BURK'S BLAST w/editor Jeff Burk

Can big burnouts save Pro Stock? And other notes scribbled on my drink coaster from the Dog Prairie Saloon in St. Paul, Missouri

Starting in the late 1970’s fans have witnessed all of the major barriers in drag racing breached. Top Fuel and Funny Cars broke the 300-mph, 4-second quarter mile barriers. Pro Stock broke through the 6- and 7-second ET barriers. Pro Mods broke the 200-mph barrier and became the first 5-second doorslammers. The race to break those historic barriers sold a lot of tickets and fueled the rapid growth of drag racing in the ’80s, ’90s and the early 2000’s.


For the last decade the facts show that NHRA professional drag racing's’ TV ratings, ticket sales and sponsorships have all been in a steady decline. That decline has happened despite all the speed and ET records being regularly broken in the Top Fuel, Funny Car, and Pro Stock classes.


Ticket buying NHRA fans in the past watched race cars that for the most part - other than Top Fuel - were easily identifiable by style and manufacturer. In those days big wheelstands, long, smoky burnouts, and loud exhaust were the norm for the classes. Unfortunately, pro racers developed technology that didn’t require or need long burnouts, big wheelstands, and dry hops to make their cars quicker and faster, so gradually big burnouts, big wheelstands and dry hops have disappeared from the scene, and I think with it some of the visceral appeal of those classes.


For years I have excoriated the NHRA management in my columns for their lack of leadership regarding the pro classes. I‘ve abused them for their inability to make programs, enforce rules, or make rule changes for the fans instead of the racers.


When current NHRA president, Peter Clifford, took command he did something none of his predecessors wanted to or had the courage to do. He saw the lack of fan and sponsor interest in the class and instead of doing nothing he tried to save the Pro Stock class from itself by installing radical new rules designed to make the Pro Stock class more relevant and attractive to spectators. Most Pro Stock team owners hated what he did but not the fans.


At this year’s U.S. Nationals the NHRA management tried to help the Pro Stock racers increase their popularity with the fans in the stands and on TV by putting together a “burnout” contest for the class that would be part of the qualifying sessions. The winner, determined by awarding points, received $5,000 and a new set of Goodyear tires.


Only five of the 18 teams entered participated and the winner was Deric Kramer and his Ethanol sponsor. While fans usually sit on their hands during Pro Stock qualifying, Kramer was greeted by the fans on the return road with a standing ovation. Kramer got fan recognition not seen at a Pro Stock race in decades and certainly not by his peers at Indy. The ticket-buying fans at Indy were entertained!


NHRA pro team owners have long blamed the management at NHRA for their woes. For a long time I have agreed with them, but more and more I’m convinced that the NHRA racers and teams are their own worst enemy. Many NHRA pro teams and team owners really don’t understand that they are in the entertainment business as much as the racing business. Maybe they don’t understand the significance of the fact that the NHRA, in order to entertain and attract fans at their national events, often spend their money on exhibition cars like wheelstanders, jets and fireworks. That's because the pro classes can’t do the job.


From my point of view Peter Clifford has made a herculean effort to bring a nearly dead NHRA Pro Stock class back to life. He is getting damn little help, support or credit from the racers and owners in that class for doing so. It is clear that Mr. Clifford realizes the NHRA race series has the same problem all major motorsports businesses have. They’ve all been around for 50 years or more and have become somewhat predictable and boring and are need of a good shaking up. Something NHRA president Peter Clifford, the TV producers, and the fans know even if the pro racing teams don’t.


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Well, if you are one of those drag fans or racers who don’t like how the current NHRA administration is being run and have been hoping for a change in direction, I’d say the announcement at Indy that the Coca-Cola Company renewed their sponsorship of the series (reported to be a six-year extension) means we won’t be seeing major changes as to how Peter Clifford runs the NHRA. Coke’s six-year renewal of its NHRA sponsorship by Mello Yello is a major validation of Clifford and his management team. Especially in light of the fact that major corporate sponsors of professional motorsports series are either not renewing sponsorship agreements or are leaving early.


I’d say that congratulations are in order for NHRA prez Peter Clifford and his team for the sponsorship extension.


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I think that after the World Series of Pro Mod “extravaganza” a month back at Bandimere in Denver where a very small ticket-buying crowd attended, we can now all agree that there isn’t a doorslammer class in professional drag racing that will attract more than 2,000-3,000 paying spectators. The promoters at the Denver race spared no time or expense hyping the event and had the classes “Super Star” racers in attendance. All of that star power didn’t help, only the hardcore fans came.


On the other hand, fans jammed every seat at Thunder Valley Dragway to view the taping of a made for TV “reality” drag racing show. There was no admission charge but I’ll bet the track profit margin for this event easily exceeded their profit margin for Bristol’s NHRA national event.


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Recently I had an off-the-record talk with a very well-known and successful track operator about bracket racing and the lack of bracket races scheduled at his track in 2017. He replied that he had cancelled his summer bracket events for several reasons.


“I really have to work hard and get lucky to just cover my cost for putting on a weekly bracket race much less make any money,” he told me. “Plus bracket racers are just hard to deal with. So, I’ll have a few big money bracket races each year where the track has the chance to make some money instead of a weekly schedule. The rest of the events are test and tune nights and some DOT legal heads-up grudge racing.”


One big bonus for the track operator’s bottom line is that so far this year the track has saved about $22,000 they would have spent on track prep to meet today’s bracket racers demand for traction. The track operator told me he will never go back to a full season schedule of bracket racing. I suspect this is a trend that will see fewer weekly bracket series and more once a month big money, racer paid unsupported bracket races.


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With the departure of Allen Johnson and his Mopar, the NHRA Pro Stock class becomes basically a Chevy Camaro class, leaving only Deric Kramer and Alan Prusiensky in Dodge Darts. That is not good for the future of Pro Stock in the NHRA. If the class becomes an all Camaro class with just a few thousandths between the number one and sixteen qualifiers it will be sort of a glorified Pro Gas class.


I wouldn’t be surprised if the NHRA took their Pro Mod program and applied it to their Pro Stock class. I could easily see the NHRA going to the Pro Stock team owners and telling them they have to come up with their own sponsors for their NHRA events rather than NHRA footing the bills (as the Pro Mod racers do). Unless, of course, the Coca-Cola company demanded that Pro Stock be part of the NHRA pro show for the next six years as a part of agreeing to renew their NHRA sponsorship. 

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