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Drag Racing's Phoenix Rises from the Ashes


t’ll take some time, but I believe we are witnessing the end of major drag racing sanctioning bodies of the past. In my opinion, drag racing as we know it will morph into a more TV viewer-friendly exhibition for fans that know little of the history and heritage of Wally Parks’ vision. We might still have a Wally trophy to award our victorious eliminators, but sadly, eventually few will remember why the trophy was named Wally.

It’s likely that Don Garlits will become a distant memory with sketchy information in the minds of casual fans about our rich past, “oh yes, I remember hearing about Big Daddy; didn’t he shave his head at a race or something?”

Look how some neo-NASCAR fans have forsaken the current, non-competitive Petty clan while knowing something of the Petty brand. As we get further away from Lee and Richard Petty, that team becomes more of a brand name - like Kleenex. The same can already be said of the late Dale Earnhardt as Dale Earnhardt, Inc. crafts the Earnhardt brand with Dale Jr. Someday neo-NASCAR fans won’t quite remember who drove that black #3 car.

Now I’m talking about a metamorphosis for drag racing, not the end. The big sanctioning bodies like NHRA will still have the giant, national-touring, professional Top Fuel and Funny Car shows and will probably include an EFI or Turbo doorslammer class.

Super teams will continue to emerge the way Don Schumacher has built his drag racing empire. Good or bad, he’s got five competitive racing machines from fast bikes to spectacular floppers with TV-smart drivers building a workable business template for the future. The same can be said for the Snake with his high profile, vice-sponsors attracted to legendary performance of the past bringing younger, TV-marketable drivers before drag racing’s brand-loyal buyers. Because of governmental restrictions, what other way does Skoal have left to advertise their legal products to potential customers besides the print medium?

We are seeing a shift toward the “sanitized” TV version of drag racing as more randomly selected sportsmen classes are denied entry to national races because of what has been labeled “pit space” limitations; clearly the “weeding” of the Big Show has begun. As the pro shows dwindle to less than 16 car fields, the new sanctioning body will shift to eight car fields as IHRA has, shortening the already long show for TV viewers. Clear Channel Entertainment, the largest media conglomerate, owns and promotes IHRA, Arenacross, Monster Trucks, and some Professional Bull Riding venues, as well as huge arena music concerts. Clear Channel’s eyes are solidly on providing TV programming. Might a cash-strapped NHRA be ripe for a deep pocket take-over by Clear Channel?

Many a long-term drag fan is already feeling separated from what he or she felt was his or her drag racing series and this is probably a major factor in the TV ratings slide we have seen with the ESPN2/NHRA show over the past three years. Even though some recent cosmetic changes have come to the ESPN2/NHRA TV show because of our comments and fan reactions, a lot of that lost audience won’t be coming back to watch. I believe that ESPN2/NHRA has already written off these viewers.
But as ticket prices continue to climb, rabid fans and their families are looking in other directions for their entertainment. Look around our world; drag racing is already being reborn as smaller niche-market shows: Goodguys VRA, Super Chevy Show, California and National Hot Rod Reunions, Pacific Street Car Association, Outlaw 10 Wide, Dixie Pro Stock Association, National Muscle Car Association, National Mustang Racing Association, Pro Mod Marketing Association, Funny Car Reunions, Knights of Nitro, Summit ET Series, NOPI & IDRC & Battle of the Imports, even IHRA.

Advertisers with aftermarket and consumer products are now looking at supporting these niche-markets. Watch next year as mainstay drag racing advertisers sponsor more of these smaller racing series since they connect directly with new customers rather than utilizing traditional, magazine or television advertising. In talking with some advertisers this year, racing series sponsorships are a less expensive way to get to potential customers.

Look how quickly Nostalgia Nitro Funny Cars have emerged; racers are assembling Nostalgia Nitro Funny Cars to have some fun again. Other “off the record” comments from racers have stated that they are fed up with the way NHRA has sucked the fun out of racing and that NHRA robbed drag racing of its character sanitized for your protection. With fun being an important factor, some successful businessmen/racers want to recapture those times when they went to the drags to hang with friends and compete without dropping a load of cash on every pass.

How long before we see an East -vs. West Nostalgia Funny Car Chicago-style match bash? It’s probably not far off and probably with a significant marketing partner for another niche-market. How long until the fun comes back? As soon as these guys unload from the trailer or ramp truck, the fun starts.

While NHRA Marketing MBA’s kept their eyes on NASCAR’s rear they lost sight of drag racing. What a shame, but what an incredible opportunity.


Previous Stories
View from the Left Coast — 3/9/04
What happened to drag racing on television?

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