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Drag Racing Story of the Day!

What Are the Main Issues?1

Copyright 2000 by Doug Dornbos

What are the main issues in drag racing today? Spec fuel in T/F? Illegal devices in bracket racing? TV coverage?

A quick review of the past reveals a long list of hot topics that have concerned the drag racing world since its inception: Bracket racing. Jet, airplane, and rocket power. Nitromethane. Nostalgia. The Whipple supercharger. Female drivers. The definitions of street legal, gasoline, and stock. Cigarette and beer sponsorship. Entry fee size vs. payout size. Buybacks. Aerodynamics. Wheelbases. Turbocharged V-6s in Pro Stock. What W.J. said. What John Force said. Two car teams. Losing racing credentials for dealing drugs. The high cost of racing. Nitrous Oxide. The success of NASCAR. Deep staging. Don Garlits.

This is in no way a complete list but it does show that historically, the drag racing world is beset with issues both of a technological as well as a sociological nature. With every issue, it seems the health of the sport hangs in the balance with fans and participants either being drawn to or disengaged from the sport.

Opposing views on the health of drag racing.

In discussing the overall health of drag racing, people tend to fall towards two different camps. One side believes that a healthy, powerful, central, professional sanctioning body (i.e., the NHRA) is needed for the long-term health of the sport. The other side believes the sport can be healthy (some say healthier) without it.

Believers in the strong, central, professional sanctioning body ideal point to other sports as examples. Professional football, baseball, hockey, and basketball all have evolved to one central sanctioning body for each sport. When secondary sanctioning bodies have been formed, they have either been crushed or absorbed. Most of the folks who believe that the one, central sanctioning body is the way to go believe that TV is of utmost importance in drawing people to the sport and that drag racing as an entity is losing ground due to (the NHRA having) no strong TV package. 

There also is some feeling here that the slipping away of sponsors from the Top Fuel ranks in the NHRA spells disaster for the entire sport. In short, this line of thinking is, "As goes the NHRA and Top Fuel, so goes the sport of drag racing." The focus here is on attracting spectators and the belief is that the sport can be best grown from the top down.

On the other side of the coin is the thought that a strong, central, professional sanctioning body doesn't count for much. Using basketball as an illustration shows that for every player under the jurisdiction of the NBA, there are conservatively over 3,000 other players at various levels of organized amateur basketball (college, high school, city league, church league, intramurals, Gus Macker, etc.) whom the NBA doesn't even touch. It follows that since it has jurisdiction over less than 3.3 percent of the organized basketball players in this country, the NBA really doesn't have much to do with the health of the sport. The same is felt to be true of drag racing (i.e., that most racers would just continue as they were regardless of the NHRA). 

A quick glance at a current list2 of drag racing sanctioning bodies shows a growing list of sanctioning bodies and events designed to appeal to niche groups such as nostalgia vehicles, super stockers, funny cars, electric cars, Chevys, Fords, Mopars, Macs, imports, motorcycles, street legal, strictly stock, etc. In short, this camp believes that the health of drag racing is more dependent on there being a variety of smaller sanctioning bodies than it is on having one large body. The focus here is more on attracting participants and the belief is that the sport best can be grown from the bottom up.

Four Main Issues

Regardless of your stance on the overall health of the sport and how to achieve it, there are four main issues facing the sport at this time. These issues are nothing new; they have all been around for a long time. They are, however, still the main issues which beckon to be resolved before drag racing can go to the next level.

1. The largest issue is the tension between professionalism and amateurism. In many ways, the above discussion concerning the health of the sport involves this very issue. It may be worth a review here of the basic differences between the professional and the amateur (or sportsman): One gets paid to do what the other pays to do. One is more work than play; the other is more play than work. One is inherently commercial, the other, non-commercial. In professional sports the whole focus is winning (winning isn't the main thing; it's the only thing). In amateur sports, the focus is on participating well (it's not whether you win or lose but how you play the game). One is done for external rewards, the other for internal rewards.3

It is natural for amateurs to emulate professionals and this causes professionalism in all its forms to creep down into the amateur ranks. At what point is this bad? For example, are bracket race purses of upwards to $1-million a good thing or does that large of an external reward push bracket racing to something outside of the amateur sport it was conceived to be? This type of question exists in other sports also (witness the NCAA Division 1 amateur basketball tournament $1.7-billion, 7-year TV deal) and drag racing is only one of several sports questioning if over-professionalization will make their sport needlessly unfriendly to the entry level competitor. The question really becomes: How can drag racing offer a professional sport on the one hand, a beginner-friendly sport on the other hand, and a clear, logical, navigable pathway between the two?

