GUEST Editorial

NHRA Can Choose to Help Itself Grow

By Richard Kratz

Grass grows from the roots up, not from the tips of the blades down, thus the term “grassroots” for any movement that starts with the folks on the street and works its way up. The NHRA started as a grassroots organization that went town to town, street to street and got racers to organize their events for improved safety. Organized races led to new tracks and even more racers coming in off the streets to race and the sport’s growth exploded. But that was a long time ago. It may now be time for the NHRA to go back to school on the whole grassroots concept.


I’ve participated in, and spectated at, a lot of different kinds of racing. I raced circle track at small local tracks, mostly dirt. I did some club motorcycle racing on road courses. I owned and raced a Bonneville land-speed motorcycle at nearly 200 mph. I have spectated at Formula 1, IndyCar, NASCAR Cup, stadium off-road racing and more. I also own and operate a drag race team.


From a broad perspective, drag racing offers something no other form of racing can -- easy participation by almost anyone who owns a vehicle. Local tracks all over the country hold events every week that are open to anyone. Sure, a lot of experienced racers with dedicated race cars show up at these events, but they are usually outnumbered by men and women who want to run their daily drivers down the track. These drivers aren’t there to win prize money; they’re there to win bragging rights. At any given event there will be a bunch of drivers doing it for the first time. Often a friend or two is with them to help show them what to do, but not always.


The first time someone stages a car, waits for the lights, launches and runs they’re nervous and full of adrenaline even if they’re staging a 17-second front wheel drive four-banger. Then they turn off the track and get their first timing slip, that flimsy little paper slip that can lead to a lifelong quarter-mile addiction. They go back to the lanes and do it again, trying to get a better reaction time, launch a little harder, go for a new personal best elapsed time. These drivers aren’t “racing” per se, their vehicles aren’t built to fit any class rules, they aren’t putting a dial-in on their windows and bracket racing. They’re just having fun, a lot of fun.


Our friend Bob Lambeck, who is known to rail against the NHRA when he encounters something they do that he considers stupid, may get mad, but never mad enough to quit. He once was having a discussion (a bit heated) with an NHRA official about something that happened at the prior race. We could hear only Bob’s end of the phone conversation. At one point he said, “Look, I’m coming to the next race, there’s no question about it, that needle has been in my vein for 50 years.”


And that’s it right there. Way back in the day, Bob took his family’s car to a race, had fun and got addicted. Fifty years later the NHRA is still making money off of him, as are tracks and parts suppliers. Anyone who goes to an open track night at a drag strip, pays their paltry entry fee to run and has fun is probably going to come back and do it again. And when they come back, that’s a new fan, a new blade of grass growing for the sport. The NHRA offers the first rung of a ladder to these newly enthused drag racers who eventually want to step up and experience actual competitive racing with bracket racing.


But the NHRA is a long way from Wally Parks and the Safety Safari station wagon and trailer. It’s now a grown-up motorsport with big money and polished executives with big salaries. The NHRA’s focus is on their big circus National events, where the stars of fuel Funny Car, Top Fuel and Pro Stock draw tens of thousands of fans to the race and hundreds of thousands of viewers watch it on television. But those fans are getting older; there are far more middle aged butts sitting in the stands then there are Millennial ones, and that’s not good for the future of the sport. And there is something the NHRA can do about it and should do about it.


Drag strips aren’t the only type of track that have “open” events. Road courses do and even some circle tracks. But -- and this is a big ‘but’ -- you can’t show up in just any car and play on the track at Willow Springs’ open track event. You need at the least a rollbar, racing harness, some driver gear, etc. There are, of course, autocross events where you can show up in a daily driver with just the factory seatbelt and a helmet, but these events aren’t held on an actual racetrack. And there are no nationally televised autocross events where the stands are packed with 20,000 spectators.


Consider this: Name a motorsport where a mom can show up in a minivan, pass tech and run on the same track where the big, national race events are run. A sport where our hypothetical mom can sit in the stands and watch the Big Show race one weekend and a couple of weekends later unleash her van down the same track, looking up at the seats she was in just weeks ago. You can’t name another motorsport because there is no other opportunity like this outside of drag racing.


Open drag strip events, call them “Open track” or “Grudge races,” these events provide a valuable public service. Street racers show up to have fun and they’re doing so on a safe track with emergency personnel standing by, not out on the streets where tragedy is waiting to occur. Every grudge match that occurs on the track is a potential life saved. So, it’s win-win, good for the drivers, the fans who just want to watch, and the community in which they live.


With bracket racing, the drag strip offers our minivan mom the chance to step up the first rung of the ladder of competition and she can actually race her van. Bracket racing is the great equalizer, especially in the slower sportsman classes that allow virtually anyone to experience the highs and lows of competition racing. When a new racer sees that win light come on for the first time, the needle is in the vein as Bob would say. And that is good for the sport.


