WADE: Professional Racers or Volunteers?

Susan Wade.

SNOHOMISH, Wash. — Two-time NHRA Funny Car champion Cruz Pedregon is a purist, a sensible businessman, stuck in an impure corporate environment.

On Sept. 8, NHRA officials announced a second purse reduction since July, this one dramatic and immediate. By month’s end, it was clear why. Longtime series sponsor Coca-Cola abruptly terminated its sponsorship.

That triggered a vicious circle: Coca-Cola doesn’t find NHRA drag racing an attractive property. The NHRA isn’t getting paid, so the racers are getting paid far less and some can’t afford to participate and fill the fields.

In turn, the NHRA filed a lawsuit against Coca-Cola, citing breach of contract “under cover of a global tragedy.”

The initial reaction, at least among fans, was indignation. Pedregon, disturbed by the onslaught of negative comments, posted a video online that criticized what he called “hating on NHRA.”

Pedregon is right from his perspective, but he’s missing something.

He said, “Not once have I gone to the race track as an owner and counted on the money that I win from the purse as part of my budget. The purse money is a nice little bonus you can count on, based on your performance. What you put together, sponsorship-wise, to attend that event is really what’s going to pay your bills. So this notion that NHRA is killing the sport — no, that’s not how it is. If you have that business model, you need to stay home, really. NHRA has never been responsible for paying your salaries, your race shop, your vehicles, parts and equipment. It’s corporate sponsorships that provide the money. What NHRA provides is the TV package to create the value. And that’s how you make it work.”

While Pedregon is 100 percent correct, his theory has been distorted — by the NHRA. Whether cavalierly or unknowingly, the NHRA has been the enabler. The unfortunate reality is that NHRA drag racing has morphed into a business model much different than Pedregon’s.

NHRA has trained racers to depend on the sanctioning body for payout money to get to the next race, to keep them operational. During the coronavirus shutdown, some team owners feared for their existence when confronted with the possibility that NHRA drag racing might not return in 2020.

The NHRA has a burdensome business format that relies on the presence of fans and it pays FOX to have its races telecast. And it actually has done a commendable job in working with state and local health officials to remain active. In announcing the lawsuit against Coca-Cola, NHRA President Glen Cromwell referred to “the racers whose pursuit was funded in large part by this agreement.”

For example, Terry Haddock, who fields a Funny Car and Top Fuel dragster, said, “We survive on the qualifying checks. This isn’t a good business plan. It’s actually really stupid. We’ve just managed to make it work.”

And Scott Gardner, a partner at Straightline Strategy Group, said, “We absolutely need the income from racing to keep us in business.”

Four-car team owner and Funny Car icon John Force opted out in July for the rest of the season. Top Fuel veteran Pat Dakin said, “John was the smart one. We’re all idiots.”

The B-word — boycott — popped up again, as it has sporadically through the years. No one seriously expected one, but the traditional line, which reportedly originated with Jerry Ruth, is that the racers would complain but say, “Get out of my way. I’ve got the left lane.”

For decades, these hopeless drag-racing addicts have gushed that they love the sport so much they’d do it for nothing. Now they have their chance.

This dependence on NHRA payouts violates Pedregon’s proper business model. But so many racers have come to rely on the NHRA in one form or another for money.

That’s a slippery slope for the sanctioning body. It isn’t responsible for any racer’s budget. Payouts should be, as Pedregon considers them, a little something extra. A racer should establish the race team as a business and conduct himself or herself in a professional manner and not depend on the NHRA for its revenue stream.

These racers are grown men and women. If they are upset about racing for peanuts, they’re plenty capable of standing up for themselves. But they continued to compete, all as Professional Racers Owners Organization President Alan Johnson was saying in a prepared statement, “We encourage maximum participation for the final five races of the season.”

The NHRA is a business and it has to do what it has to do to survive. It’s hard to fault NHRA officials for that, but their decisions are heavily damaging the NHRA brand. They make the NHRA look unpolished, dashing any credibility with potential sponsors. This is an issue the NHRA, not the racers, needs to resolve.

Still, if racers race with nearly no financial reward, they can’t be victims if they’re volunteers.