Bob Bode knows his virtually self-funded Funny Car is a money pit. But having a little extra coin in his pocket (“When we do not run the car, I always have extra cash”) isn’t much of a trade-off for not racing right now. “Emotionally, it is depressing,” the Barrington, Ill., owner-driver said. “It kind of showed me what retirement will be like, and it looks pretty boring. So we will keep racing, whenever it is time to go again.”
Nearby in Chicagoland, in Lincolnshire, T.J. Zizzo said slapping siding on one of the family-owned auto body shop buildings or sanding filler putty on car-repair seams isn’t what jazzes him. “I live for driving a race car. That’s why I get up in the morning. That’s why I work 70 or 80 hours a week. I’m an excitable person because I get to go 330 miles an hour,” the Top Fuel racer said. If he didn’t get to, in his words, “feel the rush of 11,000 horsepower shimmy through my body” for the rest of 2020, he said, “emotionally, I would be a wreck” and financially “it would be devastating.”
Out on Long Island, Justin Ashley said he’s already missing “my team, my fellow competitors, my sponsors, the fans, and the overall adrenaline.” What if he weren’t permitted to race until 2021? “A ‘no’ for me would be personally upsetting,” the rising Top Fuel star said. “But we need to view this from more of a selfless perspective than a selfish perspective. Health and safety is top priority. No matter what, working constructively with sponsors will be key, either way.”
Top Fuel’s Audrey Worm said she would love to make a living driving a race car. But for now, she doesn’t need to. “My husband and I, as well as our team, all work fulltime jobs. We are a part-time race team. We do it more for the love of it than for the financial rewards. So we are in a holding pattern for the 2020 season, but I really want to get out there and see my fans and smell the nitro. Being at the track gives me extreme joy,” the Grantville, Pa., resident said. “If the NHRA would drop the rest of the season, I think it would affect me more mentally than financially.”
Ashley can afford to approach this current work stoppage calmly and analytically, for he has a real-estate rehab business and plenty of distressed homes needing renovation. Zizzo does have the option of repairing dented, dinged, and destroyed automobiles. Bode has a plastic-bag factory he could fire back up, with demand for his product. And Worm, husband Aaron Grant, and their female-led team members all are employed fulltime.
But Terry Haddock definitely is feeling the hurt in Temple, Texas.
The longtime NHRA journeyman and one-time IHRA Funny Car champion said his flopper and his Top Fuel dragster that Cameron Ferré drives must be at the racetrack, competing, for him to earn money racing. Moreover, with the racing industry idle at the moment, he’s not generating any money to speak of with his engine block repair business – because it feeds off the racing industry.
Haddock talks about “going through change in your toolbox so you can make sure you can put gas in the truck – or eat” and wrestling with questions such as “Do we buy groceries or do we pay the insurance?”
He said, “Everybody looks at this from a different perspective, depending on what side of the dollar they’re on.” Scrounging for loose change in the toolbox to meet basic needs, he said, “is a little different than when you’re waiting for checks” [referring to those who are still employed but working remotely]. “A lot of small businesses were eligible for government grants. Well, ours wasn’t. So there’s no help. You fight your way through it. We will.
“The point is it’s a serious point when you say, ‘Which side of the dollar are you on?’ If all this is an inconvenience and you can’t go to the gym and you can’t do this and you can’t do that but you’re still paying your bills, it doesn’t affect you until you say, ‘Do I pay the electric or the phone bill? Do we buy groceries or do we pay the insurance? I don’t know where I fall in with everybody else, but I spend $1,600 a month to insure this business – the race team and the trucks and trailers and all the B.S. involved. ‘Which side of the dollar are you on?’ becomes very important,” Haddock said.
“Some people say stuff like, ‘Oh, well, if you stay home, you save money.’ That’s a misconception. I say, ‘You don’t understand.’ Most people don’t realize that us smaller teams, we don’t have tons of money. We get help while we’re racing, not while we’re sitting at home,” he said.
“We survive on the qualifying checks. And it’s not a good business model, but it gets you through,” Haddock said. “We race because someday . . . we hope that if we’re out there, somebody’s going to give us a chance,” he said. “But to think we’re going to save money? We’re just like everybody else. We’ve got families and jobs and all the stuff that takes money. But we’re blessed that when we’re out racing, this guy’ll help you and that guy’ll help you. You’ll get NHRA’s checks. It’s by no way enough to keep going. But you can’t do it without it. It’s a big shell game. It gives you enough to keep going, in the hopes that someday you’re going to attract that sponsor.”
Haddock is aware that the NHRA and its teams operate by a wholly unique business model. “Mine’s stupid as hell. We’ve just managed to make it work,” he said. “This isn’t a good business plan. It’s actually really stupid.”
But he loves the sport of drag racing, so it is what it is.
“I spend every dime I can get my hands on over the winter, improving my program. We’ve made incredible strides. I’m proud of it,” Haddock said. “So then you go to Pomona and you qualify two cars. And you use those checks to get you to Phoenix. You use those checks and you qualify to get you to Gainesville. Well, we showed up in Gainesville. We flew all our people there. We bought all the diesel fuel. We bought all the hotel rooms. We did everything we were supposed to do, and Thursday afternoon, they said, “You know what, guys? We changed our minds.’ And I know it’s not their fault. The point is there ain’t no money for that. So when it does come time to start again, how does dumb ol’ Haddock do it? We always find our way. I keep sayin’ I’m blessed, because I’m not in the bad category.”
