VOLUME XXI,  NUMBER 1 - JANUARY,  2019

BURK'S BLAST w/editor Jeff Burk

Clearing Out a Cluttered Year-End Notebook

Looking back at 2018 and forward to 2019.

 

The last racer/fan walking the endless isles of the Indianapolis PRI Show filled their backpack or baby stroller with catalogs, decals and other treasures has left the building, signaling the end of the 2018 drag racing season and the start of the 2019 season. So, as I normally do, I will review the 2018 season and speculate on what is coming for 2019.

 

I think the unparalleled growth of the NHRA’s fan base in 2017-18 under the combined guidance of Peter Clifford and his hand-picked successor Glen Cromwell is the motorsports success story of 2018. While NASCAR and other mainstream motorsports see a drastic drop in attendance, the NHRA under Clifford and now Cromwell had a half-dozen or more legitimate sold-out crowds, something no other major motorsports (possibly) in the world can claim. Not only that, but in 2017 under then president Clifford the NHRA tax return proved the NHRA actually made money for the first time since 2013!

 

In 2018 ET drag racing turned from a hobby/sportsman form of racing into a full throttle professional motorsport when a half-dozen ET tournaments guaranteed the winner $100,000 to win or more. That move to major league motorsports status was cemented when three races already on the 2019 schedule will GUARANTEE a single winner $500,000!  (See Jok Nicholson’s InnerView with Kyle Riley for more about this trend.)

 

In 2018 “pay to play” for “professional” and semi-professional drag racers became accepted as the norm.

 

In 2018 the NHRA finally came to the realization that they could easily resolve the issue of their nitro cars going too fast by adjusting traction through track prep. In 2019 they will continue to use that method to not only slow down the cars but make the racing safer. I don’t think in the future you will see the NHRA trying to stop the technological race by not allowing new and better parts, they will just not give the racers a track that will handle all of the horsepower they can make.

 

I think that in the future when drag racing historians look back they will see 2018 as the point where the 21st Century NHRA lost any semblance of the NHRA “car club’ started by Wally Parks and his friends in the 1940’s as a companion organization to the SCTA which he organized for the Salt Flats and Dirt Flats racers of the time.

 

The history and purpose of the NHRA can be split into three distinct periods of time and purpose. The first iteration of the NHRA (1950-1983) saw Parks and a few friends form the NHRA with the objective of providing safe drag strips to race on and a basic set of enforceable safety regulations for the racers and dragstrips. When Parks was president, the NHRA ran and functioned more like a social club or a “Mom and Pop” small business than the largest (by membership) motor racing sanctioning body in the world with a 40,000+ membership.

 

The second iteration of the NHRA came in the years between 1985-2008. In 1984 Parks retired and hand picked business executive Dallas Gardner to succeed him in 1985. It is generally agreed among historians that Gardner was hired to resolve the NHRA’s financial problems and turn the NHRA into a profitable business. He did that and more. He made the NHRA a corporate entity regardless of its “Not For Profit” status.

 

The next iteration of the NHRA ran from 2000-2015. In 2000 Tom Compton was promoted from his job in NHRA management to become just the third NHRA president. He wasn’t a racer but was a self-admitted “bean counter.” That expertise that got him the presidency. Compton’s reign as president saw the NHRA making millions of dollars of profits until the eceonmic crash of 2008. After that year and until he retired (or was fired) in 2015 the NHRA lost a lot of income. That is when the board of directors replaced Compton with Clifford and gave him a mandate to re-make the NHRA into a profitable entertainment corporation instead of a racing club. Clifford and his successor Cromwell have accomplished that goal, especially from the financial outlook.

 

Today’s NHRA is a corporation with a president that will get paid close to a million dollars in salary and a management team that is paid another $3,000,000 annually. NHRA today probably has way more vice presidents in charge of sales, sponsorships and souvenirs than it has people working in the tech department. Wally Park’s NHRA had many tech, safety, and race management personnel and just one salesman and a president. That is the difference between a club and a corporation.

 

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Just Wondering … Has the NHRA quietly downsized and re-imagined its once vaunted Tech Department through reduction of staffing and non-enforcement of what some thought were draconian rules and regulations for all of its classes? Does the NHRA Tech Department still tech the Stock and Super Stock classes with the “No exception” type of inspections that used to strike terror in the hearts of competitors when he or she was summoned to the “shed” for a teardown after a win or setting a record? Not as often as they used to according to many NHRA racers both professional and sportsman.

 

Over the last three decades the NHRA has made rules in many doorslammer classes that allowed engine swaps, aftermarket parts, and other small rule changes so that eventually many cars that used to race under the old NHRA rules would be classed as Gassers or altereds. I think that NHRA tech officials are more concerned with safety in these classes than checking part numbers.

 

The NHRA management realized about three decades ago that when it came to technical issues the racers were and are too smart for them and NHRA tech officials even said so in print when they couldn’t find the nitrous or traction control devices on Pro Stockers and said it was up to the racers to tell or show them (NHRA Tech) where other racers were cheating because they couldn’t find it.

 

These days it appears that taking a racers car apart to check for illegal parts is when the racers in a class demand it. That happened twice in 2018, to Pro Mod racer Rick Hord and Pro Stock racer Jeg Coughlin Jr., when one of their opponents paid to have a fellow racer’s motor torn down. To that end it would appear that the NHRA Tech Department’s primary job now is racer, fan and track safety -- which was the original intent of the department back when it was known as the Safety Safari.

