The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted every sector of our world, from our work to our food sources, entertainment, transportation, and even our family life. It will, undoubtedly, force change — both good and bad — in every facet of business ands entertainment. In fact, I believe that it should — that we as human beings should view this moment in time as a sign from the heavens to slow down, to rethink what’s important, and to hit the reset button, if you will.
At some point in time, the National Hot Rod Association, like everything else, will return to national event competition. Gates will fling open, racers will come, spectators will purchase tickets. But we do not yet know the damage inflicted on the organization by this pandemic — what do its own finances look like after several months without a revenue stream? Will professional teams have lost sponsors or personal businesses and been forced to curb their racing? Like the rest of society, I believe this is an opportunity — a very necessary opportunity — for the NHRA to hit the reset button. Not only should it, but it must.
You may be asking why I’m picking solely on the NHRA here. This is why.
The NHRA has historically been, and should be, the center of the drag racing universe. It should be the tip of the spear, in technology, in entertainment, in every facet imaginable. All roads, all dreams in this sport should lead to the NHRA. The U.S. Nationals should be a holiday that overshadows the actual Labor Day holiday to any car-guy. Every racer the world over should aspire to compete and win at a national event. To even have the opportunity to race at an NHRA national event. The guys in the local barber shop, casual car-tinkerers at best, should be flicking through issues of National Dragster while they wait to have their ears raised…that’s a true story from my youth.
The problem is, the NHRA stopped leading. Instead, it let an entire industry of genres and sub-genres of drag racing to rise up around it. We used to call it “outlaw” drag racing, in part because it was separate of the very mannerly and traditional structure of the NHRA umbrella. Now, we just refer to it all as drag racing, because there is no leader, no mothership.
Look, I love the NHRA and its vast array of long-standing, traditional eliminators as much as anybody. At one time I could recite from memory the index and national record in K/Stock Automatic and would roll out of bed before sunrise to watch Super Comp. Yes, Super Comp. So, honestly, I love this stuff. But the reality is, the NHRA’s eliminator structure is stuck somewhere back in the 20th century, while the rest of the sport has passed it by. In the time drag racing has given us Outlaw 10.5, Radial versus The World, X275, 5-second street cars, 5-second imports and production-engine cars, Pro Modified, Pro Extreme, no-prep, and Street Outlaws, the NHRA really hasn’t changed much. Sure, it’s still the most visible and the most watched, and by virtually all metrics, has been on an upward trajectory in recent years as other major motorsports decline, but the tip of the spear in every other regard it is not.
The headlines, the ingenuity, the interest from young people…all somewhere else.
This is its opportunity to lead again, and I for one hope it seizes it.
So, here’s a DRAGZINE wish-list of items — realistic items — we’d love to see!
Fewer National Events
There was, many moons ago, one national event, and hot rodders traveled from near and far to be there. It was The Nationals…as in the only one. Then came another one. And then another one. They were exclusive and rare. The laws of supply and demand were in their favor, making them ever-more prestigious.
Then, there were 24 of them.
And with that, the exclusivity, prestige, the privilege of being there, of saying ‘I won The Nationals’ was gone. The market was oversaturated. It’s also proven, in this economy, to be economically and physically overwhelming to the professional teams and has resulted in their becoming glorified divisionals to sportsman teams.
For national events to be sought-after, there have to be fewer of them. Twelve seems like a good number.
I outlined some specific ideas for this back in 2018, and you can read that in greater detail here.
Two-Day Pro Shows
Pretty simple one. Two or three qualifying runs, preferably two, to increase the pressure on the drivers while decreasing overall operating costs. Qualifying one day, race the next.
All forms of racing were more exciting when just qualifying was cut-throat, and sixteen or fewer cars getting four runs to get it right isn’t that exciting.
Top Fuel and Funny Car
I also got into specifics on this previously, which you can read here. But the gist of it was: one short block per weekend for nitro teams, or one for qualifying and one for eliminations, without a penalty. There is no economic logic, none at all, for the least-paid of the major American motorsports to be the one burning up the most money in parts. It’s entirely backwards from a business standpoint.
By limiting the usage of parts, it forces crew chiefs to make calculated decisions on when to lean on their parts and when not to. It slows the cars down without actually taking away the potential to go fast. You’ll have hail-mary’s and pedal-fests again, like the good old days. You’ll also give a small advantage to teams not chasing a championship and concerned with points, as they can push their car harder and risk the penalty for changing short blocks.
By allowing costs to be virtually unlimited, small teams have mostly disappeared and sponsorship is nigh on impossible to come by because the ask is $3-5 million in an age of decreased motorsports marketing spending. To add to that, nitro teams have backed themselves into a corner where it costs so much to run one, that even booked-in shows are hard for a promoter to justify.
Unlimited expense has never worked in any form of motorsport without severe ramifications, and NHRA is no exception.
Part-time Top Fuel racer T.J Zizzo, the last of a dying breed, noted on this week’s episode of BURNOUT on Speedvideo that it costs his team $25,000 per run to campaign their car. We aren’t certain what all costs he factors into that number, but still, the runaway spending has to stop for the health of these vital categories.
The factory hot rods are a far cry from factory anymore, and they had a really great run for about 35 years, but the class is way past due for an overhaul if it hopes to be relevant. With all due respect to those in the class, today’s Pro Stock cars are painfully boring to watch, and not even the coolest-sounding engines in the sport can overcome that handicap. The more the NHRA and its teams try to band-aid the cars to make them popular, the less so they become.
