I guess we’ll find out next season if Courtney Force, Alexis DeJoria and Leah Pruett are good Funny Car drivers.
But there’s a more important question, at least from a Business of Drag Racing standpoint:
Can they move the needle?
That’s what it’s called in the sports marketing world: Moving the needle. As in TV ratings, ticket sales, media coverage, public interest.
I’m not talking about routine sports press attention that otherwise would have gone to Larry Dixon or Ron Capps or Jason Line. I’m talking about publicity on networks and stations and shows and in publications that otherwise wouldn’t give the Full Throttle series one second or one sentence.
Every sport is always looking for the next superstar to take it to the next level. And, while it’s probably an unfair societal stereotype, that sometimes harsh spotlight usually is focused more intensely on young female athletes.
NHRA needs someone -- better yet, someones -- to nudge that needle. Especially now, with growing indications a weakening economy will make 2012 a treading-water year -- at best -- in terms of sales. And, especially, ESPECIALLY now, since Ashley Force Hood says she’s not likely to race for a second consecutive season.
“There’s just too much going on with the baby . . . It would be unfair to the team,” Force Hood told me on Friday afternoon at the Arizona Nationals, as she held son Jacob John. It was the newest Force’s first race.
I mean no disrespect to any of NHRA’s other fine drivers, but one of this year’s most important stories -- certainly from a B of R standpoint -- has been Ashley’s absence. The back-to-back Mac Tools U.S Nationals winner is as popular at the drag strips as Sarah Palin is at Tea Party rallies. Yes, family is vastly more important than Funny Cars, but . . .
Courtney Force gets that part of the deal. She was sitting there with her sister, nephew and father in their motorcoach when I asked the obvious question about big-time expectations from media and fans.
“It definitely makes me nervous,” she admitted. “I grew up wanting to follow in my Dad’s footsteps, to be like him, and then my sister Ashley set all these records. I said, ‘How in the heck am I supposed to go into this sport and do any better than they have done?’
“But that’s going to have to be my next goal, do as well as she was doing, hopefully mark my own path. The only reason I want to be out here is racing the car. There’s pressure being John Force’s daughter and Ashley’s sister but I think the number-one thing for me is to do well and prove myself.”
Courtney has the benefit of highly professional and experienced PR counsel -- Dave Densmore and Elon Werner -- and certainly Ford and other sponsors will “reinForce” their investment with useful advertising and marketing promotions.
DeJoria? I’m not so sure. Shockingly, at least to me as someone who has worked in the racing industry for more than four decades, she came to Firebird International Raceway without PR representation. Her sponsor, Tequila Patron (thanks Dad!) has the kind of sports marketing sex appeal that should gain non-traditional media notice (there was a CNN segment last summer). Alexis told me there will be commercials and ads and, well, we’ll see to what effect, because these are needed beyond the tracks and the race cablecasts.
“I do have access to different forms of publicity that maybe NHRA hasn’t always had, really due to my family, my father (John Paul),” she said. “I can’t lie about that.”
I came away very impressed after my first conversation with Pruett. After debuting in Melanie Troxel’s car at Reading, she was with the team at Firebird, wearing an In-N-Out Burger crew shirt. To my trained ears, Leah said the right things.
“I don’t feel the pressure of it (publicity), but I definitely see the need for it,” she explained. “You need to have a personality that sticks out. If everyone was the same, it would be boring. Whoever you are, you just let people know that.
“I do recognize there is a need to be a little bit different. Just because you’re female, or funny, you need to capitalize on it. It’s crossed my mind somewhat, but I’m so focused on getting a ride and doing a good job, if I’m worried about being a personality, it takes away from what I need to do.
“When Gary Scelzi left, it was like, ‘What is NHRA going to do?’ I’m still trying to figure out what mine (media role) is or if I’m capable of that. I would like to move the needle -- what way do you want to move it, and how far? If you move it one way, it’s like the equal and opposite effect. You’re going to get some people on your side, and some people who aren’t on your side.
“The kind of needle I want to move is bringing non-endemic sponsors into the sport. NASCAR’s done an amazing job of it and I don’t see why NHRA can’t. I’d like to promote brands and products that I live and breathe. I’m a California girl and there are California things I’d like to promote. Like Alexis is bringing in Patron. That’s awesome.
“I think NHRA needs to focus on new fans and we need to grow with the young drivers and the young fans and young brands. We need new companies to support young drivers.”
Pruett is correct -- growing with young drivers, fans and brands is NHRA’s path to a successful future.
That’s the way to move the needle. And, fair or not, Courtney Force, Leah Pruett and Alexis DeJoria will be looked on to do just that.
What do you think?
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