2. The second biggest issue facing drag racing today is the effect of television on the sport. Does televised drag racing draw people into the sport? Going back to our NBA basketball example, if a visiting foreigner with no previous exposure to amateur basketball goes to a high school basketball game due to his enthusiasm for the NBA games he has seen televised, he sees pretty much the same game as he sees on TV albeit at a different skill level. If on the other hand someone goes to a local drag race due to TV exposure, it is not the same game. It is bracket racing. For the average fan, it is a huge disappointment. Will they ever return?

In an entirely different way, TV puts another tremendous burden on the local strip. Do this experiment on yourself: Go see something live for the first time that you've watched multiple times before on TV. Keep mental notes of where the live experience disappoints you and where it is superior to the televised event. I have done this numerous times going to different events including the Detroit Grand Prix C.A.R.T. race, an NFL game, and the circus. In every case, I was in many ways disappointed with the live event. 

Paul McCartney talked about this in an interview on HBO(?) a few years ago. He talked about how much more difficult is was to do a spectacular live show since MTV, VH1, and the proliferation of cable TV had heightened the expectations of the crowd. McCartney claimed that due to TV, the light shows that once had enthralled the crowds now were considered quite mundane and that greater and greater special effects were needed to put on what would be perceived as a high-quality show. In only a slightly different vein, the whole special effects phenomena leads to unrealistic expectations in general. 

Last night, I attended Mission Impossible 2 with my wife. While we were there watching spectacularly choreographed (i.e., fake) fist fighting on the silver screen, our son was down at the local ice cream parlor and witnessed a real live street fight. As you can imagine, it bore no resemblance to what we had seen at the Movie Theater and left him feeling like what he saw never really got going.

The disparity between TV and the live experience may not be as great with drag racing, however, due to its poor conversion to TV. I had a car-geek friend4 who owned about sixteen T-120 videotapes of top fuel dragster and funny car drag racing but had never been to a live race. I convinced him to go to the Popular Hot Rodding Nationals with us one year (1984?). When we got out of the car in the parking lot, a top fuel motor was being revved up about 200 yards away. He asked, "What's that loud noise?" I told him it was a top fuel dragster or funny car. He replied, "No, I hear the cars running. What I'm talking about is that REAL loud noise!" (Oh, of course we didn't rip on him for THAT all day long!) The point is that people don't understand fuel racing from TV and therefore TV is most assuredly not the reason they attend professional races.

Great changes would have to be made for drag racing to be exciting on TV. Some examples of how TV has changed other sports are: Yellow balls in tennis, the entire tournament structure of golf, the lower pitching mound, the reduced strike zone and loss of flannel uniforms in baseball, the shot clock and TV time outs in basketball, and the two-minute warning and the changed definition of offensive holding in football.5

Some sports have purposely stayed away from huge TV packages so they wouldn't have to make the changes. Track & Field is a good example as there is every reason to believe that a large TV package would ruin that sport.6

How much change should professional drag racing be willing to undergo to fit into the demands of TV?

And what would the effect of a great TV menu of drag racing have on the attendance of the local track? Because people will often choose to not come out to the live event if they have a chance to watch it on TV, professional stick-and-ball sports keep television out of their local markets if their games are not selling out. Consider this: In 1949, before major league baseball games were nationally televised, annual attendance at minor league games was at 42 million. After only 8 years of the big leagues being on TV, minor league attendance fell to 15 million.7

Would that kind of diversion away from the local tracks be good for the sport of drag racing?

What about TV money? There is no surer way to increase the expense of participating in a sport than to put it on TV. Of the few hundred thousand drag racers out there over the years, how long is the list of names of those who have financially benefited from the sport being on TV? Compare that list to the list of those who had to throw more money at their racing program as the result of TV. Is chasing the dream of huge TV dollars a worthy goal? The answer may be found in the experience of the Olympics. The cost to compete for those folks has gone up astronomically since the TV money has crept in and the resultant bureaucracy and graft is nothing to smile about either.

Lastly on the TV issue, who will watch it anyway? Question: Who watches golf on TV? Answer: Golfers! No non-golfer has ever decided to attend a live golf match because it looks so great on TV nor have they taken up the game due to the TV exposure it enjoys. The people who watch golf are golfers! The people who watch drag racing are drag racers, street racers, or at the very least high performance car buffs. The belief that you can fill the stands by gaining TV exposure needs to be looked at much more closely than on the surface. TV has its place but how can it be harnessed for the good of drag racing?