The cars need to be relatable, real, and highly unpredictable. And they need to be in-line with, if not ahead of, the technology being used in other drag racing venues. Remember, the NHRA and its premier classes should be the epicenter of drag racing. Fortunately, there are a myriad of existing cars and engines out there that provide a solid blueprint for a prosperous Pro Stock concept.
OEM-style engines, from Ford’s Coyote and Modular platforms to GM’s LSX and Chrysler’s Gen III Hemi, have been shown capable of producing anywhere from 1,400 to 2,500 horsepower — depending on how extreme you want to get — producing runs as quick as the 5.60s at over 260 mph. And you can buy one complete for $50-70,000 and get ample runs out of them. A 500-inch engine has been said to fetch well into the six-figures and demands pricey valvetrain parts every single run.
Limited Drag Radial, X275, and the no-prep world feature a variety of cars built using real-deal OEM steel quarter panels and roof, with a factory wheelbase and overall appearance. These cars already exist, they’re proven, and they look like a real car. Ford, Chevy, and Dodge could market the actual car being used on the track.
Blend the chassis with the production supercharged and turbocharged engines, can the wheelie bars, require something like a 28×10.5 or a 275 radial, offer up the same payout Pro Stock is accustomed to, put ‘em on TV, and watch the real factory wars commence.
Some may say it would be dangerous running mid to low sixes at 220-plus mph with a car like that. I’ll leave you with two points: one, it’s already been done, and two, no one would have ever shown up to watch Evil Kneivel jump his motorcycle if they knew he was going to land it — quite the opposite.
Pro Stock Motorcycle
Like Pro Stock, Pro Stock Motorcycle is tame and predictable to a fault. Cool bikes, and highly impressive for what they are, but tame and predictable.
Have you seen Pro Street bikes? If you have, you couldn’t possibly forget. No wheelie bars, nitrous oxide, turbochargers, and superchargers, wheelstands, cart-wheels, 6.40s at 220 mph, with bikes that don’t really look all that unlike those running around on the street with swingarm extensions.
These things take some serious cajones to ride, and I doubt you’d see many people leave the stands knowing they might miss a back-flip or a 1/4-mile wheelie.
Top Alcohol Dragster and Funny Car
Run ‘em against one another. Coast to coast, the fields in both categories have dwindled and show little sign of changing course. Where else (other than in Europe, where they already do this) can you watch a Funny Car race a dragster at 260 mph? It creates just a bit more of a spectacle for fan curiosity, and that’s what we need. One of the categories will have to be sped up or the other slowed down, but they’ve created parity before and can again in time.
Super Comp, Super Gas, and Super Street
The NHRA was once the home to the world’s greatest sportsman drag racers. And that’s not to say that those competing today in the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series aren’t great racers, but the greats are fragmented. Some are still out there chugging along in Super Comp, Stock, and other classes, but many, many more have left the NHRA fold entirely for high-dollar bracket racing, where they can compete for significantly larger purses over fewer days. Many of the top-name sportsman racers from years gone by can be found in these venues that simply didn’t exist in the heyday of Super Comp and Super Gas, when those categories were highly aspirational. Twenty years ago, it was a badge of honor to race with the NHRA…it was also more financially lucrative.
Bracket racers have typically cited five key reasons they abstain from NHRA competition.
One, the events are too long. Two, the entry costs are outrageous. Three, they want to be treated better, like equal cogs in the wheels of success. Four, the payouts are very, very low, especially given points one, two, and three. And five, they don’t want to throttle-stop or index race.
I won’t claim to know how the NHRA money-machine works, but it’s long been assumed that the sportsman racers pay tall entry fees (in the neighborhood of $275-320) for payouts of around $1800 to win, as a means of subsidizing the much larger purses in the professional classes.
For the sake of comparison, bracket racers can typically run for a winner’s share of $50,000 for an entry fee of around $275.
Combine all three .90 classes into one, let them dial-in their own cars, and run for the kind of money they can get elsewhere. Limit the entries by grade points, start the program on Wednesday or Thursday, whittle it down to eight or four cars and let them finish it out in front of the largest crowd they’ll ever get the chance to on Saturday evening during professional qualifying. Treat them like royalty, put the final couple of rounds on FS1, and promote these folks. Bring the world’s greatest sportsman drag racers — all of them — back to the NHRA.
Stock and Super Stock
Gradually combine the two classes and run them heads-up on their indexes just like God and Wally Parks intended it. Will it thin the herd? Of course. But national and particularly divisional races need the excitement of heads-up, all-out drag racing. Perhaps these guys and gals can establish a gentleman’s agreement not to let their expenses get out of hand. It worked in nostalgia racing and in the Southeast Gassers Association, so maybe it can work here, too.
For those who don’t wish to invest in running heads-up, there’s the combination bracket race noted above. Which they’re already doing. And hey, no more teardown.
Pro Mods, Fuel Altereds, and Nostalgia Floppers at Divisionals
It doesn’t have to be run like a feeder program to the national event Pro Mod show, but there are Pro Modified, Fuel Altered, and nitro nostalgia Funny Car organizations in virtually every corner of the country — partner up and put them on display at divisionals….anything to get butts in the seats at these races.
What kind of changes would you make if you could totally reimagine NHRA drag racing, or even drag racing as a whole? Sound off on Facebook and let us know your ideas, whether they’re realistic or total zany!