Volume IX, Issue 9, Page 151

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US NATIONALS; IT ISN'T WHAT IT USED TO BE

Notes scribbled on my napkin after eating at the Lucky Café (home of the best cheeseburger I ever ate) in old downtown El Paso, Texas

I started going to the U.S. Nationals in 1975. The experience of that first U.S. Nationals literally was a life changing experience for me. At that first race I saw my first Top Fuel bike. It was the first time I ever saw 64 fuel cars at one track. It was the first race I ever saw that had the crowd they had at the U.S. Nationals. I experienced the “zoo” across the street from the pits, and the “outlaw” midway across from the main entrance. The next year I camped in the Lion’s Club parking area and spent one night at the old drive-in that closed just this year. Winners were referred to as Nationals Champions and for a while racers got 1.5 Championship points for every point they earned at “the Nationals.” The “Nationals” were broadcast on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. The U.S. Nationals dominated the Indianapolis media and the AP had a lab in the old DA tower at the top end and sent photos over the wire all day long. The U.S. Nationals was the one race that, no matter what, every pro racer with a car came to. And so did every drag racing journalist and photographer who could beg, borrow, or steal a ticket or credential.  Getting to the U.S. Nationals was that important.

The past few years, though, while the U.S. Nationals still remains drag racing’s premier race, it has lost that “moth to the flame” attraction it once had for fans, racers, and the press, including me. Make no mistake, it is still a great race, but the sad fact is that over the years many of the things that made attending the U.S. Nationals a “must” have been abandoned or ignored.

Instead of being a pivotal race on the schedule it has become just the first race in a four race series to see which four teams will actually be able to race for the POWERade World Championship.  The nitro fields are filled with mostly the same names and the fields are limited to 16 cars, there is no Top Fuel bike class, the Pro Mods get treated like cannon fodder, and the only truly unique event at today’s U.S. Nationals,  the SS/AH Hemi Challenge, is all done by Friday.

In my opinion, if you were around to attend the Nationals in the 1970’s when the race was in its prime, watching the 21st Century version is kind of like watching a rock and roll act like the Rolling Stones, Kiss, Crosby, Stills & Nash or any of the other geriatric bands that were kickass in the ‘60s but 40 years later are still trying to be what they were. The songs sound almost the same but 40-year-old rock bands in most cases just don’t have the energy or appeal for me they had 40 years ago, and no amount of makeup and plastic surgery will change that. And that, in my opinion only, is the issue the U.S. Nationals is facing today.

The fact is most iconic auto races are having some trouble living up to their past. The Indy 500 certainly isn’t the race it used to be and the reason is generational. The drivers, teams and issues that once made the Indy 500 maybe the greatest race in the world, a race with a hundred teams in the pits, and grandstands filled for qualifying and carburetion day simply doesn’t have that attraction anymore. Tony George thought he knew what was best and, since he owned the track and the race, he did what he wanted. I think in some respects the U.S. Nationals is suffering from some of the same issues. It’s probably too late to return the Indy 500 to it former greatness, but I don’t think that is the case with the U.S. Nationals.

So, as is my custom, here are my observations, accolades and suggestions regarding drag racing’s greatest event.

An example of how little local and national media care about the U.S. Nationals is illustrated by three papers’ coverage. Despite the fact that the NHRA and their PR staff put together an excellent insert for the U.S. Nationals in the weekend edition of the USA Today newspaper, the results in the Monday edition were at best cursory. They didn’t even bother to put the full race results with Gary Graves’ excellent coverage nor a single photo. Even the Indianapolis Star (which in the past has run a Nationals story on the front page) on Saturday’s or Sunday’s edition put a story about the IRL and Cart above the coverage of the U.S. Nationals. My local paper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch…nothing.

Regarding the races within the race at Indy: Why not add a race to the NHRA schedule featuring just those special races for the Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock, Pro Stock Bike, and even perhaps a shootout for Pro Modifieds? And what about this idea: make it a real race by awarding POWERade points to those racers that qualify. Now you would have a really special race for the sport, press and fans. Whaddya think, Mr. Smith?

