The Farm System
Remember when you started racing when you were a kid? You took your parent’s car, or your own hard-earned beater to the local dragstrip. If you had a good weekend, maybe you brought home a trophy to show off to your friends, but one thing’s for sure: it was fun. You got the opportunity to run your car as fast as it could go without worrying about getting a ticket. You got to pal around with experienced racers you gave you tips on how to get a better reaction time, or tweak your carburetor, and you got to compete with a bunch of other kids (young and old!) who were also just starting to learn bracket racing.
Have those days eluded us? In the beginning, we raced for trophies. We looked up to the footbrake drivers, and were awed by the speed of Super/Pro cars. We stepped up to Footbrake, and may have spent $25 to race for $300. Nobody won a ton of money, but no one spent a whole lot of money, either. We asked to race for more money (our mistake), and the track operators listened (their mistake). With more money on the line, people spent more money on their cars to go faster and be more consistent to get a competitive edge. Entry fees and purses went up again, and we spent more money. Tracks needed a way to maintain their bottom line, and introduced buybacks. Racers, who are now running around with motorhomes, stacker trailers, and 1000hp 4-link dragsters, “can’t afford to race for less than $2,000 to win”.
What’s missing is an opportunity for the novice racer to get hooked on the sport. Test and Tune nights let guys go down the track, but aside from grudge runs, there is no competition. In a hardcore bracket program, the novice racer shells out $35-$40, and is rewarded with one or two time trials, gets to spend another $10 in the “Run for the Money” (which probably hasn’t even been explained as to what it is), gets slaughtered by the local hitter the first round, perhaps spends another $25 to buyback and get one more run in before meeting another early demise. Of course, he could always spend another $10 to try to get back in the race with the drawing for a Mulligan. Hm. $80 spent in entry fees alone, just to try to get some practice. How long will this racer stay interested in bracket racing?
We need an affordable avenue for novice drivers to compete against others of similar ability level. Some tracks have discovered on their own that some of these principals reach into their existing classes as well. Tim Lee, a regular at San Antonio Raceway Park, reported that at one point, the track raised the entry fee and the purse for the Footbrake class, and found the car counts drop. The following year, they lowered the entry fee to $5 less than what it was the year before, and adjusted the payouts accordingly. “It’s now their biggest class,” said Lee.
Cordova Dragway Park, in Cordova, Ill., has long been known as a progressive track that keeps a good balance between what the racers want, and what will be good for the sport’s longevity. Track owner, Scotty Gardner, whose roots are in class racing, frequently listens to his racers, and may try different programs, until he finds what works for everyone.
“We added a class last year,” said Gardner. “We already had Top (Box) and Modified (No-Box), both at 0-11.49 seconds, and Super ET, which is a no-electronics class for 11.50-13.99 cars, and a Trophy class. We added ‘True Street’, which is 14.00 seconds and slower, for street-legal cars only. It’s $30 to race, but we pay $10 if you win the first round, and $30 for winning two rounds. It’s $300 to win. We average about 35 cars in the class, but most importantly, it’s created a whole new group of racers. There are a lot of new faces in True Street. That was just our first year, and I know it’s going to grow. We also do a Trophy class and a Gambler’s race on our Test and Tune nights, so there’s always a place for every type of racer.”
Maryland International Raceway, in Budds Creek, Md., has one of the most extensive programs in the country in terms of sheer number of classes and options for racers. They feature not only a solid bracket program for their hardcore racers, but also bracket programs for specialized segments like Sport Compacts, Stick-shift cars, motorcycles, and ATV’s. In addition, MIR hosts heads-up programs for anything from street cars to motorcycles.
A lot tracks don’t take advantage of all the programs that are offered to them by the sanctioning bodies. There are bonus programs for the hardcore racer that they are already catering to, like the Summit SuperSeries contingency program, and “Wally” or “Iron Man” trophy races. Worse yet, some tracks have these programs in place, yet don’t promote them. At least one racer missed out on a shot at IHRA’s $50,000 Summit World Championship shootout, because he hadn’t even heard of the program through his local track, and the mention of contingency payouts drew a blank from him as well.
Tracks need to use all the tools that are given to them, and it is just as important that they generate their own programs to sustain the sport. The most basic program is to include a Trophy class on regular bracket racing days. Allowing novices to compete for trophies with minimal entry fees (and minimal expense by the track) alongside the other bracket categories will give them a place to hone their skills, pick up knowledge from the more experienced drivers in the other classes, and give them the next step to which they can aspire.
