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By Frank Oglesby

said in my last Nitro Funny Car feature that we would be discussing “sponsorship” in drag racing-- though I believe "sponsorship" is a misnomer which sounds more like philanthropy rather than what it really is - a marketing partnership. "Sponsor" is the word commonly used so I have no choice but to use it as well.

Let’s begin by reviewing how it was in the Nitro Funny Car class just before sponsors came on the scene, how that has changed and what the current situation is.

The factories were involved from the beginning and there was product support as well, but the major turning point in the sponsorship story was the McEwen/Prudhomme Mattel “Hot Wheels” program of 1970. This was the first real effort to use the marketing abilities of a Nitro Funny Car by a non-automotive Fortune 500 company.

The Mattel program was significant for another reason as well. During the non-sponsored era Nitro FC’s income came solely from match racing and by the late '60s team ownership had broken into two different groups. Group one were tuners and/or drivers who now owned and operated their own race teams. This group was all talent and no money other than match race income. The second group was wealthy owners either from other business interests or inheritance that had to hire talent to run their teams.

The funny part is both groups ran about the same on the match race circuit, as the wealthy owners couldn’t hire the top talent because they were busy running their own teams.

The few national events at the time were another matter. The better funded teams had the advantage because of having four runs to get it right (qualify) and the parts to burn up if need be. The Hot Wheels deal changed all that forever as Prudhomme was a “racer’s racer” and for the first time the talent had the money to spend on what was important in order to win. Don spent the money wisely and the Mattel sponsorship leads to his Army sponsorship which changed Nitro Funny Car racing forever. During Don’s Army sponsored days he proved without a doubt when the “Talent” had the money you either had to join the parade or be left behind.

This era (about '73 to '83) was the owner/driver/business man looking for sponsorship opportunities in order to run the national events, both IHRA and NHRA. Basically the teams that were successful in acquiring a sponsor ran national events and those that didn’t continued to match race as it was still possible to make a living in that venue at the time.

Looking for marketing partners was quite different from today. Drag racing was far from the mainstream and a really hard sell but we did have a couple of advantages, NASCAR was not the 800 lb gorilla it is today and perhaps as importantly both IHRA and NHRA needed Nitro FC teams to have sponsors to insure a full field because then, as now, the purse didn’t pay enough to even begin to cover the cost of fielding a nitro team.

Being sure of a full field was much harder for both sanctioning bodies at the time as the teams still had match racing to fall back on. Neither IHRA nor NHRA owned that many tracks nor did they run the number of events they run today. These facts caused them to be MUCH easier to get along with.

Many of the nitro teams who got their start during this period still own teams today. The other team owners who, for whatever reason, failed to keep the necessary funding have either left the sport or finished out their careers as employees of the new breed of business men/team owners.

By the early ’90s, for reasons outside the scope of this article, the cost to run a nitro car had skyrocketed and the number of national events had grown to the point nitro match racing was just a memory. At about the same time, IHRA dropped the Nitro Funny car class, the most popular class in drag racing history by about a two-to-one margin. (If that was not the worst marketing decision in motorsports ever, it is certainly in the running.)


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