- Fans would love to see more involvement from Camping World.
- Some race, TV-package format changes might be useful.
- Ol’ Saint Nick has some ideas to raise prestige of the sport (besides larger purses, which always make nice gifts any time of year).
Ho-ho-ho. It’s Little Saint Nick here—the one the Beach Boys sang about.
You know him. The“real famous cat all dressed up in red” who “spends the whole year working out on his sled,” which by the way, will “walk a toboggan with a four-speed stick” and is “candy apple red with a ski for a wheel.”
And when I “hit the gas, man, just watch ‘er peel." (Ha! You have the song stuck in your head now, don’t you?)
Well, I’m coming to town. And I’ve been studying a Naughty and Nice list that NHRA drag-racing fans have been sending to the North Pole Post Office. So I’ve been pondering all year whether to cruise by your executive offices at San Dimas, Calif., and your headquarters at Indianapolis and drop off goodies or lumps of coal.
Now, hey, it’s not my fault a lot of fans are recommending no figgy pudding for any of you! Fa-la-la-la-la . . . la-la-la-- huh? You tawkin' to me? Don't like what ya read? Don't be gettin’ on the Internet and trash-talkin’ me. Let’s settle it on the dragstrip. Line up your sleigh. I'll shut ya down. I'll Blitzen ya. . . . Oh, yeah . . . heh-heh -- 'Tis the season to be jolly . . . Right . . . Guess Ol' Saint Nick did have some nice fans who talked about the positive things the sport has going for it. And I do love a sport with a Christmas Tree. So here’s how we’ll leave it . . . I’ll just give you a list of things I’d like to see happen in 2023 and leave you a candy cane . . . with a big bite taken out of it.
So comin’ at ya, right down Santa Claus Lane, are 10 suggestions for you, NHRA . . .
More Engagement from Series Sponsor Camping World and Its Chairman/CEO, Marcus Lemonis
Camping World rescued the NHRA in mid-2020 after the Coca-Cola Company poured its goodwill down the drain and breached its series-sponsorship contract. And Camping World and semi-nomadic, family-oriented, grassroots-inspired drag racing have seemed like the perfect fit.
But the last time Camping World stepped into the spotlight at the racetracks was at the March 2021 Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla. That was 42 races ago. And the big attraction was an exhibition race featuring two of the company’s popular-model travel trailers. The winning elapsed time was 16.070 seconds—longer than the combined final-round E.T.s of the event’s Top Fuel, Funny Car, and Pro Stock winners that weekend.
The two fans who were awarded those two motorhomes were thrilled, but the rest of the crowd might have enjoyed wandering through a display that showed off Camping World’s wares. It’s an ongoing mystery why the company doesn’t have a massive presence at every race on the tour—or two: one that shows the world of RVing to those who never have tried it and another that’s geared for camping/RVing veterans, showing off the newest features, upgrades, and accessories.
In each of his TV series, Marcus Lemonis presents himself as an involved, genuinely caring individual who immerses himself into the challenges of a business or a family. And he’s a fun person to chat with. So why doesn’t he show up at the races (not just send his associates on occasion) and, better yet, promote his products to a highly receptive audience?
He ought to check out the campgrounds at Brainerd, Minn. (“The Zoo”) and at Indianapolis and feast his eyes on the sea of motorhomes throughout the grounds.
Put More Reality-Style Content into the TV Package
Ol’ Santa’s not asking for a cheesy knockoff of the Jerry Springer Show. He’s not even falling into the trap of wanting to mimic the tone of the popular, younger-skewing Street Outlaws editions from Discovery Channel.
TV shows, in general, require a lot of work and creative storytelling to produce.
Announcers Brian Lohnes, Tony Pedregon, Amanda Busick, and pit reporters Jamie Howe, John Kernan, Bruno Massel do a commendable job. And no matter how gifted each of the on-air and production contributors is, drag racing isn’t a made-for-TV kind of motorsport.
It’s impossible to capture the sensory overload, and that’s no one’s fault. But the TV crew could play to the sport’s strength. It’s unique in that the community rallies to help one another. It’s a family, sometimes a dysfunctional one but one that pitches in to help the lower-budgeted racers when they need a hand up. And that’s something that the NHRA could share with viewers.
“Reality,” in this context, simply means to give viewers a closer look at who these racers are, what their approaches are, how they interact with their colleagues. It might forge an attachment between the racers and audience. They’ll care who wins a match-up when they start to favor particular racers.
How could that not be more attractive than watching car after car whiz down the dragstrip?
What the show’s producers would need is time to edit. And that leads to the notion of turning the coverage into a weekly mini-series.
“Yeah, but who’ll watch if they already know who won the race?” you say. Apparently plenty of people will. Several hundred thousand—and occasionally more—have tuned into “Street Outlaws” shows – and those races were completed months before the program aired.
NHRA fans complain when the Sunday eliminations show is delayed by a few hours. Discovery Channel has been accused of becoming perturbed with reporters proving spot coverage, because it fears immediate results will spoil the show. It doesn’t seem to.
