Volume IX, Issue 2, Page 1

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NHRA and ESPN should be ashamed!


I swear I didn’t want to begin the season with another diatribe against the NHRA or ESPN. I really didn’t.  But Jeezus, after watching the over-the-top, all John and Ashley Force Network’s lame broadcast of the NHRA Winternationals and after the emails DRO received about the broadcast and the overexposure of the Force family at the expense of the rest of NHRA’s professional teams and racers, I just can’t help myself. I’ve got to get a few things off of my chest.

First, the ESPN2 broadcast of qualifying and the race. 

Okay, I think we can all agree on one thing: Too much of the Force family and teams. Force’s fans, family, and sponsors surely enjoyed the in-depth, all Force, all the time broadcast, but did the “ESPN too much Force” network forget totally about the other dramatic and interesting story lines that were part of the NHRA season opener?  Frankly during the first hour of ESPN2’s broadcast of the race I had to check the channel to make sure I was on the ESPN2 network and not the A&E Network viewing its “Driving Force” reality show. Granted, the race broadcast on Sunday did contain interviews and story lines with other drivers, but those story lines were basically overpowered by the more than 20 minutes of the broadcast that was devoted exclusively to John and Ashley Force. And that time doesn’t include the time the rest of the Force team members and cars were on camera.  Even NASCAR broadcasts don’t give Dale Earnhardt Jr that much coverage in one race.

According to an NHRA management source, they have serious input regarding the content of ESPN2’s broadcasts of their races and control of at least a couple of the announcers/on-air talent spots  -- as well they should, after all last year the NHRA paid ESPN over $8,200,000 to produce and air the races -- but in the end the producers of the show have the final say as to the content of the program (what will air). So I’m not blaming the NHRA here. No the blame for the “all Force, all the time” fiasco has to fall ultimately on the shoulders of ESPN’s producers of the race and qualifying shows for the Winternationals.

I’m of the opinion that perhaps the egos of the ESPN2 producers, at least in part, influenced their decisions to give so much air time to the Forces. Those guys are electronic journalists and in fierce competition with other networks and shows to deliver good ratings for their clients. Those guys knew that the A&E Network has a John Force reality show that is soon to be airing. They knew that Ashley’s first race would in all probability be a big part of one of those shows and I believe they made a decision to “scoop” their competition by having their own John & Ashley Force “reality show” within the race broadcast. Judging from our email, all they did was succeed in making a lot of drag race fans and home viewers angry. 

Know this, though: If the ratings for the ’07 Winternationals are better than the ‘06 Winternationals then I guarantee we’ll be getting a lot more of the same in the future.

And while we are on the subject of the broadcast let’s talk about Mr. Paul Page, lead announcer for the NHRA broadcasts.  When I was making a living announcing drag racing (among other motorsports), one of the first things all promoters required from me was that I be excited about what I was watching and pass that excitement on to the people who were at the event. Their reasoning was that if I wasn’t excited about the event then the fans wouldn’t be either.  Paul Page, whom I gave a pass to last year when many of our readers wanted his head on a platter, simply doesn’t do that.

The lack of emotion in Mr. Page’s voice during the broadcast left me feeling that he could just as easily have been reading the pork belly futures on the farm report as, for example, the speed and ET of Robert Hight’s 4.64 lap -- ONLY THE QUICKEST LAP FOR A FUEL FUNNY CAR IN DRAG RACING HISTORY!

Page obviously still hasn’t studied the sports history or even taken the time to check the performance records for the three professional classes he was to report on that day. On top of that he referred to Ashley Force as being known as the “Daughter of Nitro” Obviously he hadn’t read the full page ad that John Force bought in the USA Today newspaper with the 150-point type headline referring to her as Nitro’s Child! As the lead announcer he has a professional obligation to learn the sport he is covering.

Paul Page is a nice man and a competent, journeyman announcer, and I have absolutely no ill will toward him. But having said that, he obviously has no passion for or knowledge of the sport of drag racing. NHRA should demand that he be replaced and give the job to Bob Frey, Gary Gerrould, Lewis Bloom or anyone who has a passion for and knowledge of drag racing.

Okay, so much for the fluff, let’s talk about the really important issue. I’m not quite ready to anoint Ashley Force as the next Super Star of the sport before she wins her first professional round, much less a race, and proclaim her the greatest assets the sport has had since Don Garlits or Shirley Muldowney. 

If there is one single thing that separates drag racing from all other professional sports it’s the diversity of its competitors at all levels including the professional ranks. From drag racing’s very conception as a sport, its fans and sponsors have always embraced drivers of all races, colors and creeds. While other professional motorsports remain basically an old boys club where a woman driver or a driver of color remains an oddity, drag racing has such a diverse group of drivers that a driver’s color and gender isn’t a factor any longer. The only thing drivers are judged on is whether they can deliver the goods. It is about who has the quickest and fastest hot rod on a given day. Gender, race or age is just a sidebar to the story.

Before other motorsports even had competitive women drivers or drivers of color and minority status, drag racing had women and minorities winning World Championships.  Drag racing has had so many women who were excellent drivers in every class from Top Fuel to the slowest sportsman classes that it’s no longer news when a woman gets a ride in a Top Fueler, Funny Car or any other car.

So, I ask, why the big deal about Ashley Force? Is it just because her name is Force?  Certainly she has proved she’s a talented driver, but should she be treated by the NHRA PR machine and the rest of the press as if Shirley Muldowney, Amy Faulk, Shirley Shahan, Angelle Sampey, Shelly Anderson, Lori Johns, Lucille Lee, Erica Enders, Melanie Troxel, and Hillary Will never dropped a clutch. Ashley is just another driver of a nitro burning race car, in my view. The fact she is a woman driver isn’t as much of factor as to her newsworthiness as her last name. 

So here’s my issue. With all of the media (including DRO) seemingly obsessed with Ashley Force, we evidently have forgotten about a driver who’s really a much more important story both historically and from a performance perspective than Ashley Force or any other current driver for that matter.  A driver and team that in my mind represents the best and brightest drag racing has,  who should be being used as a spokesman for drag racing but so far has been basically ignored by all of the media.  I’m talking about the team of Top Fuel driver J.R. Todd and tuner Jimmy Walsh.

J.R .Todd, as far as I can tell, is the most successful African-American professional driver in the history of motorsports. I know of no other African-American driver who has competed at the top professional levels of a premier motorsport who has won anywhere near the number of major races that this young man and his team have. J.R. Todd is gracious, hard working, articulate, and self-effacing. In a world that is trying to blur the lines between races, beliefs and gender, he is without question a fine role model for auto racing and indeed the American dream.  Yet when the NHRA bought a four-page insert in the USA Today newspaper the main stories were about 62-year-old Kenny Bernstein and John and Ashley Force. There was not one word -- not one word! -- about the young man, his tuner Jimmy Walsh or the team that won three races last year, even in the small story about the NHRA Top Fuel class.

NASCAR, IRL, CART or F-1 would give anything if they had a J.R. Todd in their series. They would parade him in front of every Fortune 500 company in the world as an example of the sport’s diversity. Those same Fortune 500 companies would be clamoring to be involved with the young man and his team. Yet the NHRA and IHRA have yet missed another opportunity.

Should we make a big deal out of Ashley Force? Without reservation I say yes. But the burning question is why the winner of the opening event of the 2007 NHRA drag racing season got almost no attention from the sanctioning body or the network that covers the races. The prime questions here are why and why the hell not. In case no one in our sport is aware, February is Black History Month! It was a perfect story. Shame on all of us.