay the same amount for a ticket to see just one class of nitro cars?  I’m thinking that will be a hard sell!

So here is my suggestion. If the IHRA track promoters cannot afford the $100,000 dollars per race for Nitro Funny Cars, why not consider an eight-car field for AA/FC cars at the national events?

Racers such as Del Worsham, Paul Romine, Roland Leong, Bucky Austin, Doc Halladay and Nick Boninfante all currently have AA/FC cars and I suspect, if the purse were right and the class was part of the IHRA national event schedule, racers such as Paul Smith, Bob Gilbertson and others would build AA/FC’s.

I believe that fans at the Canadian tracks, Martin and Milan, Michigan, and Epping, New Hampshire, would pay to see the Blue Max, U.S. Male, Hawaiian, and the Telstar race. If the IHRA management and its partners really believe they can get by without Fuel Funny Cars, maybe they should consider dropping Top Fuel too and add a Nostalgia Top Fuel class. Maybe all they need is nitro-burning cars that will run in the fives at 250 mph. Slower speeds haven’t seemed to hurt the NHRA’s attendance.  Perhaps the IHRA  should quit trying to compete with the NHRA at any professional class level.
I believe that the IHRA has to re-invent itself in order to attract enough fans and sponsors to be profitable without an Evan Knoll to pad their pocket books.

Dropping Nitro Funny Cars doesn’t seem to be to be a step in that direction. 

IHRA SOLD TO FELD ENTERTAINMENT

Once again the IHRA has a new owner. I’ve lost count of how many owners the IHRA has had since Larry Carrier decided he had had enough. I do know that a lot of smart people, including spectacularly successful businessmen like Billy Meyer, Bill Bader and the Clear Channel folks just to name three have owned the IHRA and sold it. Often, if not always, for less than they paid for it, I suspect. Now comes Feld Entertainment and Kenneth Feld. Mr. Feld is a very shrewd and successful businessman who, in my opinion only, bought Live Nation’s Motorsports division for the Monster Truck and Moto-cross properties. He wanted those series because they were proven money makers and are staged indoors and not subject to be cancelled because of weather like the rest of his properties.  I suspect in the case of the IHRA drag racing series, his company had to take it as part of the Live Nation Motorsports package.

So here the IHRA is again with another new corporate owner and perhaps an uncertain future.  They’ve lost their benefactor/banker Evan Knoll who pumped millions of dollars into the IHRA series,  they have had by all accounts a miserable year financially because of bad weather and the exit of Mr. Knoll, and they are faced with possibly another rebuilding program.

I feel that the IHRA as a sanctioning body is at a crossroads and its future as it exists today is in some doubt. As far as its race program is concerned, it is under some pressure from the fledgling ADRL. That sanctioning body, along with the NHRA exhibition series, is definitely siphoning off the IHRA Pro Mod racers. That is a class that IHRA invented and once dominated. They have told their Nitro Funny Car racers they are dropping that class for the 2009 season but are probably not figuring on reducing ticket prices. And to make matters even worse, the ADRL may add a class for IHRA Pro Stock in 2009.

Perhaps anticipating the worst, I suspect that dropping the Nitro Funny Car class is just the first in a series of steps the current IHRA administration will take in an effort to return the IHRA to profitability.

The question is, will the new owners look at the IHRA and make the necessary monetary commitment to the series to sustain it and make it competitive or will Mr. Feld’s management team decide that IHRA president Aaron Polburn’s Night of Fire/Nitro Jam one-night programs are better suited to their business plan and try to sell of the traditional IHRA national event series.