But Americans traditionally have enjoyed mini-series (think Downton Abbey, The Crown, and way back to Roots, Shōgun, North and South, and “Thorn Birds”). Why not air the latest race coverage over a three-weeknight stretch–Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday—and highlight the perspective of the results and how they unfolded? After all, it’s entertainment.
It might save money. It definitely would help crews have a more reasonable time to prep the cars for the next round rather than rush to satisfy TV-broadcast windows (enhancing the show). And it would keep drag racing top of mind. Drag racing is a one-off concept. Make the broadcast of it the same.
Trigger a Broader Scope of Sponsor Activation on the Midway
The once-bustling midway in the pit area has become a ghost town. The sport might attract new sponsors and keep the ones they have for a longer time if the fees for exhibiting and activating marketing plans. Engrossing the younger generation in drag-racing will help build loyalty and lead to deeper involvement (as a Jr. Dragster driver, perhaps, or a life-long fan, a/k/a ticket-buyer).
Condense the Show to Two Days
People don’t seem to mind dedicating a full day to attending an NFL, NBA, or NHL game (complete with traffic delays, parking roulette, tailgating, waiting in line, and pre- and/or post-game dinner out). But it’s almost too much to ask fans to dedicate an entire weekend to three long days at the dragstrip, even in ideal weather conditions.
Track operators have shared that they would be thrilled with a shorter race weekend, because that means they fork over less money for logistical expenses.
Trim the Schedule from 22 races
It has gone from four national events in the beginning of the NHRA to as many as 24. It’s only logical that cutting back would save a lot of money for every team. Some have argued that sponsors would devalue the series and not want to participate in a shortened series. The SRX Series hasn’t suffered from a compressed six-race lineup—it has ample and well-known sponsors, high-profile drivers, and just morphed into a rebrand of Thursday Night Thunder on ESPN.
Granted, scheduling is no easy task and contains lots of moving parts, including racetracks with different calendar limitations and challenges and, predictably, track operators with a sense of entitlement. Some of them would be apoplectic if, as NHRA boss Glen Cromwell has acknowledged, their facility was one that might be platooned with another on a rotating basis. B
ut costs are escalating and revenue isn’t across the board, so trying something new might be unavoidable.
Establish a Driver Development Program to Create a Path for Young Drivers to Make It to NHRA Top Levels
IndyCar has its Indy NXT series that replaces its Indy Lights series. Some NASCAR teams have Xfinity Series or Truck Series teams or alliances that help ready young racers before they step up to Cup-level action.
Formula 1 has its lower formulas and team specific driver-development programs.
The NHRA has a different structure—one that has anything but a clear path to the Top Fuel, Funny Car or even Pro Stock classes. NHRA team owners don’t always have extra sponsors or dollars to cover such an undertaking as a true ladder system.
Considering the peculiar fact that many aged-out Jr. Dragster racers find other interests and leave the sport and that many sportsman-level drivers content to remain at the sportsman level, developing a feeder series could guarantee the sport will go on with fresh faces.
Promote the “NHRA Launch!” program more vigorously
Pro Stock Motorcycle legend Terry Vance, through his Vance Family Foundation in cooperation with the NHRA, was the catalyst and benefactor of this platform designed to provide career opportunities to those seeking them in drag racing. The program connects passionate individuals with teams that have hiring needs. Vance gave $1 million as seed money. It’s a terrific vehicle – the NHRA needs to drive it around more.
Hire One High-Profile Official Starter
Buster Couch set the bar. Rick Stewart followed him with grace. Mark Lyle was a well-respected replacement for the retired Stewart. Mike Gittings was the oh-so-earnest successor to Lyle, who perished in an accident in Mexico. But the NHRA chose to go the cheap route and switch starters in and out, starting in 2019.
The position no longer had a face or cachet. That’s exactly what it has missed these past four seasons. The starting line needs a single authority to be professional and ensure order on a consistent basis.
Recruit Celebrity Grand Marshals
God bless the men and women whose exemplary work ethic has impressed their bosses at work for the race sponsor.
A special thank you to them, because loyalty to a company and responsibility to the task daily are sadly becoming a lost art. But by naming those folks grand marshals, the NHRA is missing an opportunity to embrace celebrities who can entice people to buy tickets. Even a B-list actor about to release a film or a singer or popular sports figure or another kind of entertainer might elevate the reputation or status of an NHRA event.
If that person can sing, all the better—have them perform the national anthem, too. And stipulate that the grand marshal stay and sign autographs for 45 minutes or an hour before leaving.
Give the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series Sportsman-Level Racers a Louder Voice
Judging from Santa’s mailbag, that wish list for the NHRA is a long one. So suffice it to say the racers in the support classes have plenty of suggestions for improving relationships there. Make a sincere effort to sit down with them and listen to what they have to say. Both sides can benefit from that.