Classes don’t have to have 50-100 cars in them to make the track money. Every entry coming through the gate pays, and in the case of trophy and street-type cars, they are more likely to bring spectators with them. Surprisingly few tracks have taken advantage of IHRA’s class for ATV’s. MIR, Winterport Dragway in Maine, Beaver Springs in Pennsylvania, and Temple Academy in Texas rank among those few. If only a dozen ATV’s come through the gate, they pay for their trophies, and put dollars in the track’s pocket, especially if they bring people with them, eat at the concession stand, and buy t-shirts. And oh, by the way, those ATV riders probably have friends with cars that may come out and race. Word of mouth is unbeatable advertising.
Most racers get their start in street cars, so it makes sense to center novice programs on street legal cars. Beaver Springs Dragway began its Friday Night Street Racing program in 1991. It started out on a trial basis, basically just as an all-run trophy class. It didn’t take long to figure out that by developing classes for target groups, Friday Night’s popularity would grow. First, one class was split into two: one for cars with automatic transmissions, and one for manually shifted entries, which the motorcycles were initially a part of. Soon, Street Automatic and Street Stick were joined by Street Bike. Each time a new class was created, the car count increased. Top Street was added to the field to provide a showcase for the eight quickest street cars. In recent years, Sport Compacts, ATV’s, and the new Bone Stock Truck classes have been added.
“Mike Rowe was our Friday Night Street Stick Champion, but he also made the move to our Sunday Hot Rod Trophy class, and won the championship there,” noted Beaver Springs owner “Beaver Bob” McCardle. “He was also voted the Street Racer Driver of the Year. Next year, we’ll see him in Street Eliminator on Sundays. There’s a farm system that works!”
Junior Dragsters were once looked upon as bracket racing’s savior, and there’s no doubt that it is a great training ground for young drivers’ skills. With beginners starting as young as age 8, many Junior pilots already have eight years of experience under their belt. Driving the finish line at 60-70 mph actually takes more finesse than at 160 mph. Because the car doesn’t travel as much distance per time, a thousandth of a second is much tighter for a Junior than it is for a Top Dragster. Innumerable Junior drivers have gone on to become successful bracket racers.
While there is no doubt that drivers learn how to drive like champions in Junior Dragsters, many families have fallen into the same trap that other hardcore bracket racers have. They spend more money to go faster and become more competitive, and they expect a greater return for it. Some tracks have given in to the pressure, and started paying a cash purse, instead of savings bonds that have been the staple of Junior Dragster rewards. When Junior Dragster drivers step advance into full size cars, it is most often into a dragster, because it is what they are used to. Dragsters cost a lot of money, and they need to run for a big purse… right? It follows the same pitfall that hardcore bracket racers have already created for themselves. How many Juniors are going to “step up” into a street car that’s slower than they’ve been going for years, and race for less money?
“Beaver Bob” McCardle and his right-hand man “Flashback” Bill Stuck saw this, and envisioned a way to get more youth involved in drag racing, without a big expense. In 2000, he proposed “Junior E.T.” to IHRA, and Beaver Springs Dragway was allowed to conduct a pilot program for a year. After reviewing the flawless operation, IHRA announced it as a new class in 2001, which they called Teen Championship Racing.
Teen Championship Racing allows youth ages 13-17 the opportunity to race against their peers in full-bodied street vehicles, eliminating the need to buy a special car. A co-driver accompanies the TCR competitor on all passes to act as a coach, and most of all, join in the fun. All races are run over a distance of 1/8th mile, with an ET dial-in format, limited to 11.00 seconds and slower, and every driver goes through a special licensing program.
"This program is just absolutely tremendous," explains class founder "Beaver Bob" McCardle. "It’s time to take the computer mouse out of the kids’ hands and put a shifter there. We have a place for our kids to race that wouldn’t or couldn’t before, and not all of them are second-generation racers. We see a lot of new people who have never raced before, and they’re out there having fun right along with their kids. We’re getting the family more directly involved. It’s fun for everyone!"
Although TCR numbers typically hover around a dozen per track, that is more people through the gate, and it is a feeder system that leads to the Street class, and then to Footbrake or Modified. Still, very few tracks have taken the time to pursue the program. Beaver Springs, Greer Dragway, Pittsburgh Raceway Park, Abilene Dragstrip, Wisconsin International Raceway, Alaska Raceway Park, Cordova Dragway Park, Dolaca Motorplex, Tri-State Dragway, Osceola Dragway, and Gimli Motorsports Park all participate, but that is a drop in the bucket out of nearly 100 IHRA facilities. (NHRA, on the other hand, will not even entertain the idea of TCR, citing insurance reasons. Youth motocross events are insured, but two cars going the speed limit for an 1/8th mile is a problem?)
Everyone says, “We need new blood in this sport.” The next generation of drivers is out there. These are just a few ideas to support your local program. Take them, and run with them!
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