Volume X, Issue 4, Page 73

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The Nitro Crisis, or, Politics is Everywhere This Election Year

The politics of drag racing is, unfortunately, more exciting than the racing on the track is these days. It’s a problem for a career drag racing journalist trying to maintain the level of interest and excitement he once had when he first began writing about the sport. Unlike our brethren that cover the stick and ball sports or even other motorsports, drag racing in many ways was stagnant from one year to the next.

The professional stick and ball sports have an influx of new talent, team managers, and venues almost every year. The team names remain the same but players move from team to team and almost every team has a new rookie phenom, managerial change or ownership change that makes each new season unique as far as the press is concerned.

My sport of choice has been somewhat stagnant for a very long time. Many of our most well known drivers, tuners and team owners either already are or are approaching sixty years of age. Our professional fields on average have the same 20 teams and drivers trying to qualify and race each and every weekend.

I’m sorry, but as it is here and now, professional drag racing has for some of us become somewhat stagnant. (The one exception to that observation is the Pro Stock class, where we have a new winner practically every week.) So after years of trying to find new ways to write about John Force, Gary Scelzi, Ron Capps, Tommy Johnson, Tony Schumacher, the Kalittas, Kenny Bernstein and any Pro Stock driver named Johnson, please excuse the reporters of this sport if they sometime seem a little anxious to glom onto any story they come across that isn’t about a driver or team or race they’ve been writing about for decades.

More and more the beat writers that cover drag racing are looking at the politics of the sport as something that needs to be written about.

Hence the current issues regarding the so-called Nitro Crisis and the sale of the NHRA to O. Bruton Smith are what people seem to care about and want to read about much more than what is occurring on the track. That especially seems to be the case with the NHRA, where many fans won’t start caring what goes on at the track until after the U.S. Nationals when the real Championship points race begins.

So, I bend to the will of the people and the rest of this column will be about the so-called nitro crisis. 

After talking to many of the parties directly concerned with the nitro situation I’ve come to following conclusion: They are all their own worst enemies!

A couple of years ago a radical lefty somewhere bought a barrel of nitro from a drag racing source and it became just one of the chemicals he used to make a bomb. Naturally, after he used it, the Homeland Security folks got involved and they, as all government bureaucracies do, wrote regulations aimed at keeping nitro out of the bad guys’ hands. At that time I’m betting drag racing wasn’t on their radar screen.  In the meantime, those that wanted to sell nitromethane were having their own war and, apparently, one of the competitors in the nitro business, in an effort to gain an edge, brought the government regs to everybody’s attention and thereby getting the government involved in drag racing.

The competition between the company with the supposed monopoly and the rest of the nitro importers drove the price of nitro to historic lows.  When that happened the only U.S. manufacturer of commercial nitro evidently decided they simply weren’t making enough profit selling nitromethane to racers and they got out of that business.  Their action was caused by nothing more than a business looking at their P&L sheet and not seeing enough return on their investment and the efforts required for them to make racing nitro. 

In late 2005 or early 2006 the NHRA, in a straight money move, gave a single company the exclusive rights to sell nitromethane at their national events, following a precedent set by the IHRA. At the time NHRA said the reason was to ensure there would always be a supply of nitro. It was really just business, folks, it’s called a monopoly.

In about the same time frame the NHRA adopted rules that mirrored or exceeded government guidelines regarding the safe handling of nitro, which, as a side effect, made handling nitro more expensive. 

Currently the nitro used in drag racing is exclusively imported from China instead of being supplied by a U.S. company.  And, as with anything imported, especially something that could be labeled as a high-explosive or a rocket fuel, the federal government has probably become more involved.

There were at least three groups distributing or selling or importing nitro and they are or were all engaged in a rancorous fight over who would or could sell nitro at various events. To circumvent those companies that had been awarded a monopoly, some resorted to selling nitro at reduced prices outside the gates of NHRA or IHRA events. The authorized dealers then took steps to monitor how much fuel racers bought versus how much they would use, and if the racer hadn’t bought enough during a race the sanctioning body got involved.  The Nitro Wars were on.

Over a period of time various distributors went to court, suing each other to defend the turf they believed was theirs. I suspect that the Department of Homeland Security probably got more than a few calls or letters regarding the “illegal” sale of nitro at NHRA and IHRA events.

This year NHRA has introduced rules that prohibit racers from having more than 400 lbs of “approved” nitro in their pits at any one time, and rules that require the sellers and buyers to have special handling training and screening from the Homeland Security. As a direct result of those actions the price of nitro at NHRA events keeps getting higher than prices at other sanctioned events. 

This mess probably would have been avoided had the NHRA and IHRA managements simply allowed anyone to sell nitro after charging them a stiff fee for the privilege. The free market will sort itself out. But that solution would have been too simple, I suppose.

Now the NHRA management decides to make a mountain out of a molehill, basically accusing the U.S. Army-backed team of cheating on national television during the Las Vegas event and then they levy a ridiculous fine against team owner and nitro importer, Don Schumacher. His sin? He had a few sealed, wrapped, and unopened barrels of a product that is authorized by the NHRA for use at test sessions and non-NHRA national events in his pits -- through no fault of his own -- that he intended to use in testing following the race.

True, he was in violation of an NHRA rule, but it had nothing to do with gaining a performance advantage. That $100,000 fine seems excessive, and announcing it during the event and giving the TV audience the idea that the U.S. Army team was “cheating” perhaps showed a lack of judgment.

For ESPN to show a slo-mo shot of the Army Top Fuel car during the announcement was probably also a bad decision. The Army doesn’t take kindly to being accused of cheating and there could be repercussions, I think.

So now, every possible bad scenario, factual or not, regarding storing, buying, and selling nitromethane is all over the internet. No matter what precautions the current suppliers and the NHRA and IHRA have taken to comply with the regulations, the transport, use and sales of the golden juice is a suddenly a big deal. Rumors abound about even more restrictive rules regarding the sales and transport of nitro for racing purposes

In my opinion, what really needs to happen here is that we all – and that means the press, the sanctioning bodies, chat room and bulletin board wonks and especially those that import and sell the stuff -- need to just SHUT UP about nitro. Those that sell it should quit fighting and make peace among themselves. The NHRA and the IHRA should quit worrying about the relatively small amount of money they get for awarding a nitro monopoly and instead do everything they can to ensure there is an affordable and plentiful supply. 

And one last thing: the Homeland Security people have a lot bigger worries than what goes on in drag racing. I’ll bet most of the folks in charge don’t even know or care about it.

As always, it’s just my view on the subject.