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I can tell you from experience that when you are racing you are so focused on the job of racing and winning that you seldom think of, hear or see the fans. You’re in your own world. So the fact that fans have to wait 30-40 minutes or sometimes longer between pro classes while the track gets groomed isn’t your concern, because you are busy with your car and crew.
I think that the NHRA and their track partners are taking their fans --and in some cases their racers (sportsman) -- for granted. They just assume that if they schedule a race, open the gates and give them the same old show their fan base will buy expensive tickets and stay all day, and the sportsman racers will show up no matter how they’re treated.
The facts across the board concerning auto racing indicate that racing fans are just not as interested in the product they’ve been fed for the last 20 years as they once were.
The Nielsen ratings for NASCAR and the NHRA, the two largest auto racing entities in the world, are way down compared to past figures. I’ve just seen the Nielsen numbers for the NHRA Full Throttle raceday and qualifying broadcasts plus the numbers for the 30-minute Pro Mod show and they can only be described as fair to horrible -- way down from previous years.
Just last Sunday the New York Times ran an investigative piece on NASCAR reporting that sanctioning body was rapidly losing the much desired 18-35 age group. The story blamed the loss on the fact that there are no current stars in NASCAR that the age group can relate to. Although there is no empirical data regarding that issue in NHRA drag racing, you can bet that a racing series with stars in their 50s, 60s or even 70s has the same issue.
If the NHRA track owners and team owners don’t change, this problem is only going to get worse.
Sometime in the go-go nineties NHRA and the racers decided that as long as the cars were burning nitro, the sponsors, TV viewers and fans would blindly support the sport. It seems obvious to me that even if that were the case at one time it certainly no longer is.
So, what can be done to turn the situation around?
First, the sport just needs someone in charge with the cojones to publicly admit there are problems and then make some serious and immediate changes. If attendance and TV ratings don’t get better, sponsorship of any kind will be harder and harder to get and maintain.
Second, NHRA drag racing needs to find ways to attract the all-important 18-34 age group. If that means booking jet cars, wheelstanders, or whatever, so be it. Drag racing has to get the casual fan interested once more. They have a lot more ways to spend their time and money than ever before. And in this economy, they want their money’s worth of entertainment.
Third, NHRA had better understand that their current major attraction, the nitro classes, is for the most part predictable and boring. Ditto for Pro Stock. Both classes make for boring TV unless there are a lot of fires and crashes.
Fourth, admit that their restructuring the points program so that with 10 races left in the series about half the professional racers are marginalized, does nothing to make the sport more exciting.
Maybe IHRA president Aaron Polburn has the right idea. He is basically making each one of his races on the IHRA Nitro Jam tour a “Night of Fire.” So far it seems to be working at smaller venues for that sanctioning body. From what I can gather talking to promoters, those races (Nights of Fire) are the only events in drag racing currently that are successful at every level.
It has been proven over and over that unique races such as the Indy 500, Daytona 500, and the U.S. Nationals can’t be packed up and moved from city to city and prosper. Those races are successful because they are unique. Familiarity breeds contempt and I feel that’s the problem that NASCAR, the NHRA, and all major sanctioning bodies are saddled with. They have too many races that are too much alike and too damned much exposure on TV. Their events are not special anymore.
Amazingly, the racers and race team owners themselves often resist any kind of change. I don’t know how many racers I have talked to over the years who tell me if they aren’t racing they don’t want to spectate.