NHRA drag racing finds itself in a bit of a conundrum. It is, by many measures, more popular than ever before, selling out venues it has never sold out previously and achieving some of its all-time-high viewership numbers as a result of its new FOX television partnership. This, at a time when its primary auto racing rivals in Charlotte and Indianapolis are watching their popularity stock devalue. But, for all the growth that its accomplished of late, the organization itself and its professional race teams are finding the sponsorship well running increasingly dry, which runs contrary to conventional wisdom that increased television ratings and attendance would make drag racing more attractive to corporate America, not less. To make matters worse, it’s struggling to retain its bright, young stars.
On Friday morning Courtney Force made official one of the worst-kept secrets of the offseason — interestingly, just three weeks before the season opener — when she revealed her decision to retire from drag racing to turn the page on a new chapter in her life. What that chapter is, exactly, we don’t know, but it isn’t driving a Funny Car, and that’s a problem.
It’s hard to deny that Courtney, the youngest daughter of John and Laurie Force, has been one of the NHRA’s primary weapons in its upward arc over the last handful of seasons. She’s young, attractive, and has a penchant for leveraging social media to build her following. Her marital union into one of auto racing’s most iconic families certainly adds to her fame in the public eye, as well. Over her seven seasons as a professional — during which she became Funny Car’s all-time-winningest female — Courtney was a regular part of media events, appearances, and promotions on behalf of the NHRA and her sponsors, making her undeniably one of the sport’s leading and most visible stars.
…if drag racing can’t keep the young talent it has for the long-term, nor attract the sponsorship needed to cultivate the stars of tomorrow, it has a problem on its hands.
While on a business trip in Southern California last week, myself and my Uber driver, Martin, engaged in conversation over a variety of topics on the hour-long trek to the airport when our chat turned to what I do for a living. Upon sharing that I work in drag racing, Martin told that he’d attended the Winternationals back in the early 1990s; he witnessed the first 300 mph run at Pomona, saying he couldn’t believe how big of a deal that was to see. But he hasn’t been a regular follower of drag racing then or at any time since. But, unprovoked, he asked with enthusiastic curiosity, “hey, didn’t that Force daughter retire yesterday? What’s up with that?”
“I don’t know,” I responded, my mind suddenly more affixed to the realization that someone who wasn’t even a fan of drag racing knew who Courtney was and that she had retired from the sport, than I was on the conversation itself.
That’s the kind of reach Courtney — and the NHRA — had achieved.
I’ve long contended that youth is not the red-hot ticket to success in auto racing that everyone has made it out to be. NASCAR has it in spades and it can’t give away tickets to some venues these days. Age is irrelevant — what matters is a drivers’ personality, their story, how they conduct themselves, and the emotional attachment and the following that their fans build with them. The departures of Courtney and Pro Stock champion Tanner Gray are disconcerting not because they were the young talent the NHRA needed today necessarily, but because they were the established stars it needed tomorrow.
Like many young males whose adolescent years fell in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was a fan of professional wrestling. Hulk Hogan, the Macho Man, and the early careers of guys like ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin and The Rock. I haven’t watched wrestling in nearly 25 years, but every now and then while scanning the channels on a Monday evening, I’ll stumble upon WWE Monday Night Raw, and to my surprise, I’ll often recognize a name from all those years ago either still wrestling or serving in a ringside capacity. Now I’m interested, even if for only a few fleeting moments before I move on to a ballgame or the evening news.
I’m not suggesting living in a nostalgic time-warp where we hang on to the past in order to keep drag racing viable, but a sport needs established names over a long career in order to give it legitimacy and long-term fan attachment. The supporting cast can come and go, but the stars of the show must remain. Television series and movie sequels have failed miserably because the producers forgot this golden rule. Eventually, the long-standing supporting cast become the stars in a natural changing-of-the-guard. Guys like Antron Brown and Matt Hagan, whose last names aren’t generational in drag racing but have been self-established over years and years, fall into this position. Doug Kalitta, Cruz Pedregon, Tony Schumacher, John Force, Ron Capps, Larry Dixon: those are the stars — the institutional, in some cases second-generational names and faces you could count on for decades running.
Depending on the career trajectory and the personal life choices that Brittany Force may or may not make, it is entirely plausible that the Force name could disappear from drag racing entirely in the not-too-distant future. John is soon to turn 70, two of his three daughters have retired from driving, and there’s no guarantee that the opportunity will exist once his grandchildren are of driving age; nevermind that their last names aren’t Force, nor is that of the most likely suitor (from a business and sponsor acquisition perspective) to keep John Force Racing chugging into the distant future: Robert Hight. Whether you like John Force or not, the significance of what his name, and likewise what Connie Kalitta’s, Don Schumacher’s, and the Pedregon brothers’ names have given to drag racing over the last quarter century cannot be overstated.
It isn’t easy to institutionalize oneself in drag racing, and it has become ever-more challenging given the current sponsorship climate that inhibits so many young drivers from embarking on lengthy careers. It takes years to create exposure opportunities like Leah Pritchett has, to enjoy the on-track success that Steve Torrence has, or become a fan-favorite as Terry McMillen has. Even if you’re born into the right family, there is work to be done.
So if drag racing can’t keep the young talent it has for the long-term, nor attract the sponsorship needed to cultivate the stars of tomorrow, it has a problem on its hands.
…a sport needs established names over a long career in order to give it legitimacy and long-term fan attachment. The supporting cast can come and go, but the stars of the show must remain.
Courtney’s departure is a flame extinguished on a driving career entirely too soon, with ramifications for the sport both now and years down the road. It’s difficult, of course, to foretell the landscape of drag racing 10 or 20 years from now and how much of an impact the loss of these young stars will ultimately have. What we do know is that another young, unequivocally recognizable name — a household name, I would argue — has moved on, marking one less main cast member the NHRA can rely on years from now to maintain relevancy in the public eye. And that’s where this loss really stings.
Because if Martin the Uber driver has the thought to take his grandchildren to the Winternationals a decade from now and he doesn’t recognize a single name, how inclined will he be to go?