DRAGS, DOLLARS & SENSE: NHRA DID WHAT IT HAD TO DO

Written by Michael Knight.

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Sometimes, as a child, I’d speak out maybe a little too strongly in family settings. It was, I guess a sign of what was to come later in life.

Anyway, when I stepped over the line, my grandmother would issue me a loving but stern directive - “Remember your place, young man.”

Her words raced back into my mind as I reported – and reflected – on NHRA’s maneuvering in response to NASCAR’s major schedule realignment for 2011.

Let’s be honest about it: What we have just witnessed was NASCAR reminding NHRA of its place on the U.S. motorsports map.

(Ditto the Indy Racing League.)

I read a chatroom comment – and I’ll do some editing here - that NASCAR had “b****-slapped” NHRA.” That’s not fair to the Glendora Gang. In recasting the 2011 Full Throttle calendar of events in reaction to NASCAR’s most significant schedule reshuffling in a decade, NHRA simply did what it had to do.

The reality is NHRA had no choice. Despite the challenges which have confronted The Lords of Stock Car Racing – lower TV ratings, declining attendance, diminished sponsorship, loss of mainstream media coverage – NASCAR is still the flat-out run-away front-runner in the Industry of American Racing. While NHRA’s favorite talking point of being “the world’s largest motorsports governing body” implies Schwarzenegger-esque muscle, it’s in a different weight class as measured on virtually any business or common sense scale known to man.    

That’s the center-of-the-groove truth that drag racing’s loyal and passionate fan base must accept.  

Think about it. When NASCAR President Mike Helton informed Compton & Co. of the huge changes coming to the Sprint Cup schedule, what were they going to do? Argue with him? Threaten to organize a protest march in front of the NASCAR Hall of Fame?  Boycott Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s souvenir trailer?

NASCAR’s self-interest -- as well as that of track owners International Speedway Corp. and Speedway Motorsports Inc. and, actually, all of stock car’s stakeholders – was to politely, professionally, but powerfully, play Big Foot.




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The first shoe to drop was placing the Cup contest immediately following the Daytona 500 – considered valuable because it historically attracts increased TV numbers and national media attention – at Phoenix International Raceway. Sure, since 1990, that late February date has been the Arizona Nationals at Firebird International Raceway. No matter. As a Scottsdale resident, I’m here to tell you that whatever (often deserved) criticism we direct at NHRA, the sanction immediately and correctly knew it would have been a publicity and ticket-sales suicide mission to attempt to go up against NASCAR in the same market on the same weekend.

NHRA decided to put Firebird on Oct. 14-16 as the fourth of sixth events in the ’11 Countdown. The positive PR spin included telling sponsors a major market had been added to the playoffs, and the locals that Phoenix would join Charlotte and Dallas as the only metro areas to have both Countdown and Chase races.  

“I think everything should be in a major market, especially the Countdown,” said U.S. Army seven-time Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher. “This is the second biggest motorsport in the world. (Pssst, Tony, don’t let Bernie Ecclestone hear you say that!) We should be treated like it.”

The negative spin could be direct competition from Almighty Football – America’s No. 1 Sport – which in Arizona means the NFL Cardinals and college’s Sun Devils and Wildcats. Then, perhaps more importantly, track conditions. According to The Weather Channel, October’s average daily high temperature in Chandler is 89 degrees, vs. 71 in February.

The real spin for participants and the public might turn out to be wheel spin!  

Elsewhere: Houston goes from early-to-late April so as to steer clear of Texas Motor Speedway’s revised NASCAR date. Route 66 Raceway steers from early June to early July to make room for the NASCAR Nationwide series at adjoining Chicagoland Speedway. There was some other adjusting, like the controversial Four-Wide Nationals trying out mid-April instead of late March.

I’ve heard grumbling that the Phoenix-to-Vegas-to-Pomona Countdown stretch doesn’t provide the publicity and marketing friendly geographic diversity NHRA itself spoke of a few years ago.

Could be. But there’s no arguing about the good.

The Mac Tools U.S. Nationals once again will provide the rightful and biggest showcase to set the playoff field. Hype-savvy Charlotte management will launch the Countdown. Phoenix gets a much needed (especially coming off this year’s tragic fiasco) shot of nitro adrenaline.

It says here that, under the circumstances forced on it by NASCAR’s power move, NHRA understood its place – and shifted as well as anyone since Linda Vaughn in a Hurst Olds.


 


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