SEATTLE — No racer wants to sit at home with an aching back and a sponsor whose head was turned by a pretty woman and brighter lights. But longtime NHRA Pro Stock owner-driver Larry Morgan endured both last year — and actually liked it … ultimately.
His sponsorship program with FireAde shifted to Leah Pritchett’s survival in the more-exposed Top Fuel class, sidelining him with no racing funds and two herniated discs that were pinching his sciatic nerve.
Out of Morgan’s situation came back surgery that has him feeling half of his 62 years. On the sideline, he got a sharper, if disappointing, vision about the Pro Stock class he had been so devoted to. He had the clear head to weigh his options for 2017, to decide he was ready to accept the invitation to switch to the increasingly popular and overcrowded Pro Modified category.
After 615 Pro Stock races, Morgan said his decision was “a no-brainer” that “only makes good business sense.” He learned that the semi-autonomous J&A Service NHRA Pro Modified Series increased its viewership across the various FOX outlets by 319 percent from its 2015 ratings on ESPN.
Besides, he said, “You have to admit that Pro Stock is like red-headed stepchildren now. That’s how I look at it.” He said potential sponsors “turned their noses up at Pro Stock.” Morgan said: “Even though I love it, it’s done. I don’t know how it can survive.”
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Morgan says he’s jazzed about the Pro Mod Series, which will open its 12-race schedule during the March 16-19 Amalie Oil NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla.
Real Pro Mod Ass’n, which governs the J&A Service Series and negotiates terms with the NHRA, expanded its schedule by two races this year. However, that represents exactly half of the travel expenses for Mello Yello Series teams.
“People can’t afford to run that many races. It’s a fact,” Morgan said.
“You know what I hate about what we do? The time it takes away. I found that out being home this past year. I’ve never for the last 30-some years ever had a summer off. (Last year) was the first time,” Morgan noted. “The NHRA’s schedule is grueling and needs to go down to somewhere between 15 and 18 (races). You have to have some type of a life.”
Troy Coughlin is a Pro Mod champion who has finished no worse than second for the past five years. Of the four racing Coughlin brothers, only five-time Pro Stock king Jeg Coughlin Jr. has stuck with the 24-race grind.
Brother Mike Coughlin said, “He loves it and we all love it. But it’s a grueling schedule.”
He and eldest brother John Coughlin — like hundreds of other men and women who compete in the NHRA — claim sportsman racing fits their schedule.
“The schedule’s a lot more relaxed,” Mike Coughlin said. “You can pick and choose where you want to go, if you want to run for a divisional or national title. You don’t have to run the whole schedule. It’s a lot more user-friendly and affordable for more people.”
It also enables the brothers to tend to business-to-business and business-to-consumer concerns.
“It’s good exposure for our company,” Mike Coughlin said. “A lot of the guys and girls out there are our customers and if they had issues at the race track, we can help them. I enjoy that a lot. Even when we race the Jr. Dragsters, we help out when we can.”
The bottom line is, well, the bottom line. Racing has to be affordable. Miraculously, the NHRA has survived more than 60 years with one of the business world’s most upside-down models.
If a Top Fuel or Funny Car racer endures 24 races that crisscross the United States several times and cost close to $3 million for participation and is the best of the best, the championship payoff is $500,000. That’s a tremendous amount to the fan in the stands, but it’s ridiculous, considering a handful of Indianapolis 500 qualifiers make that in one day’s work or that mediocre NASCAR drivers earn as much.
“You’re not going to win every race, I don’t care who you are,” Morgan said. “But if you won every race and won the championship, you didn’t make enough money to cover your expenses — something’s wrong.”
He added, “I have to blame the economy. And the structure that we’re working around is the problem. We’ve got to change that somehow. It’s NHRA’s fault in a roundabout way because they never made sure the money stayed up. I don’t know the fix. I wish I could sit here and say what I would do to fix it. But I can’t say that. I have suggestions on how to help it. But I don’t have suggestions on how to fix it.”
So Morgan is leaving a lifetime of Pro Stock racing behind and joining a class that is neatly managing its affairs and building popularity.