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What are they thinking?!


irst it was the Steve Johnson public relations fiasco. That is now followed by what can only be described as another PR fiasco over the way NHRA (mis)handled what should have been a minor league issue with Strange Engineering president Bob Stange at the Chicago race.

As the result of what can only be described as complete failure by NHRA's management team, Mr. Stange sent out a blazing letter to the NHRA's Sr. VP of marketing and cc'd executives at every level of the sport of drag racing from NHRA's management to major manufacturers and also to most major newspaper's racing columnists. It took NHRA's Gary Darcy more than 24 hours to respond.

In my opinion, NHRA and Mr. Darcy not only completely missed the point of Mr. Stange's letter, but they passed the buck and placed the blame on the Chicago track's management. (And to add insult to injury, the letter from the Route 66 manager referred to Mr. Stange as Mr. "Strange." Talk about not knowing your customer. And Strange Engineering is headquartered in the Chicago area!)

I think once again the suits at NHRA missed an opportunity to connect with their loyal sponsors, racers and fans. What I got from reading Stange's letter was that he wasn't so upset about the seating issue (he and a few business associates wanted to sit in some of the many unoccupied seats in the reserved section and were told to buy a ticket) but rather the complete incompetence and lack of respect he felt he was shown by the NHRA employees. Neither Mr. Darcy's nor Route 66 general manager Matt Alexander's letter addressed that at all.

It seems obvious to me that this incident shows once again the NHRA's complete lack of knowledge about or respect for the people, companies, and traditions that are not only responsible for making NHRA what it is today, but in a large part are responsible for the very nice living the Chairman of the Board, board members, president, and legions of VP's make as employees of the NHRA.

The real issue as I see it is that at Chicago no one in a position to make a decision could be bothered to take a few minutes to talk directly to Bob Stange, whose company has supported the NHRA since the early 1950s. And that, my fellow racers, brings us to the crux of this blast.

Everyone needs to understand that the people in charge of NHRA today are just doing their job. That job is to make sure the NHRA makes as much profit as possible. These guys don't race now and many never have. They aren't drag race fans. They get their thrills looking at profit and loss sheets that show increases in profit from year to year. The people running the NHRA today are doing exactly what I believe Dallas Gardner and Wally Parks brought them into the NHRA to do: make it profitable at almost any cost. Evidently learning some history of the organization or a basic customer relations course for those executives wasn't considered necessary when they were hired.

It is safe to say, based upon numerous conversations I've had, that many of the manufacturers and reps now doing business with NHRA either hold them in contempt or think of them as uncaring bullies.

Most of the active NHRA management team, excluding Graham Light, seem to have little knowledge of the history of the NHRA or the people who made it what is. Their total lack of empathy for past champions, ground-breaking manufacturers, and budget racers has been demonstrated all too often. The perks that were taken for granted for decades such as tickets, parking, etc. have been unapologetically done away with without a second thought, all in the name of profit. Occasionally the management toadies to a few prominent sponsors and racers, but only when it appears that doing so will benefit the NHRA coffers or management bonuses at the end of the year. I've come to grips with the reality concerning the present iteration of the NHRA and so should all of you. It is now run as a for-profit business first, last, and always; all decisions are made in relation to making a profit.

The fact that the events at Chicago were driven by a $10 ticket upgrade charge did little to change that opinion. Bob Stange was denied access to empty seats because he and his friends hadn't upgraded their tickets to reserved seat status.

Now, I'm sure there are some of you who are saying good for the NHRA. Strange Engineering can afford the tickets. Why should they get any special treatment? Well, the short answer is that this company and others like it pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into the NHRA coffers and, in my opinion, that should mean they rate a little consideration from the sanctioning body. And especially since what Bob Stange asked from the NHRA wasn't going to cost the sanctioning body or the track a red cent!

Strange Engineering happens to be a double major sponsor of NHRA, the primary supplier of rear-end housings and axles, and the sole manufacturer of Top Fuel rear-end ring gears for both NHRA's Top Fuel and Nitro Funny Car classes. Strange invests hundreds of thousands of dollars every year directly supporting the NHRA. I wonder if the management types at NHRA have any idea how bad it would be for them if Bob Stange suddenly decided that his company no longer needed to support the 50 or so Nitro cars that depend on Strange Engineering. What if Bob Stange woke up one morning and decided that the return on investment to support those cars (not to mention the possible liability should one of those 330-mph missiles crash and send parts into the crowd) just is no longer worth it.

I know that Strange Engineering just about breaks even on the parts they build for the nitro and the Pro Stock classes. I wonder if the NHRA would have treated the president of Goodyear Tire and Rubber, the sole manufacturer of Top Fuel tires, like they did Bob Stange if he had requested to sit his guests in some empty, unsold seats.

What the NHRA management did to Bob Stange was just bad business practice. If someone who worked for me treated one of my critical suppliers the way Bob Stange was -- or worse, didn't know who they were and what they did for my business -- he or she would be looking for work the next day.

Whoever is responsible for the way the Stange affair was handled ought to be fired or at the least given some training so that they know who the major NHRA sponsors and suppliers are. If NHRA is going to operate strictly as a corporate entity with no remaining vestiges of the club and social atmosphere that Wally Parks nurtured for four decades, then they should be held to corporate standards in their treatment of their major sponsors and suppliers.

Fortunately for the racers and NHRA, Bob Stange and his son Jeff are old school. They love racers and drag racing and they will continue to do so despite the shabby treatment they sometimes get from the NHRA. Both NHRA and the racers are lucky those men are what they are.  

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Burk's Blast "the publisher's corner" [9-28-05]
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