SEATTLE — Although he has said, “There’s a good chance I probably won’t be around to worry about it,” Cruz Pedregon does try to envision what the NHRA will look like in 25 years.
Many have worried what the future of the sport will look like at the end of 2020 and ’21 as it regains consciousness from the coronavirus knockout punch. Pedregon, however, imagines the long-range picture.
“My only concern moving forward is: What is the business model going to look like? Are we going to have more multi-car teams or less?” the two-time Funny Car champion asked.
His contemplation came before the health-related global shutdown of sports. But now is as good a time as any for drag-racing fans to try to envision — and for race teams to shape — what direction the NHRA is headed.
For a number of years, decades, the sport has worn the same style, the same look. But Pedregon cautions that it will have a makeover, like it or not, and teams had better be prepared to rethink how to do business.
“Are these big teams going to last forever? What’s going to happen when the lead guys are no longer there? Is this going to keep on trucking? Uhhh, I don’t think so,” he said, reminding that racing most definitely is a business.
“Auto racing is one of the only sports that requires a business plan. It requires a contractual cash flow,” he said. “Skill has nothing to do with it. You can have the best reaction time. You can have a .000 (perfect) reaction time every time. And how’s that going to put food on the table? How’s that going to pay for pistons, rods, blocks, nitro? A race team is a small business, in some cases a big business.”
What it has evolved into for the megateams surely will change as cost-saving measures to ensure parity and simple survival will dominate thinking. Perhaps radical schedule modifications and revamped race-weekend formats will sculpt the new standard. Operating a single-car team may no longer be a disadvantage.
Post-pandemic corporate America will be focused on rebuilding its coffers and won’t be eager to pump millions into drag racing even though the sport still offers the same marketing opportunities targeted toward an extremely loyal fan base. But the root of the problem is not with drag racing. The financial world is turning more inwardly at the moment.
That doesn’t help any race team, including multi-car teams. These loaded organizations have upped the ante with expensive and specialized machinery to build their own chassis and parts. That has added to their budgets/debts, but it doesn’t guarantee championships. Steve Torrence said last fall that he has been able to plow through the competition with store-bought parts.
“We’re not smart enough to build our own parts — or maybe we’re smart enough not to build our own parts,” Torrence said. “Everything is off the shelf. Sometimes I think that you could get yourself out on an island when you’re creating your own parts and pieces and fall behind. It would be easy just to get caught up in manufacturing parts and pieces and continue running the same thing over and over when some people are innovating and changing.”
Nothing really is proprietary anymore, anyway.
“People can’t keep a secret,” Pedregon said. “So the days of, ‘Hey, man, check out what we just manufactured’ and ‘if only we had that, we could dominate the competition,’ that’s not the case anymore. You give a crew guy three or four beers, he’ll be giving you drawings of it, probably, within a week. It’s pillow talk or however you want to describe it.”
Torrence’s approach might prove the in-house milling and fabricating work is a cool but unnecessary investment.
Pedregon has recognized the flip side, too. He says he has benefited from a big team’s ability to secure surplus parts at better rates than he could and its willingness to sell them to him at a bargain.
“You hear people say about the little teams, ‘We need them out there.’ But Don Schumacher puts his money where his mouth is. I’ll put that in stone: Don Schumacher not only will say it, but he’ll mean it. He has helped more racers. That’s good business. That’s what I call a good businessman,” Pedregon said. “So it’s not all negative.”
Just the same, Pedregon added, “If I had to race against a bunch of my peers who don’t have a safety net by joining these big, deep-pocket operations, I like my chances.”
If the landscape changes — and it could within the next five years or so because organizations likely will have to pare back — Pedregon, 56, might get his wish, and another championship, before he retires.