Motorsports are in decline everywhere. The NHRA is doing well with its race attendance and television viewership hanging in and going sideways instead of down, while other motorsports are mostly trending down. There are lots of theories on why this is happening, but Don Schumacher put his finger right on the problem when we were interviewing him once. He said, “Drag racing isn’t competing with NASCAR or IndyCar, it’s competing with this,” and he pulled out his smartphone.


Don’s correct, the lifeblood of any sport, any organization is the youngest, newest members coming in. And in today’s world, the youngest eligible generations aren’t going to motorsports events, or even stick and ball sports events. They’re more interested in a virtual experience than a real world one. This is just a fact that all sports have to deal with.


But the NHRA has a tool that it could be using that is unique to drag racing; a tool that could start drag racing growing again when no other major motorsport can. The NHRA could use open track events as the greatest recruiting tool ever. The NHRA could work easily and inexpensively with communities, tracks and local law enforcement to gain new recruits, ones who could go on to bracket racing, become paying fans at national events, purchase the swag and products that are a primary cash flow device for teams and aftermarket companies.


Imagine if you will, NHRA divisional personnel and track personnel putting just a little bit of effort into community outreach in areas with a track. Any business owner knows you don’t just put up a sign and wait for customers to flock to you. You have to go out and get new customers, every day; bring new brand fans in and service them well.


Imagine the NHRA and tracks contacting local high schools to set up a “Drag Racing Awareness Day” at the schools. The NHRA and local track officials could make a phone call to local Law Enforcement (LE) and they’d have no problem getting them onboard for the day. I know a lot of racers that would gladly volunteer to participate too. LE can help explain to the school administrators why educating high school students about the local drag strip can help save lives—after all the people most likely to get into high speed trouble on the streets are the newest licensed drivers. There’s a reason auto insurance is so expensive for teenagers.


Drag Racing Awareness Day could set up in a section of school parking lots. The students would troop out and see some very cool looking race cars parked in the lot (what teenager doesn’t love a cool car!?) The racers and track officials would talk about the track, how to stage a car and how the starting lights work, explain about open/grudge night where the students can come and run their cars down the strip and have fun. Because you’re reading this magazine you may take open drag strip and bracket events for granted, but the vast majority of students at any given high school have never heard about it.


All Police Department, Sheriff and State Law Enforcement offices have a public relations officer and they would just love to participate in the day. That officer would talk about the dangers of street racing to the students. Not just the crashes, but if caught what happens to your license, your car could be impounded, you could become uninsurable, etc.


Everyone involved would stress that each student listening can come to the track and “speed” to their hearts content — legally. The racers could give a brief overview of bracket racing. If allowed, the racers could start their engines, a mini cackle fest to get the students’ blood pounding.


The NHRA can help out too. They own the television broadcast time. The NHRA could provide a brief segment on every national event broadcast about open track events. Have an announcer stand by a rental car or a pickup truck in the pits and tell the viewers that they can ‘race’ these kinds of vehicles at their local drag strip. Do a brief promo spot for Drag Racing Awareness Days and build student and faculty interest. Broadcast a few pre-canned interviews with young racers about what it was like being on track for the first time, how much fun it is.


The NHRA promotes their Jr. Dragster classes and events really well. But they’re missing a huge potential market segment. The vast majority of junior drag racers come from drag racing families so you can argue that these future fans and racers are really just replacements for their drag racing parent(s), whereas Drag Racing Awareness Days can bring a whole new group of young people into the sport. The NHRA is a brand, and every business knows that you have to invest in expanding brand awareness if you’re going to grow and thrive.


The payoff at the end of each Drag Racing Awareness Day will be when each student receives a free pass to attend an open event at the track either as spectator or participant. The track can require them to show their high school ID with the pass to make sure the passes are used as intended. The track won’t receive any admission revenue when the passes are used, but in all likelihood the teenagers wouldn’t have come to the track anyway, so there’s no net loss. Once the kids get to the track, whether just to spectate or take their cars for a run, we all know that they’re going to have a lot of fun. Whether they’re aware of it or not, they’re going to learn that no racing game on their phone can match the visceral experience of burnouts, wheels-up launches, thundering engines. They’re going to experience not just sights, but sounds, smells, vibrations that no 5” phone screen can equal. And they’re going to discover that the drag strip is a pretty good social event, a noisy, thrilling one at that.


And you know what? A lot of those young people are going to come back, this time as paying customers. They’re going to get friends to come with them. The whole thing will become self-perpetuating. If you water the roots, the grass will grow.  


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