WADE: The New Appeal Of NHRA Drag Racing

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Susan Wade

SEATTLE — Younger leadership, notably President Glen Cromwell and Vice President of Racing Operations Josh Peterson, is key to the NHRA’s increased profile.

As drag racing’s elite sanctioning body prepares for its Feb. 7-10 season opener at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona (Calif.), it has a handful of positives: increased attendance, including nine announced sellouts; a growing FOX Sports TV audience; continued leadership in diversity among all motorsports, especially with J.R. Todd seizing the Funny Car championship and Leah Pritchett earning the SAM Tech Factory Showdown title; fresh faces in almost every class; and a slight resurgence in automaker interest.

The extreme nature of drag racing and its instant-gratification element appeals to today’s tech-savvy youth. The NHRA is light years ahead of most sports  in the opportunity it gives fans to have direct access to drivers and teams.

The NHRA also has some remedial work to do.

Needed back in the nitro ranks is the $100,000-to-win Budweiser/Technicoat/ Traxxas Shootout bonus that excited teams and fans alike. The defection to NASCAR of teenage Pro Stock champion Tanner Gray, who openly and repeatedly criticized the NHRA’s missed opportunity to promote him, doesn’t help.

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Neither does the fear — real or imagined — that the sport would implode if Don Schumacher, Connie Kalitta or John Force stopped bringing money to the table. Force is the youngest of the trio and he’s approaching age 70.

Not exclusive to the NHRA and not necessarily or entirely problems of its own making are the matters of cost containment and static purses. Sponsorships continue to be harder to come by these days, and they require more creative terms and structures than the traditional ones did. As sponsorship guidance counselor Ernie Saxton and Lucas Oil’s Alex Striler can attest, some racers find this procurement exercise about as easy as learning the Chinese language or reciting Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

Nevertheless, the NHRA has developed two classes that have captured the fancy of fans. One is the SAM Tech Factory Showdown. The second is the E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by J&A Service.

“The cars look like actual cars on the street, just stylized and even cooler,” Rob Fisher, E3 Spark Plugs’ vice president of motorsports, said of the Pro Mods. “Where else are you going to see superchargers, nitrous (aided engines) and turbos going at it in an even platform? The best part about it from our standpoint is you have to get up on the wheel and drive these cars. It is nothing to see a guy working the wheel down the track, going sideways and they stay in it.”

Fisher focused on what he called “the aggressive performance-orientated vibe you get from it.”

Racers in this class consider it a victory to qualify for the ruthlessly competitive 16-car lineup.

The Factory Stock Showdown has expanded to eight races in the eighth year of the program. Brian Massingill, director of student motorsports for the School of Automotive Machinists & Technology, said he hadn’t expected it to gain traction as quickly as it did.

“In three short years, we have gone from four races to eight, from 8.50s to 7.90s (seconds, in elapsed-time parlance), and from eight-car fields to 16,” he said. “The enthusiasm from the manufacturers and drivers has helped propel this class to a fan favorite. This class will keep growing for years to come. Whether it’s prospective jobs for our graduates, class projects on the track or experimenting with new ways to make horsepower in our labs, the opportunities the Showdown provides students, faculty and staff at SAM Tech are irreplaceable.”

The category has attracted established racers such as 2017 Pro Stock champion Bo Butner and longtime Pro Stock Motorcycle racer Karen Stoffer.

But what might be the biggest plus for the NHRA is that the Davids are starting to keep pace with the Goliaths in the nitro ranks, keeping the action fresh and entertaining.

Steve Torrence won the Top Fuel championship with an independent, family-owned team (although it shared a lot of data with Scott Palmer and had a second car with Billy Torrence driving). Once the perennial underdog, Terry McMillen had a notable season.

In Funny Car, Tim Wilkerson was in title contention until the last race or two. He also is decently funded (coming up on 20 years with sponsor Levi, Ray & Shoup this year). However, he does everything: owns, tunes, drives and has an auto-service business in Springfield, Ill., that is his main focus.

Matt Smith won the Pro Stock Motorcycle title with limited funds. He even had his bike stolen about a third of the way through the season. But he held off the Harley-Davidsons and everybody else.

So thanks in part to rule changes regarding track prep, the NHRA tech committee working with struggling drivers, and racers rededicating themselves to better performances, the playing field is more level.

Surprisingly, the 2018 season was the first since 1992 that neither John Force Racing, nor Don Schumacher Racing claimed a championship.