What he means by that is that despite his painfully real woes, he’s certain the larger team owners, particularly Don Schumacher and John Force, have even bigger headaches because they have more personnel and capital goods to pay for. And sponsors who help prop up the entire sport are going through their own trials. And he understands the plight of his fellow racers.
“I can only imagine what struggles those big teams are having now. We’re blessed to be in a situation where we don’t have super-high overhead. Can you imagine what goes through Don Schumacher’s and John Force’s minds?” Haddock asked. “You know they’ve got all kinds of payments – to employees, insurance, bills. And there’s no money coming in. I have some small sponsors, but I don’t have giant responsibilities for things. What happens when you’re counting on that [sponsor] to support your racing habit? Well, that guy’s got hundreds of employees. If I was him I’d be thinking about taking care of my employees and not that car. And no judge is going to make them honor a contract when the world has been shut down.
“This thing, when you get on the other side of it . . . Think of this for a second . . . I’m a small business here, and we do whatever we do. If things were to change and the world opens up again, and you were going to go sponsor a car, you were going to be the guy who was a major sponsor on that Funny Car for the rest of the year, well, after what we’ve all gone through, being locked in your houses and you want to take care of your employees,” he said. “Wouldn’t it better to have whatever money you have set aside for marketing to look after your people? That’s what I would want to do with it. You can’t even blame them. If I had 100 employees, my responsibility would be to those 100 employees, not to the contract that says we’re going to race, especially after the world being closed for three months.
“This could have major, major repercussions on the sport that people aren’t even looking at. This whole thing is just beyond crazy. I hope we’re still standing when it’s over.
Thank God I don’t have all the responsibility those big teams have. Everything we own is paid for, so I don’t have the responsibility all those big teams have.
“This year we hired our first fulltime guy on the race team. So for the last month, since all this has happened, it’s a struggle to pay him,” Haddock said. “I want to keep him around. He’s a great kid. He moved here to work on the team. Well, what happens if they say no more racin’? I’m sure he’ll stay and work in the shop, but we’ve got to change our whole plan of how we’re going to make money. When we’re not racing, I repair racing engines. We’ve spent the last month getting caught up and got all the stuff that’s been laying around done. But it’s hard, because you can’t call people up and say, ‘Hey, your stuff’s done,’ because nobody’s going to pay for it now. Why would they? You need to make sure to keep your money in your bank to take care of your family, not go pay for some stupid engine block.”
He wondered aloud, especially thinking about the hired drivers, the ones who were taken care of financially, “So what race teams are not going to come back? You can’t fault them when they don’t. I’m stupid. I race with my heart. I don’t have any money, and we all sacrifice to do this. But most people, once they get a taste of the good life, they ain’t backing up to do it like this again.”
Those like him, who have a shoestring budget, are experiencing anxiety, he said he’s sure: “What about that guy who just got that fancy truck and trailer payment? If you went to buy a trailer like we’ve got or any of the other teams have, a used one costs you 125-175,000 bucks. What’s the payment on that like? Imagine being the poor guy sitting there with that payment now. Plus he’s not getting a paycheck from his job.”
Fellow veteran Scott Palmer said he’s hoping the NHRA can get back on the racetrack soon. “But if there were no NHRA for the remainder of the season,” the Top Fuel privateer said, “I would be more worried about the NHRA surviving than our team. That is a legitimate concern of mine at this point. As far as NHRA Top Fuel sponsors, it drastically hurts that. Even if NHRA starts up later, sponsors are hurting because of the shutdown. So nothing is going to be the same. We will all be in survival mode for the 2020 season. I worry about every team, crew person, sponsor, vendor, writer, photographer, NHRA, and especially all of the track owners across the country. Racing is IT. It’s not just a hobby for us all. It’s how we survive.”
Haddock agreed. “It’s unfortunate. I hope people can come back from it. There’s definitely be a comeback. I’m just curious what it’s going to look like, especially for our industry,” he said. “I think it’s going to be fewer [multi-car teams], and I think it can’t happen soon enough.
“Do you realize that if they said no, that we ain’t racin’ this year, I don’t know that it could come back. I mean, it’ll come back, but at what level? Look at all the people who work in this industry that have families. If we’re not racin’, then I need to go get a job, just like everybody else. The bank ain’t going to wait. The car payment ain’t going to wait. The insurance payment ain’t going to wait. We got to eat, right? I think if they don’t do something, it’s going to be so close to finished it isn’t funny. We can’t all sit here and wait,” he said.
“We’re trying to upbeat and positive,” Haddock said, “but it is frustrating. I’m blessed – I don’t have to deal with what a lot of people do. As bad as things are, they could be so much worse. And someday, someone’s going to see us and give us a shot – before I’m dead.”
As for the NHRA, Haddock simply said, “I wouldn’t want to be them.”
Palmer agreed: “It’s such a strange situation that I just can’t imagine having to make a decision about running a race at this point.”
The March 25 schedule revision has the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series opening June 5-7 at Gainesville. But it would be no surprise if Monday’s expected announcement about the NHRA’s latest plans for 2020 look vastly different.
But Haddock is prepared.
“I have a Pro Mod car. If the NHRA goes to s—, I’ve got to go Street Outlaw racin’.”