TV OR NOT TV - A QUALIFIED YES
Just when you thought you'd seen the last rant on NHRA and television here, up pops another of the buggers. Ah, but this is different, the remarks here are all very much qualified and not pointedly critical or laudatory, for that matter.
I just finished reading the new NHRA/ESPN television 2001 schedule on page 85 of the year's first National DRAGSTER and if nothing else I can say, it's their most comprehensive effort yet. All 24 national events get same day coverage, two days of a given race at the very least, and that means the inclusion of my favorite part of the show, qualifying. Most of the races are going to get at least two hours of exposure in that department.
I'm curious as hell to see how that's going to work, because as I said I'm partial here. Even though I find the performances of the 90-percent rule as engaging as an open casket funeral, I really like to see all the cars especially now since the gap between rich and poor racers has grown so dramatically.
Let's face it, the big highly financed teams of the Schumachers, Forces, Prudhommes, et al. mean that independent racers are going to be seen as often as Arturus in the Pleiades galaxy. There simply isn't enough room in the 16-car inn for the Bobby Laganas, Chris Karamesines, Louis Sweets, Scott Weis, and the other out-of-pocket cars during eliminations. However, if you get to see qualifying, that does mean some exposure for the hard-trying independents.
I can't speak for all of you, but I could see myself growing real tired of the same half-dozen cars in the three main pro eliminators hogging the spotlight, but this schedule seems to indicate it won't be business quite as usual on the NHRA telecasts.
The time is there. Just look at the upcoming NHRA Winternationals. On Saturday, Feb. 3, two solid hours of televised qualifying, which begins at 9:30 p.m. EST. The next race, the Checker/Schuck's/Kragen/Worsham Racing/Frank Pedregon Jr. Nationals at Firebird in Arizona, though not as big, still gets an hour of qualifying.
I hope the above "quite as usual" crack also applies to what we see on television, too. As has been stated in this nutty square of the net, the NHRA telecasts have not been terribly exciting overall. For a sport that produces fire and brimstone as often as these racers do, it seemed to myself, Burk, and others that the TV presentation trailed anemically in this department. I have a solution as to how that can be corrected.
CONCENTRATE ON THE NITRO CARS IN QUALIFYING. Put the real crowd-pleasers first. By all means, let's not forget the Pro Stock, Bikes, and Trucks, and even the Alcohol cars if performance merits it. But it's the nitro cars that have put the butts in the stands and on the couches.
Just like NHRA has sculpted its schedule to accommodate television, I think they'd be wise to do the same with nitro cars in their qualifying. I've been going to the races for nearly 38 years, and the majority of my drag racing thrills, although certainly not all of them, have occurred on nitro in qualifying as opposed to eliminations.
Concretely what this means is that they get the first shot at the cameras. This obviously shouldn't be an iron clad rule, but the fix should be. It's these cars that run the mindboggling e.t.s and speeds (as hamstrung as these are at times) and the ones that fireball and do all the other wild stuff. Put country simple, even on television, they are the most exciting cars the sport can produce.
I would say, in mild contradiction, that things do change and a flexible approach is required. I would think that at a friendly Pro Stock track like Houston Raceway Park where records are commonplace, the "nitro first" orientation could be amended a tad if the situation warrants it.
Also, I think the TV show would take a good shot in the grille if they didn't find room for the Pro Modifieds in a number of the shows. Having been to a few IHRA shows, I now fully grasp why these cars go over so well. They're part Fuel Altered, part AA/Gas Supercharged and Funny Car, and all race car.
This nitro-is-best fixation almost sounds like a scratched record at times, and I realize this. Nonetheless, though, NHRA's television package is stamped outreach as much as it is hard news for the converted. Nothing sells a newcomer like the power and fury of a Top Fuel dragster or Funny Car. The other pros are essential, but the cacklers are the quarterbacks.
Obviously related to this is how the stuff is presented on screen. I'm sure the ESPN crew has a lot of say so in how things are miked and shot, but this is where NHRA could really use somebody in the background who knows the sport.
We're in Top Fuel qualifying. A few cars back in the staging lanes is a team that has been struggling and is capable of incredible fireworks. As ghoulish as this might sound, the fireballs and other related items knock the fans out. Don't think so? If NASCAR ever cut out bumper tag and crashes, they'd halve their audience in two races.
This person or persons I'm advocating should be in an advise and consent position. I'm operating under the assumption that a lot of the network television guys only have a passing knowledge of what's going on in drag racing. NHRA, if they haven't got one already, need a guy or gal, who can say, "Follow this racer here. He or she ran a 4.51 in testing and might really lay one down."
And on the other hand, this person or person could say, "The chartreuse car in the third pair wound up in stall No. 7 at Fairmount Park while testing at Gateway International. You might wanna keep an eye on him."
Once qualifying is over and eliminations are in the on-deck circle, that stuff takes care of itself. If Winston Top Fuel champ Gary Scelzi has run three straight 4.50 elapsed times in qualifying, it doesn't take differential calculus to figure a 4.4-second run might be in the offing.
Finally, a skull session should definitely take place between NHRA and the ESPN crews on things like camera angles and, even more importantly, sound. In this area, one good thing about qualifying is that it's not the race for first place. You can flop here a little easier than in final eliminations.
Like any drag race fan, I hope the television presentation picks its ass up off the floor and for that matter, that the whole sport does also.
photo of Chris Martin by Jeff Burk
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