Pro Mod's future uncertain with NHRA
By Jeff Burk
What once was assumed to be a sure thing - that NHRA would make Pro Mod its newest professional class now appears to be anything but a sure thing. AMS Staff Leasing, the company that stepped up to sponsor this year's series, seems less and less likely to re-sign for a second season and as this is being written no replacement sponsor appears imminent.
Two years ago when NHRA announced that they would bring Pro Modified to NHRA National Event drag racing as an exhibition class, the decision was hailed by many people (this writer included) as a great step forward for the Pro Mod class, its fans and sponsors. Following a successful first exhibition series, a sponsorship and an increase in the number of events for the 2002 season appeared to insure that the cars were on the fast track to becoming an NHRA professional class. NHRA announced a 10-race series to be sponsored by Dave Wood's Texas-based AMS Staff Leasing company. Ted Jones' Masters Entertainment developed a half-hour show that aired on ESPN2 dedicated to the NHRA Pro Mod series.
Despite a purse that is far inferior to IHRA's, Pro Mod teams supported the NHRA program to the point of attending NHRA events instead of IHRA events when the schedules conflicted, in part because they thought NHRA would make Pro Mod a professional category in 2003. Many Pro Mod teams spent a great deal of money and burned a lot of bridges at IHRA supporting the rival NHRA series. Apparently those racers may not be rewarded for their loyalty to the series and NHRA -- unless significant events occur in the next few weeks.
Apparently, AMS Staff Leasing has some business problems that, at least for the time being, are going to prevent them from sponsoring the series again next year. AMS Staff Leasing's president Dave Wood didn't return phone calls about this matter, but it is known that AMS has cancelled their hospitality programs at NHRA Pro Mod events for the rest of the season, including the Dallas race that is in their home state.
AMS may yet solve their problems and sponsor the Pro Mod series for 2003 but right now the possibility of their return doesn't appear good. AMS and Dave Wood can't be faulted here. Dave Wood has done more for Pro Modified in one year than anyone else in the history of the class and his involvement with the class probably had something to do with IHRA's increased purse for the 2002 season.
As for NHRA, some management types have been telling racers privately that the AMS program isn't going anywhere and, if some other sponsor doesn't step up to replace them, in all likelihood the Pro Mods would remain an exhibition class in 2003.
The Pro Mod teams I contacted about the possibility of returning another year in NHRA competition as an "exhibition" class weren't exactly thrilled at that possibility. One owner whose team has attended every NHRA race this season, spoke about the matter on the condition he not be identified.
"I simply can't afford to keep going to all of the NHRA events for the purse they put up," he said. "We went to all of the races this year hoping that supporting NHRA would help convince them to make Pro Mod a professional class. I'm going to Indy, but after that I'm looking at going back to IHRA events. It's just a matter of economics."
Several other teams I contacted told me basically the same thing. It would appear that NHRA races at Memphis, Dallas and Las Vegas might not get the support from the touring Pro Mod racers that NHRA races have enjoyed this year due to the cost of travel and lack of purse.
One thing should be understood: NHRA can't be blamed for any of these problems. The sanctioning body has never, to my knowledge, promised anyone that Pro Mod would become a professional class. They have always made two things very clear: 1. NHRA would not commit the to the class and assume sole financial responsibility for the class. 2. A sponsor for the class, with at least a three-year commitment, would be required if the class were to attain "professional" status.
There are even caveats to that support. According to one NHRA official I talked to, a Pro Mod class would never be part of the POWERade series or get equal billing with Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock or Pro Stock Bike. I was also told that Pro Mods would never be part of the NHRA Saturday/Sunday television program. They did say that if Pro Mod became a "professional" class it would probably get its own stand-alone television package with an attractive time slot. This source also told me that NHRA president Tom Compton was adamant about not adding another professional category to the POWERade series.
Those restrictions, which will separate the Pro Mod class from the current pro classes, are bound to make it harder for Pro Mod teams to secure sponsorship. Evidently the folks at NHRA ascribe to the "separate but equal" theory when it comes to new classes.
The only thing known for sure about the future of the Pro Mod class with NHRA is that no one outside of NHRA knows what that future is. I have been told by an NHRA source that there will be an announcement concerning the class and the 2003 season during the upcoming the U.S. Nationals that will clarify NHRA's stand on the class and its future with NHRA. This source also assured me that NHRA wants Pro Modified to continue to be a part of the NHRA "family." The only question seems to be, will the class be treated as a real member of the family or the bastard step-child?
History tells us that it took NHRA five years to adopt Funny Car as a professional class. Floppers ran either as an exhibition class or in Competition Eliminator from 1964 through 1969 and were driven by many of drag racing's biggest names. Pro Mod has just been around for less than two years in NHRA. The Pro Modified teams will just have to have a little patience with the system. In the meantime the chances of NHRA making Pro Modifieds a fifth professional class anytime soon would appear to be dim indeed!