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NHRA Kiss-off Stirs Brothel Brouhaha

by Susan Wade
Photos by Jeff Burk

Deep staging, hot rods and hole shots might have taken on an entirely new meaning, if Bob Gilbertson had been allowed to keep the newest associate sponsor of his NHRA Funny Car.

Shauna Cummins, a 52-year-old grandmother of two, paid $10,000 for an eight-inch sticker on Gilbertson's car at the Houston race, then increased her investment to $25,000 at Bristol. But NHRA officials refused to let Gilbertson race at Atlanta until he removed the advertising. Cummins' business is a legal brothel in Wells, Nevada -- one that Graham Light, NHRA's Senior Vice-President of Racing Operations, said is inappropriate.

Cummins wasn't going to take Light's decision lying down. She caught up with him during the Matco Tools SuperNationals at Englishtown, N.J., May 19, lobbying for a reversal of his decision about her Bella's Hacienda Ranch.

"You think I'm about sex, and you're incorrect," Madame Cummins said in a letter to Light and NHRA President Tom Compton.

"(NHRA has) more sex going on in the pits than I do behind closed doors," she said. "All I do is treat people as though they matter . . . No matter how much money they have or whether they even choose to partake of time with a lady. I wish to cause no one embarrassment."

Light told her that meeting with her further to discuss the matter "would be a waste of our time and it would be a waste of your time." He said although her brothel is a legitimate business in Elko County, Nev., prostitution is illegal in every NHRA venue, including Las Vegas.

"We don't want the image of a brothel being associated with our sport," he said.

Cummins then questioned why NHRA allows alcohol and tobacco companies to sponsor NHRA competitors. She said their products "kill people. I don't think I've ever killed anyone. Show me the rules or the list of criteria for being a sponsor. No one will show me the rules. I don't think there are any rules."

Light produced Section 7:1 of the NHRA rule book: "NHRA reserves the right to regulate the advertising that appears on the body of any car participating in NHRA events and may, from time to time, publish guidelines on the subject."

"We didn't have any problem in Houston. Nobody said a word," Gilbertson said of the stickers that shared space on his 2002 Pontiac Firebird with his "Trick Tank" logo.

The Gastonia, N.C., driver seems an unlikely central figure in the controversy. He is fond of mentioning that he and wife Sally have been married for nearly three decades, and was quick to report, "I haven't ever been (to Bella's Hacienda Ranch)."

Gilbertson helped defuse a flare-up earlier, at Atlanta. "I told her to let it go," he said after Cummins suggested the team take legal action. "She was hot as a pistol."

However, Gilbertson said he feels the tug between NHRA's defense of decency and family values and his right to procure his car's sponsorship by a legal business. "I'm a freedom fighter myself," he said. "I'm the guy who owns the billboard."

He also mentioned the Penthouse sponsorship from years past.

Light said if the men's magazine were to express a sponsorship interest now, "it may be very different. It would be different."

NHRA has chosen to associate itself with alcohol and tobacco interests, which legally cannot do business with underage spectators or participants. The clamp-down on the tobacco industry ultimately cost the sanctioning body its 27-year series sponsorship by R.J. Reynolds and its Winston brand of cigarettes. And drivers such as the Funny Car class' Tommy Johnson Jr. and Ron Capps, who are sponsored by Skoal, are prohibited from even handing minors an autographed photo of themselves or their cars because those bear the tobacco company's advertising.

Cummins said she can't understand what she perceives as hypocrisy.

Naturally, she wants (ahem) exposure for her brothel, and she contends her signs at the Houston and Bristol races were in good taste. However, she offered to alter the business name on the sticker and to make her website a G-rated one focused on Gilbertson and his accomplishments. "I'm flexible. Are you?" she asked Light.

He told Cummins, "It's nothing personal. You seem like a nice lady. You know our position. Our position isn't going to change."

And as for any more double entendres . . . readers will have to come up with their own.


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