NHRA passed-out its sporting awards at the glitzy black-tie Full Throttle series ceremony in Hollywood last month. Congratulations to the winners and champions in every class. Hope you enjoyed your time to shine on the stage.
Here, however, we put the spotlight on the Business and Politics of Drag Racing, not ETs and MPH.
So, now, I present my list of the Top 10 stories of 2011 in those two categories. Formal wear not required to read on . . .
10. NHRA’s 60th Anniversary. It provided a unifying theme and a useful opportunity to showcase cool cars and honor legendary competitors. Maybe it was too much to hope for, but I know of no evidence the 60th jump-started ticket sales, TV ratings or national media coverage.
9. Banner Headline. Just before the season ended, NHRA distributed a nickel-and-dime mentality memo to companies that want to put up banners at National events. It was a relatively small incident but a reminder that the sanction has a bad habit of doing this kind of thing. Here’s what should be obvious, even in Glendora: Attendance isn’t exactly booming, which means less sales in the Manufacturer’s Midway, and fewer people to see these banners.
8. Pro Mod. Get Screened America provided all the money to get the series on ESPN2, but that sponsorship has faded to black. Roger Burgess’ financial commitment to the class, via GSA and ProCare Rx, is confirmed through 2014. But NHRA says Pro Mod will go the way of Pro Stock Trucks after that if a new sponsor isn’t lined-up by December 2012.
7. In-N-Out for Melanie. It’s a sign of Melanie Troxel’s popularity that chat roomers wrote they’d go elsewhere for burgers when her Funny Car sponsorship ended with that bizarre accident at Pomona. It would be more helpful to Troxel, though, for her fans to stay positive -- as she did after not qualifying for the season’s first five Nationals. Fact: Troxel is good for NHRA. Fact: She absolutely must have a consistent team/sponsor combination to reach her full potential on the track and in the marketplace. The first step, assuming she stays in a Toyota, is for the automaker to sign her to a personal services contract.
6. News Blues. The demise of National Speed Sport News’ print edition symbolized the struggles of the old-line media business. Even in NASCAR-dominated cities, daily newspapers reduced/eliminated full-time staff racing writers. The Los Angeles Times covered Pomona with a stringer. NHRA remains an under-covered sport. Understanding and working effectively, with the so-called “new” media while trying to get its due in the traditional outlets remains a significant challenge for NHRA.
5. Crowd Count. Anyone who regularly watched on TV too often saw too many unsold seats. In too many places, ticket prices were too high, given the economy. There simply were not enough creative ticket sale promotions from NHRA, track operators or sponsor partners. I hope they are taking notes at some of the things being done by retailers to drive traffic this holiday season. Many ripple effects come from empty grandstands, not the least of which is the negative visual impression left with existing and potential new sponsors.
4. Shroud of Controversy. When NHRA banned the shroud atop Don Schumacher’s dragsters with just three races left in the season, it was a credibility/competency-bending embarrassment to the sanctioning organization’s rule makers. And an outrage to the series’ Roger Penske/Rick Hendrick-esque team owner. Bad business. Worse politics.
3. ESPN. Mike Dunn, super slow-mo and almost-like-being-there audio were winners. Pushed-back airtimes, no pre-race show and the All-Force-All-the-Time production philosophy were not. Yes, we know, the network’s vast research department has numbers “proving” the audience upticks when John is on. No, that hasn’t earned the “worldwide leader” the respect of other pit area occupants.
2. Absent Ashley. Everyone’s happy for Ashley Force Hood’s personal happiness in motherhood. Family is more important than drag racing. Ashley out of Funny Car, however, was a downer for the series and industry. Just ask any promoter. Meanwhile, father John even took his road show to the 100th anniversary Indianapolis 500.
1. King Calls It a Career. No question -- Kenny Bernstein’s retirement was the most significant Business of Drag Racing story of 2011 -- on many levels.
I know, because he told me, that Bernstein was weary of trying to win against the multi-car teams that suck-up tuning data like a Dirt Devil. Still, Kenny’s abrupt exit remains a head-scratcher. In the days leading up to Pomona, routine planning for 2012 was apace. In a very difficult sponsorship climate, Kenny yielded a deal with Copart.com that had two years remaining -- and don’t doubt that the company was paying an above-average price for the instant credibility Bernstein provided in delivering its message.
NHRA lost a prestige team, the fee from Copart’s official sponsorship, and promoters income from the tickets and hospitality Copart bought for its guests.
Bernstein will forever be known as the “King of Speed.” But, despite letting the Copart dollars go, he’ll also always be remembered as one of motorsports’ best businessmen. NHRA surely will miss that, as well. Bernstein’s record 30-year sponsorship with Budweiser is even more impressive to me than first to 300 mph. He instinctively grasped what companies needed to get a proper Return on Investment -- including positive media exposure -- and taught countless brand managers and sports marketing directors about drag racing’s value-for-money benefits.
Kenny Bernstein going away is more than the Biggest Story of the year. It’s a Big Hit for the sport . . . and the industry.
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