WADE: Learning To Activate The Assets

Susan Wade

SEATTLE — They compute their fuel — an unholy compound of propane and nitric acid — in gallons per mile rather than miles per gallon.

From a standing start, they blast the length of two football fields in less than four seconds at a tick under 340 mph. Racing the fastest-accelerating vehicles on the planet, they celebrate a winner every five minutes during race-day rounds. And some victory margins are phyllo-dough thin, mere thousandths or ten-thousandths of a second.

So why do drag racers have trouble gaining traction with corporate America and with mainstream media outlets? The instant-gratification aspect of the sport, the one-tiny-glitch-and-you’re-out tension, the textures of gauzy smaze, header flames, burnt rubber, colorful blurs, and ground-shaking all play into Americans’ craving for Now!-Pow!-Wow! entertainment.

Drag racers are accessible in a way no other athletes are. Fans are permitted to wander through the pits, stop and stand 10 feet away from a team thrashing to make the next call to the starting line, and get a driver’s autograph or snap his or her picture.

And yes, the driver might be a female, as drag racing is the lone sport where women and men routinely compete at the elite level against one another — and it’s no novelty when women (or even African-Americans and Hispanics) earn series championships.

So why isn’t this sport the craze it was before urban sprawl, before paradise already was paved but the parking lots went in on top of it anyway? Why aren’t drama-thirsty sports fans gravitating to this in-your-face, insanely sensory-shocking spectacle?

That’s the mystery Tami Powers, director of business development for Alan Johnson Racing, wants the NHRA to help her solve. She wants to know why mainstream brands aren’t investing in what she calls “the greatest value in motorsports in the entire world, period” and “the most diverse, competitive motorsport in the world.”

Powers said, with no apology to Ringling Brothers, “There’s nothing wrong with drag racing. It’s the greatest show on Earth.” The disconnect, as she sees it, is between the NHRA and its teams. And she wants to convene NHRA executives, marketing associates, team owners and their sponsorship-procurement specialists to “have that uncomfortable conversation.”

Likening herself to a wind-up toy, she said, “Something needs to be done sooner rather than later. It’s like you wind up that little doll and she starts walking against the wall and she just keeps walking against the wall and walking against the wall. You work really hard on your end to bring in some new eyes, some new bodies, some new excitement and one mainstream brand and” — like in her most recent experience, the deal falls apart, despite teams having the deliverables the potential sponsor seeks.

“That’s the elephant in the room, and if we don’t talk about it, things are never going to change,” Powers said. “To have an honest and authentic conversation about that with the NHRA is a challenge.”

Although she recognizes an ideal session would have its share of disagreements, she believes that would be healthy. More importantly, she doesn’t want to carve out an adversarial relationship with the sanction body. Instead, she said, “I want to be able to gather people from other teams to sit down with the NHRA and say, ‘Let’s create some great content. Let’s create some great ideas.’ Not by blaming, not by finger-pointing, but collectively ask the question ‘What are we missing?’ We need to be able to put it on the table, dissect it and put it back together.”

Several teams and drivers have expressed an interest in such a brainstorming session. Powers says the purpose would be to figure out how to give team owners, sponsors and fans “the biggest bang for their buck and the best time of their lives.”

She said, “The drivers are out there doing it. There’s so much great talent that’s being wasted right now. You’ve got these great, great next-generation drivers who deserve a chance to be professional race car drivers and only get in the car and race the car and focus on the race, focus on the appearances, focus on the brands, and focus on the partners. They need people supporting them  . . .  on the NHRA side — and not lip service. Enough lip service. I believe the intent is good, but there’s no result.”

And that reflects her contention that the “NHRA is not run like a business.”

She wants to nudge the organization into mutual cooperation with teams to make racing more affordable, bring fresh marketing partners to the mix and put more teams on the race track. To her it’s a joint venture — but both sides have to want to cooperate.

“You can have all these great assets, but if you don’t know how to activate them, and you don’t know how to connect with people and you don’t know how to build relationships in the corporate world, it’s all moot,” Powers said. “And that’s what I’m trying to change.

“I don’t want to form a hate relationship with (NHRA officials). I want to form a collective discussion and an honest conversation — as tough as it might be, as contentious as it might be – an authentic connection to solve solvable problems. That’s all. That’s it.”