Vince McMahon, Where Are You?
Funny Car Match Racing Needs a Savior
By Bill Naves
1979 New England Dragway Funny Car Nats -- Can we get back to this?
Scan by James Morgan
I have a dream. I'm in a dimly lit church basement, standing at the podium saying, "Hello, my name is Bill and I'm...a drag racer. It started innocently with a street-driven bracket car, but soon it was blowers, injectors, and eventually... a funny car." Then I wake up and think: which one is the dream? I started Funny Car racing in the '80s with Nick Boninfante. It didn't take very long to understand that if I wanted to continue racing, I would have to change from being a racer to being an entertainer.
My wife Kimberley and I have match raced with some of the best people in the Northeast. We've made countless friends up and down the coast, sometimes traveling 1,000 miles on any given weekend. We've raised four kids, raced in 15 states at over 50 different drag strips in this country and Canada. Some of them are brand new and some are now industrial parks. Some of the competitors achieved greatness and some no longer race. Some have even passed on and are missed but not forgotten.
But through the 20 years we've been doing this, some things are extremely evident to us. Drag racing is entertainment. Without spectators, there is no payout. Without a payout, this is a multimillion-dollar hobby. We compete with a lot of others for the entertainment dollars our audience has. The ticket prices keep going up, the entry keeps going up, the speeds keep going up, the risk keeps going up, and the show is getting less and less entertaining. We're in trouble, boys and girls!
Several years ago, we were doing a show in New York. Bob Metcalfe had the pre-race meeting with all the pro racers in Al Hanna's trailer, and he put it perfectly. He said, "Listen guys, I don't want to hear 'how that would have been the fastest you ever went' or 'that would have been a career best if only...' I get their attention for 2 1/2 to 3 hours, tops. Be on the starting line when you're called. Don't push your stuff to the point of breaking. And give these people what they paid for -- a good show."
Well, that had a profound effect on me. Since that day, I determine before I leave the house if the promoter wants a show or a race. Now, my boys are old enough to be a vital part of the operation and they understand we don't expect to be the quickest or fastest. We know the difference and we don't hold it against all those guys who came, ran fast, and then ran out of money. We survived.
We have always known that match racing was the only way we would be able to do this. It takes a different mindset to do match racing. Understanding that the goal is to entertain the audience and make them want to come back and see us again is different from being the fastest car on the planet no matter what the cost.
I look at it this way: the Olympic gold medal wrestler is a true athletic hero. He puts everything he has into being the best at what he does. On the other side is the WWF wrestler. He puts everything he has into entertaining the audience.
I used to scoff at them and say the matches are fixed until I realized the precision and athletic ability these guys displayed. The carefully scripted matches and drama are all intended to entertain the audience and make them want to come back again and again. They may not have gold medals, but if their careers are planned carefully, they can do what they love to do and make a very good living at it. That's why drag racing needs a Vince McMahon of Funny Car Shows. Is he out there?
Consider this: in the '70s and '80s, the touring match race funny cars were running 6.30 to 6.80 elapsed times at around 220 mph. They did two runs for around $2,000, and headliners probably got more. Most ran iron block Hemis -- basically crate motors with 6-71 blowers on 85% nitro. They ran conservatively and consistently, delivering the show sometimes three times a week. Why did this kind of entertainment take the route of the dinosaur? Individual corporate sponsors sentenced it to death.
When the racer had to develop his own income, match racing was part of the equation. In order to gross enough money to stay involved, he had to focus on delivering the show as a means of continuing. Corporate money said, "Don't waste your efforts on those small venues; focus on national status and television coverage." Now the racers coming up think they have to rotate the world to get the attention of some fairy tale golden goose so they can go to national events and spend everything the golden goose lays.
I think we may have come full circle. The time may be right to bring the show back to the smaller venues. What is needed now is someone with the credibility and personality to make it work. Maybe there is nothing wrong with drag racing, but rather with its execution.
What if a show featured long smoky burnouts, the kind the national racer types complain about. How about dry hops after the burnout -- remember them? Give the announcer a chance to talk up the match and maybe give you time to make that friendly wager with the guy next to you. Excite the crowd. Rev the motor a few times. Intimidate them, stun them, maybe even awe a few of them. Have structured autograph sessions, programs, and souvenirs. How about pre-race displays at a mall?
But most importantly of all, we need our own Vince McMahon -- a knowledgeable, tuned-in announcer to enhance every aspect of the show. Someone who will bring the excitement of a national event with between-rounds interviews in the pits, without the racers having to commit behind-the-scenes bankrupting of each other. Well "Vince," if you're out there, it's time to step up. Racers and fans, it's been a long winter.
Tell me what you think.
Shooting Star TAFC