 

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Just Wondering … What are the possible benefits to drag racing, its racers and sponsors to limit the number of spectators who can buy a ticket to a race? In 2018 successful race and series promoters Donald “Duck” Dunn and MWPSA owner Keith Haney announced they were limiting the number of spectator tickets sold at their event to 500 or 1,000. Limiting ticket sales is either a publicity stunt or an admission that the cars and racing featured for that event can’t attract fans. One thing is sure: Limiting spectators only cheats the racers and their SPONSORS from the exposure they expect from sponsoring a race car.

 

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Just Wondering … Are poor Nielsen ratings for NHRA’s Fox broadcasts of no real concern to NHRA’s current management team? I am convinced they aren’t. I think the primary reason the NHRA spends upwards of $10,000,000 a year on their TV program is the audience and sponsors network TV delivers for the NHRA. Without a network TV partner and broadcast schedule Mello Yello (Coca-Cola brand) and other major sponsors would never get involved financially with the NHRA or NHRA’s pro teams. Despite the poor viewer ratings, the Fox/FS1 broadcasts still reach between 500,000 and 1.5 million home viewers. If you generously accept that NHRA averages around 40,000 paying customers per event, 24 times that is around 800,000 total attendance for the year. No Fortune 500 company is going to sponsor a nitro team for $4-5 million annually for that kind of exposure.

 

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Just Wondering … Who has done more for drag racing in the Southeast United States in recent years than drag racer and philanthropist Tommy Franklin? The answer is nobody! During the last decade Franklin stepped in to save the PDRA when the original rescuers - primarily the Scruggs family with help from Tommy Franklin and other Pro Mod racers - reached their financial limit. Franklin then assumed the role the Scruggs had held and fully funded the PDRA. Simply put, without the largess of Franklin the PDRA wouldn’t exist.

 

He also is the man who put together a group of investors to rescue Virginia Motorsports Park. That group, including Franklin, has spent a lot of money to refurbish the facility and bring back an NHRA national event to the track. Tommy Franklin has proven that he loves the sport and its racers, and he will put his money where his heart is.

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Just Wondering … How much clearer can the NHRA management make it that they no longer have any confidence in any doorslammer class as a major fan attraction? For the 2019 season NHRA will not have pro doorslammer classes at all 24 events; instead, one or two of the pro doorslammer classes (500” Pro Stock, Factory Stock and Pro Modified – and Mountain-Motor Pro Stock at four races). That many pro doorslammer classes may just confuse the average motorsports fans and companies who might be interested in supporting or sponsoring a premier doorslammer class. They just have to determine which NHRA professional class that is.

 

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Just Wondering … Why does the NHRA and their track partners continue to damage their credibility by having track and broadcast announcers tell viewers and spectators the race they are watching is “Sold Out” when fans can see there are plenty of seats available or viewers at home watch a pair of nitro cars going down a “sold out” track with near empty grandstands in the background? I think the NHRA and the tracks should brag about a “Sold Out” event, but I think it does the reputation of the NHRA more harm than good when it appears they can’t count or see. I know that the NHRA and track operators have a “formula” for calling a race “sold out” based on a specific number of tickets sold per day of the event.

 

At St. Louis I was standing about 200 feet down from the starting line (and I worked the starting line every day of the event) when the announcer begged the fans to get back to their seats near the starting line so that the crowd would look good on TV … and then a few minutes later announced a “sold out” race day.

 

A sold out venue in any sport or entertainment is a major accomplishment worth publicizing and bragging about but not if fans and TV viewers (which includes major sponsors) can see that obviously isn’t the case.

 

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Just Wondering … Did you know former president Peter Clifford said in one interview he gave that had never been to a drag race until he was hired by the NHRA? When Wally Parks and his friends formed the NHRA 60+ years ago they were all racers or fans of drag racing. From that point until former Top Fuel driver Graham Light’s retirement the NHRA management teams always had a former full time drag racer on the board. That line will be broken this year when for the first time in its history when none of the current NHRA management team has ever been a serious drag racer. Glen Cromwell’s management team is staffed by non-racers who were hired for their business acumen not for their knowledge, love of or experience in the sport.

 

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Just Wondering … With three $500,000-to-win ET tournaments on the books for 2019 at U.S. 131 in Martin, MI, and the Strip at Las Vegas, how long will we have to wait for the guaranteed $1,000,000-to-win race? I’m betting one or more will be announced before 2019 is over.

 

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Just Wondering … When a cable network TV executive will realize a race that guarantees a single winner $500,000 to win and attracts 600 racers who will pay entry fees ranging from $500 to $2,000 and race non-stop for three days would make great reality TV? The racers and the racing at one of the mega-bucks ET tournaments are easily as entertaining, interesting and sellable as the “Street Outlaw” genre is.

 

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Just Wondering … Will mega race team benefactor Tommy Thompson rescue the drag boat series that the Lucas Oil people exited at the end of the 2018 season? My guess is that Thompson and his friends that race the Top Fuel Hydos will do what has become the norm and fund themselves a race series. It works for Pro Mod, Pro Street and Pro Stock why not Top Fuel Hydro? 

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