Volume X, Issue 8, Page 97

The Reality of Perception

As a former sanctioning body and series official, I know safety is racing’s highest priority. But I leave others to debate NHRA’s best course of action following Scott Kalitta’s fatal crash.

The issue appropriate for this column is 1,000-foot nitro-class competition, the most historically significant rule change since Wally Parks founded NHRA in 1951 and decided a quarter-mile would be drag racing’s yardstick. My message is straightforward: The PR Powers-That-Be need to make sure perception doesn’t equal reality.  

No one associated with NHRA -- including management, owners, drivers, sponsors and promoters – should want the public to think of the straight-line sport the same way as going to the supermarket.  

You know what I mean. A half-gallon of ice cream has been reduced to 1.5 quarts. It seems like everything from cereal boxes to candy bars is downsized – except the “amount due” at checkout. From what I read on the blogs and hear on talk radio, people may have accepted this as a Sign of the Economic Times, but that does not mean they are not irritated.

Now, the Powerade Series’ package of Funny Car and Top Fuel entertainment has shrunk by 320 feet.  From a Business of Racing standpoint, the questions are:

Will customers – the ticket-buyers and TV-watchers – decide they are getting less for their money? If so, how will they react? And what are NHRA and its new powerhouse PR agency, Edelman, doing to make sure fans don’t feel shortchanged?

It doesn’t matter that the difference is measured in a fraction of time or small percentage of top speed. If people THINK it’s a problem, it IS a problem.

Series and team decision-makers must be as thoughtful in this regard as they are in minimizing the risks. First indications, on the Western Swing, were that folks accepted that racers were doing what needed to be done in the name of safety. No doubt, however, many had made plans to attend those events before the 1,000-foot edict. Just because a lot of people didn’t ask for refunds, based on less racing, shouldn’t be misinterpreted as final judgment rendered in the court of public opinion.    

Again, what matters here is perception. I’ve gotten the impression too many credential-wearers took it for granted the customers would go along without complaint. I’m not buying that is a valid assumption.

It is clear to me 1,000-foot racing needs to be “sold” to the media and public. (Exhibit A: Jeff Wolf, in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, called for a cut in ticket prices.) Whether the change is temporary or permanent, a well thought-out message and pro-active campaign designed to build and maintain support among journalists and fans is as necessary as improved shutdown areas.

In the political and corporate worlds, a similar situation would result in the quick distribution of “talking points” – a list of carefully chosen key words and phrases selected to reinforce a central argument. In this case, that shorter and slower racing is a good thing. To whatever degree there has been a talking point so far, it seems to be one word: safety. With all due respect to the drivers, that’s not good enough in our People magazine/photo-op/sound-bite/celebrity-driven society. Chatter about less wear on parts sounds good in the pit area, but Joe Average honestly doesn’t care how many cylinder heads John Force buys.

Effective talking points are constantly repeated during news interviews so their merits become part of the conventional wisdom. Then, the spin doctors call influential journalists, deliver the “pitch,” and offer exclusive interviews with “insiders” prepped to talk-up the positives.

If that’s happened, the “word” hasn’t reached me.     

So, I asked Joe Amato to share his thoughts. Full disclosure: I worked with the five-time Top Fuel champion while consulting for Valvoline, his longtime sponsor. Amato is a good person to query because he’s in the enviable position of being a certified drag racing legend who is retired, independently wealthy and, thus, immune from sanctioning body and corporate politics.

And, he knows the pain, having lost Darrell Russell. Amato watched Kalitta’s fateful run from the Englishtown starting line.

In comments first published in the Arizona Republic, Amato said most fans enjoy close competition and so won’t object. But he acknowledged that some might consider it less entertaining.

“With the economy and the price of gas, even without these issues of a shorter track or the perception of less of a show, (somebody could say), ‘Why should I pay the same (for a ticket)?’ There are people who like the fires and the crashes. Sorry to say that, but it’s human nature. But they want to see people walk away (unhurt).

“They like to see spectacular stuff as well as records... Putting a 282 (mph) on the scoreboard, that’s blasé. People are always looking for the numbers.”

I asked Amato to go further. Here are previously unpublished quotes:

“It’s always been 1,320 (feet) and that’s ingrained in everybody. I’ll be curious to see if the fan base says, ‘It’s not as much fun as it used to be because it’s a short track now.’

“It’s going to make good, competitive racing and probably make things a little cheaper because you’re not going to blow ‘em up as easy. One thousand feet is pretty far down and most of the bleachers end up about there. I don’t see where it’s going to take away as much from the sport as some might think.”

NHRA would like Amato’s last sentence to be reality. Hard work, to ensure it equals perception, is the best way to make it so.  




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