Volume X, Issue 1, Page 87

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Don’t hate on Evan Knoll

The anger directed at Evan Knoll from racers and fans since the stunning announcement that he was withdrawing his sponsorship support from drag racing teams is somewhat understandable, but, in my opinion as a journalist, racer and businessman, completely unwarranted and unjustified.

As a result of Knoll’s actions some very popular professional and sportsman racers may not race next year although it appears that most of the formerly Torco-backed teams will still race at some level. Nevertheless, there are some racers and fans who are under the impression that Mr. Knoll took the action he did on some kind of whim or with malice. The facts don’t justify their angst or the character assassination of the man that is rampant on the Internet.

Evan Knoll is one of us, in my opinion; he’s got a serious drag racing "Jones" and his is a real drag racer and racing fan. At some point four or five years ago he evidently inherited or made a lot of cash and decided at some point to spend it -- by some estimates as much as $50,000,000 -- sponsoring drag racing, drag racers and the various iterations of his Torco and Knoll Gas companies between 2004 and 2007.

Obviously though, his various companies haven’t been profitable regardless of how many race teams, races, or series he used to advertise those products -- not because he didn't get the name out but because customers couldn't go to the local parts store and buy the product. But I think that for what he did for drag racing he deserves more than a bum’s rush and a bad rap from the sport and the racers he supported (many enjoyed his philanthropy for four years or more).

The collapse of the Evan Knoll sponsorship program last week will cause both long- and short-term problems for drag racing, especially for the professional and sportsman teams who depended on that financial support, and it may eventually cause major problems for the International Hot Rod Association.

No one person in the history of auto racing, not just drag racing, that I have knowledge of has spent more money and supported more racers and programs than Evan Knoll. (The only other man who has come close was J.D. Stacey, a coal baron who at one time sponsored eight teams with premier drivers in NASCAR and, like Mr. Knoll, couldn’t sustain the pace.) But back to Evan Knoll.

Now, as a probable result of equal parts bad business model, spiraling cost of racing, and, according to a Knoll spokesman, the cost of the crude oil used to make Torco racing gas, the Evan Knoll gravy train jumped the tracks and he was forced to pull back financially from drag racing. Sadly, though, some of the very racers and fans who have no clue about finance or his business and who had an E-ticket ride on that train have forgotten how much money and support they did get from the man over the last four or five years, and have turned on him faster than Gayle Sayers making a cut in the backfield.

The facts are that Evan Knoll invested (gave away) more to drag racing and drag racers than he could ever get a return on, and I believe he never planned that there would be. So, my friends, let us frankly discuss, analyze, and review what will probably come to be known as the Knoll era of drag racing.

First, we all have to realize and admit that at almost every level of drag racing, especially in the NHRA/IHRA professional classes plus a few sportsman and bracket racing categories, drag racing is a full-time business. In those classes team owners need to find ways to fund their operation. Aside from suddenly discovering a long-lost aunt died and left them a seven-figure endowment, selling advertising (sponsorships) is the way most get enough money to race. The fact is that basically everyone in drag racing -- from myself as the owner of this magazine and two others, to team owners such as John Force, Don Schumacher, and Kenny Bernstein, to track owners like Bill Bader and Steve Earwood, to sanctioning bodies such as the NHRA, the ADRL and the IHRA – we all depend on the business of selling the billboard space on our car, race track or magazine to generate cash flow. Like it or not, that is the fact of business life as it applies to drag racing.

And like it or not, buying advertising at tracks or on race cars obviously didn’t work for Knoll Gas or Torco Racing Fuels. You may not want to hear this, but it is a fact, and Mr. Knoll and his companies aren’t the first to come to that conclusion. Remember Coors, McDonalds, and a whole host of others "sponsors' who have ankled the sport cause they couldn't get a return on investment.

So, beginning when Evan Knoll and his Torco Racing Fuels company were signed as the official gas of the IHRA by then-president Bill Bader Sr. in 2004 and he immediately began sponsoring or outright buying race teams, he set into motion a series of events that culminated with the “Black Monday” announcement of last week.

When Torco Race Fuels (or Mach Racing Fuels as it was sometimes called) first came on the scene, they sold racing gas. Selling race fuels I think is very competitive business with a pretty small margin of profit. But nevertheless, beginning in 2004 Mr. Knoll began spending his money sponsoring nitro teams, NHRA Pro Stockers, the IHRA, and buying or financing existing race teams. When Pro Stock racer Dave Connolly’s owner bailed, Knoll bought the operation even though he couldn’t even burn his own racing gas in the car at an NHRA event. When Clay Millican lost his sponsor, Evan Knoll stepped in. J.R. Todd probably never would have won a NHRA national event without Evan Knoll’s cash support.

His association with then new IHRA president Aaron Polburn resulted in Torco supporting virtually all of the IHRA professional classes. There wouldn’t be any Fuel Funny Cars or “shootouts” in all probability without Knoll’s cash.  Evan Knoll, under the banners of his own companies, put his money where his mouth and heart were and invested in drag racing and drag racers like no one else in the history of the sport. Not the actions of a bad guy, are they?

So drag racers at all levels had a patron that was basically giving vast amounts of money supporting sanctioning bodies, independent racing series (both in and out of drag racing), buying print and electronic advertising, and even sponsoring Bobby Bennett’s Competition Plus magazine. All of those teams, tracks, and the rest paid crews’ salaries and mortgages, bought parts and cars, and sold their advertising space to Torco, Knoll Gas, Divorce Gear, Skull Shine, etc., and I don’t think Mr. Knoll asked anything from any of them other than they race. Even Drag Racing Online, despite the fact that Torco had its own Internet magazine, got a few Torco ads early on.

It is interesting to note that the opportunity he had to buy the Bader family's 25 percent interest in the IHRA, Knoll passed up. According to ads that ran in National Dragster the asking price was $1.5 million. The ads also stated that there was a proven track record of IHRA making money for its owners. These claims have been verified to me off the record.

Okay, students, let me tell you all a fact of life about the advertising business. All of us who sell advertising have had a big customer sign a lucrative contract and then have a business set-back, cancel the contract and not pay. It happens and it is a fact of life. That is probably what has happened in the case of Evan Knoll. The same thing has happened to plenty of professional drag racing teams over then years too: a big sponsor runs out of money and disappears in the middle of a contract and its party over, move on.