SEATTLE — Is the one characteristic that has distinguishes the National Hot Rod Ass’n starting to devastate it?
With race cars that gulp nitromethane at the rate of a gallon and a half every second, produce about 100 times the horsepower of a typical passenger car and launch from a standing start with the same thrust that the Space Shuttle blasted off from Cape Canaveral, drag racing is undeniably the most extreme sport on Earth.
Drivers cover the length of three football fields in less than four seconds and the engines in these Top Fuel and Funny Car machines can explode with a force violent enough to blow carbon-fiber bodies into confetti-sized bits and split aluminum engine blocks in two.
The sport is both beyond-cool and mind-boggling. It’s a feat of engineering genius and a spectacle of speed.
As if that weren’t enough, the other major appeal is its accessibility. “Every ticket is a pit pass” is the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series’ motto. And it’s true — spectators can saunter to the pits, wander around, walk up to any team’s rope line and watch the crew members service the car. They can visit with, get an autograph from or have their pictures taken with the drivers. They can chat with drivers on race-day mornings during the customary track walks, and the drivers enjoy the exchanges with the crowds.
So what’s the problem?
While the NHRA’s commitment to its fans is a proud model for sports organizations, not to mention a primary revenue stream, it has cost the Glendora, Calif.-headquartered company a significant amount of money.
NHRA President Glen Cromwell and the skeleton crew remaining after pandemic-related downsizing knew they had painted themselves into a corner.
“When we go back to racing, we want to make sure we go back to racing with fans. Our fans are such a big part of what we do. They’re the fabric of the NHRA. They are the ones that come and support our athletes,” Cromwell said in mid-May.
He had seen NASCAR make a move to remain relevant and give sports-starved spectators some on-track performances, albeit without fans in the grandstands. He knew millions would tune in to watch the action from Darlington (S.C.) Raceway and Charlotte Motor Speedway.
And he was right — NASCAR’s first fanless race drew more than 6 million viewers. He knew NASCAR’s sponsors and FOX Sports’ advertisers would benefit from one of the most captive audiences in recent memory. He knew NASCAR had a motorsports-market gold mine and he knew NHRA couldn’t match it.
“We realize that there is a big desire for the fans at home to look for live entertainment. I think we’re all just sitting at home, watching the same replays over and over,” Cromwell said at the time NASCAR was laying out its return to live racing.
But Cromwell stuck to his guns back in May and said the access NHRA offers “is such a critical piece of the experience. For us to come back, we’ve got to have fans.”
His passion about the fan experience is genuine. But he couldn’t deny the NHRA, its team, its sponsors and the very drag-racing ecosystem he presides over was trying to survive. Without a front gate, the sanctioning body would be covered in as much red as Top Fuel champion Steve Torrence’s Capco dragster.
“The economics is a whole other conversation. Let’s not even talk about the NHRA. Let’s talk about the race teams. Let’s talk about the race tracks. Go through all the stakeholders,” Cromwell said. “The economics are a critical piece of the conversation. But it comes back to our fans and our fans’ experience of being at an event or doing what they love to do. That’s what we want to provide.”
The real problem is NHRA’s TV package. That’s no slam against FOX, and it’s not necessarily a knock on the way NHRA decided to structure its deal. It’s simply the truth.
The sanctioning body produces all of its broadcast programming in-house and pays for its airtime. NASCAR has had the leverage to negotiate a revenue-producing telecast agreement — and it wisely capitalized on it.
It’s definitely too late to change the deal NHRA made with FOX. The agreement is a mutual one. And if the season were progressing in a normal manner, it wouldn’t be a huge topic. It might raise a few eyebrows, but life would roll on.
It’s definitely too early for NHRA oficials to think about restructuring its deal.
Cromwell said, “FOX came in 2016 and they have been a tremendous partner with the NHRA. And with the things they have done for this sport, I can’t speak enough good things about FOX. (The opportunity to amend) our agreement with FOX comes up in a couple of years. We’ll sit down at the table. We always want to make the sport better for everybody. And I truly believe FOX wants to do the same thing. Those are discussions to be had. We always want to be in a good place. We would hope a pandemic like this comes only once every 200 years.
“They have been a game-changer for the sport. I think we would all say thank you to FOX for everything they’ve done. We think there’s a lot of potential moving forward with them,” he said. “And our goal is to go racing August, September, October and November — with fans.”