News & Analysis

Is No Prep the Savior to Drag Racing?

Just Might Be.


By Brian Losness

There is a great deal of talk about the status of our ecosystem called Drag Racing. Drag Racing for many years was that part of motorsports which not only had a huge fan base, but had a great relationship with those on Madison Avenue. Drag Racing was used by various corporations to test out marketing in motorsports. It is well known that the motorsports consumer is very loyal to those products who use racing as marketing platform.


Nevertheless, the one thing that drag racing could not provide was a dedicated and sustained platform in television. Therefore, when ESPN started giving drag racing’s biggest rival, NASCAR, live television coverage of its events, that was the signal that the tide was changing. NASCAR could provide a longer duration to the exposure of marketing partner than could drag racing. Even though drag racing had a much greater fan engagement on site, it could not match what NASCAR could for three hours on a Sunday.


While drag racing was still breaking ground with many sponsors, it was not just a baby step for many corporations who looked to motorsports as their primary way to market their products and services.


If one takes a look we saw the diminishing number of sponsorships also equate with the number of the group of drivers who were known via another moniker. The Snake, Big Daddy, Cha Cha, the Blue Max, The Mongoose, and Waco Billy, just to name a few. These nicknames became household names which people related to, so it was easy for sponsors to latch onto them.


Those names have never been replaced, and for the most part John Force is the single beacon that the sport of drag racing gravitates to. There is no longer any differentiation in the drivers and personalities or sadly in the cars they drive. In my opinion the sport is a one-trick pony.


Now about five years ago, there was a storm brewing. Just like a tornadic super-cell brewing up from the great plains, this storm was born in the heart of tornado alley, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. They were born of the streets. In the same way NASCAR was born of bootlegging. Renegades.


They had street names such as Murder Nova, Dominator, Daddy Dave, Doc, and of course Big Chief. Their race cars were as individual as their nicknames. A chance meeting brought them to television, not on a sports program, but on a reality television series. Street Outlaws. People in the mainstream of drag racing blew them off as wannabe’s, outlaws, malcontents. The same thing that was said about those mainstream “stars” when they were younger.


I had the opportunity to sit down and talk to two of these rising stars at a recent event at Boise’s Firebird Raceway. Jeff Lutz who is a racer at heart, lives, eats and breathes drag racing. And Justin Shearer, a former HVAC engineer who is better known as Big Chief, the de facto leader of the Street Outlaws.


In talking to both of these racers, one never gets the feeling they have a huge egos. Race car drivers have egos, or they wouldn’t be race car drivers, however these two are not over the top by any means.


Lutz who made a name for himself building killer race cars and competing in the Drag Week events. Especially at Drag Week 2016 -- look it up, it is something to behold. Lutz who hails from Calley, PA, outside of Pittsburgh, first meet Justin Shearer when Shearer reached out to him about helping him with his then model Crow.


“Chief called me and asked me if I would come help him, so I flew out on my own dime and we hit it off,” said Lutz.


Lutz is very excited about the no-prep style of racing and mentioned that he constantly sees families coming back to the races, and then being told that dad and son or the whole family is going home and dusting off an old car, or go looking for a project car to work on as a family.


Lutz has a very defined opinion on the NHRA and Pro Stock and Pro Mod.


“NHRA Pro Stock and Pro Mod have gone stagnant, and NHRA is all about the money, not this deal (no prep),” he opined.


What else shocked Lutz about the NHRA Pro Mod racing was “When I was told it was going to pay for TV time. And I was, ‘Are you kidding me?’” According to Lutz that wasn’t going to happen, so his group went elsewhere. Lutz also feels strongly that the NHRA needs and wants to tap into the No Prep fan base, “But they won’t get it!”


One of the reasons Lutz feels no prep has so many fans is the cars are all different. Blowers, nitrous, turbos. Lutz feels NHRA Pro Stock is failing because its all the same cars with different paint jobs. Fans just don’t want to see that.