3. The third biggest issue in drag racing today is: Who gets the $? If it's true that the sport is so expensive as to dissuade many of the occasional winners from continuing, where is the new talent (i.e., those with little chance of being in the money) going to come from? Do the math. If 48 cars show up at a typical race for a 16 car field, that means that for every car that makes the field, there's two that paid the expense of getting to the track, lodging, etc., and didn't even get the privilege to race. Of the remaining 16, in many cases, only a few will be in the money. Add it all up and you only have a small percentage taking any money home against their expenses. 

If money truly can win races, how much sense does it make to give the winner (allegedly already the guy with the most money) the bulk of the prize money? As long as the cash rewards for winning are high, and the result for losing is zero reimbursement, the cost of competition will be out of reach for all but the handful of people at the top. The contingency awards only add to this problem because they only go to the winner and runner up. To avoid their own version of this problem, every successful stick-and-ball league has revenue sharing that does not leave the little guy sucking wind.

4. Fourth and closely related to the prior point, is the issue of ownership of the sanctioning body. Question: What's the biggest difference between the stick-and- ball sports and drag racing? Answer: The biggest difference is that in the stick-and-ball sports, the teams own the league! This is the big key to the participants making reasonable money. Do you think that if the NBA was a separate entity and each team was coming to them for sanction that pro basketball would be the financial success it is? No way! Each NFL team, each NBA team, each NHL team, all owns an equal share of their respective league! Even the youth soccer league we have here where I live (and I'm sure where you live as well) is owned by whom? The parents of the players!8  

Motor sports is one of the few remaining sports which has separate entities running the sport and participating in the sport. NASCAR is often held up as a working model for this type of thing. Yes, it does seem to be working now but I predict that in the end, it will be NASCAR's undoing. The only way to continue the long term viability of a sports program, is to allow those with a large investment in the game (the teams) to have a voice and/or vote in policy AND a piece of the financial pie!

Where Are the Solutions?

Anybody can point out issues and problem areas but solutions are a little harder to come by. In most fields, when good ideas stop coming from inside the industry, they come in from the outside. Some industries have been so dead that all real innovation has come from outside. The cool part about drag racing is that there are a lot of ideas being not only exchanged but also actually tried out right now. But the sport still needs more ideas. Yours and mine. And we need to stop saying, "That will never work" and replace it with, "If you can get the resources to try it, go for it!" or even, "I'll help in any way I can." It's an exciting time.

Next month, I will briefly discuss an area I see very little written about but one ripe with competitive opportunity: the elimination ladder. It's amazing to what extent it effects all of the issues discussed above.

As always, I value your input whether it be suggestion, comment, or criticism.

Thanks for reading.

Doug Dornbos
phone: 231-929-4261


1. The article that served as a model for this one is "What Are The Divisive Issues?" by Lyle E. Schaller which appeared in the January 2000 issue of The Parish Paper. Schaller's article dealt with divisive issues in the Christian church.

2. A list of sanctioning bodies can be found printed in every issue of Inside Motor Sports or on the web at http://www.linksmanager.com/draglist/links20.html

3. It is worth noting that amateur sports were originally designed to honor the social crust and to exclude the working class. In the present day, however, the idea has been (at least in theory) that amateur sports (drag racing included) should be open to all. This of course is an illusion of sorts but the thought is there. Also worth noting is that the Olympics, in spite of all its self-serving propaganda, has had paid athletes almost from the beginning. 

As far as exclusivity goes, racing is for the rich, period. Noting that we live in a world where 97% of the population doesn't own their own home or car, it follows that the people who have a race car are in the upper 3% of the world (economically speaking). To argue that racing should be available to all is foolhardy since to be serious about making that particular proposal would mean a willingness to buy cars for most of the world.

4. Irv Rotenberg, may you rest in peace my friend.

5. Sports For Sale (Television, Money, and the Fans) by Klatell, David and Marcus, Norman, p. 19, 41.

6. The Turmoil In Sport (which no doubt has an author but due to my negligence, I did not photocopy the cover and cannot remember what library I took a copy of the quote from), p. 97

7. In Its Own Image (How Television Has Transformed Sports) by Benjamin G. Rader, page 59

8. Well, not really. T-BAYS (Traverse Bay Youth Soccer) is a non-profit organization that was founded by and is run by parents of the players.


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