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The IHRA I knew wasn't perfect, but it certainly wasn't boring. Despite all the backroom skullduggery, oddball occurrences and general weirdness, IHRA's on-track product almost always made up for the off-track mess. Sure, the nitro classes were a bit iffy at times, but the rest of the show was generally top-notch. The racers themselves were a fascinating mix of the famous, the near-famous and the infamous -- with enough outsized personalities to stock three or four reality shows. There were history-making runs, sizzling points battles, mad scientists run amok and several rivalries heated enough to make the Forces and the Pedregons look like a couple of sorority girls arguing over a scrunchie. At its best, IHRA produced some of the wildest, craziest, most compelling drag racing ever seen.
IHRA also created and nurtured some truly ground-breaking classes. Some, like Pro Modified, thrived. Others, for a variety of reasons, didn't. But the organization was usually willing to try just about anything -- mostly because it had to. That's why Aaron Polburn and company are placing their bets on "drag racing entertainment" -- they have to try something. Continuing along as a slightly different version of NHRA can't work, especially when NHRA itself isn't filling fields or grandstands. If "drag racing entertainment" can keep Mr. Feld's accountants happy, then that's the way to go. Change is difficult, but it's been a constant theme in IHRA.
My time there, for example, spanned the end of the Prolong era and the beginning of the Bill Bader era. All that changed during that time period was damn near everything, including the company's home address. The night Bill finally bought IHRA, I was there, hanging out in the Bristol, Tenn., office with some co-workers and drinking unbelievably foul Asti Spumante left over from a long-done sponsorship. It was a landmark night for the organization and, to the best of my Asti-fuzzed recollection, a great celebration.
Moving to Norwalk, Ohio, wasn't a change I wanted to make, but luckily I wound up staying close to the IHRA scene as the editor of Inside Motorsports. That job involved "actual" journalism, as opposed to the in-house kind, and it led to some uncomfortable moments. But, as I told Bill many times when he called me to, um, "discuss" an article criticizing his latest move, there wouldn't have been an IHRA to write about if he hadn't stepped up to save it. That usually made him stop yelling at me, which was nice, but it was also true. The Bader era wasn't all rainbows and lollipops, but it was IHRA's last real shot at being a relevant part of the motorsports landscape.
Because of that, there are people who still hope he'll ride in at the last minute and save it again. Dream on. Bader saved the "old" IHRA once, but saving it this time is a job for Jesus. The old IHRA failed, and now it's gone. NitroJam is what's left. In the words of Winston Churchill, "Pessimists see failure in every opportunity. Optimists see opportunities in every failure." NitroJam is an opportunity to see if old-school match racing can make money in today's world. Like everything else associated with IHRA, it at least should be interesting.
The concept will take some getting used to, but it has its merits. For instance, if you're a sportsman racer, you get two whole days of (theoretically) uninterrupted track time and the same healthy points fund. If you're one of the chosen pros, you get a place to race and a guaranteed check. And if you're a fan, you get to see an interesting mix of fuel cars, door cars, jets, wheelstanders, motorcycles, monster trucks, fireworks and whatever else Polburn can book in. Come late and watch the NitroJam or come early and check out some sportsman racing -- it's up to you. Either way, it's a cheaper ticket and you don't have to explain throttle-stop racing to your kids if you don't want to.
"Drag racing entertainment" isn't the IHRA drag racing we're used to, but that doesn't mean it's bad. The memories of IHRA--yours and mine-- will live on forever. We'll see what the future holds.
As I finished this off, I learned that IHRA had cancelled the remainder of the World Finals without running their Summit All-Star race or the title-deciding Tournament of Champions. Which means a lot of sportsman racers are still waiting for the World Finals Finals. Or something. Which is so IHRA it's not even funny....