Lutz is also passionate about the fans who come to no-prep races. “We have the best fans.” He likes the enthusiasm for the racing and the racers. Which has transferred over to a giant uptick in his business however it is one that for right now, he can’t take advantage of.


“We actually had to close down the shop as the filming schedule has become a full-time job,” he admits. Lutz says the “Street Outlaws” is scheduled for 30 episodes in the next season. Working on the racecar maintenance and everything else, “We can’t half-ass the car prep and then try to get back to the shop to do customer cars,” stated Lutz.


“I know that when this thing ever ends, I will not have to worry about customer work back at the shop, for sure. Right now, we are living the dream,” stated Lutz with a very broad smile.


We walked next door and spoke with Justin Shearer (aka Big Chief) and asked him when he started this whole deal if he ever thought it would be this big. “That’s a hard question to give a good answer too. I don’t know what I thought, but I knew it was cool and if we kept telling people it was cool, then they (people) would start to believe it,” Shearer said.


Shearer calls it the Lil’ Wayne Theory: Keep telling people you are the best rapper in the world, even though you might not be, and if you keep saying it, then eventually people will start to believe it as well.


Shearer also sees the duality of no-prep racing. The positives are that more people are drag racing, more people are going to the drag races. This increase benefits the entire industry. From parts manufacturers to people who build and sell support equipment, he feels it benefits the entire ecosystem as a whole.


However, Shearer is also cautious about how while no prep is this great big wave, if that wave suddenly crashes those who have time, energy and resources into this production (Discovery) will in essence take their toys and go play someplace else. “Then we will be watching Championship Baking or some such thing.”  He is worried that if that happens that no-prep racing will become the black hole that sucks all of drag racing down with it.


His is also concerned with the current status of no prep. “I hope that No Prep can keep the balanced performance and keep the differentiation in the body styles. ‘Cause right now NHRA Pro Stock is like people racing a pack of Skittles -- all the same thing. And Pro Mod is going the same way.”


Shearer is feels that really the only competitive car is the 2015 and later model Camaro, saying “Do you think Stevie Fast (Steve Jackson) wants to drive a Camaro? He wants to win and that is what you have to have.


“But right now everybody has different sh*t and that is why it is cool, but if No Prep isn’t careful we are all gonna be driving a Camaro like Ryan Martin. Camaro’s and Fox-bodied Mustangs, they are ugly,” Shearer says. “But there is nothing ugly about winning, and if that is what it takes to win.”


Shearer also used former Top Alcohol Dragster World Champion, Pro Mod winner and Pro Mod series underwriter Jim Whiteley as an example. “Look at Jim Whiteley’s cars, the Chevelle and the Cadillac. They are totally cool, but Jim has been successful at everything he has done, and how much longer will it be before he has a Camaro? Trust me, Jim Whiteley will not settle for just having a good time racing; he is a winner and wants to win.”


Both Shearer and Lutz feel the major attraction to no prep is the balance of different cars, different power plants and good close racing along with bringing that racing to the masses, both in person and on television.


Also part of the attraction is that there are characters, plenty of characters, with colorful names and names that people remember. These names are so ingrained that given names are foreign to other drivers. When I mentioned to Shearer that I had run into a rival of his a month or so ago, he asked who that was and I said Jonathan Day. He looked puzzled and said he had heard the name but didn’t know who that was, and I said “JJDa Boss.” Chief  responded that “Oh, that’s right, I forgot that.”


At their last no prep event held in Idaho, the place was packed. The event was reportedly sold out both days. It makes one wonder if the NHRA is paying attention to what is happening in no-prep racing. In my opinion the NHRA needs to have a complete rethink and maybe take a few steps back (bodies and  car designs that have some character) and maybe allow some more character in the drivers, in order to move forward.


What do you think about no-prep racing? Let us know at editor@dragracingonline.com.  


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