Is there any doubt in anyone’s mind that the U.S. Nationals should be the last race on the schedule where teams can qualify for the Countdown Elite Eight? I’m sorry, but making the U.S. Nationals the first race of the Countdown for the Fortunate Four is a slap in the face to the National’s reputation as the sport’s greatest race. Imagine the national press interest if the U.S. Nationals decided who would and wouldn’t advance to compete for the POWERade Championship. Change the schedule NHRA, please!

Why does the NHRA staff continue to treat the only two classes that make the U.S. Nationals really unique, the Hemi Challenge and the Pro Mods, like poor relations? Couldn’t the NHRA have postponed some of the “pomp and circumstance” and found time to run the Pro Mods on Friday? I’d much rather see the Pro Mods on Friday under the lights and the SS/AH semis and final round on Monday than what the current schedule offers. But then again maybe the fans (except for me) aren’t really there to see either of those classes.

Some things I was really impressed with at the U.S. Nationals this year were the food courts and bathrooms and the fact that on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday the NHRA allowed the general admission fans really good seats. Wednesday and Thursday a GA ticket got you starting line tickets and on Friday you could sit at the 660-ft mark. The number and location of food stands and restrooms at the Nationals was simply outstanding, which is important for a guy like me who dreams all year of the U.S. Nationals so I can have a lemonade shake-up and a Pork Butt on a Stick!

I also want to go on record as saying that the NHRA’s PR staff has really become a first class operation in the past couple of years. NHRA’s recent efforts to accommodate and assist the press with whatever they might need to do their job are nothing short of outstanding. If they would just allow us older reporters like myself pro pit access with a golf cart to do our job.
                                                                                                    
What a difference the Pros make. This year DRO bought tickets for one of our reporter’s wife so she could attend the Nationals for the first time. Thursday we paid $12 for a GA ticket so she could watch Super Stock and other sportsman racing, on Friday when the Pros made ONE (!) lap her ticket price went up to $36! My guy and his wife opted to go home Saturday!

I don’t ever remember a race of the significance of the U.S. Nationals where in the final rounds, lane choice, beginning in the second round, literally meant the difference between winning and losing. The difference was so obvious that racers like Mike Ashley and Greg Anderson either declared victory or defeat on national TV before the final round based upon the lane they were going to be in. The question is: Could the crack NHRA track prep crew have fixed the wretched right lane given the time or, as some have suggested, was the lane just unfixable? In either case, the U.S. Nationals winner should be determined by the drivers and tuners and not by track conditions. I say just legalize traction control, speed up the action and really “level the playing field.” Let’s get on to racing for victories and championships, not lane choice. 

Please explain to me the reason or benefit to anyone of the driver introductions, tributes, and unveilings that take place on or near the starting line. These are basically photo ops and offer little entertainment.  Only the fans in the Top Eliminator Club at Indy could see the presentations. The fans at 800-1000 feet can’t see the damn starting line much less a bunch of guys on a stage. So those folks sit in the sun for a half hour or more for what? Maybe if they ran less of those they’d have time to qualify the Pro Mods on Friday night.

After spending a pro qualifying session on Friday night in the “cheap seats” at Indy with driving legends Paul Romine, Dale Funk (who still owes me $20 for a bet he lost), and Pat Dakin in a SRO crowd, I came to the conclusion that there is entirely too much screwing around between laps for the fuel cars. So, I have a suggestion; why not modify the Pro Start system currently in use so that a car has a specific time from when the front tires trip the beams on the burnout to when they have to turn on the top bulb? After they turn on the top stage bulb they go back to the traditional timer. Just an idea on how to speed up the actual part the fans at the race or watching on the tube want to see.

My last word is this: the U.S. Nats is still a race you have to be at. Despite my griping, I’ll be back to the Nationals next year even if they make me buy a ticket and park five miles away. It is the U.S. Nationals after all. My dad always says, “These are the good old days!”  I just think that as far as the Nationals are concerned they could be so much better with just a little effort. 


jeffburk@dragracingonline.com